Musician, husband, father, trailblazer. Born Aug. 17, 1959, in Karamoja, Uganda, died Feb. 4, 2013, in Toronto of unknown causes, aged 54.
Many harried Toronto subway commuters likely never knew his name, where he came from, his mother tongue, or his deepest love. To them, Achilla Orru Apaa-Idomo was the blind black man with the sweet voice who played music on the funny-looking instrument in the station.
In fact, Achilla was the finest artist who ever played the humble lukeme (also known as likembe, kalimba, mbira, sanza or thumb piano), a small hollow box fitted with flattened bicycle spokes.
Born in 1959 in northeastern Uganda, Achilla became blind when he was 7. His childhood plunged into darkness, he took up the lukeme in his formative years at Madera Special School for the Blind in the Soroti region of Uganda.
Through the years of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, Achilla honed his talent, winning the junior award for the lukeme at the Uganda National Music Festival in 1975. The next year, he broke with the exclusion of women from playing the instrument when he mentored a troupe of 12 female players from Berkley Girls’ High School.
What set Achilla apart from other lukeme musicians was his unrelenting search for the ultimate sound from the simple instrument. While traditional players tune it to produce a certain set melodies, Achilla’s experimental approach hit higher notes usually associated with the guitar.
Wherever he performed, Achilla brought pure joy to his listeners.
Convinced that the world needed to hear the beautiful music from the heart of Africa, Achilla set out with a cane and his lukeme on an epic journey around the world. He felt his way through Kenya, South Africa, India, Russia, Brazil, Cuba, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, the United States and Japan.
But he made Canada his home, first settling in Nova Scotia, where he earned a masters degree in international studies from Dalhousie University, then moving to Toronto in the mid-1990s.
There, he founded the band Bana Afrique (children of Africa), touring to perform for audiences of all ages in schools, churches, clubs, festivals, national stadiums, on radio and television, and in the subways of Tokyo, London and Toronto.
In Okayama, Japan, audiences fell so much in love with Achilla’s music when he played live in the town square that officials initiated an annual celebration in his honour. He performed at the Womax festival in Essen, Germany, in 2003, and was a regular participant in Toronto’s Afrofest at Queen’s Park.
In Toronto, he could be seen walking independently in the streets without help, giving the impression he could actually see where he was going.
In 2011, the Ontario Arts Council awarded him a Chalmers Arts Fellowship worth $42,000. The grant allowed Achilla to return to his roots in northern Uganda to research and preserve lukeme music for future generations.
Achilla’s devastated widow, Rose Aketch Orru, and three children aged from 2 to 6 were scheduled to travel to Canada this spring to join him.
That was a project to which Achilla had devoted his days before his unexpected passing on Feb. 4, 2013.
His world was dark, but he brought colourful light to many through his music. He will be missed around the world. A celebration of his life and musical legacy will take place at the Lula Lounge in Toronto on April 7.
Opiyo Oloya is Achilla’s friend.