All musicians tend to have career highlights that they use to gauge their professional success and for Ugandan folk singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi, his performance for Pope Francis in 2015 in Uganda and for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu this year stand out.
Kiyingi performs folk music and what he calls Afro fusion although it is commonly referred to as World Music.
He plays the Ugandan tube fiddle (endingidi), African harp (adungu), guitar, harmonica, djembe, calabash, congas, drums and maracas, but singles out the akogo (thumb piano) and the traditional flute (endere) as his popular instruments.
It is his adeptness in using all these instruments in his original compositions that got him picked by the organisers of the 2015 Papal visit to Uganda, to compose and perform the visit’s theme song.
“It was such a great moment and a milestone for me as an artist, playing for my first big audience of 50,000 people,” he says of the occasion. Being a Roman Catholic, he added; “It was an honour to play for the Pope and it made me believe in myself and my choice of music.”
Kiyingi performed the theme song New Day, in collaboration the Catholic youth of Uganda at the ceremony held at the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds in Kampala. It was in appreciation of meeting and hearing from the Pope, he said.
Kiyingi was born into a family of musicians but he says he is grateful that the schools he attended entrenched his passion for music and he eventually studied music at Makerere University where he graduated with a degree in bachelor of Arts in Music.
He is very passionate about African traditional music and says; “I find it difficult to pick my favourite instrument between the the akogo and endere. I think the two are my favourite because they were the first instruments that I learned to play while in primary school.”
He released his debut album, Joy of an African (Esanyu ly’omufilika) in 2010. His second 12-track album Amakondeere came out in 2016.
His musical career has not always been smooth however. He co-founded Zivu Band in 2011 as an instrumentalist and vocalist and the band recorded an album, The Dawn, and toured Germany in 2012. He was however forced to go solo when other band members quit music to pursue other interests.
This became a blessing in disguise since it gave him the freedom to do folk and Afro fusion. Between 2012 and 2016, he went on to perform at the Pearl Rhythm Festival, Milege World Music Festival, Bayimba International Festival and the Laba Festival of the Arts; the Irimba Cultural Festival in Arusha, Tanzania and the Jazz Village in Ethiopia.
In Kenya, he has performed at the Utam Festival, the Kenyatta University Cultural Exchange and the Sondeka Festival.
It was against this background that Kiyingi was picked to perform during the Papal visit. Ii is for the same reason that his music prowess caught the attention of the Indian High Commission in Uganda and he landed an invite to perform for Prime Minister Modi at the unveiling of the iconic 112.4-feet tall ‘Adiyogi’ Lord Shiva statue in Coimbatore in India.
The bust of Adiyogi, erected by the Isha Yoga Foundation on the outskirts of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu has been declared the world’s largest bust by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Recalling his performance in Coimbatore, Kiyingi, said: “It was a good feeling and a milestone playing for one and half million people.”
Kiyingi does not think his regular appearances at international music festivals affect his creativity.
“It is instead opening doors for African folk music and Afro fusion to a bigger audience and has put Uganda and East Africa on the world music map,” he said. However, he also noted the downside of reliance on international festivals for income and is pushing music sales and royalties.