Eight years and counting: Frank Mugerwa a.k.a Frank Jah is a video director behind so many nusic videos in Uganda. He is a qualified Human Resource practitioner but the seriousness of the job, early morning routines and a short stint in the coolers for a crime he did not commit led to his change of career. Isaac Ssejjombwe catches up with him to talk about videos.
Jahlive is not an easy man to find. We plan our meeting a week ahead and when D-day arrives, I give him a call to remind him about our meeting and he tells me to meet him at his studio at 4pm. I arrive 10 minutes past 4pm and find him seated in his office, waiting for me with a giant screen showing only videos he has directed.
What is your real name?
My birth name is Francis Mugerwa but it is only my mother who calls me Francis. Everyone else calls me Frank.
So, where did the name Frank Jah come from?
Jah is a Jamaican word that means God. So I coined it to Jahlive which means God lives.
Where was Frank Jah before all these videos that you have done?
I was working as a Human Resource manager in a company that I would rather not disclose. I worked there for three months before leaving to start my own business.
What pushed you to leave that company?
I hated things of tucking in and keeping time. But besides that, my boss was involved in criminal activities and because I was a manager at the company, the police arrested me for two days. When I was released, I decided to get my computer from home, went and asked for some space in my mother’s shop at Mukwano, started cutting music videos and films. I was however insecure in that line of business because I knew anytime I could be arrested for piracy. So I switched to shooting and directing events.
Did you have any expertise in that line of business?
What I used to do was to get the job, then hire experts such as camera people to shoot the events while I directed and edited.
How did video directing come in?
I did not last in the events business due to lack of passion. I was only looking for a way to survive. I remember shooting video clips and documentaries of places such as Owino, Taxi Park and other small videos. In 2008, I upgraded to music directing but became serious in 2009 when I shot Rabadaba’s Bwekili video, which helped me make a name in the music industry.
Was Bwekili was the first video you shot?
No, there are over a dozen videos I had shot before but they were not that big. The first song I ever shot was called Omutima Gwange by some artiste I cannot quite remember. Bwekili was, however, the one that raised me to fame.
What is different about the way you work these days compared to how you started out?
A lot has changed because I upgraded my machines and I also took a few courses in videography. Back then, I just got ideas from anywhere and just shot.
Where did you learn videography from?
I had the experience, but needed the technical knowledge, so I went for a one-month course in South Africa in 2012 to upgrade and then this year, the American embassy took me to Los Angeles for a short course.
What are some of the renowned videos that you have shot?
I have more than 1,000 videos. But I give respect to Bwekili and Sitya Loss because they put me at a certain level.
How do you rate yourself in the videography industry?
I cannot rate myself because that is not what I pride myself in. I should be judged by the work I have done. For example, I am the one with a video that brought the first ever BET award to Uganda. I have a number of hit songs and I have been able to do things that no other video director has done.
There has been a lot of comparisons between you and Sasha Vybz. Is he a threat to you?
It is okay to compare me with Sasha but he is not the only one I have been compared with. I have been in this industry for more than 10 years and in all those years, I have been pitted against different video directors some of whom have even changed careers. I have been compared to Kim XP, Badi, Pest and others.
What do you think of his work?
He is really doing a good job. And I think he is good competition, which is what the industry needs and also keeps me working better.
His popularity seems to be growing. Do you feel like your clientele is reducing?
There was a year when I was competing with myself. He cannot take away my clientele because Jahlive is a brand and it will always be there. We are in a competitive industry which calls for quality work. I have been there and seen it all. Those I have worked for can attest to what I do.
For all the years you have been shooting videos, what is your best?
I do not have a best video so far. I love all of them because there is something new with every video I shoot.
Is there any director whose work you admire?
Badi was so good, especially with low budgets. However small the budget was, he used to bring out a good video. In fact, he is one of the best directors for me.
What is that one video directed by another person that you wish you had done?
I take long to watch other people’s videos. I am always busy with my work. I value my work so much that it is all I see.
What do you think is missing in our industry?
Finances. Clients want quality stuff but cannot invest in it. The least you can do is give them work that fits in their budget.
Do you support artistes travelling abroad to have their videos shot by foreign directors such as Godfather or Clarence Peters?
I encourage it so much and every director who thinks otherwise should change their mindset. There are various reasons someone decides to travel abroad for a video shoot. Some do it for change, while others do it to have their songs played on different international channels. It helps us gauge ourselves and probably work harder to reach that level.
What would you say has kept you in the game?
I am humble, I deliver in time, I do quality work, I believe in God and I value my job.
Do you want to say other directors do not value their work?
The point I was driving at is that some directors offer free work, especially when they are starting up. This can help you build a name but later, it can be your downfall as people will not take you seriously. Throughout my entire career, I have never offered free work. I value my work and you need to pay for it. In fact, if there is anyone who says I have offered my services for free, they should come for Shs10m. Jahlive is a company that has employees who need to be paid at the end of the day. The least I can do is offer a discount.
You consider yourself a video director. But who does the shooting and editing?
Any professional video company has to do what I’m doing. You cannot be the drummer, dancer, stage manager and everything else. That is one of the reasons some video companies collapse because clients work will be delayed. I have six editors, two cameramen and other professionals. As a director, I involve myself in everything. I see the shots in cameras, I see the ruff cuts in editing, I help in colour grading and help out so that we come out with quality work.
Should we perceive it that Frank Jah does not know how to shoot videos?
It is what I was doing in the beginning. I am always on set because it is me with the vision of the video before it is shot.
Take us through what happens before the actual shooting of the video?
I first listen to the song, then I ask the artiste for their budget. I make a concept that fits the budget, I call the artiste and explain my idea and if they are comfortable with it, then we go to the location and start shooting.
What’s your worst experience on this job?
I lost DJ Michael’s footage. I had never lost someone’s footage before but the memory card was faulty somehow. We lost all we had captured yet the video was not that easy. I paid for the re-shoot.
Do you see yourself switching careers some time?
I grew up in a business family, which makes me a businessman. I am involved in farming, real estates and other businesses, and although I hope to be engaged more, Jahlive will always be there.
Is Jahlive on the level that you want it to be?
I have always wanted Jahlive to be a big studio involved in audio and video production, shooting documentaries, and so far we are doing good. I am nurturing many people.
What challenges do you get in this industry?
The only challenge is poor time management and it is so vital in the video industry. We always work on time because we have to put a lot in consideration, especially on location. For example, I might need a shot at dawn or dusk and I would not be able to achieve that if an artiste is late for a shoot.
How would you love to be remembered?
I am remembered every day because my videos are watched on different channels regularly. Even if I am to pass on today, the media will write that one of the best video directors has died.
School: I went to St Agnes in Makindye, Bugema Primary, Molly and Paul and Brethel for my primary level, then went to Light Secondary School, Bulenga, Noah’s Ark, Kingstone in Kawempe and completed my high school at Citizen’s College. I later joined Makerere University for a Bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management.
Family: First born of three children born to Justine Nansubuga and Baker Mukasa Owetiima.
His cameras: I have used almost every camera but I currently use Black Magic and Sony. I also hire from other directors when I need to.