City Sounds Kampala

When Okot p’Bitek, a Ugandan poet, took over as Director of the National Theatre in Kampala in 1967, he promptly and ceremoniously replaced the British Council’s grand piano with a drum post driven into the ground outside, announcing “Our national instrument is not the piano – tinkle, tinkle, tinkle – but the drum – boom, boom, boom!”

The drum has always been central to this region’s musical heritage. The drum would beat at ceremonies among the kingdoms of Buganda, Busoga and Bunyoro across these lands before foreign traders, missionaries and colonists arrived.

The cow-hide drum still resides in churches and village bomas, where it sounds to the rituals of adulthood, marriage and death. And today the beat goes on, from the village to the dusty street, through genres rooted in the urban music culture of America’s African diaspora: hip hop and dancehall. Kampala’s mainstream music culture rests squarely around the beats, loops, cuts and samples that have come to define the first truly ‘global’ urban music genre.

Artists such as Bobi Wine combine the visual performance of US hip hop MCs with melodic dancehall delivery. Wine is the president of the Ghetto Republic of Uganja, a crew based in the Kampala slum called Kamwokya. The vice president is another artist called Buchaman. Their ‘cabinet’ includes a Defence Minister, a Minister for Disaster Preparedness and a Minister of Agriculture (whose policy, unsurprisingly, is to legalise cannabis).

The Ghetto Republic of Uganja might seem a frivolous endeavour, but these guys are national figures, with huge influence over their fans and politicians desperate to secure their patronage in the run-up to the general election in February 2011. Meanwhile, President Yoweri Museveni has inadvertently had a rap hit, after hip-hop producers remixed part of a speech featuring renditions of Ugandan folk songs by the leather-faced incumbent. Youngsters nationwide have adopted it as their ringtone. There are serious doubts Museveni himself can count on that level of popularity when it comes to the youth vote next year.

Wine wants to motivate people. “I call it edutainment. I want to reach out to the ghetto youth, and teach them about issues like condoms, but still keep aggressive and still keep entertaining…” Nightfall descends as we talk from the balcony of his recording studio, a bungalow covered in grasshoppers. In the slum nearby, a ‘farm’ made of white electric lights and huge cones of corrugated iron sheeting attract spectral clouds of the insects, which are cooked and sold as snacks.

Hundreds of thousands of Ugandan youths have also been drawn to the bright lights of the capital, exposed to a lifestyle so at odds with the rural, traditional lives of elder generations. Wine is the torchbearer of this brave new world. He offers pride and a sense of community to the scores of dispossessed, the slum kids fighting for a living. “We call it urban” he says. “Whereas rural music is narrative… informative… passive, urban music is more active and aggressive.”

As if p’Bitek’s words still hang in the ether, the city’s youthful hip hop culture can be experienced behind the National Theatre, at the ‘Bonfire’ outdoor gathering every Wednesday night. Bonfire comprises a hundred or so Kampalan b-boys and b-girls reciting poetry, and when the beats get dropped, rapping rhymes and hip hop verse in English or the preferred ‘Luga-flow’ (i.e. in the Buganda dialect, Lugandan). As the night progresses, beat boxers, break dancers and amateur acrobats emerge, shifting the emphasis from cerebral to corporal.

Breakdancers KLA

But Luga-flow, dancehall and reggaeton don’t entirely dominate Kampala’s city sounds. Rock, jazz fusion and traditional music have their niches. A seemingly incongruous Ugandan rock band called The Uneven, led by the sexy, charismatic Rachel K, gave a blistering performance at this year’s Bayimba Music Festival.  The jazz fusion scene revolves around Qwela and Baxmba Waves. Afro-fusion big band Qwela have developed a following after a succession of hugely popular all-singing hip-shaking concerts at bars and hotels across the city. Baxmba Waves are an accomplished jazz quintet, blending indigenous rhythms with contemporary jazz. But they play in Bubbles O’Leary, Kampala’s Irish pub, whose owner Declan shipped the interior out of a pub from the emerald isle. With sport showing on surrounding TV screens, even the all-consuming passion of their singer Ken Musoke fails to dispel the regular pub vibe. It begs the question: where’s the city’s ‘gig’ venue?

Kampala’s traditional music scene has no such dilemma. The Ndere Centre provides an ideal setting for traditional music lovers. Established in 2003, the spacious theatre and open air auditorium are located in parkland in the north of Kampala. Or there’s the National Theatre, with its unchanged 1960s interior. National kora maestro Joel Sebunjo will perform there in his annual “diplomats tour” concert next month.

Joel Sebunjo

“More and more musicians in Uganda are drawing from their traditional roots and blending it with contemporary urban music” says Sebunjo. “Artists like Mesach Semakula or rapper Navio are using traditional themes in their songs and fusing that with an urban approach.” Sebunjo recalls a hugely popular song Mesach produced that referred to the Kabaka (King of Buganda). “When artists sing about something from their culture, people respond so much more than to songs with abstract ideas, where people can’t relate.” Sebunjo is a passionate promoter of more traditional African music. “I’m proud to see that major world music artists are coming to Kampala,” he says, “Salif Keita was here in October, we’ve had Oliver Mtukudzi, Miriam Makeba – they inspire people to discover the world music scene.”

It may not have the vibrancy of Dakar or Kinshasa just yet, but Kampala is undergoing a quiet musical revolution. The city’s hip hop, dancehall, rock, jazz fusion and traditional world music scenes are developing fast. Improved production and recording equipment, a burgeoning market, and an ambitious, outward-looking collection of artists are making it happen. Tinkling they are not.


Bayimba Cultural Foundation, Kampala


Extra Golden

Any band’s early years are precarious, but Extra Golden’s continued existence seems utterly miraculous. The band’s rollercoaster journey would be too much for most. Along the way they have experienced bizarre luck and displayed unusual tenacity. Musically and logistically the band span cultural and continental divides. Yet Alex Minhoff tells me that American rock and Kenyan benga are well-paired.

“It works well. There are lots of similarities between the musics. The general chord structure in benga is pretty much the same as blues-based rock.”

Benga is the upbeat Luo dance music driven by melodic guitars and bouncy choruses originally from Nyanza in Western Kenya and popular since the 1960s. The guitar style is said to borrow heavily from the sound of the nyatiti – the traditional Luo lyre. When Luo people formed communities in Nairobi they introduced a thriving benga scene to the city.

Extra Golden was created in 2004 when Alex visited fellow American and old college friend Ian Eagleson in Nairobi. Ian was researching into Kenyan music for his PhD and had already begun playing with the benga musicians he had set out to study. They began to write songs with singer/guitarist Otieno Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari.

“It just kinda happened”, says Alex casually.

Extra Golden have made a virtue out of playing in unforgiving circumstances. Ok-Oyot System, the name of the band’s debut album, is derived from the Luo phrase ok oyot, meaning ‘it’s not easy’.

They recorded the songs for Ok-Oyot System in a single afternoon set up in the back of a nightclub using a broken drum-kit. Then in 2005 founding band member Otieno Jagwasi died after a long struggle with liver disease. Catalysing the urge to get the music heard they released the album in 2006. The challenges continued – the Americans ran into problems with the Kenyan police. The Kenyan musicians were forever facing travel restrictions. In 2006 they suffered civil war in their homeland and post election violence two years later.

Despite all this Extra Golden are still on the tracks, not least due to President Barack Obama. It was Obama’s authority, as Senator of Illinois, that was sought to provide the Kenyans’ visas for their debut US tour in 2006 when they were invited to play the Chicago World Music Festival, going on to tour for six weeks across the States, honing their sound.

“If we hadn’t got visas we probably wouldn’t still be a band”, says Alex.

So Extra Golden, following the Luo tradition, wrote the song Obama, thanking their benefactor. Another twist in this unlikely tale.

Their follow up album Hera Ma Nono (meaning ‘love in vain’), is more cohesive and rock-driven, with popular Benga star Opiyo Bilongo now on guitar, vocals and production but still glazed throughout with the lush, liquid electric guitar-playing associated with benga. And their lyrics share traditional themes.

“Our songs are an acknowledgment of our struggles. Lots of folk songs in Luo talk of the world’s uncertainty”, says Ian.

Extra Golden have survived and are making a name for themselves because their enormous passion for benga-rock has overridden the challenges they face when ‘it’s not easy’.

In March Extra Golden will be part of the triple-bill African Soul Rebels UK tour, with Oliver Mtukudzi and Baaba Maal. Their new album Thank You Very Quickly will be released in March 2009.