Unsung talent: They have the smooth and sultry voices and some even are able to play instruments as they sing but for years now, they have been ignored and reserved for festivals. Why? Galiwango Nsubuga explores.
A midmorning tropical sun casts colourful rays on the calm waters of River Nile. At the shores, people from different parts of the world are basking in the sun. Area code: Nile Discovery Beach, Jinja. It is 2019, the fifth and last day of the Nyege Nyege Music Festival.
A group of youth are chatting away.
“They are really talented. Why don’t we see such artistes more often?” one of them asks about the artistes on the stage.
Instead of direct answers, the question sparks reviews about the various artistes that performed on the different stages for the last three days. Everyone narrates with excitement about a unique artiste they watched.
“But how do these artistes attract such a big audience from around the world, with no fame?” “But this is the kind of music that bazungu love.” “But you are not mzungu, yet you enjoy it.”
The conversation grows into a debate on the mainstream music and media.
Until last year’s edition, Nyege Nyege had curated non-popular artistes. It was only in 2017 that the festival started adding mainstream artistes and that year, we saw Maro representing.
But it is the underground artistes that have made Nyege Nyege what it is. It is them that make the festival. The same breed of artistes is found at events such as Bayimba Festival of the Arts and Pearl Rhythm Festival, as well as different arts and music festivals around the world.
The unifying factor among these artistes is the eminence of local traditional sounds in their art, and that you will rarely hear their music on local airwaves or clubs. Kampala is pivotal, because he who makes it into the city is regarded as making it countrywide, and thus mainstream – call it Ugandan pop.
It is, however, the same mainstream that is being inflated with Nigerian and Jamaican sounds, and the lack of identity that is being blamed on nobody and everybody in the industry. Cries over lack of a common identifying sound have capped the industry for years, but the local artistes that fuse contemporary and traditional sounds in a moniker ‘Afro-fusion’ have also been producing work for years.
Is it a case of prophets not being celebrated at home?
Derek Debru, the founder of Nyege Nyege, thinks so, but underlines that if an artiste is not celebrated at home, they ought to go outside.
And indeed, some of these artistes have gained an audience outside Uganda. They are occasionally invited for various music festivals and nominated in different awards. Their local shows attract a smaller but very passionate audience, with a notable number of foreigners living in Uganda. Their following grows gradually compared to the swift rise of their mainstream counterparts.
“The radio, TV, club space in Kampala was restrained to Nigerian and Jamaican influenced music, you would not get to hear some sounds such as Kadodi from Mbale,” Debru says. “We created a platform where Ugandans can get a chance to see that, but also looking at the markets outside.”
For music producer Jude Mugerwa, the brains behind the annual Pearl Rhythm Festival, Afro-fusion art is the way to go for an artiste who wishes to contribute to the culture and make it big outside the confines of the country. It has worked for many artistes, and presents a great opportunity.
He says it is on this background that they started Pearl Rhythm to mentor artistes and create a platform to showcase their talents.
Many mainstream artistes have been blamed for failing to perform well on live stages. Yet one of the major advantages that the locally unpopular artistes pride in is their prowess in live performances.
Jude thinks the local music listener has been trained to listen to something they have already listened to, which makes it difficult for new entrants with a different kind of work.
Is it time to shine?
Covid-19 disrupted the way of life globally. In the same vein, the way we consume music and entertainment changed. With bars and entertainment shows restricted, online shows have been the most reliable relief.
But before the mainstream artistes prepared themselves to perform live in a no-audience setting, Afro-fusion artistes were already there. Though with less following, the artistes have engaged their audiences in online acts before. AFRIMA nominated artiste Afrie staged online sessions she dubbed Afriebytes, running on her social media pages. It is these that have helped her build a following.
Globally, streaming platforms have revolutionised the music industry and the way consumers discover and listen to music.
Joseph Kahiribambanyi of Qwela Junction, observes that with the advancement of technology and current music consumption tendencies, it represents an unprecedented opportunity for the unique artistes.
“The gate keepers are shifting, where you had radio presenters, DJs and promoters as the gate keepers, right now the listener has more power to decide,” he says.
Kahirimbanyi observes that this lockdown has pushed musicians to look for different opportunities to share the music, especially on the Internet.
“The world is now quite digital. With this, musicians can perform for various audiences around the world.”
The onus is upon the artiste to perform well and create a thrilling experience for the audience that is not in their midst. He is optimistic that this will pay off, since “the last 10 to 15 years have also seen a growth in terms of musicianship.”
“We have developed an excellent crop of musicians and songwriters. They have the content and performance prowess, and now these people will have their time to shine. These are people who only need a microphone and an instrument and they will show what they are really capable of,” Kahirimbanyi notes.
Tapping into the local?
Last month, local Afro-soul artiste Gabriel K, staged a televised show at primetime on a weekend. For the years he has dedicated to music, he confessed this was a great opportunity to introduce himself. Perhaps in a normal period, going for a concert in a stadium would be a great risk.
He got people glued to their TV sets and on social media platforms. Great live music set. Great sound. Great production. Good content for music lovers on TV and video. It received rave reviews from the audience, majority of whom had never heard his music.
They would later confess that he was a different and more talented artiste than “the usual” they listen to. But Gabriel K is simply one in tens of such artistes that can afford to set up a good quality show and provide it for free. Perhaps his financial muscle in the advertising career, enabled him.
The assumption is, with the new trends an artiste does not need to hit it big on the mainstream since online is changing the way we consume music. Indeed, globally, music streaming is on the rise. According to statista.com, revenue from music streaming will grow by 5.6 per cent and user penetration will be 8.6 per cent in 2020 and is expected to hit 10.7 per cent by 2024.
But to Moses Serugo, an arts critic and journalist, putting this in the local context comes with checks, balances and questions. For instance, how the artistes monetarise the good content they produce.
Serugo argues that indeed, if an artiste feels they are in the space where Sheebah is suffocating them, they ought to find another space to thrive. There are many ways of selling music than mainstream channels.
“Technology presents a great opportunity, but how do artistes harness and localise it? Are the artistes in reach of the local audience?” he asks.
Uganda has various local music streaming and mp3 download sites that are free but the space is taken up by mainstream artistes.
The Afro-fusion artistes have their songs on streaming sites such as Apple music, Deezer, Tidal, Boomplaymusic and Spotify. But are they viable for the local consume? For instance, Apple Music charges about $1 for a song, and $10 for an album.
“To tap into the local audience, they have got to localise paying options. Because whereas they require a visa or master card, there are more practical paying options on the local options,” Serugo observes.
Global stardom chances?
“Music is a universal language. It is always inspiring to see people grooving to your songs although they do not understand your language,” Mugerwa said in an interview.
However, performing at various festivals around the world is one thing, global stardom is another. After his video of Sitya Loss, Eddy Kenzo gradually shot into what would be regarded as global recognition as per Ugandan standards.
But the Ugandan artistes, including Eddy Kenzo perform on festivals, where they are not headlining acts. The case is different with their Nigerian counterparts such as Burna Boy and Wizkid who stage solo concerts in various parts of the world.
Like American-Nigerian singer Jiddena, of the Classic Man fame, encouraged local artistes in one of his press conferences when he came to Uganda, the industry predictions show there is a global wave towards African creativity. Musicians around the globe are looking out for African sounds to create new music, which presents an opportunity for African artistes to sell their creativity to the world and collaborate.
The film industry is turning to Africa for content, both picture and sound. Last year, Eddy Kenzo’s folk-infused tune Mbilo Mbilo featured in a Netflix film, Holiday in the Wild.
Nigerian artistes have been sought after by global music stars for collaborations, in a bid for the latter to tap into the African market. Lately South African artistes have also taken the global music industry, especially Europe, by storm.
The Nigerian music industry can be used as the yardstick considering its success around the world and power on the continent.
Burna Boy’s fourth studio album African Giant won 2019 All Frica Music Awards and was nominated for Best World Music Album at the 62th Annual Grammy Awards in January 2020. The award was won by Angelique Kidjo.
Burna Boy describes his music as Afro-fusion, a genre that blends Afrobeat, dancehall riddims and reggae, American rap and R&B.
This is the same space Ugandan non-mainstream artistes are playing in. Most of them describe their music as Afro-fusion.
The term Afrobeat, also known as Afro-fusion or Afro-pop, is traced from artistes such as Fella Kuti, meaning a music genre which involves the combination of elements of West African sounds such as fuji music and highlife with American funk and jazz influences.
Will Uganda one day have its own Afrobeat on the global scene? To Debru, the brains behind the most popular East African festival, there is a global market for music, arts and creative things coming out of Uganda.
“Once they accept an artiste outside, it is easy back home,” Debru concludes.
Like their music, most of these artistes’ marketing is also non-mainstream.
For instance, they do not rely on dejaays to sell their music. All the artistes we interviewed revealed that some mainstream DJs, radio and TV presenters appreciate their music, but confess that it does not appeal to their audience.
Also, unlike their mainstream counterparts who frequently churn out songs, they periodically produce Extended Plays (EPs), Long Playing (LPs), or albums. Some rarely shoot videos for their songs, which are known to popularise local music.
They will mainly sell CDs at their solo events and music streaming sites.
In the next edition, we shall profile some of the non-mainstream artistes.