Who will tell the story of Ugandan musicians and broadcasters of my youth?

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Who will tell the story of Ugandan musicians and broadcasters of my youth?

One of my worldly passions is listening to music and learning the story behind the compositions and the performers. The conditions under which the musicians lived; the political conditions at play; the specific events that inspired the compositions; the journeys travelled; and the reception the music has received over the years fascinate and educate me. 


Notwithstanding the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am thankful for the incarceration at home.  My wife and I are listening to and enjoying more recorded music than ever. I have had more opportunities to read about the great musicians of the genres that are dear to my heart. 


Christian hymns and other choral music rank very high on our listening list. I am partial to the works of the ancient and modern hymnodists. The more modern songs of praise struggle to capture my spiritual emotions. 


 Jazz music and European classical music enjoy a disproportionate presence on the turntable. Traditional and Modern African music and Jamaican Reggae are frequent companions. We occasionally spin music from India, the sitar being an amazing instrument in the hands of the professionals.


The dinosaurs that we are, our main source of sound is a good old turntable, spinning vinyl records. The majority of those living today have never seen the contraption that, since its invention by Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, has been called a phonograph, then gramophone and record player.  As the last century wound down to a close, this wonderful sound-reproducing machine succumbed to humanity’s transition to the convenience of digital technology. 


It was replaced by compact disc (CD) players and, later, downloaded music from the Internet that millions of music lovers access with  the click of buttons on their pocket-sized gadgets. Not me, Tingasiga. The black vinyl long-playing (LP) disc spinning on our relatively ancient turntable adds to the pleasure of listening to the works of gifted men and women whose brains create musical notes that tell stories and uplift one’s spirits. 


My wife and I spent the last week enjoying recorded music by some of America’s most celebrated Jazz guitarists. I have reread the stories and legacies of these musicians, many of them long dead, from whom millions still derive immense pleasure. 


We spent most of last Sunday listening to some majestic choral music set down for posterity by Europe’s best, among them Johan Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johannes Brahms. Their stories are documented in great detail. We know exactly where they lived, when and where they wrote their music and even the wine they drank to celebrate the events.  


Most of them are dead. Been dead a very long time. Yet they live on through their music. Their positively rich contribution to the human story. Their personal stories preserved for posterity.


Listening to their music is more than hearing the various instruments. It is partaking of rich stories and recalling the history of contemporaneous events beyond their composers’ desks. One does not listen to American Jazz music without reflecting on the history of slavery, racism and the struggle of the African American.  


Jamaican Reggae, especially the work of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff, is great social and political comment that makes more sense to me today than it did when I first heard it fifty years ago. Their struggle for freedom was central to their music.


Happily, listening to all this music has transported me back to King’s College, Budo, my high school that cemented a lifelong love affair with great music. Memories of the high school bands of my time come flowing back. I doubt that I have ever had the opportunity to say a big thank you to my schoolmates – The Jets, The Chants and The Rovers - who shared their gift with us. The memories remain vivid. Happy memories. Funny memories. Sounds impressed on the brain half a century ago. 


And so here is a belated thank you to The Jets (Norman Karasanyi, Jimmy Lwamafa, Samson Muwanguzi and Michael Mulira); The Chants (Peter Muhaya, Zolin Muhaya, Dennis Lwamafa and Stephen Mwesigye Ruhindi); and The Rovers (George William Semivule, Sarah Sennoga Nalumansi, David Katale, Daudi Akera Abe, Emmanuel Ngude Mukanga, Gershom Onyango

and Stephen Bugonga.) 


Sadly, we have lost several of these gifted musicians - Muwanguzi, Mulira, Zolin Muhaya, Mwesigye-Ruhindi and Bugonga. The sadness of loss is eased by memories of their marvelous sounds wafting from the school music room and the stage of the main hall. They added immense pleasure to our high school experience. 


As we listen to old records, our escapades to New Life Club at Mengo come alive. Kaumba and Swissman – I can see them ministering unto us, their bodies writhing in space, as though boneless and ungoverned by the rules of gravity. 


Then there is the memory of people like Christopher Sebaduka, Matiya Kyakamala, Fred Kanyike, Elly Wamala, Fred Masagazi, Charles Ssonko, Frida Ssonko and Dan Mugula whose music was a magnetic pull towards the transistor radio, delivering great sounds from Radio Uganda’s Blue and Red channels. One recalls with a smile the voices of outstanding broadcasters who hosted shows in which the music of these and many other entertainers helped us along as we navigated our teenage years.


Among my favourite radio hosts of the 1960s: Yosamu Rugundana, Gregory Rutaro Katabaazi and, best of all, Tom Ndugga. The latter had a Saturday morning music show that was more important to some of us than a visit to the school library or to the sports field. 


Every generation has its musical tastes and heroes. Some musicians’ work spans multiple generations. However, in societies that treasure their history, even the creators with temporary impact have their stories recorded for posterity. Their contributions, short-lived though they may have been, were building blocks in a civilization’s journey. 


I search the internet for stories about these Ugandan men and women whose music was my life in my teen years and young adulthood and find little of substance. It is as though the great broadcasters who brought the music to us never lived. Hopefully I have missed the books that tell their stories. 


If not, I pray that a historian, together with a musicologist, collaborate to tell the stories of these talented creators and broadcasters and an examination of the social, political and cultural milieu that informed their work. Would it not be wonderful to read the story of the man who composed and performed the beautiful Rukiga-Runyankore song “Oije Ondeebe, Ija Ntooreho Ndeebe, Empungu Eteera Amaizi”? 


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