MAKING A COMEBACK: Charlie King, Drew Muturi and Ken Kayongo were three musicians whose destiny was almost intertwined. Each of them headed to Sweden at different times and for different reasons but they had a common dream – music. They united through friends and became a formidable singing trio in the early 90s. At some point, they were signed to Universal Music and they had some hit songs like Pole and Hakuna Matata, but Charlie King says they had some disagreements because Universal Music did not quite understand their music. Almost 25 years later, the group is planning a comeback and say they have learnt a lot and are now ready to raid the airwaves, with more than 150 of their unreleased songs. They share their stories with EDGAR R. BATTE.
Charlie King Todwong
How did you join Swahili Nation?
I have been a member of Swahili Nation since 1993. I linked up with Ken Kayongo. At the time, I was living in Gutenberg with my brothers. Ken told me he had linked up with some other guys and all they were missing was a producer. They had contacts but nothing they could rely on. Their music was unique and it needed an African touch and this was at a time when Sweden was heating up in terms of artistry. There were the likes of Ace of Base and Dr Alban. It was basically the right time for us to get out there.
Where did you get the production skills?
That came before I left Uganda for Sweden in 1991. Prior to that, I had a production studio with my cousin and I did a lot of collaboration with Mixed Talent Studio. We had produced KPC’s first album, Tukutendereze. That was our main album and it was my breakthrough work.
Had you started singing when you linked up with Swahili Nation?
Yes and no. I had taken a lead in gospel music due to the fact that I went to KPC but that did not work in my favour because Uganda was not yet at the level of understanding music. It took a few years afterwards for everybody to get to a level where Philly Lutaaya had left it. His passing left a void on the music scene.
The legendary Afrigo Band, Jimmy Katumba were in their world, but did not share the talent.
How do you remember Philly Lutaaya?
We performed at his remembrance gig, with a band called Impact, which comprised of Steve Jean, Michael Nakibinga, Chris Kakoma, Emma Lubega and I.
How many songs did you perform?
We did one, which was promoted by Elvis Ssekyanzi, and we had a show at the Youth Sharing Hall, Nsambya. We were so bad at marketing that Elvis’ family was the only one that attended. That was the only show we did.
What kind of band was Swahili Nation when you joined?
Interestingly, when I joined, it was evolving from a 25-man band to a three-member band. Not everyone was a performer, others were hang-arounds. The only guys who were doing something were Ken Kayongo, Andrew Muturi, his brother Robert Muturi and Cool James.
When I joined, the group was smaller and tighter and we had much more ambition to try and go international and from my experience in Uganda, I was already producing international music. I had produced the KPC album and my own called Crucify, which was a full gospel album. It was really top notch and ushered me into production.
Between 1993 and 1994, we had produced 12 songs. We crossed the line between house music and RnB or Swing beats and when I came in, that is when the vocals started showing up.
What are the biggest songs you produced as Swahili Nation?
To date, the biggest I know is Pole. Some songs were never released and it was sad. There are others like Nasty, Nyama, Work On It, Incredible and others.
How many albums did you guys release together?
We did about three albums together and not all of them were released. We officially released one song and that is Hakuna Matata.
Why one song?
I do not know. Maybe because of the timing.
How many songs haven’t you released?
About 150 songs.
How long have you been with these songs?
Why weren’t they ever released?
We were young then and we did not know how people would react to our music.
Did you do any gigs as Swahili Nation?
In Sweden we did gigs every weekend since 1993 to 1995 when we were signed.
What record label were you signed on and how long?
Universal Music, though the contract was short – eight months. We recorded two albums but none was released.
What happened after those eight months?
We became free agents. That is when Dr Alban signed us, and then we released Hakuna Matata.
How many albums did you record with him?
They were supposed to be 12 albums but we could not complete that either.
By that time, we wanted to come to Africa, Alban did not have the resources to get us here. We got out of the contract and started touring ourselves. Over time we have become smarter. I believe the best of us has not been seen yet. Our music has not been heard yet and that is the reason we are coming back. We have so much unfinished business.
What plans do you have for a musical comeback?
We have looked through the maze and we have got the positives out of it and we have endeavoured to come to a conclusion that we have a brand that is bigger than us. We are going to do enterprises under Swahili Nation too.
What are those enterprises?
We are involved with a platform called Kupatana, a classified ads platform. What it does is empower and develop leads to do business.
Are you a family man?
No. I have a girlfriend, and I hope we will get married. I pray about it every day.
How did you guys connect in Sweden?
Cool James (RIP) and I had already started this Swahili Nation movement and he wanted to do something different from what Swahili Nation was initially supposed to be doing. He wanted the group to appease Europeans because we were an RnB African group, which would be difficult to make it down here, so we parted ways in a friendly way.
Fortunately, Ken had just arrived in Sweden so we met him through his cousin who was already in showbiz – dancing and singing.
How did you come up with the name Swahili Nation?
Way back in the early 90s, hip hop was coming up strongly. There were groups like Public Enemy, so the idea was that Cool James and I were East Africans and our common denominator was the Swahili language and even if we came from different countries, we were an East African group. Also, the kind of music we do makes us feel comfortable when we mix Swahili lyrics.
Did you do any projects with Cool James?
Yes, we did a few songs but we were starters.
Which year are we talking about here?
That was 1991, I think. I first met him through my sister in Sweden and that sister knew his sister. He was a DJ and I had a lot of interest in rap, so our sisters connected us.
At what point did you start doing music?
I have always loved dancing and my mum says I was a good dancer when I was four years old. When we went to Sweden, I became a hip hop fan. I would get tapes, listen to rap, write the lyrics down, go sing for babes, and they would go crazy. This was at a high school in Stockholm. When I saw the people’s reaction, it gave me confidence to start doing my own songs. Luckily, there were fellow young men with music studios. We recorded our songs at a friend’s studio in the basement.
How did you end up in Sweden?
I went to Sweden in 1987. My parents were hosted in Sweden from Kenya. My dad was a career diplomat. One day he told us to pack up and go to Sweden. It was a life-changing experience.
What was your parents’ reaction towards your musical career?
Honestly, they did not take it seriously because rap then was just a fun thing and I remember my dad laughing hard when he watched me rap. He would say, “Oh, that’s what Drew does”?
Had you finished school when you started music?
No I hadn’t. I was actually in high school when I started participating in talent shows. I did not join university straight away. After high school is when I met Ken and Charlie and started doing music. Ken came in 1992 and Charlie came a year later.
What is your life like away from music?
I travel a lot. One day I am in Stockholm, in London, in Nairobi, etc. I have a brother in Atlanta, a sister in Germany, another brother and sister in Sweden, so I travel both to do music and private stuff.
How many children do you have?
I have two children in Sweden, with a Swedish woman.
What did you do at university?
I did computer science at the University of Stockholm. I completed when Swahili Nation had taken a break.
During your performance, female fans scream. Do you ever get serious hook-ups after your performances?
We treat our fans in a positive way; women or men. Over the years we have learned how to cope with beautiful women around us, although it is a bit tough.
At what point did you join music?
My love for music has always been there. I grew up in church because I come from a born-again family, and when you come from that kind of family, church becomes part of your existence. I grew up in a very small church in Nairobi called Good Shepherds. When I was nine, there was an American pastor called Ken, who emphasised entertainment because the whole church was about putting up a show for Sunday, so we would practice from Monday to Sunday. In secondary school, I became a break dancer.
How did your family end up in Nairobi?
We were refugees and so were other Ugandans at that time. My dad, Tom Kayongo, was involved in the struggle. He was an activist and MP for Rubaga North. He was an undercover guy who did a lot for the movement.
He used to smuggle people who were under threat out of the country, train young officers and take them to Libya. In order to protect us, he moved us to Nairobi. I grew up there and came back to Uganda towards the end of the 80s.
How long were you in Nairobi?
We were there for about eight years.
How old where you when you returned to Uganda?
I was a teenager. I did the last of my secondary at Mengo Secondary School and then I went to Sweden to finish my high school.
How did you end up in Sweden?
I had a cousin there and every time he visited, he had this swag. His clothes, the way he smelled got me asking my mum if it was okay for me to go finish my studies there. My cousin was able to convince them that education in Sweden is great and free.
What differences did you find?
I travelled in December and when I go there, all I saw was white. I had never experienced winter in my life and I thought I was going to die. Thank God my cousin had come with a jacket. My first impression about Sweden was how I was going to fit in yet I could not fit in Uganda and Kenya. It was easy in the beginning. There was a different language to learn (Swedish) and it took me time to learn.
How did you get into music?
My cousin saw the passion I had for music and when I got to Sweden, I first saw Cable TV. It run non-stop, playing MTV videos. After a while, my cousin introduced me to a Ugandan guy called Kenneth Magoye, who was managing some acts.
He offered to help in my music career and he introduced me to a bunch of guys who happened to be Swahili Nation – Drew and his brother. Kenneth was to be my manager but they needed an opening act.
How long did you open up for them?
Not long. We just did a couple of shows and they asked if I wanted to be a part of the group.
What was your contribution towards the group?
At the time, I was just the hook guy – the one who comes in and does the hook and I found out that they were more of a hip hop group, so I started learning how to write lyrics and how to rap.
I was introduced to the music business. These people had record companies, were organised and had an industry that basically builds one’s career.
I had gone to Buganda Road Primary School with Charlie King and one day we bumped into each other. He had brothers in Sweden and I knew he had production skills. I talked to the guys to bring him over. They agreed and we became Swahili Nation.
Tell me about you away from music?
I have two beautiful daughters. Their mother and I were together for 11 years.
Sh*t happens. We were too young to be in a relationship. Most relationships that start early end early.