From the 60s, we take a walk down memory lane as we trace the women that defined Ugandan music since independence.
The Evolution: From the ‘guitar wizard’ Eve Nanyonga, who performed on the Independence Day fete in 1962 and Frida Sonko of the famed “Wambuza” classic, to today’s sensational Sheebah Karungi and Spice Diana, Uganda’s music has been blessed with a host of pop divas as Denis Nsubuga explores.
The role of women in music and entertainment. In the African tradition, women were largely dancers. The way music was perceived in the society, men sang, creating a male-dominated industry. It is reflected in Congo, which is a vibrant music country, with barely a big female name. But then Frida Sonko and Hadijah Namale came in and broke the glass, defying the norm.
Many returnees from the Second World War that ended in 1945, carried with them music instruments. Veteran musician Steven Nsubuga Bunjo says this was the birth of the music in Uganda as it is known now.
The instruments were mainly the banjo, tambourine, violin and guitar. People who learned to play these instruments would entertain people in their communities. They organised themselves into bands which performed in discos in various towns around Uganda.
Joanita Kawalya had been singing since her early childhood, in choirs, and in 1986, she joined Afrigo Band, replacing her sister Margaret Kawalya who was relocating. To the music lovers and followers of the day, Joanita Kawalya was continuing her father, Ecklas Kawalya’s massive legacy of talent. Her hits “Jim”, is as timeless as her impeccable temperament. She has since formed a mother figure in today’s generation of music.
The phenomenon of karaoke in the 1990s gave rise to a new wave of artistes. Youth gave a shot to singing on karaoke nights. The industry would then move from the hands of bands, controlled by experienced musicians who prided in playing instruments to whoever could pen lyrics and voice them. Much of the influence, however, was from the western music, and artistes imitated the US music stars.
Queens from the 6os
As Frida lived outside the country in the 60s, the closest many would come close to her was on jukeboxes. According to Nuwa Nnyanzi, an artist and organiser of the Music Back in 60s show in 1994, with Frida gone, live music fanatics had Margaret Nakibuuka’s voice to tickle their revelry bone.
Nakibuuka, Hadijah Namale, and Sonko were the most sought after female voices by popular bands in the 60s, through to the 70s. Nakibuuka, who succumbed to high blood pressure in 2015, at the age of 71, was known for her popular compositions, including “Obwavu Si Bulema”, “Bagonza”, “Obugumba”, in a career that kept her close to her husband, fellow musician Andrew Kyambadde.
1990 – 2020
The last year of the 20th century, 1999, saw a new female duo, I-Jay emerge. But before the group could get its footing on the scene, the divas, Juliana Kanyomozi and Iryn Nambiru, traded it for solo careers.
Meanwhile, theatre’s influence on the music industry was growing, churning out artistes from drama to music stages. Artistes such as Mariam Ndagire and Sheila Nvannungi had their share of fame.
Eagles Production, with many solo superstar careers, would give the world artistes such as Catherine Kusasira, Irene Namatovu and Sophie Gomba, whose influence on the social fabric with hits such as Spare Tyre, was notable.
Chance Nalubega came onto the scene with controversial lyrics, a sweet voice and a personality that was hard to ignore. She gave us the hits, “Abenuggu”, “Omusheshe” and “Abalungi Balumya”, among others.
Sheebah Karungi, after stints with Obsessions and other groups, would in the last decade, spring to stardom with various club bangers.
In an industry still dominated by males, artistes such as the self-proclaimed ‘King Herself’ Cindy, Winnie Nwagi, Vinka, and Spice Diana’s dominance is proof that the female music scene in Uganda has indeed come of age.
The late 1960s had a new vibe in the female musicians’ street. Hadijah Namale, a vibrant, energetic performer with a unique set of skills. She had lived in Congo, where she not only learnt the Lingala dialect, but also got the musical skills of Congolese that marvelled music listeners in the region. Her background set her apart. She effortlessly fit in bands of styles and genres. Then, Congolese music was taking root in Kampala and across Uganda. She fused the elements of Congolese music with the local music of the day. With the then famed artiste, Ecklas Kawalya, Namale formed Suzana Band and later Rwenzori Band, all popular outfits of the 70s. She blessed fans with hits, including “Bossa”, “Kasujja” and “Mukulike Omwaka”, which would become a New Year’s anthem among her fans then. Today, Namale lives a humble life in Masaka.
Nsubuga says Cranes Band, in the early 1970s, were boys who gave the Ugandan music lovers a feel of global music stars, James Brown and The Beatles. Louisa Bagenda, a guitarist and vocalist, was the only female member, and that drew attention to her.
Fans of Jimmy Katumba and The Ebonies in the 1980s would marvel at the aesthetics of Stella Nanteza. Her alto voice was behind most of The Ebonies’ biggest hits, including “Emitima Egirwadde Okwagala”, “Endabirwamu Yange Junior” and “African Woman”. She has been described as the greatest female voice in the 80s, and to Moses Serugo, an arts critic, Nanteza’s inspiration on the Ugandan female singers, especially those of the 90s, was vivid in their fashion and sound.
But Nanyonga was not about to play and shine in the field alone. The early 1960s brought a songbird from Bunyoro. Mary Nattima is remembered for her mega hit “Ndifuna Owange”, which she sang alongside Sam Berunga. She was a mainstay at Suzanna Night Club, then regarded the best disco in East Africa. Leaders, including presidents and ministers from Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, danced and enjoyed life in the night club.
Carol Nakimera and Sarah Birungi
Life in the first half of the 80s, the Obote II regime, “was dull,” Nsubuga recalls. People would leave town at 3pm. There was optimism, nonetheless, he says. The music would start playing at 11am, with mainly bands performing at Slow Boat Restaurant Kampala,” he narrates.
According to music critic Joseph Batte, bands had created and given women confidence to sing and take up careers in music. Congolese living in Uganda were dominating the scene. Then popular singer Martin Munyega, spotted talent in Carol Nakimera, whose charm on stage was infectious.
She performed with Super Rockets, a popular outfit then, before joining more than a dozen of other popular bands. Nsubuga says she came with a new energy to music performance. Her novelty on stage and in songs fascinated music lovers. “I think she is the most talented female singer Uganda has ever had,” he says. Nakimera, who died in 2003, is the voice behind the 1985 hit “Omusujja”, which has since become one of the most performed song by popular music bands today.
Then, in the early 60s, a young lady from Uganda was working in a bar in Nairobi, Kenya. At the same time, a Ugandan male music outfit, AGS Boys, which plied their trade in Kenya, was looking for a female voice in a song they were recording. One of the members, Charles Sonko, was a brother to the bar lady, Frida Sonko. Charles and friends took a chance on his sister, and as fate would have it, that was the birth of a career whose influence is still felt almost six decades later.
“Literally, every song she put her voice to, became popular,” Nsubuga recalls. In the early 60s, jukeboxes were the in-thing on the Ugandan nightlife scene. Almost every bar had this music-requesting machine, which revellers fondly called the kyegunda. Frida’s recorded mega hit single, “Wambuza”, which was also known as “Olupapula si Mupiira”, was easily the most requested song on the machines that the revellers christened them “Wambuza”. For the groovy, upbeat compositions, Frida since became the face of Ugandan dance music, especially around Kampala. Today, many of her classics are musical emblems of the 1960s. Frida and Charles Sonko’s song, “Nawuliranga” was sampled by Navio, elevating the rapper’s music career.
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