Oakland University grad student makes global impact

James Isabirye teaches music and drama at Kyambogo University in Uganda. An Oakland University student since fall 2017, Isabirye is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Music and Theatre while also working to reintroduce the people of Uganda to their native music, traditions and values.

“My interest in community music started when I was just a little boy,” Isabirye said. “My family used to teach me things through music. That was how I learned and developed my love for music education. We would hear music in our neighborhoods every single night.”

By observing music on an international level, Isabirye found an appreciation for what music can teach people.

“I learned how unique music is as you travel to different communities,” he said. “Uganda is geographically so small yet so ethnically plural. We have so much to offer and so much variety.”

Uganda is separated into many different kingdoms. These kingdoms were abolished for a brief period of time and later reestablished. However, during this time many of their traditions dissipated. Isabirye’s primary goal is to refamiliarize Ugandan students with their roots. His Ph.D. studies focus on the way these students are learning in their environments and how their native music has had an impact on it.

“Native music enables societies to appreciate who they are, where they are coming from and to have confidence to look to the future,” Isabirye said. “As societies evolve, it’s important to recognize their original values and ideals.”

Isabirye hosts seminars at Kyambogo University in Kampala, Uganda and previously taught music and drama to primary and secondary schools. These seminars and courses teach students about the diversity of music and the traditions that come along with it.

“My favorite thing about the curriculum is its ability to lay a foundation for leadership roles and potential scholarships,” Isabirye said. “These classes focus on expression and appreciation, not only for our native music, but for music all over the globe.”

Isabirye has organized dance and music festivals all over Uganda where anyone can come and develope an appreciation for native music. He began working toward his Ph.D. in order to broaden his knowledge of music on a global scale.

“Working with James has been life changing for me,” said Jackie Wiggins, Isabirye’s Ph.D. adviser. “I am mentoring him, but I’m also learning a lot from him. The work he is doing has the capacity to transform a nation, one kingdom at a time.”

Isabirye has received immense recognition for the work he is doing in Uganda. He will be addressing UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) at their general assembly in Paris this June. The UNESCO has awarded Isabirye with grants to continue his teaching programs. He has also been honored by multiple leaders of Ugandan kingdoms.

“James is an incredible storyteller and has been able to share the stories with these students through music and communication,” Wiggins said. “Reviving these traditions is so important, and his work is truly powerful.”

More information about Isabirye and the work he is doing in Uganda can be found on Kampala University’s website.