The Independent (Kampala)

Uganda: Kafeero's Unexplainable Kadongo Kamu Muse

How a translation of his music shows English to be a very poor language

The Late Paul Job Kafeero's literary contribution to the Kadongo Kamu (One-man guitar band) genre is rich and full of metaphors, imagery, proverbs, idioms, folklore, humour and genius.

Now the music career of Kafeero, who is arguably the most celebrated composer and singer of Kadongo Kamu in Uganda has been documented in a book titled "One Little Guitar: The Words of Paul Job Kafeero."

The 290-page-book edited by his widow, Kathryn Barrett-Gaines is divided into 21 chapters each covering the lyrics of his 21 albums. It is also full of colour, and some grey, photographs of him on, off, and behind the stage, traveling or at home in a relaxed mood.

At the time of his death in May 2007, Kafeero, who was also a comedian, dramatists, social and cultural critic was planning to celebrate 20 years of an illustrious music career. His catalog consists of 83 songs on 21 albums. His songs are didactic, reflective, and inspirational, and commonly described as educative.

His 1994 hit song Walumbe Zzaaya, a fifteen-minute lament on death in which no word is repeated, sent him into the Ugandan musical stratosphere.

Walumbe Zzaaya earned Kafeero the enduring nickname "The Golden Boy of Africa" as a result of a 1994 Cairo music festival attended by thousands of African contestants, where he won a gold medal from the Institute d'Etudes Theatreals.

In 2005, his hit Dipo Naziggala, which criticises the drinking habits of Ugandans, including himself, won the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) award for Best Kadongo Kamu artist/group.

Kafeero became a household name in 1989 when he released his first album, Muvubuka Munnange with songs like "Abakazi Okuwasa." He followed it up with Abatunda Ebyokulya in 1990; Ekijjankunene Part III in 1991; Temukyagasa in 1992; Kiwenenya Amazina; Ebintu by'Omuko; and Tulera Bilerya in 1993; Walumbe Zzaaya in 1994; and Obutamatira in 1995.

He released Ekyali Ekintu Kyange; and Ggwe Musika in 1996; Dunia Weraba in 1997; Edduma ly'Embaga in 1997; Omwana w'Omuzungu in 1998; Baabo Bagembe in 1999; Nantabulirirwa in 2000; Kampala mu Kooti in 2001; Dippo Naziggala in 2003; Bamutalira in 2005; Olulimi Lwange in 2005; and Nsonda Nnya released posthumously in 2007.

The songs are rendered in their original Luganda prose poetry, and in English translations. The purpose has been to provide English in direct translation to allow for future interpretation of Kafeero's meaning.

According Barrett-Gaines, the Luganda in this book is a faithful transcription of what Kafeero sang to us. "The English is an attempt only to render the literal translation of the Luganda words. The poverty of the English language prevented us from being able to interpret the many layers of meaning that Kafeero's lyrics can convey in their richness of Luganda."

"...The English translation may appear to be simple and unadorned to the English speaker; they may not appear poetic. Know that his images bear multiple layers of meaning in Luganda, and they engage in many creative ways with Kiganda proverbs, idiom, and folklore," she adds.

"...Since Kafeero began to sing to Uganda in the late 1980s, listeners have been debating his meaning, searching their Luganda bank accounts for understanding, asking each other and consulting elders and scholars about the ancient forms that Kafeero deployed in his compositions," Barrett-Gaines observes in the book.

"In preparing this book, we would sit (with Kafeero) for hours over one song discussing the meaning of one Luganda line or phrase or word, trying to get the proper English word or phrase, or corresponding idiom, to represent it. So many times I said to my editor: English is so poor," she reveals in the book published by Fountain Publishers in 2012.

Barrett-Gaines's efforts came with challenges. "...There was no matter collection of written lyrics that I could consult and transcribe. Kafeero wrote out all his songs in longhand, and I have collected his hundreds of exercise books in a still unorganized archive."

According to Barrett-Gaines, Kafeero was respected by colleagues as a favourite of Ugandans who appreciate grassroots, original, message-driven music.

"With his deep understanding of rich and ancient Luganda, his songs maturely and innovatively address social issues. His lyrics are marked by surprising imagery and humour often laid over the traditional rhythms of Kadongo Kamu. He constructed his narrative songs around the quotidian problems of ordinary people, weaving into his long epics the traditions and lessons of his culture," she writes.

"Kafeero was unique among Kadongo Kamu musicians in that he composed, sang, played the guitar and dramatized his music on stage. Keeping himself slender and smartly dressed, he successfully maintained the image of the young boy who had appeared on the musical scene at age eighteen. His melodic voice, charming stage presence and vivid costumes, combined with his message-laden narrative songs crafted in his beloved Luganda, endeared the star to many Ugandans in whose hearts he remains. ...," she adds.

Kafeero was born on July 12, 1970 to Vicencio Nanganga and Phiromera Nanoozi of Kirembe, Nkokonjeru in Mukono District. He was interested in music right from his childhood. He joined the primary school choir, but was dismissed by the choir director for being too quiet.

At the age of 16 in 1987, he founded his first musical group, the Pluto Boys in Masaba. In 1998 he traveled to Kampala in hopes of joining a Kadongo Kamu group. By 1989, he was singing with Makula Guitar Singers with future stars like Livingstone Kasozi and Herman Basudde.

Kafeero had always wanted to lead his own group. He formed Kabuladda Dramactors, which he dissolved to start Kulabako Guitar Singers in 1992 with his sister Nantongo, his wife Mariam Nasuuna, Charles Sekate, Nasanga, Brite Bukko, Immaculate Namata, Sarah Kizigo, Musange, and Kizito Musambwa. He led Kulabako Guitar Singers until his death in 2007.

After the early deaths of most Kadongo Kamu stars, he battled Fred Ssebatta for the kingship of contemporary Kadongo Kamu. He declared himself 'Prince' at the height of his rivalry with Ssebatta who had declared himself 'Lord.'

Kafeero remained loyal to the essentials of Kadongo Kamu. Just as he established himself as an artist dedicated to the traditions of Kadongo Kamu, his lyrics and lifestyle established him as a man grounded firmly in the family and community traditions of the Baganda. While he spoke fluent English, he composed and sang only in Luganda, spoken in central Uganda.

A traditional Kadongo Kamu band consisted of mainly of two vocalists. One played the guitar while the other used the shakers or hit at an empty bottle tuned to the local rhythms. Today, one will find a band made up of four guitarists, drummers, keyboards, vocalists and dancers.

According to Kefa M. Otiso, these bands use hidden language when addressing sensitive or potentially offensive subjects.

"Kadongo Kamu is only called music because of the musical instruments which play under it. But essentially, Kadongo Kamu is oral literature. No one dances to Kadongo Kamu; they listen to its stories," Barrett-Gaines notes in the book.

Barrett-Gaines, who is popularly known in Uganda by her stage name, Omwana w'Omuzungu is a Luganda stage and recording artist. She is the director of African and African American Studies at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in the United States.

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