A new music frontier shines in Kampala

Giovanca performing at a music festival
Music artist Giovanca performing live at a music festival

Kampala, Uganda | By Lindsey Kukunda | A fresh breed of musician is making waves in Uganda, attracting crowds and creating a new sound that is distinctly Ugandan.

There is a rising trend of culture in Uganda: the advent of contemporary and creative artistry. Hardly a month can go by without some dance festival or band performing in an upscale hotel. And the high rates one has to pay in order to have the privilege of experiencing this style of entertainment seems to be a small deterrent, at least judging from the relatively large crowds usually present at these functions.

One cannot talk about musical artistry without mentioning Qwela. They are undoubtedly the leaders of the pack, introducing Ugandans to their delightful mix of afro soul and fusion, reflective of the influence of reggae and traditional African music.

Emin Pasha is the podium through which Qwela has risen to its current heights, performing at one of the most happening weekly live band events in Kampala every Friday. They have held concerts in Kampala, Kigali and Nairobi, and have also won a Pearl of Africa Music award for best live band.

The name Qwela comes from the Zulu word Kwela which means “arise”. According to Joe, the founder of the band, the name illustrates that they will always rise in their pursuit of musical perfection.

“I always say we are bright, we’re rising and we’re making music,” said Joe. “Yes, it has been hard. There have been times when individuals in the band gave up, some left and returned, some left and never returned. I hardly regard that we have even started to taste what real success is. We do plan to keep re-inventing ourselves and upping the stakes at every stage. We make it up as we go along, I guess that’s the privilege of being in the creative arts!”

For a band that had their first public performance at the 2009 Bayimba Festival shortly after their formation, Milege Jazz Band is also making huge strides. Francis, the band’s founder, explains that the name Milege represents the ankle rattle that the escorts of a Jopadhola chief would wear to herald his arrival.

“We are making way for a coming king, which is change. A new era in music, and a new brand in music, music that has substance and is refined over time,” said Francis. There are three types of audiences in Uganda that artists target, according to Francis. There are those who understand the technicalities of music, who judge how well it is performed based on how technically correct the music is played. Then there are those who want to be entertained with a fun performance, and finally there are the usual people who want to be associated with “class”, whether they find it interesting or not!

“We need all those classes of people,” said Francis. “The market is growing for traditional Ugandan music, with a bias to jazz.”

Saint C.A. is a lady who is arguably Uganda’s rising female hip hop rapper who came up under the mentorship of the hip-hop artist Navio during her early days. Although she says her personal life does not allow her to release many singles, she is a regular participant at the National Theatre’s Lantern Meet of poetry, as well as Open Mic performances at Sabrina’s, which are held every Thursday night.

“Poetry to me is another form of music. You have to rhyme to make it beautiful, just like an actual song, and if you can’t rhyme, you have to make sure there is a real message. I love how many poets we have in Kampala today doing their thing on the stage. They’re not famous, but a lot of people come to see them!” said Saint C.A.

The evidence suggests that apart from these and other popular groups like Qwela, there are a lot of talented artists with their own regular fan base.

Whether it is jazz or reggae, or even rapping and poetry, there is a real music scene in Uganda that is alive and kicking, and growing in strength from day to day.

This creative art scene was present at the recently held This Is Uganda festival at Kyadondo rugby grounds on the 18th of December. This event found the grounds alive with a hive of activity: NGO and company exhibition stands, free AIDS testing, art exhibits and of course, music – after all, what is Uganda without music?

“This is Uganda” was aptly named as it embodied a good mix of all that Uganda has to offer artistically, economically, and socially.

The festival, which was a day-long affair, showcased local talent from dance troupes, DJs and renowned artists that included the likes of Navio and Klear Kut, Rachel K and the Uneven rock band, Suzan Kerunen, Maurice Kirya, and Giovanca from Holland to add a dash of foreign spice to it all! Although the festival started several hours behind schedule, and the earlier performers found themselves facing an audience of a handful, the event picked up towards the early evening and rocked until late.

Exhibitors in a separate section of the grounds included representatives from the ICT industry, telecommunications, art and crafts and the media, among others, who, although they were separate from the concert itself, were able to enjoy the sounds as they heard them from the stage. This arrangement may have represented a problem of uneven distribution of people as visiting the exhibit stands meant missing whoever was performing at that moment.

Thoughtfully, a traditional dancing troupe had been placed to perform among the exhibitors as well, providing welcome sounds of drums and dancing to them and their customers.

All in all, the successful inauguration of the festival heralds good tidings for the second season next year, and promises more goodies for fans of creative entertainment. But please do not wait until next December to experience these new and rising musicians. Good, no great Ugandan music is out there, you just have to look for it.

In the words of Qwela’s Joe: “Arise Uganda. We’re bright, we’re rising and we’re making music!”