23 December 2012

Uganda: It's Not Christmas Without Lutaaya

Music greats, Joanita, Mukulu pay tribute to the legend of Philly Lutaaya

When Philly Bongole Lutaaya died ten days to Christmas on December 15, 1989, Joanita Kawalya, the lead female singer of Uganda's top band, Afrigo, was just 19 years old. She was already involved with music, and had been with Afrigo for three years already. In a recent interview, she spoke about how Lutaaya's music made her belief in God feel different.

"Lutaaya's Christmas classics are spiritually gifted classics blessed by God," she said, "They ignite hope in people's minds and every person believing in God feels a difference after listening to his songs."

Afrigo band's first lady, who is fondly called Joanita by fans, said she believes Lutaaya's classics drew a lot from his rich Christian background as a grandson of the 1960s Bishop Fesito Lutaaya of West Buganda Anglican diocese.

Joanita says listening to Lutaaya's Christmas classics especially as the year ends is so spiritually rewarding that one's spirit feels lifted.

"They make you think that the year which has not been easy has come to an end but a new one is born and you start focusing," she says.

As a fellow musician, Joanita says to achieve what he did must have required a lot of commitment from Lutaaya.

"It is not a joking subject, it requires focusing and it is not a one day thing, it requires one to be composed," she says, " the old music of our parents lasted long because they were really composed in mind and body."

Performing not transforming

About today's musicians, Joanita says their poor background without any grounding in spirituality, either Christian or Muslim, and their lack of ambition limits them.

"How many musicians are attached to any church or mosque?" she asks, "They don't go to worship; to churches or mosques and whoever is given platform to sing they sing to perform but not to transform."

She says Lutaaya's message, which lives on from one generation to another, was the message from the church.

Lutaaya started his music journey in 1968, when he was barely 17. He left home for the Congo where he played in Kinshasa and made acquaintance with legends like the late Franco Luambo Luanzo Makiadi of the legendary OK Jazz Band. He returned home before flying off again; to Europe this time. In 1984 he arrived in Sweden and, the same year, learned that he was HIV positive. Without the HIV drugs of today, his condition quickly progressed in full-blown AIDS. By the time he returned to Uganda, he was on the verge of death.

To date, many Ugandans who were enlightened enough about the disease recall with tears the day, April 13, 1989, when Lutaaya gave an emotional press conference at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel.

"Fellow comrades of Uganda," he said, "it is with utmost regret that today I inform you that the sickness bothering me has been diagnosed as AIDS... this will no doubt be a shock, but it is true; I am one of the victims of this dreaded disease, AIDS."

He later gave a public address at the Makerere University Main Hall.

But even when The New Vision splashed the headline: "Lutaaya has AIDS" together with the photo of his emaciated frame and face freckled by disease and thin frail hair flying off his head, the country remained in shocked disbelief.

Born in Africa

Lutaaya had become a legend since his song, Born in Africa, which he travelled to Uganda to launch at Lugogo Indoor Stadium in 1987, hit Ugandan radio. Uganda had never heard that sound or seen that show.

But it is Lutaaya's Christmas Album, produced in 1989 that are most popular during the Christmas and end of year season in Uganda. Like Christmas trees and the Bonny M songs, Lutaaya's album whose songs were written in native Luganda remains part of a strong Christmas tradition in Uganda. It includes classics such as Tumusinze (Lets worship HIM), Gloria, Merry Christmas, Oh Happy New Year, Azzaalidwa (HE is born) and Zukuka (Wake up) among others.

Suzan Namaganda, the Bukomansimbi District Woman MP, grew up in a very big family in Kibinde Bukomansimbi says that during her childhood and today, a Philly Lutaaya Christmas song is always a sign that Christmas has arrived.

"We valued and fancied any Philly Lutaaya Christmas song right from my childhood, I used to live with my uncle when my parents passed on before I made five years," said the youthful MP.

Renowned performer and composer, Alex Mukulu, was a close to Lutaaya. He says his songs remain alive long after his death because he sang with conviction about what he saw around him through the lens of his Christian parentage.

"I lived with him and his Christmas and other songs mean a lot to me," he says, "I knew him more than his songs."

Mukulu laments that no new musician has come up to match Lutaaya's abilities.

"The voice is one thing and to sing is another thing, today musicians don't want people to know their background but Philly was proud of his background but one day someone will come out and sing," he says .

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