Kenneth Mugabi is a gifted guitarist, tube fiddle and keyboard player, songwriter and a soulful singer. His rich unique voice places him among Uganda’s prolific musical storytellers.
Mugabi burst onto the national musical stage as one of the top contestants in the Coke Rated Next Uganda competition in 2012.
As to how he felt being one of the top contestants in the Coke Rated Next Uganda, Mugabi, recalls: “It was an overwhelmingly positive feeling since I had never imagined I would get that far in the competition with my own songs or compositions.”
The competition impacted his career vastly: “It made me believe that I could do more. It boosted my creativity and that I could fill a certain gap in the music industry.”
He has since been featured at many local performances.
In 2013 he released his first single Nubuka, which received good radio play. He followed it up with Wakikere and also featured a song with Kahiri Music called Sikyagenda.
Mugabi released his debut 12-track album titled Kibun’omu in 2016. The album where he sings in Luganda, English, Runyankole and Luo includes tracks Kibun’omu, Naki, Nambi, Omusheshe, Katambaala, Wakikere and Mumulette. It is a mixed bag of traditional rhythms, soul and the irresistible Congolese rumba—and of course Mugabi’s unique guitar strumming style.
He wrote all the songs that were released under the Kampala-based Qwanza Music label and does the vocals on Kibun’omu, accompanied by a host of local instrumentalists.
Mugabi launched his second studio album titled Ugandan at the Design Hub in Kampala. It has 13 tracks: Oliwa, Nkakwanye ntya, Nkwegomba, Ugandan, Ekigwo, Wenyewe, Mukwano gwo, Ebinyuma, Embeera, Olugendo, Bwenkusubwa, Mugabi and Fight for you.
“Although one primary school teacher made me suffer stage fright and wouldn’t get on one voluntarily, one Sunday in 2010 at Makerere High School Chapel, I voluntarily made my way onto the stage. That day I realised I could actually move people with my voice and with my music,” he recalls.
Born on September 12, 1992 in Kampala, Mugabi holds a BA in Music from Makerere University.
What message are you putting across from your album Ugandan?
It is about a Ugandan youth. In track 1, a youth is searching; track 2, a youth is trying to find means to approach: life, love, or purpose.
In track 13, another is convinced that he/she can and will fight for what they have been searching for in vain. But I put the message in a language everyone understands—love.
You produced your debut album Kibun’omu through crowdfunding. How was Ugandan produced?
Qwanza music took care of Kibun’omu album. Kenneth Mugabi Entertainment Services took care of the Ugandan album together with Statement Music.
What do collaborations do for you?
I am looking for dominion. So collaborations expand my reach into the mainstream music industry and expand the market for live soul music.
How best would you describe the Afro-soul music that you play?
It is a blend of storytelling, blues, rhythm, and soul. I call it Afro-soul because where I come from music, dance and drama cannot be separated and soul is the foundation.
Do you borrow from Ugandan country music genre ‘Kadongo Kamu’ that relies on the power of storytelling?
Of course, I listened to one of legends of this music Paul Kafeero so much. Actually some of my fans call my genre Urban Kadongo Kamu.
Of all the instruments why did you pick on the acoustic guitar? And why is it important to your music?
I realised that it would be more expensive in terms of initial purchase of the instrument, transport, logistics etc. I picked the guitar through which I can express myself much better than on a piano.
Do you think Uganda has produced enough instrumentalists like yourself to propel the music industry further?
I believe so. But it takes more than just talent and playing music. Information and a little wisdom, is required.
Why do most young musicians prefer CD-backed music performances to live instrument gigs?
For many young musicians it is hard to express themselves through or with a music instrument. And performances with a CD are cheaper to organise than live performances with a band.
Which musicians influenced your career?
Maddox Ssemanda Ssematimba, Maurice Kirya, Qwela, Moze Radio, Paul Kafeero, Ragga Dee and David Lutalo.
What plans do have for your music?
While I develop myself personally and professionally, I hope my music gets more authenticity. What others refer to as the image a musician cultivates, I prefer to refer it authenticity.
The more authentic I become, the more unique and rich my music will sound. With that authentic sound I hope to stay true to my diverse audience.
Besides, I have received positive responses to international festival applications so I might try to cross some borders.
How best would you describe the music industry in Uganda?
It is promising but, lack of money forces many musicians to move away from their authentic sound towards more commercial sounds. Fortunately, we have many authentic performers I admire, like Kahiri, Kaz Kasozi, Joel Sebunjo and Solome.
What would you have been if you were not in music today?
Maybe acting and farming. But in all my life, music has been dominant.
What are the major stumbling blocks and how can they be addressed?
Lack of money forces people to migrate. This commercialism kills creativity. Besides that, when you put your heart into your music and create that authentic sound, it is hard to outsource the marketing of your music, but the fact is that you can’t do everything on your own.
What is the future of Uganda’s music?
Look at Face TV’s success story. And Ugandan musicians have become an export product such as Joel Sebunjo, Maurice Kirya and Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi.
The increasing number of Ugandans at live music festivals and the increasing number of live performances in bars and restaurants means live music is being appreciated more and more. This is positive since audiences determine our success.