REVOLUTIONARY: Joel Sebunjo on the African paradox

Saturday September 7 2019

Ugandan folk/world music artiste Joel Sebunjo.

Ugandan artiste Joel Sebunjo. He released his latest album on July 5, 2019. PHOTO | COURTESY 

More by this Author

Born August 20, 1984, Joel Sebunjo is one of a handful of Ugandan folk/world music artistes.

The multi-instrumentalist’s latest album United Slaves of Africa is rooted in Pan-Africanism and negritude aspirations, and is spiced up with bits of Ugandan folklore rhythms.

The eight-track album was released on the Okay Music label Newark on July 5. It features Ugandan stars Bebe Cool and Samite.

The songs on United Slaves of Africa are: Oyoo (featuring Samite), United Slaves of Africa, Independence, Harambe, Nalingiyo (featuring Bebe Cool), Felabration, Rise Up Africa, and Mulamu.

The album is available on a number of online music stores. On Amazon, it retails for $7.92.

Sebunjo worked with the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s manager Ricky Stein on United Slaves of Africa.


He released his debut 11-track album titled, Ganda Mande Crossroads in 2009. It features songs like Nakato, Yaaye, Mali and Kaira.

Sebunjo’s second album Heart of a Griot (2010) features him playing endongo—royal music from the Buganda Kingdom in central Uganda.

His third album I Speak Luganda was released in 2015. It features tracks such as Africa Express, Bulungi, Lusejera and Empale Ya Kadde.

Alongside his Sundiata band, Sebunjo has performed around the world and shared a stage with international artistes like Salif Keita, Miriam Makeba, Yossou N’dour and Oliver Mtukudzi.

What is the message in your latest album?

The tittle is revealing. The message is a paradox of ideology. I believe in Pan-Africanism and negritude, thus I engage with a lot of Afropolitan literature, which has influenced my music.

For a long time our leaders and envoys have talked about Africa coming together to form the United States of Africa; but I realise we are not any closer to that dream.

For example, as Africans we still need visas to travel around the continent. Africans are entangled in political, social and economic bondage.

You and I have heard about the thousands of Africans fleeing the continent in search of “greener pastures” in Dubai, Oman, Abu Dhabi...only to be entangled in the Babylon system. So United Slaves of Africa is a reflection of the totality of our paradox.

Why did you use commentary and lamentation to pass your message?

It’s the duty of an artiste to teach through his work. Almost every musician on radio sings about love... it’s one love song after the other, all day and night.

By sharing my thoughts I hope that more people will be committed to the African cause. My ideology is not new. Ghanaian revolutionist Kwameh Nkrumah pushed for the same philosophy; Nigerian Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti did the same; Burkinabe revolutionist Thomas Sankara stood for the same cause...I am re-enforcing their gospel.

Is there hope for a better Africa?

Yes, there is hope for Africa and it rests on the young people. This hope can be safeguarded through a good education.

A good education builds character and morals alongside a career. As Martin Luther King Jr put it: ‘The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.’

It’s in Africa where we hear radio adverts encouraging people to wash their hands... I am like really? Why not inculcate those values through the education system.

In African capitals, people litter freely...where is the character instilled via education? A good education will help to solve problems on health, agriculture and the economy in the long run.

On this album you move into Afro beat and reggae. Are you abandoning the folk/world music genre you are known for?

I am not abandoning the folk influence only that this project called for a particular sound.

Why are collaborations important?

When you collaborate you open up to new audiences by incorporating a different sound into your work.

For example my collaboration with Samite on Oyoo, gave the song new dimension in terms of vocal tones from his rich voice, as well as a fresh sound from his flute.

Oyoo is one of few collaborations Samite has done with a Ugandan musician. So, it is a great addition to the Ugandan world music archive.

The same applies to my collaboration with reggae star Bebe Cool on Nalingiyo. I put him in a totally new music sphere.

How long did it take you to produce this album?

It took about a year. The idea conceptualisation happened in Dakar(Senegal), Bamako( Mali) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), where I met several artistes who had an input into my production.

How would you compare the resources needed to produce such an album with those for a computer-assisted production?

Producing the album was quite an expensive venture because we recorded everything live. You need to a live band in the studio.

Then you need a mixing and mastering engineer for the final sound design. For my album, the sound design master was done in the US. Then comes the decision on how to release the album—either through a label or independently. I partnered with Okay Music label Newark.

Why did you settle for the late Fela Kuti’s manager Ricky Stein?

When I released the song Independence, a promotional single off the album on my YouTube channel, Rikki loved it and reached out to me. He proposed a deal to release the album which I agreed to.

Do you plan to work with Ricky Stein on future projects?

If there is music that we believe fits the label, why not.

Do we have skilled personal and the facilities to record such albums in Uganda?

There are a few establishments that do a great job. They may not be as equipped as Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios in the UK or Abbey Road but they are effective.

I record with Blacksmith Records in Kampala, then after I send the work to CG Studios in Washington for sound design and mastering to meet the international market expectations.

How best would you describe the live music scene in Uganda?

Unfortunately, it is mainly centred on weddings and bar karaoke, and there is no emphasis on original work. Take for example, how many live bands have released an album this year apart from Afrigo Band? Probably none.