Kampala — IT is 18 years since he died but the world seems reluctant to forget Philly Bongoley Lutaaya. Radio airwaves are abuzz with renditions of his songs done by leading Ugandan artistes off a tribute album that was launched last evening and a big memorial concert to celebrate his life and times is slated for December 16 in Nakivubo Stadium.
There is a memorial day (October 17) reserved for him and Namirembe Cathedral is devoting the 10:00am service to him. Prime Minister, Professor Apolo Nsibambi will give a keynote address. But who was Philly Bongoley Lutaaya and why all the fuss? Joseph Batte and Sebidde Kiryowa write.
CONSIDERED a true musical legend by fellow musicians, Philly Bongoley Lutaaya has inspired a whole generation of artistes and his music is truly timeless. But the legacy of Lutaaya supercedes his musical greatness.
As an AIDS activist, he is considered a national hero for being the very first prominent Ugandan to openly declare he was HIV positive.
It was 1988 and the nation was stunned! Others met his message with outright skepticism, thinking it was a ploy for the star to make extra money off the emphathic sentiments he had whipped up.
But Lutaaya was to prove them wrong. His protracted battle against HIV/AIDS had just started. It was a battle that was unfortunately to claim his life along the way.
Whilst he still could, Lutaaya released his album "Alone" and forever sealed a place beyond superstardom. In his title track, Lutaaya not only reiterated his status, but managed to paint a vivid picture of what he was going through in our minds when described his emotional experience of isolation and pain thus:
Out there somewhere, alone and frightened
Oh the darkness, the days are long
Life in hiding, no more making new contacts
No more loving arms thrown around my neck
Lutaaya died on December 15, 1989 at Nsambya Hospital, just months after releasing "Alone." As Joel Isabirye, a music enthusiast and Beat FM programmes director explains, Lutaaya's impact was immediate and tremendous:
"Philly Lutaaya gave, if I am right to say, a human face to living with AIDS. He made it seem as if it was not a monstrous thing.
The landmark, the most significant moment started with Philly Lutaaya, and that is when music became very significant in dealing with stigmatisation in Uganda," he says.
"It seemed every Ugandan I met could sing every word in "Alone." Lutaaya left a legacy of emotional honesty in music-based activism that continues today.
The song and its message are a rallying cry in the fight against HIV/AIDS and "Alone" became the unofficial anthem of The AIDS Support Organisation.
As a result, a substantial number of Ugandans ended affairs and remained faithful to their partners. He provided a roadmap for comprehensive prevention programmes that incorporate teaching abstinence, using condoms and most critically emphasising fidelity.
If asked whether there will ever be a cure for HIV/AIDS his answer was, "There is already one. It lies in the strength of women, families and communities who support and empower each other to break the silence around AIDS and take control of their sexual lives. Let's spread the prevention message to spare millions from HIV/ AIDS and early deaths."
Philly Lutaaya, the person
Lutaaya had two split personalities. He was kind and always cracked jokes that no doubt cracked up all those around him. But he also had a nastier side of him that scared even his closest friends. He had a bad temper and "was a complicated character."
His brother Abbey Kitumba Lutaaya describes him as "straight-talking. If you crossed him he would immediately give you a piece of his mind."
When sober, he was fun to have around. He lively and bubbly. He even created his own language in order to confuse others. But if he was drunk it was advisable you avoid him.
Philly Lutaaya, the musician
He is one of the most talented musicians that Uganda had ever produced. He had this talent of producing those sensuous tunes and catchy rhythms.
Sweden-based Nigerian musician, Dr Alban once said he considered him one of the best musicians to come out of Africa. In fact, Dr Alban released an album titled 'Born in Africa' after Philly own album of the same name, in memory of Philly Lutaaya. Philly recorded two other albums in Sweden, Alone and Alone 11.
Part of the reason why Philly Lutaaya's music stands the test of time is because he put a lot of effort in it. Granted he was a very talented musician but the musicians he worked with too helped to accentuate his talent; artistes like Gerald Nadibanga and Sammy Kasule, the percussionist and bass guitarists respectively, on Born in Africa, were good.
You can tell from Sammy Kasule's own recording. He knew what he wanted his song to sound like. Philly Lutaaya himself could play the guitar, drums, and trumpet. Even the Swedish musicians he worked with played according to his direction.
It is this versatility that makes Philly one of the single biggest influences to contemporary Ugandan music.
When you listen attentively to Ugandan Afro pop music, it's not hard to tell. Geoffrey Lutaaya was once mistaken for a son of Philly. Then there is Kabuye Semboga who actually sang with Phily in the late Elly Wamala's Mascot's band.
Then you have an endless list of younger artistes who confess they got their inspiration from the man. These range from Eddie Yawe, Bobi Wine, Chameloene to Iryn Namubiru and everything in between.
His musical journey
Philly discovered music while in primary two as a pupil at King's College Buddo. Abbey remembers him as a curious child started out by tinkering with mainly locally concocted musical instruments made from tins like the banjo.
It was however in Kololo SS that Philly shocked his family when he made a decision that would change his life forever. One day, in 1968, he just woke up told his parents he had decided to drop out of school; he was going to pursue a career in music.
At the time music was despised by society. It was regarded as profession for the uneducated-failures in life.
"He would escape from school to go and play for a band which was owned by an Indian at a club (Police Officer's Mess) near The New Vision," Abbey remembers. The entire family was devastated.
Neighbors who learnt wondered what was happening to the young Philly Lutaaya who dropped out of school in senior three yet he was a bright student. Abbey, on the other hand, went on to graduate with two degrees in accounts and business administration at Makerere University.
At that point, the two brothers agreed to disagree about the direction Philly had decided to take.
Philly alludes to this rift between him and his brother in the song Nkoye (Okwegomba) which has been resurrected by singer Jose Chameloene in the new album, when he sings nagenda kop ewa baaba nemubulira ebizibu byange. Kyambukako bweyangaba nti twala, twala eri ebigambo byo, meaning he went to seek help from his brother but the brother told him to get lost.
Consequently, Abbey Lutaaya tried as much as possible to convince his young brother to change his mind about pursuing a music career but Philly was adamant.
He had made up his mind about what he wanted to do in life. Once Abbey realized that Philly that there was no turning back for his brother, he decided to support him.
Hope Mukasa, a contemporary and friend of Philly, remembers that first polished his music skills at Kololo club in the Army Band, where he would be allowed to go and practice on the instruments as a civilian musician.
He also sung with Cape Town Villa band, in Ggaba. At the time, people went into music for the love of it and not the money.
He continued doing gigs with Kololo Night Club Band in 1968. He later joined Vox Nationale Band which later relocated to Bwaise, and finally became Nile Breweries Band.
At the time, Philly performed and played in concerts all round Uganda in the band. In 1969, he left Vox Nationale Band and formed the Eko Jazz Band which played in Moroto Army Barracks although Philly himself was not a Soldier.
He did not, however, stay long in Moroto. He left only after three months and came back to Kampala and re - joined his old band Vox Nationale Band, which played music in the then popular New Life, Suzana night club in Nakulabye up to end of 1969. Impressed by his skill, the band contracted Philly Lutaaya then referred to by the stage name "stilly" as a pop music singer in English, Swahili and Luganda as well as a music writer. Kajura, his friend was a bass guitarist.
On February 20, 1970, Philly sneaked out of Uganda without informing his parents (for fear they would oppose his journey) with the Vox Nationale Band and his dear friend Kajura from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). They left through Masaka and eventually reached Goma in Kivu province.
For the young musicians, this was their chance to explore tricks and methods employed in the field of music by the then extremely popular and musically deep Zairean musicians
Within only three weeks of leaving Uganda, Vox Nationale Band had performed in Macabane Bar, La Cae Bar and Chez Johnie Bar in Goma. They went on to play in Butembo, Bunia and Kisangani where they became popular. They were dubbed "The Vox Nationale of Kisangani."
However, their ambition was to reach Kinshasa, the capital city. On October 12, 1971, when Philly celebrated his 21st birthday, the band arrived in Kinshasa where they had grand performances in several bars.
In 1973, Philly and the Vox National Band, did their first recording using the late Congolese music legend Franco's equipment. It was from this point that Philly's career in music production took root.
When he returned to Uganda, Philly quit the Vox National Band and together with Peterson Mutebi, Geoffrey Kigozi and Frank Mbalire, joined the Cranes Band. However, the band did not last long. The Cranes split with Philly Lutaya, Frank Mbalire and others going off to form Rwenzori African Band.
The Band played opera music at Jjajja Villa in the 1970s. Under Fred Kanyike's leadership, Rwenzori Band made a tour of the US and Japan.
Lutaaya's journey to Sweden
In 1981, Hope Mukasa started a band called the Mixed Talents. Lutaaya was among the artistes who joined.
The group, however, shortly disintegrated. It was then that Hope decided to go to Sweden in search of better musical opportunities and to escape the panda gari (curfew) imposed by the Obote II regime.
"On my arrival, I realised that there was a vacuum in African music. There was no African band in Sweden, yet the music was popular in Scandanavia," Mukasa recalls.
Together with friends Shem Makanga (now based in Canada) and Fred Tebuseke (still based in Sweden), they decided to call upon their former colleagues who were still in Uganda to form a new band.
Among these were Philly Lutaaya, Richard Mudhungu, Frank Mbalire, Gerald Naddibanga, Billy Mutebi, Joe Nsubuga and Sammy Kasule. Lutaaya had to sell the plot of land he had inherited from his father in Bunamwaya to buy an air ticket.
In Sweden, where he stayed with Hope Mukasa, he did odd jobs like washing dishes and sweeping streets.
Lutaaya was picked by his band mates to be the band leader. He suggested the band be called Mito Mito, which in Luganda, means young trees.
The band members said Swedish fans would have problems pronouncing the name, so they picked another name that would identify their roots without twisting tongues.
They chose Savannah. The band was quickly contracted to play at a top pub called Kilimanjaro, which was owned by a Swedish-Nigerian singer, Dr Alban.
What is most regrettable is that he died at the peak of his career after struggling with his career for 21 years! He tested HIV positive when he had reached the fruits of sweat and never lived to enjoy them.
We know that he fell sick in 1988. But the fact is that he learnt about his status earlier. Actually according to reliable sources in Sweden, he discovered that he had been infected in 1984, the year he arrived in Sweden. He used to fall sick every now and then.
He went for treatment when they checked his blood, it was discovered he had contracted the virus.
When he received the news that he had contracted the deadly and incurable HIV/AIDS he was shocked and traumatized. Friends say he started drinking very heavily. He would board the underground train in drunken daze, fall asleep and would wake hundred of miles away.
At times he would wake up in the middle of the night and just walk aimlessly without knowing where he was going. Eventually though, Lutaaya got over the shock and accepted his status.
He decided if he was to die, he was to try fighting the disease and save millions.
He resigned from Savannah band and set himself on the completing mission. The first person he called was his elder brother Abbey Lutaaya. He said: "Brother, I have some news to tell you. I kindly beg you, don't get angry with me. I'm infected with HIV." Abbey recalls.
Abbey Lutaaya was shocked. "My knees went weak. I told Philly to keep quiet about it. But he refused. He said he didn't want Ugandans to learn about it through rumors. He wanted to go public," Abbey recalls.
Abbey remembers that one of the reasons why people could not believe Philly when he told them he was sick was because they could not believe anybody in their right mind could publicly admit to having such a shameful disease.
Pretty much everything he wanted to say was summarized by the album Alone. In the poignant song Osobola Otya, Philly talks about the pain of betrayal from friends who abandoned him after they learnt of his status and said his goodbyes to his family and kids.
That was also the essence of the song Alone and Born In Africa (in Uganda) or Giving a Face to AIDS (in the USA), the documentary film of his life were about. But what is more saddening is the story behind the making of this film and album.
At the time he recorded these, he was frail and weak. There were no ARVs at the time. In a desperate move to lengthen his life he allowed himself to be used as a guinea pig and allowed new medicines to be tested on him.
The hair on his head was gone. The skin was leathery and covered with dark spots, the lips were cracked. He could hardly walk without support. He was literally on his death bed.
But Philly never stopped writing songs. He had been warned by the doctor not to use up the little energy he still had in singing or endeavoring to return to Uganda to shoot the documentary but he refused.
He recorded two albums in that state! Alone and Alone 2 and it nearly killed him. Exhibiting such incredible resilience, he bounced back from his bed and managed to travel to Uganda to shoot the documentary film about his life.
Philly Lutaaya was born Philly Misuserah Bakidaawo Kivumbi Kifomusana Bongoley Lutaaya October 19, 1951, in Mengo Hospital, Namirembe, Kampala to Tito Kisalita Lutaaya, who died in 1979, and Justine Eleanor Marjorie Namusoke Lutaaya, both residents of Gomba county, Gombolola Sabawaaii Kisasira Village, West Buganda District (now Mpigi District).
Both parents were primary school masters in a little known village of Kasaka not very far from Kampala, but remote and inaccessible.
Philly was the second born in a family of four children, three boys and one girl. The first born, Abram Kitumba Lutaaya, popularly known as Abbey Lutaaya, born in 1949 was the General Secretary of the National Council of Sports until 2004 when he retired to his private businesses.
Philly's younger brother Moses Kimbowa Lutaya also died of AIDS while the youngest girl, Martha Lutaaya, lives in Sweden, where she works as a nursing aide. Philly' s wife died soon after her husband's death.
Lutaaya first attended nursery at Kasaka Primary School with his elder brother Abbey Lutaaya. According to Abbey Lutaaya, Philly first showed a rebellious streak at early age. He later joined Budo Junior School, now known as Kings College Buddo from 1957-1965.
In 1966, he joined Kololo Senior Secondary school. Abbey remembers his young brother as a bright student, always a class below his elder brother.