|Article and pix by Steven Tendo
Published April 7, 2007
Herbert Kinobe is slight in build and he talks in tones so low, one can easily dismiss him for another of Kampala’s many young men with no serious plan. He never dresses up in the way that “serious” people do and he will never be seen in the places that the typical Kampala resident will frequent. But Kinobe is an extra-ordinary musician. This Uganda’s world music star is set to perform in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 20, 2007 as part of his 15-African nation music tour. STEVEN TENDO writes.
“I do world music and that is a strange genre here,” he says. He is convinced that it is going to take a long time before his craft is accepted in Uganda. “In fact, I plan to start a project where I go around the country, giving lectures and resources to those who want them.”
Kinobe understands world music as, a fusion of different types of music. “I bring together my knowledge of Balkan music, West African music and music from around Uganda among others. It is a fusion of the many instruments from around the world.”
Now he has released his first solo album, Soul Language. This is no mean feat for the young artiste. The album was released by the World Music Store, located in Vermont, United States. It is under the auspices of Multicultural Media, a company that collects original music from around the world.
“My music caught their attention mainly because I always record it live. I go to the studio and play the instruments there,” Kinobe explains.
The musician was “discovered” by the director of World Music Store, Stephan McArthur while he was attending a world music festival in France three years ago.
“I was appearing on a number of songs for Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu. I was playing the akogo (thumb piano) and it seems I impressed Stephan,” Kinobe says.
Kinobe was busy for most of 2004 and for most of the subsequent years and it was difficult for him to get back in touch with McArthur, though the latter tried to record him desperately after he had seen him in France.
Soul Language was recorded at Kinobe’s home in his new studio. It has 11 tracks, four of which were written by his brother Jude Mugerwa. Seven tracks on the album were mastered at Chillumwoods Sounds, a new studio owned by Gareth Sandell in Bukoto, Kampala.
Kinobe says the music was later sent to the USA where McArthur did some further work on it. He sent 15 songs in all but the album came out with 11 which were judged best.
“There is nothing electric on this album,” he says. “All the music here is acoustic. It pays tribute to my love for acoustics. It is a fusion of different styles from the various countries I have been to.”
Kinobe has been around on the Ugandan scene playing back-up for bigger acts like Percussion Discussion Africa but this is the first time he has come out to produce something on his own as an independent artiste.
He believes he has grown up since he started working with the different musicians he has interacted with.
“I have come full circle,” he says. “My music involves Arabic music, Latin music, West African music and many other styles. This album, for instance, is focused on all these diverse styles.” The next, which he plans to bring out soon, in will be focused on Latin music.
“The next CD will be called Kinobe and Soulbeat Africa. This is the group that I have worked with on the project. It includes friends I have grown with, Michael Ouma and Richard Okia,” he explains.
Uganda does not have many representatives on the world music stage. Other stars in the field are Samite and Geoffrey Oryiema who don’t even perform in Uganda.
‘The problem of the indifference of the public to this kind of music is puzzling,” Kinobe admits. “Out there, the rest of the world would like to know what is coming out of Uganda and it has to be indigenous to the country. Instead, we have musicians trying to sound like foreigners.”
When he sits down for this interview, he admits it has been difficult to meet earlier because of his tight programme globe trotting and performing at different festivals and conferences.
Kinobe was born on July 19, 1983 to Ruth Nakyagaba and Fred Serunkuma. One of six children, Kinobe, went to University of Bordeaux in France for a degree in World Music after Makerere College in Uganda.
He grew up near one of the Kabaka’s lubiri (palaces) and there were drums played in the palace everyday. From a very young age, Kinobe was attracted to the music of his people. Kinobe’s fun was to be in the presence of the abagoma, the traditional drummers of the Kabaka. It was natural that he had to learn how to play a number of instruments that go with the drums.
His parents gave him the opportunity to have the influence of classical music. This was an exciting new dimension for the young Kinobe. In church it was straight classical music, mostly western. This he supplemented with the music he had learnt in the lubiri near home. Kinobe is a bastion of African styles, redone to sound appealing in the contemporary market.
In school, he was always on the school choir and anything that could give him a chance to put to use his skills. Buganda Road Primary School was his first big break because there, he came into contact with teachers who were also members of Uganda’s top cultural troupe, Ndere Troupe. These gave him the opportunity to learn about music from other parts of the country and the world.
Music was on the syllabus and he believes he had an all round education because of his stay at the school. It was at Buganda Road that he also got his first opportunity to travel outside Uganda. He was part of the school team that travelled to Holland to perform at the Festival Mundial. While there, the impressionable young man was exposed to new cultures and peoples. He came to realise that there were bigger things out there and his childhood dream to travel the world was rekindled. He wanted to find out about the music of the different people he came in contact with because then he would better understand the people.
The big break for Kinobe, who basically does Ugandan traditional and world music, came when he began travelling and meeting leading African musicians like Salif Keita, Ismail Lo, Youssou N’Dour, and Angelique Kidjo.
To Kinobe, African music is about more than just listening. Before he was born, he says, an oracle was proclaimed about him. It was not a surprise to his parents when he grew up to be very much in touch with nature and with music. Music is a very spiritual thing for him and he is moved to tears when he listens to it.
Kinobe has over the years been involved in a number of projects connected with his craft. Most recently, he has come up with three stringed instruments that are absolutely original. He reasons that in the past, people used to create musical instruments all the time on which to express themselves. Over time, our experiences have changed and we should have new instruments to express the new feelings. Some of the instruments he has created have no names as yet but he believes they shall help him express many feelings that he finds hard to express with the instruments around.
Among the instruments he is good at are the engalabi, an African long drum, the namunjoloba, a small rhythmical drum that creates a high-pitched sound, the akogo, and ennongo (a lyre).
Kinobe has also embarked on a quest to discover the origins of African music and even world music, going to the roots of the various genres. He has had some thrilling experiences, like his time in Burkina Faso. Kinobe says he discovered that Blues music, big in the West, has its roots in West Africa. He narrates the time he encountered the Sambla people who communicate with musical instruments where we would normally speak. He says if it was not for the sad element in Blues reminiscent of the sad slave experience of blacks in the new world, there would not have been a difference with what he heard in Burkina Faso.
There is no native word for music in Africa, he contends, which reinforces his belief that historically, what we call music was a language on its own in Africa. He has also been to South America and the Caribbean and the music there tells a different story of the people there.
Kinobe has been busy globetrotting, giving lectures on African music at universities in the USA and Europe. His speciality is African musical culture. He also trains children in dance classes and African theatre wherever he goes.
His next album, employing Ugandan contemporary styles with tinges of world music, is in the making. Some of the styles that have been used are Ugandan folk, folk jazz, Afro pop, Afro Cuban and a fusion of Ugandan traditional music.
Kinobe also aspires to sing on the same stage with his biggest idols, the likes of Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, and Peter Gabriel.