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Ugandan music is almost breaking through

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From a judge’s perspective. UK based  Jasmine Dotiwala worked with MTV for close to two decades. The Huffington Post blogger was one of the judges that compiled the inuagural Club Music Video Awards nomination list. She writes about Ugandan music videos, the judging process and her time in Uganda.

Last week I was blessed to have been invited to Uganda, where I was one of four judges for the Club Video Music Awards, (the country’s premier annual music awards ceremony), which takes place in Kampala, in September later this year. I was invited by my one time MTV International colleague Jandre Louw, who is doing extremely well out in Africa with his own company and is now a player and leader on their music scene. Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and it certainly lived up to its precious name.

In the past five years, the exodus of British people to Africa for business has been huge. The continent is an untapped industry that’s ready to blow up in media, arts, culture and business, and many are getting on the bandwagon early, to make the most of an opportunity much of the western globe seems to be oblivious to. Even Chinese businesses out there, are taking over, in droves.

Every silver lining has a cloud. Our cloud on this trip was flying Dutch airline KLM. The European leg of the trip is akin to many an airline carrier, but once on the African leg it’s a whole different story. The aircraft are old planes in dire need of updating. The staff and air stewardess are in urgent need of a grooming expert. All our crew looked like they had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Perhaps a hairbrush brand like Mason Pearson can lend them a helping hand. Their gate protocol was also unnecessarily unorganised. Each flight had huge queues for no apparent reason. Security for baggage at the gate meant that even water bottles bought from departure shops have to be confiscated, and left you parched and thirsty for two hours at the gate. A fellow African passenger shared, ‘’Yes its always this way, they have no respect for African journeys, we are always treated this way, we are used to it’’.

However, that was the only cloud to an otherwise glorious experience. On landing at Entebbe Airport, we were greeted on arrival by a protocol agent, and hurried to our waiting car, which whisked us off to our hotel- the Kampala Protea. A very efficient hotel, in the heart of Kampala’s business district, where the rooms are absolutely huge, and decorated in a unique minimally stylish manner. The staff couldn’t do enough to help in their very welcoming, friendly manner, and it’s the first place we noted, just how softly spoken the Ugandan people are. It’s also the first hint of the influence of the Asian community, once upon a time in Uganda (before Idi Amin took offence to their presence). Their teas are ‘chai spiced’, and their hotel room service menu’s sport many an Indian nod, from samosas to chicken tikkas.

Three days of work were followed by two days of pleasure. For three long days, my fellow judges and I were to narrow down hundreds of submitted music videos to just four in each of the 13 categories. Categories included the usual big ones like best male, best female, best video, best newcomer and so on. More technical categories included best cinematography, best special effects, best choreography and more.

My fellow judges were manager of Channel O (most widely distributed channel across African households), Leslie ‘’Lee’’ Kasumba, talent and music manager for Trace TV (the no.1 pan African music TV channel) Phillip Nwankwo, and South African film maker and very highly regarded video director Matthew Stonier.

The thinking behind having judges that were not connected deeply to the Ugandan music scene was so that there was no bias or unfairness in the initial voting process. Not knowing who was already big in Uganda, meant that we could judge the videos purely on the art of their visuals, as opposed to being swayed by the artiste’s personal brand. I was the only international judge, so I came with no pre conceptions at all.

Daytimes were spent viewing hundreds of videos; evenings were spent seeing live music at venues like Cayenne, a Maurice Kirya gig and more. My favourite evening was at The Emin Pasha Hotel, which is set in two acres of peaceful park-like tropical gardens. Big mature trees, flowering shrubs and scented vines surround guests. We ate a delicious dinner and took over the outdoor poolside house band as they sang, with the men in our group showing off with a bit of karaoke!

As with any judging process, the debating was intense and at times heated. We laughed, acknowledged talent, froze at videos that made us sit up for a multitude of reasons, debated authenticity, accents, quality of filming, originality and more. I noted that most of the videos were in need of Ofcom style compliance rules advice, so that product placement, dangerous and imitable behaviour, smoking, drinking and soft porn during daytime playlists could be avoided.

One thing that intrigued me was that it seemed that 99 per cent of all music videos submitted, seemed to come straight from Jamaica, such is the passion of Ugandans brought up on dancehall music. With full patois accents and dancehall dance moves, it was like judging a Caribbean set of acts, as opposed to African. It reminded me of the early UK urban music scene when we imitated American hip-hop videos and accents before finding our own voices. Leslie informed me that in fact, dancehall is deeply entrenched in Ugandan culture. (This means that if you love reggae and dancehall culture then Uganda is the perfect spot for your next vacation as the music and food is very akin to Caribbean).

Another observation was that like many new acts around the world, their videos highlight sexy, scantily dressed girls gyrating wildly and rappers surrounded by their version of material wealth. All understandable, as this is what success looks like from many viewers points of view, I was eager to point out that this isn’t always what playlist managers are looking for though. After all, is it still sexy after your 1,000th booty shot? Do we care about rappers that continue to tell us about their material wealth purchases? It was good to note that UK acts played in Uganda included Chipmunk, Tinie Tempah, Estelle, Rita Ora, Skepta and L Marshall. #TeamUK!

Considering how young the Ugandan music industry is, I can see that the passion and D.I.Y attitude of the artistes and filmmakers’ means that this is a market that will grow rapidly with increased reach of their acts the same way artistes from Nigeria have broken into international music playlists recently.

The work being done in Uganda to give these acts a platform via the CVMA team is sure to develop, nurture and grow the local music industry to build a lasting legacy. Right now, it may seem that only West African music and culture have infiltrated our shores, but after this trip I can confidently state East Africa and Uganda are getting ready for their take over!

Navio, little known Amaru lead CMVA nominations

The nominees for the inaugural Club Music Videos Awards  were announced in Wednesday. Full of surprises as it was, the self-proclaimed ‘big shots’ like Chameleone, Bobi Wine, Iryn and Juliana never made the cut.

Also, the work of the gurus in the video production business like Kim XP, Bashir of Badi Filmz and Deddac failed to impress the judges. The uncelebrated Ugandan born New York based female singer/song writer Amaru who refers her music as “soul-truth” surprisingly got six nods for her debut hit single Stay.  Navio topped the nomination list with seven nods for his bangers Kata and Dream landing him top spots in the Male Video of the Year and Inspirational Message Video of the Year.

Young stars Backri and Bob Dixon also made it to the nomination list with 18 and Over getting Backri a spot in New Comer of the Year category and Bob Dixon in Best Costume and Make-up category for directing the video Mikonkome by Vampino.  Winners of categories like Best Choreography, Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects, Best Use of Technology, Best Set Design, Best Directing, Best Costume and Make Up are subjected to a final decision of the panel of international judges that include include Mathew Stonier, an award-winning film maker from South Africa, Jasmine Dotiwala, senior producer and entertainment journalist, who  previously worked with MTV for at least two decades,  Leslie Kasumba, a Ugandan-born Channel O Africa manager and  Philip Nwankwo, music and talent manager from Trace  Anglophone. The other categories will be subjected to a public vote. Voting commences on August 5 and ends on September 15. The awards gala is slated for September 20 at UMA Show Grounds, Lugogo.

So what happened to the music doctor, the heavy weight and the so-called Omubanda Wa Kabaka? Could it be that their videos are of poor quality (which I highly doubt) or they never bothered to pick up the nomination forms (which I also doubt)? Whatever the case, it is indeed surprising that they are not on the list.

Who is Joanna Amaru?

Joanna Amaru is a Ugandan born singer and song writer based in New York City. Compared to the Ugandan music, her music mainly comprises the guitar and drum. This is evidenced in her songs like Stay, Dance My Pain Away and Heartbeat. She refers to her music as ‘Soul-truth’.

Born into a musical family, she was fathered by a very gifted singer and instrumentalist and mothered by a singer, she fell in love with music at a very tender age. Her lyrics are drawn from emotions, passion and real life experiences.

According to her page on Reverbnation, throughout a lot of her teenage years, Amaru shied away from singing in front of audiences and turned to writing poetry instead. During these years, she began to nurture her gift as a songwriter. It was in her mid-teenage years that she wrote one of her first songs, which about two years later, ended up winning the Senior Music Category at The International Schools Talent Show hosted by Rainbow International School, Uganda in 2009.

She underwent training as an actor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, which imparted in her a strong respect and value for truth, which is the core of her work.
She believes that art not founded on truth is lifeless and hopes to create music that inspires, affects and changes the people that encounter it.

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