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RIP Achilla Orru - The Blind Ugandadn playing the thmb piano on the TTC


TRIBE Member
Apologies for the abrupt title (and typos), but it seemed to be the best description. I had no idea that thing he played was called a Lokembe. Hearing him play always made me smile.

News / GTA

TTC musician Achilla Orru, renowned lokembe player, dead at 53

The Ugandan-Canadian master of the traditional thumb piano, who played for years in the subway and around the world, died of complications of heart disease.

By:Katie DaubsNews reporter, Published on Wed Feb 13 2013


For years, Achilla Orru stood inside the yellow dots on the weathered TTC floor and played the lokembe the way a teenager texts, his thumbs swiftly plucking the metal spokes, the gentle, warm sounds drifting across the subway platform into the ears of commuters.

Just as he had a way of playing that made people forget the Ugandan thumb piano was considered lowly and simple, he had a way of living that made people forget he could not see. Blind since a boyhood bout with measles, he recognized people by the timbre of their voices, and the way they gripped his hands in greeting.

“Say we’re sharing a meal, I’m bringing a plate to him, he would just reach out, like a sighted person, hands at the right place, and I’d think to myself, ‘Is this guy really blind?” said Godfrey Sekijoba, who played bass guitar in Baana Afrique, Orru’s band.

The celebrated musician was found dead in his apartment near Dawes Rd. on Feb. 4. Friends say the cause of death was heart disease, complicated by diabetes and high blood pressure. He was 53.

When he was a boy, Orru was accepted at a school for blind children, where he studied many instruments, including the lokembe. The instrument has flat steel spokes of different lengths mounted on a wooden resonator; it is known in other parts of Africa as a kalimba, sanza, or akogo.

“There was nobody in the world who played this instrument like Achilla Orru,” said Nadine McNulty, a longtime friend and artistic director of the Batuki music society. “He was a great lyricist, he was a poet. He was truly the real thing.”

Orru came to Canada as a refugee in 1989. He studied international development at Dalhousie University and created Baana Afrique while there. When he moved to Toronto in the 1990s after graduation, he started the band anew with local musicians.

On stage, he was known as King Achilla Orru Apaa-Idomo. He wore colourful clothing and a feathered hat. During performances, his bandmates gave visual feedback — letting Orru know whether the audience was dancing, or bored. Offstage, he talked politics and world events. He loved CNN.

With Baana Afrique, he toured Canada and the world. Independently, he was a Juno nominee, a soloist with the Royal Dutch Wind Ensemble, and a Toronto fixture as a licensed TTC musician — one of the most popular and well-known, often playing at Bloor-Yonge. He played the lokembe at charity events and once played at a backyard barbecue hosted by George Smitherman.

He was a very particular musician.

“He always had an idea in his mind as to how he would like something to sound, and he tried to convey that to you,” Sekijoba said.

Orru’s longtime goal was to see the lokembe become a prominent instrument. McNulty said the simple instrument is considered “lowly in some ways,” but Orru raised it to a new level. “He was definitely instrumental in developing a new method in the way it would be heard and played,” she said.

He added different tuning pegs and notes and paired it with unlikely bedfellows such as flute and the trumpet. He wrote lyrics that told of his journey to Canada, his long-distance love in Uganda, and other people’s stories.

The sound was “traditional and rootsy” with threads of Congolese and South African music, which he loved, McNulty said.

“When I sing with it, when I hear it, there is part of me that becomes one with the world around me,” he told the Star in 2003.

He had been working on research to have the instrument introduced into the Ugandan school system. On one of his many trips to Uganda, he met his wife, Rose. They married in 2004. The two have three sons younger than 6, in addition to a son Orru had after moving to Canada.

Lately, he had been concentrating on bringing his family to Canada. Davies Bagambiire, a friend and lawyer who met Orru when he first came to Halifax, had been helping Orru with the paperwork and immigration details. At the beginning of February, Bagambiire got a call from Rose. She hadn’t heard from him. It wasn’t like him not to return a call.

Bagambiire went to Orru’s apartment building, where other residents told him they hadn’t seen their cheery neighbour for a while. He called police to before entering Orru’s home, and when the officers remained silent for several minutes after they went in, he knew the news was bad.

Bagambiire is helping to plan his friend’s funeral and raise money to bring Orru’s distraught family to Canada. Those details are still being arranged.

Mourned by Toronto’s African music community, Orru will also be missed in the underground world of the TTC, where he won’t return again to his yellow-dotted home in the heart of the subway, McNulty said.

“He was the soul of Bloor and Yonge.”

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Alex D. from TRIBE on Utility Room

glych t.anomaly

TRIBE Member
RIP, this guy was awesome, always tried to support him when i saw him and loved listening to his lilting sounds when i used to take the TTC fairly often.
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