In its four decades of existence, Uganda’s most famous band, the Afrigo Band, has churned out 22 albums with over 200 songs.
Afrigo’s story epitomises the history of Uganda’s pop music culture and identity. The band, managed as a business — by three directors — Moses Matovu, James Wasula and Sam Tamale, has not suffered the frailties of other bands such as personality cults, lack of focus and mismanagement.
It celebrated its 40th year with a nostalgic VVIP concert on November 21, at Hotel Africana’s Nile Hall.
Tickets for the 40th anniversary sold for Ush250,000 ($73), while a VVIP table cost Ush5 million ($1,469).
The fans who showed up for the anniversary performance sang and danced along with the band’s hits. The performance kicked off with the 1980s hits Afrigo Batuuse I, Mundeke, Leka Nne Ngenda, Semuwemba, Yeganda Bulaya and Enneyisa.
The fans showed their appreciation by occasionally showering the musicians with money as they joined them on stage.
Vocalist Joanita Kawalya opened the show with the songs Tony and Jim which got the packed hall on their feet and dancing in one long train around the dance floor. Rachael Magoola performed Vooto and Bakulimba.
Sammy Kasule played his songs Ziwuna and Bweza (Blessings). Cliff Keys Mutebi performed a rendition of Solome – a hit originally done by his later father Peterson Mutebi in the 1980s. Frank Mbalire played his famous hit Ndikwambala ng’ekoti.
The band played its 1990s songs such as Omutanda Gyali, Bwosika Ekitajja, Emmere Esiride, Nantongo, Omusujja, Speed, Amazzi Genyama, Nkoye, crowning the pulsating show with the popular hit Olimujja wa.
A false note on the night however was the screening of a poorly produced video. The video was meant to take the fans down memory lane but had poor footage and sound.
Later in the night, Moses Matovu addressed the fans: “We thank God for guiding us. Celebrating 40 years is not a joke. It is not easy to consistently please people, but with your support we have managed to entertain you for this long,” he said.
Jackson Bazare, a 61-year-old retired police officer-cum-businessman who attended the concert, said, “I started supporting Afrigo in 1977 and I have attended all their shows in the different venues they have performed in Kampala. I thank Afrigo’s fans for turning up to celebrate 40 years with the band. Consistency and high standards have enabled the band to exist for this long. Matovu should keep up the discipline and go forward.”
James Kizito, a Kampala-based businessman who has followed Afrigo since 1978, observed, “Afrigo reached its musical peak in the period 1986 to 1996 when they released the Afrigo Batuuse II album while they were still performing at Ggaba Beach. They were so popular then that they always had a 200 per cent turn-out forcing their fans to buy tickets for the next show a week in advance to be sure of admission come the next show.”
“I have followed the band for almost 30 years. I am interested in live music and their songs carry contemporary social messages. I have an emotional attachment to the band because I know most of the band members. I have seen the band evolve over time,” said Kato Ddungu, a lecturer at Ndejje University.
“We have come a long way and this is the only way to pay back our fans and congratulate ourselves for being together all these years. This country has many problems and we have been around during all the troubles of Uganda and did not go into exile. We travel abroad and return. We have nothing to give our loyal fans but good music,” Matovu told The EastAfrican.
Although Afrigo does not enjoy state-sponsorship like the Guinean national bands Bembeya Jazz and Les Amazones (an all-female outfit), it has dominated the music scene with its staying power.
James Asula, who is the band’s chief executive, told The EastAfrican that the bottom-up management style has enabled the band members to stick together for four decades. “It is participatory management. We encourage this leadership style because it means listening to everyone’s views, and taking decisions by consensus,” he said.
He said that the challenges of managing a band like Afrigo include maintaining high standards which call for rigorous rehearsals.
Rachael Magoola, a band member, observed, “For any organisation to succeed, I think leadership is key because it is what gives direction, stability and cohesion. So Matovu being in charge gives cohesion and stability to the band.”
She added, “The people in the band love what they do. And with time what they do becomes good. When you listen to Afrigo’s music 20 years from today, it will sound the same as today and you can dance to it and enjoy it.”
Commenting on Matovu’s leadership, Magoola observed: “He is very strict and demands discipline in your work and character. The fact that he is disciplined himself, makes him a good role model for the rest of us who work with him.”
Percussionist Herman Ssewanyana, who joined the band in 1984, said, “Matovu is very serious about what he is doing. I have worked with him for a long time and if he was a bad band leader I would have left a long time ago.”
Matovu was part of the Cranes Band that was very popular in the 60s and 70s. However, internal squabbles led to the break up of the band in 1975.
“After the split Tony Ssenkebejje, Jef Sewava, Ssekyanzi, Jessy Gitta and I decided to form Africa Go (Black Power) which later became the Afrigo Band on August 31, 1975,” Matovu told The EastAfrican. It was officially launched on November 1, 1975, and first performed at Bat Valley Bar and Restaurant, now known as Little Flowers, on Bombo Road in Kampala.
The band was later invited by Tendo Kabanda, the manager of Cape Town Villas, to perform at his popular entertainment spot on the shores of Lake Victoria.
“One Sunday, then President Idi Amin heard us play at Cape Town Villas and fell in love with our music. Amin asked the management to give us a contract making us the resident band, which we agreed to in late 1976. We performed at Cape Town Villas until Amin’s removal from power in April 1979,” Matovu recalled.
The band has since performed at several venues like Ggaba Beach and Club Obbligato in Kampala.
Afrigo Band employs over 100 workers and has gone through the musical revolution of the long playing vinyl records (LPs), cassette tapes, compact discs (CDs) and now the digital formats through all of which they have churned out 22 albums that include: Afrigo Batuuse I, Jim, Genda Osome, Vincent, Mp’Eddembe, The Best of Afrigo and Julie.
Their 1994 album Omutanda Gyali was the first CD by a Ugandan band. Their 22nd album, Katonda Tumusinzenga was released in 2013.
Their much acclaimed LP album Afrigo Batuuse II (Volume 8) was released in 1989 and featured six hits: Afrigo Batuuse II, Emmere Esiridde, Mundeke, Speed, Twali Twagalana, and Amazzi Genyama. The album that was mixed in Sweden and pressed in Nairobi became an instant success, being a real breakthrough in terms of quality recording.
Their 1995 album Jim sold over 500,000 cassettes in Uganda with the title song topping the local charts for over three months.
Although the band’s music is heavily influenced by Congolese rhumba, they play African dance music with Ugandan traditional rhythms and folk songs. They sing in local Ugandan languages and Swahili, but mainly in Luganda.
Their gigs are popularly known as Endongo Semadongo, which means “the musical extravaganza that beats them all” in Luganda.
However, Wasula laments: “We haven’t established the national identity of Ugandan music and that is still haunting me. You hear music, for example High Life, and you can tell that it is Ghanaian music and Lingala is Congolese music but we are still struggling to find what Ugandan music should be.”
Life and times
As to the band’s most memorable event, Wasula said the entire band’s existence is memorable. Wasula says the band has not escaped the effects of music piracy either: “Our music is as pirated as any other.”
The current band members are, Joanita Kawalya (vocalist/dancer), Rachael Magoola (vocalist, dancer and composer), Frank Mbalire (guitars/vocals) Eddy Ganja (songwriter, vocalist and guitarist), Sammy Kasule (bassist/vocals), Charles Busulwa (vocalist/bassist), Julius Nshaba (drummer), Eddie Yawe (vocalist and songwriter) and Daniel Kaggwa (keys).
The band did not escape the looting that took place around the country after Amin’s ouster. “All our musical equipment was looted and we had to start from scratch. We were not active for a while until late in 1979 when we met Omar Mattar, who assisted us to buy instruments,” Matovu says, and pauses for a while before adding: “The funny thing is that we managed to buy back the very equipment that was stolen from us. We resumed playing at Slow Boat Bar and Restaurant.”
As to how it felt performing under Amin’s regime, Matovu says, “Amin loved music and he would come and dance. What I have observed is that most sportsmen love music, which was the case with Amin. He supported us by giving us musical equipment. We had the best equipment in the country then.”
Wasula says that the band has weathered storms, like 25 years ago when most of the musicians left. “Around 1988, most of them left and we were left with Moses Matovu and a few others. Because of the strong foundation, it took us just two weeks to regroup; we recruited new musicians and we were back on the road. Those who left started coming back one by one.”
There are only three living founder members of Afrigo Band: Matovu; Tony Ssenkebejje, who leads Simba Sounds Band and Sewava, who went to Germany, where he started a band called Afrigo Waves. He is now a German citizen.
“It is unfortunate most of my colleagues have passed on. And it is not an easy thing because we cannot replace them. A band is like a football team — we work as team, everybody contributes towards the success of the band,” Matovu said.
The band used the occasion of the 40th anniversary to pay tribute to their departed colleagues such as Paul Sserumaga, Charles Ssekyanzi, Godfrey Mwambala, Mansur Bulegeya Akiiki, Tony Sengo, Fred Kigozi, Richard Musoke, Dede Majoro, Billy Mutebi, Rashid Musoke, Amigo Wawa, Florence Zziwa, Harriet Mpagi, Saulo Kaliba and Livingstone Ibanda aka Don Canta.
On the state of the Ugandan music industry, Matovu observed: “It is good that young musicians have realised that playing an instrument is important because a complete musician must know how to play at least one instrument. It is the only way to improve our music, style of play and originality.”
Matovu noted that the older generation of Ugandan musicians put passion before money. “Although we all need money, we should interest ourselves in what we are doing and the money will come. We have to strive for quality in whatever we do,” he argued.
Afrigo Band received a Certificate of Recognition from the Rotary Club of Kampala Central in October 1999 for its profound performance in the entertainment industry and the promotion of friendship among all peoples. They received the Lifetime Award from Pearl of Africa Music Awards in 2007.
As to where Afrigo will be in the next 10 years, Wasula, said, “Afrigo is a strong brand. It has stood the test of time and indeed we expect to keep going. It shall always remain relevant for generations to come.”