New era: 15 years ago, music critics had long been a chorus of sneers that local music couldn’t sell radio space. But with the emergence of the likes of Jose Chameleone, Ziggy D, Juliana Kanyomozi, among others, the tide was turning.
Rihanna, one of the biggest pop stars in the world today, recently laughed a perfect little laugh.
She laughed as she said: ‘I remember the first time out with Pon de Replay, a lot of people said I was going to be a one-hit wonder.”
It was the anniversary of her first hit song, Pon De Replay, which came out 15 years ago.
What sparked the mirth was her remembering that when it came out, a music critic called her a one-hit wonder. The joke is on him or her now because one and a half decades later, she is a wonder, certainly, but a wonder of dozens of hits.
But then again, why not laugh at music critics? They hardly ever know what they are talking about.
In Uganda, 15 years ago, music critics were already beginning to nibble at the appetiser of what was soon going to end up being a meal of their own words. They had long been a chorus of sneers that local music couldn’t sell radio space, that it was for people who did not belong to the working-class, downtown, “local” in the local sense of the word “local”.
And when “local” stations emerged, the critics sneered apace. “That stuff would never compete with the big international stars.”
But the tide was turning because a man at the time just called Chameleon, had a song called Bei Kali. A boy called Ziggy D had a song called Eno Mic. And each of these, to use the scientific terminology of music critics, was “bigger” than Rihanna that year.
Back in time
But let us take this reminiscence back a few years before Pon De Replay. Let us start just at the tail end of the last millennium. There were three radio stations in the country. The Internet and its MP3 downloads were scarce and pricey. Joseph Mayanja and Moses Ssali were still just that, indistinguishable from any other Joseph, Moses, Mayanja or Ssali.
We tended to get all our music from the radio or from weekly TV shows.
We were served a filling buffet of funky sounds, and no one can say we didn’t enjoy it.
R&B was in its golden age, boy bands were raging and hip hop was on the rise, precipitating pitched battles between Jay-Z fans who preferred Sanyu FM and Will Smith fans who preferred Capital FM.
Radio presenters were known as DJs and were superstars.
Rasta Rob MC was larger than life: one of the most fun things on radio. Mostly, perhaps, because he was so distinctly, relatabley Ugandan. There wasn’t a lot of that on radio– not a lot of Ugandanness. The music playlists were dominated by America, or what came from Jamaica through America.
Second in prominence would come whichever African region was fashionable at the time. We had our South African phase, which gave way to the zouk phase, which transitioned into Lingala. By the time Tanzania came around, we had got our act together, but there was precious little Ugandan music on the radio.
We tried our best. The Busiro South MP, Pastor Peter Sematimba, as a singer, songwriter, producer and let us say impresario –because if you think he is a showman now, you should have seen him then–put out an R&B-Zouk hybrid under the marquee Dungeon Family, featuring some names you will either remember fondly and, if you do, then your children will have never heard of.
From the Dungeon Family came Steve Jean, the workhorse, the genius, the legend, the lynchpin.
“When I started out, there was hardly any Ugandan music playing. Stuff from Dungeon Studios at the time was the best available quality. Nobody played Kadongo kamu. This was mostly sold on tapes that were hawked around,” says Allan Kasujja.
Kasujja, who you now know as presenter on Newsday on BBC World Service, was once a radio presenter spinning music for fans of pop music. He was present at the beginning of the whole thing that was to turn into this glamorous giant we call our music industry.
“When I reflect on the transformation of local music, I credit one man: Steve Jean. What Steve Jean did is he went and grabbed some Kadongo kamu guys and added flavour to their music. So we began to accept it,” Kasujja says.
And that was when the old snobs left the building and Uganda began feeling her own vibe. The groove felt more ours now.
Every time Juliana or Blu3 would put out a new song, every time Menton Kronno and Mega Dee, Halima Namakula or Ragga Dee crossed over, it would be announced with pride. Perhaps a slight sense of vengeance in that pride, a tone that said, “Look! Even us Ugandans we can also do like those of Rihanna! You see? We even have rappers and divas like for Americans.”
A city of two tales
You have noticed the glaring omission, haven’t you? This boy is talking as if Afrigo Band didn’t exist. As if Paul Kafeero was absent. As if KADS Band were working in secret.
That is because it seemed that way. Kampala, like every other city, is a one of two tales; there are two worlds running parallel to one another, each willfully oblivious of the other. There was the uptown Kampala and downtown Kampala- Yakobos and the deep, Club Silk and kafunda, and the mall and the arcade. uptown funk and ghetto vibes.
This scene is set somewhere in the early 1990s, Nakivubo Stadium, the event transpiring is the CBS annual concert festival. I am here for some reason. Menton Kronno and General Mega Dee have performed, Emperor Orlando has done his thing. Chance Nalubega has also performed.
I am in the VIP section, which is about eight feet of grass, another eight feet from the stage, sitting on the lawn.
Behind us, VIPs (mostly press, to be honest, not rich fans), there is a buffer zone of another 10 or so feet. Then, inexplicably at first, four police officers.
And behind them a massive horde of fans. The sheer number is not enough to explain how massive the turn-out was.
The show is a roaring success, especially when, then-upstarts Bebe Cool and Chameleone do their sets.
The roaring isn’t only coming from the stage– the fans behind us are thundering back the words of their favourite songs, and whenever the kid on stage asks “you feeling irie?” they bellow back with full force.
Then towards the climax of the show, DJ Peter Sematimba, Grand Master of CBS FM, the ringmaster of the whole extravaganza, takes the stage. A ripple of extra excitement sweeps through the crowd.
Meanwhile, in another world
I attended too many of these things, and the events were so similar, that, after all these years, none stands out as clearly as the Ekigunda incident. Consider this composite of virtually all of them.
We are gathered at an invite-only cocktail party at one of the more fashionable bars of the time. Scattered around the premises are young men and women upcoming in soon-to-be lucrative professions– bankers, media, telecoms and international businesses. They have members on their staff who enjoy a night out, are good looking, and carry themselves with the confidence and perhaps the flamboyance that allows them to stand in for socialites in an age before [Frank] Gashumba and Bettina. Their presence gives the gathering an air of class.
The lights are green and blue, there is smooth jazz tootling obsequiously in the background and girls in figure-hugging dresses branded by the beer company that sponsored the shindig are weaving in and out of the crowd distributing finger-licking food.
A genteel time is being had by all. Sylvia Owori is laughing at a joke an MTN executive has made, a Crane Group of Companies C-suite assistant is high-heeling her way to join them.
Then the MC calls for attention and the equivalent of NTV’s Login crew spring to action. Out of the curtains emerge Blu3, or Obsessions, or I-Jay and for the next few moments, they perform a medley off their new album.
A round of refined applause closes the show and the MC is left to either give us free cassettes, auction off a signed CD or remind us to purchase the record at one of the handful of locations deemed classy enough to sell such fine merchandise.
Then the singers briefly mingle with the guests before they begin to trickle out to find something more wild, more debauched, something more Kampala to do.
The uptown music reached for glamour, sought class and red carpet panache. But it never had the raw, explosive rock factor or Nakivubo.
If anything showed how different the two sides of the city was, it was this.
Should we blame the radio and the fact that it was up to a handful of programme directors to plot what direction Ugandan pop music took and they were deliberately skewed towards the uptown crowd?
Now we have stations swarming through the ether like flies, not that we even need them, considering that Sheebah Karungi and Fik Fameika are on the same Apple Music streaming service as Migos and Ariana Grande.
We still have the distinction between what we call the English stations and the local stations. But that distinction is no longer the music.
Even an “English” station’s top 20 chart will have Justin Beiber and Sam Smith riding up and down week after week, being hurdled over by Spice Diana and Winnie Nwagi.
The Steve himself:
Steve Jean. Every person I interviewed for this piece said it really came down to Jean. He broke the barriers.
This is the story of Steve.
He started as one of the kids in Peter Sematimba’s crew.
One day, Jean packed a bag, got on a plane and, like many of the great Black music heroes before him, flew to Los Angeles, California.
Conjecture and rumour surrounded his sojourn in California. According to some stories, he was flipping burgers at McDonalds like Prince Akeem. According to others, he was doing unpaid internships with bona fide record labels. There was talk about him hanging out with Tevin Campbell or at least with Teddy Riley.
Whatever the case, he would often fly back with a pair of spectacularly gorgeous sneakers, a fitted baseball cap, and a hit song.
Jean was like that Musummer cousin of yours who brings in the latest fashion, only in his case, his own songs were the latest fashion.
When Steve came back for good, he set up Fenon Records and the rest was history.
Full circle revolution:
Revolution, they say, is led by the people: the leaders just follow their followers. That is perhaps why it is called revolution; because it is so circular that you don’t know where the front is. And this certainly applies in the revolution in local music. Did the musicians come to find us, or did we chase them?
KFM’s Brian Mulondo thinks it is the musicians who upped their game sharply and made themselves impossible to deny.
He speaks for many of his listeners and compatriots who all along have been looking for something to call our own.
Mulondo also feels our singers were hungry enough to take on the world and race, note for note, with the Americans and Jamaicans. These kids came to compete.
Home grown jams
Veteran DJ Michael Owori, alias DJ Bush Baby, has served as a musician, producer, presenter, entertainment executive, attributes the shift to mainstream to two things: Science being the first.
“Gone are the days when Chameleone would put a song on Yellow Pages then put it on a bus and then look for a payphone to tell me, ‘Hey, I have sent you a song, come and pick it up.’ When technology changed, the paradigm shift occurred.”
Suddenly, the distribution was almost instantaneous. A top quality audio file could be uploaded and sent to multiple stations for them to have at once.
But this tech didn’t just make it easier to distribute music to radio, it made it easier to make the actual music that the audience craved even more than the American imports.
That is what Bush Baby says: “Over by the time we have come to appreciate our very own. Over the years, the likes of Rihanna, Puff Daddy are fading and what we are seeing now is Africa battling against Africa. It’s no longer battling against America. You compete with yourself.”
The take over
The year 2003 was the year of the Chameleone, and Mama Mia was not just an anthem, it was the soundtrack to the year. This song was blaring in the background of your markets, your taxis, restaurant and bar. The song was so consistently present that if a day went by without you hearing it playing somewhere, you would wonder if you had perhaps accidentally spent the day in the wrong country.
The leaders followed the followers. Radio stations and TV shows had to do their research to find out what the fans would listen to and the research from various target markets and demographics was showing the same thing: the listeners wanted Chameleone, Bobi Wine, Bebe Cool, Juliana, among others. This was no longer just music for the “ghetto youth” or the “omuntu wa wansi”, it was music that appealed across the city and beyond, it rang through the suburbs and pealed through the villages.
The Ugandans of Generation Y, aka Generation Yoweri, born and raised in a mixed heritage family where their parents spoke English and they, therefore, never mastered either one of their two birthright Ugandan languages as fluently as they would like, those who watched DStv, read Harry Potter, grew up with a tinge of Britain in their accent and a hint of Hollywood in their speech, saying “a bit of that beat” differently from “a bit of that bit”, for those kids, finding something Ugandan that they could own and share meant a lot. Something that locks you down to your land, that makes you feel your belonging, that helps you celebrate your place in the nation, that makes this beautiful stuff.
A quiet afternoon
At any function in Uganda, when the DJ comes on to play his music, Ykee [Benda], [Eddie] Kenzo, Navio and Sheebah will stream seamlessly through the mix alongside Rick Ross, Stormzy, Usher, Burnaboy, Vybz Kartel, Drake and Nicki Minaj.
It is almost the definitive portrait of middle class Kampala youth right there, and there is no line, no barrier, to exception, no class difference when it comes to the jams. Ugandan music is just simply music.
What they say
Michael Owori, alias DJ Bush Baby
With the first radio stations, there wasn’t enough local content to last even 30 minutes. You would listen to Rasta Rob MC; he had five hours on his show and only one song from Uganda. Gone are the days when Chameleone would put a song on Yellow Pages, then put it on a bus and then look for a payphone to tell me, ‘Hey, I have sent you a song, come and pick it up.’ When technology changed, the paradigm shift occurred.
Allan Kasujja, journalist
When I started out, there was hardly any Uganda music playing. Stuff from Dungeon Studios at the time was the best available quality. Nobody played Kadongo kamu. Kadongo kamu was mostly sold on tapes that were hawked around. When I reflect on the transformation of local music, I credit one man: Steve Jean. What Steve Jean did is he went and grabbed some.
Brian Mulondo, radio presenter
Actually, for the top cream of Ugandan artistes, some of their music is mastered by international producers. This is a guarantee of better quality output and if that meets a great artiste, I would prefer a local song. If you want to feature on the same playlist as Chris Brown and eventually kick him off the playlist, you know you’ve got to put out quality stuff. Ugandan artistes are working harder and smarter.