7 October 2012

Uganda: Politics of Music

Uganda's leading band leader traces the nation's 50-year journey through his saxophone

Unlike October 9, 1962 when the leading Ugandan musicians of the time; Prof. George Kakoma, Dan Mugula, Minsusela Segamwenge, Christopher Ssebadduka and others performed at the Independence Day celebrations, the nation's top band, Afrigo, is not performing at the Kololo anniversary grounds in Kampala.

Unlike Richard Kaweesa and Esther Nabaasa, the relatively unknown feuding composers of the event anthem, Yoga Yoga (congratulations), Afrigo, which is the oldest and most decorated band in Uganda, was not even involved on the project.

A statement from the office of the minister in charge of the Uganda@50 project, Muruli Mukasa who is the Minister for Security, the celebratory music at Kololo is a mixture of performances; traditional and contemporary music and dance in addition to a choreographed performance, involving a dedicated theoretical group of 100 people, supported by UPDF soldiers. It is a sign of the times.

When veteran Afrigo band leader, Moses Matovu, spoke to The Independent, there was no bitterness, anger, or raised voice. Instead, Matovu spoke in his usual soft manner of one who has seen enough of the world to value humility.

"They didn't contact us but we have a commitment to perform in Sweden on Independence Day," he said.

Before 1962

Matovu, who is Afrigo's lead Saxophonist and respected vocalist, was only 13 when Uganda attained her independence from British colonial rule in 1962.

Even then, however, he had already showed his ear for music as he entertained guest with his antics on the family gramophone, the 1960s equivalent to today's Sonny Surround Sound audio players, that he had mastered as early as age seven or eight. At the time, he lived in Bakuli village in Namirembe, which is in the heart of Kampala city now. He was a pupil at Namirembe Primary School. "I enjoyed it," Matovu says calmly. "I lived with my mum at Bakuli and I was in church choir at Namirembe Church, we had a gramophone at home and I enjoyed operating it whenever visitors came."

Matovu, who is 63-years old, is a good person to speak to as we trace, Uganda's musical journey in the fifty years since independence in 1962.

His life's journey appears to reflect, the nation's musical journey at every turn.

Matovu attributes his entry into music to Jane Tibagwa, a choir tutor he met when he joined Kibuli Demonstration School. She taught him to love performing music.

The 1966 crisis

But his new found happiness was shortened by the 1966 Buganda crisis that led to King Edward Frederick Mutesa II of Buganda being exiled to London, U.K. For Matovu, it was a double tragedy. Apart from grieving as a Muganda, he lost his bursary because the exiled king had been sponsoring his education. He was in Senior Three. Barely, 18 years old, he plunged into music with renewed ferocity, hopping from band to band. In 1968 he was in the Uganda Police Band, which he quit to join The Cranes Band in 1969, and the Thunderbirds which performed on Fridays and Saturdays at White Nile Club in Kibuye/Katwe between 2:00p to 8:00pm.

He says bands were so popular at that time as no self-respecting African fancied foreign music. Matovu's says his favourite songs were the major hits of the time like Nkole Mpakase and Nabutono of the Late Elly Wamala, Tereza Ow'ebbinna Eddene by Christopher Ssebadduka, Eclas Kawalya (the father of the current Afrigo Band Lead vocalist Joanita Kawalya) and traditional songs like Kagutema Bamwongere Omwenge. He also listened to western hits like Across the Bridge and World is not my Home by Jim Reeves, Jingle Bells among others.

Matovu recalls that in the early 1960s, people were happy and used to adopt the popular dance moves of the times that were mostly from the west and were performed by pairs on the dance floors which were quite small and could allow only a few people. "The population in Uganda was small and having 200 people in a club was a huge attendance," he says. People adopted popular dances like Tango, Waltz, Bossa nova, quick step, and slow foxtrot. They danced to calypso, high life, rock and roll, twist, soul music, pop African dance music, traditional music, Rumba, salsa among others from Latin America.

But the 1966 crisis changed that.

Diplock Segawa, another veteran musician of Sooka Omunyoonye fame which is played at almost every wedding today, says that every generation of musicians finds ways of expressing their generation's sentiments. "Music depicts about what is happening in the society and gradually people reflect on and that is the case with Kadongo Kamu that's why it has been there to date," he says.

The 1971 coup

After the 1966 crisis, as Baganda grieved, the society embraced songs like Taliwo, enkomerero and Eddaame lya Chwa by Dan Mugula and Christopher Ssebadduka who sang of their loss and sorrow. It is something akin to the popularity of today's political opposition anthem, Abantu Bakoowu, by Mathias Walukagga.

Segawa says every generation has prophecy songs and the Mugula and Ssebaduka songs depicted the Buganda kingdom and Uganda's political situation.

In 1971, the Obote government which had sent the Buganda king into exile was toppled in a military coup, and the new president, Gen. Idi Amin, allowed the body of King Mutesa to be returned to Uganda for a state burial. Buganda was ecstatic. Soon other 1960s stars like Fred Masagazi, Eclas Kawalya, Fred Ssonko, Evaristo Muyinda, Elly Wamala, Christopher Kizza, Dr. Herbert Sempeke and Prof. Benny Kalanzi joined with their own compositions.

Up to the mid-1970s, band music remained a hit and several live bands like The Cranes Band, Peterson Mutebi and The Tames Band, Prisons Band, Top ten Band, Suzanna, New Life Band and Rwenzori Jazz Band, were very popular. But not for as along came the disco fever of the late 1970s.

Disco was a challenge that the local bands were totally unprepared for with its unique style of playing a sequence of music at a time. That sequencing element was rare among Ugandan bands.

"We used to (play and) relax but the discos challenged us, they could play a chain of music which beat our understanding and we had to adopt to play a chain of music and this required a band to be hardworking," Matovu recalls.

The disco revolution affected many artists prompting them to adjust to then modern music instruments to spice up their products because people had adopted the disco music from the western world.

Matovu says many musicians were forced to buy instruments in order to rebrand and repackage their products. But their attempt at reorganisation was difficult because Idi Amin had expelled the Asians traders, who were the main suppliers of the equipment, from Kampala in 1972.

"Shops like Assanands on Kampala road and Shankaradash which was opposite General Post Office closed after the expulsion of Asians and Idi Amin also adjusted the time of night clubs from 5:00pm - 10:00pm to 9:00pm 1:00am."

Afrigo Band was formed in 1975 amidst this mix of western disco fever and African music trying to find new footing. At the time, South African and Congolese had penetrated the disco craze with popular hits like Kasongo of Super Mazembe, Prince Nico Mbarga's Sweet Mother in 1976, the love song Malaika, which means Angel in Kiswahili by Miriam Makeba.

Afrigo Band's sound was the Congolese rumba but their lyrics were local except when they did covers like Kasongo. They became favourites of Idi Amin who sometimes played his accordion alongside Matovu's saxophone at Cape Town Villas (present day Munyonyo Resort). Afrigo which was playing using state-sponsored equipment at state-sponsored venues, soon became the de facto state band. It played at virtually all national functions. But the party was short-lived. Amin was toppled in 1979 and Obote was back in 1980. Afrigo had to eventually return to its old venue, Little Flowers, in downtown Kampala after several attempts at regrouping.

Obote II and Museveni

With Obote II, came the dusk to dawn partying called "ekikeesa" in which disco ruled the late 1980s. Congolese Lingala superstars like Joseph Kabasselleh, Dr. Nico, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide, Werason, J. B. Mpiana and Zaiko Langa Langa, Pepe Kale, and Kanda Bongoman were the rage.

Throughout this frenzy, Afrigo and a few single guitar ensembles called Kadongo Kamu, kept the candle of Ugandan music burning. Ugandan music received a boost soon after President Yoweri Museveni came to power and Philly Bongoley Lutaaya released his hit song, Born in Africa, on a cassette that all had songs like Tugende eKampala, Gwe wange Diana, and Empisazo Zikyuseeko. His later songs line Alone, Zukuka, Gloria, and others remain popular over 20 years after his death in 1989.

Matovu believes that the success of Lutaaya, who was based in Sweden, and Afrigo Band amidst competition from foreign music was based the quality of their product and the discipline of its producers.

"Afrigo Band has maintained its popularity because of discipline, self-respect, education, interest and hardworking. Today there is lack of training, talent and guidance after trying to perform on live stages," he says.

That is not something that Richard Kaweesa, Esther Nabaasa, and other current performers at the Uganda@50 Independence Anniversary, can boost of. Instead, their forte appears to be narrow vision, piracy, and technology boosted melodies.

"People have to discover the talent and the person in them," says Segawa, "music is from the heart." That is another thing that can be said about every aspect of Ugandan life today; love of Uganda@50 must be from the heart.

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