The janzi: Uganda's new sound

Sunday February 25 2018

Ugandan folk musician James Ssewakiryanga aka Ssewa Ssewa with the janzi.

Ugandan folk musician James Ssewakiryanga aka Ssewa Ssewa with the janzi. He makes the instruments in his backyard. PHOTO | COURTESY 

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James Ssewakiryanga Jnr, a Ugandan Afro-fusion and folk musician who goes by the stage name Ssewa Ssewa, is currently touring Europe, not just to perform but also to showcase the janzi, a music instrument he fashioned from the traditional seven or 10-stringed arched harp adungu.

Janzi comes from the Luganda word ejjanzi (grasshopper).

The three-month tour that started on January 28, will take Ssewa Ssewa and his band to Denmark, Spain, France, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, where he will conduct workshops on the instrument and its music, participate in cultural exchanges, collaborations, live performances and studio recording sessions with different musicians.

Before he invented the janzi, Ssewa Ssewa was an adungu player. A series of events made him invent the new music instrument.

Sometime in 2014, while on a tour in Denmark, a fellow band member was not allowed to take his adungu on board at the Copenhagen airport because it had nails that were considered a security risk.

Ssewa Ssewa said he respected the decision of the airport officers considering the appearance of the instrument. The adungu does not come with a casing unlike most modern music instruments.  

This incident came to mind when he wanted to fix his broken adungu in 2015.

“I called a carpenter and I asked him if he could fix the neck of my adungu. As the carpenter went to pick his tape measure, this brilliant idea came to mind that I could be a bit innovative with the instrument. When the carpenter came back, I told him I didn’t want to fix the broken adungu anymore and instead I showed him a sketch I had drawn of a new instrument, based on the adungu.”

“We started working on the instrument which resulted in a modern looking instrument, fully amplified, with modern tuning pegs, good design and sound, and no sticking nails, meaning my bandmates can take it on board a flight without trouble,” said Ssewa Ssewa.

The difference between the janzi and adungu is that while the janzi is tuned in two scales, diatonic and pentatonic, the adungu is tuned in one scale, mostly pentatonic.

The janzi is entirely made of mahogany, and is fully amplified with professional pickups; it uses modern, strong and reliable tuning pegs and has a strong and distinctive new sound compared with the adungu. It can also be played with four, five, six or seven fingers accordingly and has extra notes.

The adungu is made of wood and cow skin, with wood or nails as tuning pegs. Usually, a player would have to use a stand microphone or twirl the microphone cable around the instrument’s neck for amplification. It can only be played with four fingers.

The janzi has two long wooden necks on the left and right, with a narrow space in between. It is made up of 22 strings, 11 strings on either side attached to the sound box with plastic strings. Since it is amplified, it can be connected on any sound systems. Ssewa Ssewa used guitar pegs instead of the usual wooden pegs or nails found on the adungu.

“The janzi has improved my music knowledge and the playing technic is different, meaning an adungu player cannot easily play it,” said Ssewa Ssewa.

In 2017, Ssewa Ssewa and his Janzi Band released their debut album Down in Uganda. The music can be purchased on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon online music stores. He has also written the Janzi Instruction Book.

On whether he has identified a manufacturer to produce the instrument, he said: “It would be nice, but I have not yet found partners or manufactures to work with for large scale production. Currently I am still doing it on a small scale in my backyard.”