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The secret life and hustle of background singers

 

Doom and Gloom? “Uncredited, poorly paid and discarded.” That’s how an article on www.theatlantic.com titled, “the tough unanswered questions about backup singers” describes backup singers. Even if there might be truth to this statement, I doubt it is all doom and gloom for the men and women who make live music shows come alive, as Janet Napio writes.

Dealing. Some of the backup singers with artistes. They say being an outstanding backup singer requires passion, dedication and talent. PHOTOS /COURTESY

Guitarist Micheal Ouma has been on the Ugandan music scene for a while. From experience as a music director at a number of concerts, he knows what exactly background vocalists add to live performances.
“Some artistes and performance styles may not require background vocalists but most do. It is like boiling food and serving it without adding salt or spices. You can ingest it but it definitely will not be tasty,” he says.
We have all heard the voices in the background of a song and without them, a song somewhat sounds empty.

According to Ouma, a background vocalist is that person/s who provides the extra oomph required to have a “full” performance. “Specifically, the chorus of a song is usually composed of more than one voice and some are a question and response, therefore the background vocalists cover that gap,” he says.

Meeting backup singers
Sheeba Shahai is a beautiful woman. No, like really, beautiful but what strikes me most about her, is her voice. If you have attended live concerts, especially in Kampala by artistes such as (I know it is going to sound a lot like namedropping but I promise it is actually not) Maurice Kirya, Kenneth Kimuli, Naava Grey, Irene Ntale, Sheebah Karungi, Levixone, Exodus, Isaac Rucci, Alikiba, Angella Kalule and many others, then you have probably seen her on stage, in the background.
Since 2013, Shahai has done this on various stages such as the Bayimba International Festival, Kigali Jazz Junction, Qwela Junction, Roast &Rhyme and Blankets and Wine.
“I always had the passion to live this. I watched bands perform live and my interest became deeper, so I met with recording artiste Angela Kalule, who warmly welcomed me into this industry and gave me an opportunity to perform with her band at Sheraton. And that is where all the opportunities started,” she says.

Shahai thinks of the Qwela Junction at the Sax Aces in 2015 as one of her best experiences as a background vocalist.
“Everyone kept asking who the background vocalists were. I felt like this was it. It humbled and excited me at the same time and from then, things became better and that meant more gigs,” she says.

For Solomon Kalungi, singing started in Masaka District at the age 10 but providing background vocalist services started 20 years ago, with him doing it for both gospel and secular artistes. He too has a long list of artistes he has worked with tucked under his belt; Maurice Kirya, Yemi Alade, Seku Martin, Chameleone, Levixione, Voltage Music, Winnie Nwagi, Vinka, Bebe Cool, Irene Ntale, Irene Namubiru, Spice Diana and that is only part of the list.
Another background vocalist with an impressive list to brag about is Masha David. Her list includes Irene Ntale, Lilian Mbabazi, Sheebah, Rema, Ykee Benda and others. Masha, who got into the industry eight years ago, is also a violinist and songwriter.

What it really means
Clearly all three have serious bragging rights, given their different portfolios and yet all I get from the few hours I interacted with them, is such humility, a bit too much I must say, as if in total disregard of how ‘important’ they are.
These three, and others like them might be some of the unsung heroes of the music industry. All we think about when we see them is the glitz and glam that comes with being on stage in the same space with big names but there is more to being a background vocalist.

“It calls for a lot of work, which means passion, dedication, determination, skill and talent. Let’s say, your character here keeps you or throws you out of the game. Your attitude as well will get you to some places,” Shahai explains.
When you attend a live show, you expect the sound and vocals to be as good as they sound on radio. The vocalists are aware of this too and are therefore under pressure to perform.
“Excessive use of drugs and alcohol by some artistes sometimes destroys their vocal ability and concentration. So some end up not delivering well on stage, which increases workload for the backup vocalists and the band,” Kalungi points out.

Getting into the game
I have tried a couple of times to get into backup singing in bands whose names no one will probably ever get to hear and I failed miserably. This left me wondering how in the world one gets on stage with A-listers.
“I joined band music 10 years ago and that is how I started getting exposure on platforms such as concerts, both gospel and non-gospel, weddings, parties, etc.
At one point after university, music became part of my daily routine. I failed to balance between my day job as an interior designer and music as a vocalist. So I devoted to music because I had developed a bigger clientele, which kept me busy year in, year out.

Getting gigs
When one has created enough buzz about their ability to backup an artiste, gigs are easier to come by. This is Shahai’s reality.
“First I am called to confirm if I am available for the concert and if so, I am booked for that date. Then I am given the list of songs to listen to with the team that has been put together, we have a rehearsal scheduled and then start rehearsals thrice a week, depending on when the show is scheduled. Sometimes we work with so many artistes for a particular show and the songs have to be learned and sang. We also agree on the payment, mostly for the tours to be done. Logistics are then made and we all agree. This includes transport during rehearsals, costumes for the concert and lastly the logistics on the day itself.”

Show me the money
I learnt after my conversation with these three that a background vocalist will get paid between Shs300,000 and Shs500,000 for a two-hour concert. Of course there are those who earn a fraction of this or even nothing at all and only get to take the shiny costumes and selfies provided by the artiste’s managers as payment.

Getting fleeced
The industry offers hard lessons. For instance, that you should never go on stage before being paid regardless of how big, famous and rich the booking artiste is.
Masha attests to this. “I did a show and I was told to wait for my payment but it never came. I am a very calm person and I do not like giving people a hard time, so most I just stay calm. I am paid before I hop on stage and the team I work with, mostly our leader makes sure we get on stage with happy wallets, you know. That’s how I manage.”

 

Dealing with divas
The dictionary describes a diva as a self-important person who is temperamental and difficult to please, usually a woman. Well Solomon, Shahai, Masha and others like them have dealt with a fair share of divas. I could tell they were uncomfortable talking about this bit of their work, so I start by asking who they enjoy working with the most.

“I have many but for now I would say Irene Ntale. Her work ethic is good, same applies to Sheebah, Lilian and others,” Masha volunteers.
I circle back to my question about divas and after some coxing, I learn that some artistes have attitude issues, do not keep time and breach the contracts. Some vocalists are asked not to dress so smart or sing ‘very well’ lest they outshine the performing artistes.

“They too have insecurities. I do not usually walk on my toes for them. I am contracted to do my job so I will do it, some make it difficult and you will have to walk away just to maintain your sanity. Which at some point has helped me work through this industry. It is difficult but if you know why you are there, do your job and leave. You get to learn to control your emotions,” Shahai shares.
When I ask Ouma whether the vocalists ever give him as a music director and artiste trouble, he says, “Not particularly but like any human being, there are always ups and downs when interacting with others. However, I cannot say background vocalists are trouble working with.”

 

And about divas versus background vocalist conflicts, he says: “That is a subjective issue, depending on the two parties in particular. Only thing I would see is an insecure lead vocalist afraid of being overshadowed, especially if the backups sing better than the lead vocalist.”

Dreaming in colour
All three vocalists I talked to have their own music, so backup singing is definitely not the end game. But even if that was the endgame, I have developed much more appreciation for them. I will definitely be looking out for the men and women who make live music shows come alive just a few metres away from the limelight and full-blown fame.

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