Ugandan sounds rock the show on World Music Day

Monday July 10 2023

Nilotika Cultural Ensemble at the World Music Day celebrations at the National theatre in Kampala, Uganda. PHOTO | GILBERT MWIJUKE | NMG


This year’s World Music Day celebrations in Kampala honoured the ingenuity and immense creativity of Ugandan traditional music artistes who regaled the audience with unique and diverse tunes.

First on stage was Nilotika Cultural Ensemble, a Ugandan outfit that presented a unique two-part showcase. The group was introduced by lead singer Man Son Bulubembe, who opened his set with an acapella of Nzunno (Here I am), a Luganda folk song from his recently released album of the same title.

He followed it up with Kigobero (Luganda slang for Let’s Get to Work), but it was his famous and beguiling rendition of Kano Akanyonyi (This Bird), a folk song from yore, that got the crowd singing along and dancing with reckless abandon.

The ensemble performed more enchanting traditional songs — blending Ugandan and European sounds — and their performance got even more electrifying when they were joined on stage by schoolchildren who not only sung along but also played traditional Ugandan music instruments, including the thumb piano and percussion.

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The group also presented a musical drama based on the myth of Queen Nyabingi and Queen Muhumuza, the legendary warrior queens of western Uganda and their followers who are said to have used music and chanting to resist colonialism and preserve the indigenous culture.


Next on stage were Clark Junior School and the British School of Kampala students as part of a collaborative project with Nilotika, under the moniker Niyabingi Children.

Clark Junior School put up a lively performance of the Kadodi dance (usually performed during circumcision rituals in Bugisu in eastern Uganda) and the Wampologoma (Lion) folk song.

The group then staged a music play titled The Niyabinghi Revival that dramatised the African colonial encounter and the devastation it wrought. The play told of how African spirituality, represented by Niyabinghi, was betrayed by those who should have protected it and how this resulted in the enslavement of Africans both abroad and at home.

The audience, obviously having not had enough of the cultural ensemble, demanded a taste of their indigenous rap. The band, joined on stage by the Niyabinghi Children, treated patrons to their crowd favourites Onaninpadisha, Sigwe Wekka, Bannakampala (Kampalans) and Nsimbi (Money).

Alpha Otim put up another exhilarating performance with the traditional Larakaraka wedding music of the Acholi, a tribe in northern Uganda.

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Otim’s performance was a synthesis of electronic sounds and traditional instruments such as the Adungu (an arched harp of varying dimensions, ranging from seven to 10 strings) and traditional drums, which conspired to produce what the artiste calls “Acholitronix”.

Rahma, a vocalist from Jinja in eastern Uganda, is a classic soul singer with a wild side, which was in full effect as she tore to the fore with her incredible dynamic range and intense energy on the mic with her folk, reggae tinged Byokola (What You Do).

Traditional music is gaining traction in the country as local artistes try to find a voice of their own – away from contemporary styles mostly borrowed from Jamaican reggae and Western RnB that have dominated the local music scene for years, experts say.

“The mainstream market is shallow and glutted. It’s shallow in the sense that most of the songs produced for radio will not be on anyone’s playlists in 10 or 20 years’ time. They are like candy, made for instant gratification and just as quickly forgotten,” says David Cecil, proprietor of East African Records, a record label operating out of Kampala.

Mr Cecil says that unless a musician has enough money to get onto the mainstream DJs’ radar, it’s unlikely that he or she will get anywhere. So, to make more of an impact, he avers, some upcoming or underground artistes are looking to the roots of their culture for inspiration.

For most up-and-coming-artistes it’s an aesthetic rather than commercial choice — they simply don’t want to be part of the bubblegum pop culture, he adds.

One of the traditional musicians signed under East African Records is Kenneth Nahabwe, the teacher-cum ethnomusicology student at Makerere University whose debut album, Keije, was recently released in Kampala.

Keije — thanks for coming in Rukiga language — is adapted from the Bakiga tribe/culture of southwestern Uganda, features folk songs. The songs on the album, tell a story of what happens when the groom visits the bride’s home to marry.

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The album also features Enganda Zahiga, which means “the nations have gathered”, Keije Buhooro, which means “thanks for coming very well” and Kunira Abagyenyi, meaning “show love to visitors”.

The celebrations were held on June 24 at the National Theatre.