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In search of original Ugandan music

By Yusuf K. Serunkuma

Nothing wrong with artists trying to respond to the pervasive beat of western power, capital, and tastes

Early this year, local Ugandan artistes brawled with radio and television music show hosts. The local music producers and singers were unhappy that local disk jockeys appeared to favour foreign music at the expense of local stuff.  It was a big fight, which the DJs seem to have won.

Some of the more powerful arguments that the DJs summoned included a penchant among local singers for imitating Nigerians, Jamaicans and Americans.

“When artistes start copying a certain culture, it makes them look like wannabes… When you struggle to sound Nigerian, shoot cliché videos like them, it gets promoters and DJs feeling that it is Nigerian music that people want and they will play that – real Nigerian music not the copy-and-paste material (italics added),” Sanyu FM’s Fat Boy was quoted.

The other argument went that local musicians produced crappy music: personal praise songs, hate, message-less or incomprehensible lyrics, that is, “about shit we have no clue about”.

The Observer’s Alpha Male warned in a headline on a soundly anti-Bebe Cool piece that “it is unpatriotic to serve crappy music”.

Interestingly, both contenders echo (nativist) nationalist-cultural and commercial concerns.  The arguments are cultural and political economic in a way.  DJs want to sell original products to their market, while the artistes want to be appreciated or promoted, at least, for the regional space they occupy – even when they counterfeit, or produce substandard work – as the DJs contend.

Questions of originality – in music, culture, art, architecture, politics, creativity, fashion, point to broader concerns in the political-cultural-socio wrangling in the post-colonial Africa.  These debates point to the legacy of colonialism, and the tragedy of colonial enlightenment.

In a 1962 speech at the opening of the Ministry of National Culture and Youth, the Tanzanian president, the late Julius Nyerere, noted:  “…at school, we were taught to sing the songs of the European. How many of us were taught the songs of the Wanyamwezi or of the Wahehe? Many of us have learnt to dance the rumba or the chachacha to rock-and-roll and to twist and even to dance the waltz and the foxtrot.

“But how many of us can dance, have even heard of, the Gombe Sugu, the Mangala, the Konge…most of us can play the guitar, the piano…How many Africans in Tanganyika, particularly among the educated, can play the African drums?”

Despite the sweet nostalgia of Nyerere’s questions, it is evident that the situation was never to change, as long as Africans remained colonial schooled.

In fact, if we raised the same questions today, we would discover – unsurprisingly – that the situation has not changed.  But this is no reason to worry.

Forgetting to play the African drums, not dancing the dances of the Baganda or Iteso – in a supposedly original sense – is the present and the future.  Indeed, somewhat ironically, the problem arises when these Nyerere-like demands are made.

What did the DJs mean in asking local artistes to be “Ugandan originals” and not copy-and-paste of Nigerians and Jamaicans?  Are Nigerians, Jamaicans, or Americans really original in their music? Or are Ugandans just ignorant of their sources? The latter seems truer. It’s ignorance.

It is a sad fact that, even in pre-colonial Africa, little was original in the true sense of the word.  Several communities often borrowed cultural and social elements from far and nearby neighbours.  Take the kanzu, a claimed traditional dress of the Baganda.  This is natively from Oman. It was imported to Buganda by Arab traders, and was appreciated and copied by Kabaka Mutesa I. Over the years, it has undergone slight modifications and now claims national stature.  Does that mean it is counterfeit?  No.  In Uganda, the Kanzu has acquired itself a new life, a new grammar, and symbolism.

Indeed, DJs ought to beware that cultures in cities are never native – whatever that obsolete term means nowadays.  Art, the hammer with which reality is shaped – or mirror in which it is viewed, cannot claim any “nativity”. But that does not mean it is not original.

What is original culture in Kampala?

The Luganda language, fashions, social relations, palates – nothing really! Cultures are not static artefacts; they are living organisms receiving influence from a thousand places.  The pervasion of western power and capital seems to enforce tastes from the west (the cycle goes round, of course), and many artistes are trying to respond to the beat.  In doing this, they have appropriated western drums, band music, and have indigenised them.  They have cobbled an original out of Nigerian, Jamaican and other trending influences.  And so are Nigerians, by the way. In these apparent counterfeits, they are original.
Interestingly, Ugandan DJs do their trade in English, and have adopted accents and mannerisms typical of Americans in the same trade. If we followed their queue – play the real – we might ask their employers to hire real Americans or Jamaicans!  However, we would be wrong, too.  In their apparent “duplication” of Americans, they have cobbled something we can claim as Ugandan. Their message, jokes, punch lines, and taste are original. This enables their audience to connect with them.

I will end with cricket, a natively English sport – the most popular in India and Pakistan.  At some point, having exported the game to India, Indians modified and owned it to the extent that the English had to take lessons from Indians if they were to win any tournaments!  I will turn to “crap we have no clue about” in part two.

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