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Celebrity Profiles

My musical dream is a gradual investment – Joel Ssebunjo

Joel Ssebunjo

Reuniting: The Ganda-Mandingo Syndicate concert is on tonight at National Theatre and is slated to be a meeting point of three African traditional musicians, led by Grammy award nominee Habib Koite, Aly Keita and Uganda’s Joel Ssebunjo, writes Edgar R. Batte.

Tell us about the idea behind the Ganda-Mandingo Syndicate…

I happened to live, learn and be part of the two cultures, having spent some time in Senegal, Mali, and Gambia where I discovered Malians, people from Ivory Coast and Gambians share the same social and political context as that of the Baganda.

When you look at the balaphone, it is not so different from the Madinda. They are both xylophones. The djembe and drums we play have the same background. We should not forget that our music plays the same role in the two societies. The society of the Mandingo is built on monarchy – the great Malian empire where musicians played both an advisory and custodian role of culture in palaces, which was the same case in the Buganda palace. Our music is contextual. It is the bigger part of our relationship.

What efforts have you taken to make your music appealing, especially to the Ugandan audience?

The world music genre does not date too far back in Uganda. Before we came, we had our elders doing what we are doing; people such as Samite Mulondo and the late Geoffrey Oryema, whom I highly respect.

I looked up to them when I started out on this journey. Unfortunately, they did not live here. They did great music, but Ugandans never got a chance to listen to it because their music stayed in the diaspora (Samite is based in New York while Oryema was based in Paris).

When we came, we started from square one. It was basically a new movement, and when you are starting something new, you are digging a new tunnel. We were basically digging a new road so we might have been doing the right thing but there were many issues we had to pay attention to before we could get out to the public.

For a bigger part of my career, I have been trying to plant my roots firm here. It has taken me long and I cannot say I have arrived but over the years, my fanbase has grown. Where I was 15 years ago is not where I am today. My music plays on a major radio such as CBS, one of the biggest FM stations in the country. For me, that is amazing.

What do you think could havemade you appealing?

I could say that before, our style of composition was alien and now we sing things that people can easily relate to. Our collection is largely based on old tradition, such as accent messages.

It was very hard for the public to relate to these messages. That is why I decided to compose music that relates to the present. A song such as Kabaka Yekka went places because it was something the public could relate to; the Kabaka, the Ganda monarch and the political-social stand of the kingdom.

Today, the idea is to compose songs that ring a bell in the minds of people and have the radio and television stations programme that music. I made a song called Owino, which people relate to. Kabaka Kuntiiko has brought me closer to the masses.

The idea is to change the theme of composition. We previously thought our music would not be played on local FM stations but that was a big mistake we made, and it is something I am rectifying because our music can be played anywhere.

Besides FM stations, where would a music lover find Joel Sebunjo’s collection?

Today, the internet is the commonest music distributor. You can go to Spotify, iTunes, Deezer and YouTube channels to access, buy and stream the music. I have five albums and unfortunately, we do not have a music store or shop in Uganda which is a shortcoming for someone who would like to have physical copies. For those abroad, my music is available in major music stores.

What was it like working with the legendary Moses Matovu of Afrigo Band?

It was a landmark collaboration, which I am very proud of because Matovu is not your usual artiste, with whom you would easily cross paths and randomly ask to go to the studio with you.

The fact that he welcomed my invitation to collaborate, means he has high regard for my work and for my music. Believe me, in Uganda, Matovu’s collaboration list does not exceed 10 artistes.

It is special for me and encouraging that he could trust me as one of the right people to work with. The people who have listened to Leero Tombawala say it is a wonderful piece.

How important would you say the role of your formative years at school were in shaping and grooming your music ability?

Schools we go to when we are young, shape our dreams. Dreams are gradual investments of time, passion and nurturing.

I was lucky to go to Makerere College School ,which was a highly musically motivated school with a festival programme every year, fully equipped music room, one of the few schools that had pianos, a brass section, trumpets, trombones and good music teachers, who trained us and gave us direction so if I had not gone to Makerere College I would not have taken interest and a career in music.

Also, that is where I met longtime friends with whom I still do music. My associate producer Myko Ouma is my OB, so it is not by coincidence that we still work together to date.

Since we were in school, we have been talking about how to do afro-fusion. That was our mission, and we still share it. Almost 95 percent of my music has Myko Ouma’s hand on it. He never fails to turn up when I call for his help, so he is a longtime collaborator whom I respect and appreciate for his input in my career.

We are in times where technology has aided anyone to do and earn from music, where does it leave the artiste who has invested in learning and conceptualising music from its cardinal principles?

It is not about being deserving. Everybody has a calling and follows it and they reap what they deserve. Of course, we must agree and appreciate that we live in a country that has pop music as their first meal card.

If you feel you are doing more and getting less, join the pop music wagon. I am happy with the choice I made, and I have a long way to go as far as my dream is concerned with African World music.

We are still laying the foundation. It is not ordinary music and at some point, it will make sense to this country. Even with jazz in America, peoplesuch as Herbie Hancock are not in the same space with say, Jay-Z.

They are different so we must find systems to boost alternative music. If we are to make it work, we need media outlets because we need to see Susan Kerunen and Samite’s music played on TV. You can have good music but without a major platform for it, it may not make the impact you need.

How many musical instruments can you comfortably play?

Four. Lately, I play the Kora which comes from West Africa, Akogo, piano, a bunch of folk instruments and then Endongo, which I am lately focusing my energies on. It is said a rolling stone gathers no storm so my priority is the Endongo which is the emblematic instrument of the Ganda people. The sound of the Endongo is in my music.

What makes you proud of your culture?

Culture is our identity. Without culture, I am nobody. It puts me in a unique position to talk to the world. I am very proud to be a Muganda and to speak Luganda. That is why I have an album called I Speak Luganda.

I am very proud of the Kabaka because, over time, I realised that I am a Ugandan, yes but the way our nation is, right now, I get more reassurance through the kingdom than through the government.

Every time I think of the problems I have as a person, and I relate them to the kingdom, I find reassurance that one time it can be okay because it is always advising and boosting our confidence to venture into coffee growing and staying clear of certain things.

I have previously been identified as a Kora player and perhaps thought to be West African, but I am now focusing on playing the Endongo which is an instrument of the Ganda people, and that is my strength today.

When not playing music, what occupies your time?

I am a squash player, I read afrocentric books and listen to music.

Whose music do you listen to?

I like Bill Withers who did Ain’t No Sunshine, Louis Armstrong, Yousou Ndour, Salif Keita, Ismael Lo, Habib Keita, Angelique Kidjo, Afrigo Band and many more.


Tonight, Joel Ssebunjo will join Aly Keita and Habib Koite for a once in a lifetime concert at the National Theatre. Keita, famed for his prowess on the balafon has played twice in Uganda before; once at the Bayimba International Festival of the Arts and the second time alongside Ssebunjo in concert.

On the other hand, Koite has toured the world with his band but was yet to give Kampala a piece of his experience. This is his first showcase in Kampala.

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