Uganda's veejays give Western films a home-grown spin

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

If there is one thing Jingo Tabula has learned in two decades of bringing Hollywood into the slums and villages of Uganda, it's that every story has a moral.

The message of "Pretty Woman," for instance, is that no condition is permanent. "Rambo, First Blood," says Mr. Tabula, shows that even a soldier is accountable. And at the end of "Crocodile Dundee," he always gets a laugh by reciting a familiar Ugandan proverb: "Nothing cuts like a crocodile's tooth at lunchtime."

"I've found that one can learn a lot about the world through a screen," says Tabula, who is Uganda's premier video jockey. In recent years, so-called veejays, who translate copies of Western movies into local languages, have become so popular that a handful have become local celebrities.

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"Veejaying" is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged, which - for many veejays - often means taking considerable creative license.

The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.

Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.

Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and comedies.

Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.

"He is not the most precise, but he is certainly the most colorful," says Lee Ellickson, the American codirector of the Amakula Film Festival, an annual event in Kampala.

Mr. Ellickson says the organizers had tried to include video jockeys in the festival from the beginning, as they are such an integral part of moviegoing in Uganda. The festival features a "Veejay slam," in which some of the country's best-known video jockeys display different styles and compete for the best audience response.

This year, Jingo will teach a workshop on technique for aspiring veejays. He is, after all, one of a handful of video jockeys who have managed to parlay this relatively new street form into financial success, in the mode of hip-hop artists in the US.

Although the art of veejaying has not yet a emerged as a rags-to-riches path, it holds allure for a growing number of impoverished Ugandans who dream of making it big by tapping into their creative and entrepreneurial sides rather than spending their days driving a boda-boda (motorbike taxi) or selling vegetables.

After dropping out of school because he couldn't pay his tuition, Jingo began translating movies as the phenomenon took off. "Robocop" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" were among the early translations that made him famous.

Veejays on the rise

Video halls proliferated in Uganda in the '80s and '90s, and today they are a thriving local industry. According to the Union of Video Owners and Operators, a trade group in Kampala, there are some 600 video halls in greater Kampala and 2,500 countrywide.

With better technology, video jockeys have become increasingly sophisticated, dubbing their translations onto tapes and discs that they then offer for rent or sale.

In particular, the advent of the DVD, which made dubbing easier, has fueled their success. Jingo runs two "libraries" - storefront kiosks - of his translations. Each DVD costs 3,000 Uganda shillings (about $1.60) to rent and 10,000 shillings (about $5.50) to buy. He now has six employees.

Neighboring countries are getting caught up in the trend, prompting Jingo to begin mixing Swahili into some of his Luganda translations. That has earned him an audience from as far away as Rwanda and the Congo. Jingo estimates that he has translated about 3,000 different movies during his career.

But, like an actor whose first love is the stage, Jingo still veejays live most evenings at a video hall in his home village of Kajjansi, a trading center about 15 miles south of Kampala.

Jingo in action

At 8:30 on a recent Tuesday evening, anticipation is thick as people crowd onto wooden benches in the dark, airless hall.

The film is "The Escapist," an obscure 2001 thriller starring Jonny Lee Miller. Tickets cost 200 Uganda shillings (about a dime.) Some of the viewers buy mugs of steaming porridge or plates of offal with steamed green bananas.

Jingo is seated at the front before a pile of stereo components, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and clutching a microphone. Somewhere, a generator sputters to life.

The opening credits begin to roll, and Jingo shouts the familiar refrain of the veejay: "Tugende maso!" ("Let's go forward!")

Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence of Western mass culture.

But Ellickson, for one, sees the work of veejays like Jingo differently. "They have adapted these films in their own way; they have made something new."

Jingo, for his part, defends the morality of Hollywood movies.

"It's true that many American films start with violence," he says. "But in 99 percent of them, in the end, the police always come."

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