|Article by Steven Tendo
Published January 14, 2008
Apart from the clubs, It seems everyone who deals in music in Uganda wants a piece of the reggae pie. While radio stations have started reggae shows, clubs and bars are instituting reggae nights to pull the crowd and get an edge over their competitors and every musician tries to do a reggae number in their album. Why is reggae taking centre stage when all along it was content with being a back seat style? STEVEN TENDO writes.
Reggae has been around in Uganda for a very long time so there is nothing new in the fact that the people love it. Ugandan music greats like the late Philly Bongoley Lutaaya of the I was Born in Africa fame all experimented with the style.
In dance clubs, even those that have taken on the time-induced tradition of being clubs of elite urban youth, a segment that is not associated with reggae like Club Silk, the party is not a party until the accepted number of reggae tracks has been reached. Clubs and bars around the country are instituting reggae nights to pull the crowd and get an edge over their competitors. By the look of things, the artists that stuck to their convictions have arrived. The veterans of the game have perfected their style and they are reaping big.
Winston Tshaka Mayanja, one of the pioneers of reggae in Uganda and the brain behind classics like Rasta Wange (My Rasta) and Twelire (Reggae rendition of a Ganda folk song), is not surprised that Ugandans are waking up to the fact that reggae is the strongest form of music because it is not as corrupted as many other forms.
In 1991, when the biggest acts were doing Kadongo Kamu and synthetic Lingala- sounding music, Mayanja was doing reggae and at that time, he was like a lone prophet in the wilderness crying out against the din. He brought some of the biggest reggae acts to town and these included Aswad, Cedella Marley and Third World.
“People are doing reggae now mostly because it is what’s hot at the moment,” he says. “It’s like joining a band wagon. For some reason, this music has stood the test of time.
If its performers are good, they stay. But if they don’t measure up to the standards, they are naturally cut out of the whole picture.”
Reggae has also grown in the recent years due to the fact that the genres that were top in the past have been diluted and in so doing, weakened.
Kadongo Kamu,a form of traditional country music which relies mainly on the single guitar, for example, was very popular. Its strength lay in its simplicity; it was basically about someone standing on stage and telling their story. The singers were fooled by the new crop of producers to believe that they could change their style and compete with the ‘popular’ ragga stars of the time. They flooded the music with western beats and got themselves in an arena that was totally foreign to them.
Bebe Cool, one of Uganda’s biggest reggae stars, the winner of the 2004 Pearl of Africa Music Award for Best Reggae Artiste, thinks Ugandans have always liked reggae but it was a latent kind of love. That is why whenever there is a new reggae song in town the fans will always go out in droves to buy it. Bebe Cool has dabbled with dance hall reggae and raga in the past. He has given East Africa tracks like Mambo Mingi, Bad Man Status and Fitina.
But it was not until he dropped Never Trust that he was recognised as the true King of Reggae at the awards.
“I think the resurgence is attributed to the fact people are now demanding for better quality music. There are very many artistes in the industry and now the public has realised that they cannot take them all because some of them are just jokers. The fact that reggae is a superior style as compared to the others makes it the clear winner in the contest,” Bebe Cool says.
Reggae is also going international and this should strengthen it even more with Kenyan, Ugandan and Tanzanian musicians doing collaborations. Bebe Cool has done a ten track album of pure roots reggae with the Kenyan duo, Necessary Noise and he believes this is where every artiste is headed. Collaborations also show the confidence of reggae musicians.
According to one of them, doing live reggae music is a lot easier than any other style and the people will remember the concert for a lot longer.
Menton Kronno is another reggae star who has been around for some time. He does a brand of reggae that he christened Dynamic Music. It has a reggae heart. He and his musical partner, General Mega Dee are famous for tracks like Mugulu Teriyo Mwenge (In Heaven There’s No Beer), Tutemere (Lets go and dig) and the recent Olimukazi (You are a lady). He has been singing on a national level since 1999. He believes the rise is not just a Ugandan phenomenon and that wherever one goes in the world, they will find that reggae is ruling.
“In Uganda, I think it has been catalysed by the many reggae artistes who have come to perform from abroad. Even the Ugandan stars in the Diaspora are big here (referring to Sweden based Madoxx Semanda Sematimba, an artiste who does roots reggae). Ugandans will go with anything good and it should not be a surprise that the culture is spreading,” Menton stresses.
Thursday night in Kampala is Reggae Night at DV8 Bar. It is an idea birthed by Sidney Mukasa, the PRO at Cineplex Cinema and DV8. Reggae enthusiasts flock the dark confines of the venue and dance to strains of all the reggae greats till late. The in house DJs, Ras Brown and Ras Nesta believe that everyone loves reggae. “That is why you will find people from all walks of life here on Thursday. Even those who are avowed hip hop artistes will come. It is not about loud beats and image. I believe it is really about the soul. Reggae is soul music and everyone needs a refill at some point in time so they come.” Ras Brown tells ArtMatters.Info.
Apart from the clubs, it seems everyone who deals in music wants a piece of the reggae pie. Radio stations like the Greater Afrikan Radio, and Sanyu FM have started reggae shows and as mentioned earlier, even the bars have reggae themes. This would be a great opportunity for a great many artistes, only that the fickle will only see an opportunity to make money. When such artistes enter the field, they spoil the work done by those who really feel for the music. They give reggae a bad name.
Another issue that could give reggae a bad name is bhang. The world over, this genre has been associated with the illegal use of drugs including bhang, which the rastas call ‘the holy herb.’ The DJs, Ras Brown and Ras Nesta vehemently deny that rastas are using the herb at thei place. They however say that even if there were people using it, it would not be wrong because using ‘ganja’ is an act of worship.
However, when I walk around the dark confines of DV8, I cannot help but notice the unmistakable smell of burning mairungi (Bhang). Even if I cannot see the users, the smell betrays them.
In Uganda, though, the name given to reggae at the moment is as far from bad as the East is from the West. Looking at the enthusiasm the artistes and the music lovers have in learning more about the genre, one can only hope that this is going to be the trend and that eventually, Ugandan stars will reap something good out of it. You can only live once, it is said. But reggae has proven that there is no limit to the times that one can live if they just believe in their staying power.