By Caroline Ariba
Emaali. That is its name. You could label it The Song. Because just about everyone has heard it; you too. From its little-known humble beginnings in eastern Uganda, by a hitherto unknown old man, it has torn across the entire country.
Now everyone calls it the Yayayaya song, since Eyayayaya is the line that stands out in its chorus: “Eyayayaya, Ejok awuridaaaa... Ekon-ikoku eyawuni Emaali...”
This chorus can contextually be translated into: “It is good to bear children, for you live off them in future.” Eastern Uganda, especially, is highest on it. Because no wedding that side of the country is complete without it playing, ditto any form of gathering with music — circumcision events, political rallies, local brew unions, name it.
But the eastern Uganda factor aside, you will fi nd this song playing just about anywhere in Uganda. Its recipients usually do not mind if they understand the meaning — its tune alone just gets you. But what is the origin of this Emaali song?
Tracing the roots of 'Emaali'’
I embarked on a six-hour bus ride last week to go find out. Destination? Kumi district, a village called Kelim Aryet, a trading centre interesting named California, Atutur sub-county. The mission? To find the old man said to be the originator of the song. Call it sheer lady luck, but as I strolled down California trading centre, I heard it. It had to be. Definitely the tune of Uganda’s biggest cultural song ever played.
I could hear it, feel it, that tingly, ticklish feeling, beckoning from afar. Yes, it was the tune of Emaali, you never miss it. But it sounded raw.
And it had the voice of a man. It was definitely not Rachel Magoola singing. This one was a different version from that 1990s one Magoola did. For starters, I decided to forget about who did which version, for I knew I was in the right place. I started walking towards the tune.
And just like that, there he was, walking towards me, a traditional thumb piano called akogo in hand and his fingers clicking away. He sang and played even harder on realising I had my camera poised, snapping away at him from a distance, mesmerised. It was the man himself, Patrick Atude, reportedly the original composer of Emaali. I could feel every fibre of my being sliding into excitement.
Subconsciously, I slid into rhythm, snapping a finger, then bobbing my head, and before I knew it, I was walking rhythmically towards him, the camera long forgotten. Sensing I was new to the area, he paused for a bit, more like to change gears.
Then boom, he started afresh, more animated! Flirting with his akogo, pinching it and playing it in all positions, side to side, over his head, he passionately instructed his traditional instrument with the adeptness of a pro... I was in heaven, he was serenading me! I nearly caught myself pulling grass, biting my nails and rolling my eyes in pure traditional girly blush.
It was about then that I realised one of his eyes was blind, though it did not seem to deter him. He went on and on, belting out this song until all was lost, but the sound of this fi ne tune. He greeted me, and all I could hear was music.
In Ateso, he went: “I am Patrick Atude, and you, my daughter, are very welcome. I just played that song to show you how happy I am to see you. I was heading to the trading centre to sit with my friends because an old man like me needs friends.”
This is how he earns a living, moving around with his akogo, playing to strangers every once in a while for a measly day’s meal. I told him who I was and that I had intentionally come looking for him. He took me to his home where I found his family seated in a tree shade, their faces sad.
There was no food that day, and they hoped that the old man might land on a Good Samaritan that might maybe spare some change. His home is your typical traditional Teso homestead. Four temporal grass thatched huts, surrounded by a garden with a few strands of cassava, a piece of land he bought way back in 1986, were much of the site for the eye.
As soon as his grandchildren saw him, they got excited and curled around him as he played the akogo for them. But even beneath the excitement, I could trace hunger, sadness. I was touched and offered the family some change for lunch.
The story of 'Emaali'
Born in 1945, Patrick Atude narrates that Emaali was inspired by a childless couple that lived in his neighbourhood in the 1980s. By then, he and a traditional group called Aryet Akogo had been performing around Kelim village since 1962. “This childless couple ridiculed people who struggled to raise children, feeling lucky they had survived ‘the bullet’,” narrates Atude.
One day at a traditional giveaway ceremony, Atude saw the couple look on crestfallen as goodies for the bride’s family were being offloaded. Then he overheard them say, “Eyayaya, okwe ejok awurida,” meaning, “Wow, it is really good to have children!” And right then is when he came up with the idea of Emaali, which he says he penned and went on performing with his group at small local gatherings, along with other songs.
The group’s biggest break came in 1989 when the current minister of Teso affairs, Christine Amongin Aporu, was getting married to her late husband, Akol Aporu, in Kampala. Atude and his mates were called to perform Emaali, which marked the song’s launch amid thunderous ululation. From then on, there was no going back for the song.
A radio station in Teso, then called Radio Culture, called the group in and recorded the song, of course, not with the sophistication real recording studios offer.
A few months later, Radio Uganda started playing it, and then Uganda as a whole was basking in a babble of its glorious traditional and instrumental soot of originality.
Atude enjoying ajono, a local millet brew, with his mates.
Why is Atude broke yet the song is big?
One evening in the 1990s as he sat drinking with friends in their trading centre, a duplicate of his song went off in the airwaves. “Apupuni eongo aberu ewoi eka kosio,abeit odo eongo etau!” Atude says in Ateso to mean that when he heard a woman singing his song, his heart sunk.
But because he had not a clue that he could lay claim legally, he hurt in silence as this woman, who it turned out was Rachel Magoola doing it with a band, went on performing a word-for-word version of what he calls his intellectual work.
Even when he went performing it elsewhere, no one believed it was his work, as the vastness and celebrity of the other version overwhelmed his less-than-sophisticated version. As a result, it no longer brought in any more money, and there were no more trips for him to perform it in Kampala, as Magoola became the preferred singer of the hit.
His 10 children, who each stopped in primary school and could not continue with school because of lack of tuition, have looked on frustrated as their father’s hard work goes unnoticed.
“That song was from my heart, the tune and melody from my akogo that has been here with me for 51 years now. How could someone just come up and end my means of feeding my family?” Atude wonders, adding that he has also heard his same tune playing in a Warid Telecom advert, which has all just confused him and he now doesn’t know what to do.
Just about this time, he falls silent, lost in thought and visibly holding back tears.
Rachel Magoola's side of the story
When I met Magoola at the National Theatre to hear her side of the story, she said at the time of her doing Emaali in the early 1990s, she thought it was one of those folk songs Ugandans sang, and that since those are free for public consumption, she recorded it, backed by Afrigo Band.
“I heard this song at a wedding I attended and fell in love with it, so I asked my Iteso friends to write it for me, from where I came to record it,” Magoola says, adding that she did not know the old man was alive until she got a phone call from Chancy Twister, saying he needed to talk.
Magoola said she has not got much from the song in question, as Ugandans do not buy original tapes or CDs. I put it to her that the money she has got performing the song at concerts must be good money, to which she admitted, but added that, “I have a band that plays for me, so we have to share it. But like I told Chancy Twister, I can perform at the fundraisers for the old man.”
Although she did not say anything about whether she would contribute towards building the old man a house, she added that she was looking into building a case against Warid Telecom for using Emaali in one of their adverts.
She said if that worked out, she could agree on sharing whatever she salvages from Warid with the old man. We tried reaching Warid, but the team at Scanard that handles their creative works like ads, kept promising to have someone call us in vain.
A bit of hope at last?
Last month, Atude’s son, Francis Odeke, got a phone call from another renowned traditional akogo artiste in Teso called Anguria.
“Anguria told me the Teso Cultural Society was looking for my father to perform in one of the many “Teso Nite” parties organised in Kampala,” said Atude’s son, who, after the news, went on to receive sh25,000 via mobile money from a one Robert, as transport for the old man to Kampala.
Upon arrival in Kireka, Robert Oluka, whom Atude later recognised as an artiste from Teso, best known for his stage name Chancy Twister, checked him into a self-contained lodge.
He bought him a plate of chicken stew with posho, and excited, the old man performed to a gathering of thrilled Iteso, who were surprised to hear this fresh version of Emaali. All went well. The youth at the event appreciated him, collecting money and buying him his first phone ever, while Chancy Twister paid him sh200,000, promising much more to come.
Chancy Twister promised to make all who had abused the Emaali song to pay, reassuring the old man that he was in safe hands. Well, after the fi rst encounter, which the old man had summed up as “not bad”, Chancy Twister gave him a call three weeks ago – March 5 to be exact.
Old Atude had to get to Kampala urgently, and that the Afrigo Band people might want to see him. He and his eldest son, George Akuku, rushed.
In Kampala, they were met by a document to sign, a contract dated March 6, 2013, binding Atude and any material he might ever produce, or deals he might ever sign, to Teso Nite Management, with Chancy Twister as manager for the next 10 years!
The contract, a copy of which Blitz has seen, further states that monies from any such deals between the two parties would be shared in a 30/70 percentage between Teso Nite Management and the artiste respectively, but after Teso Nite has taken off all expenses incurred while securing the deal.
“Chancy Twister told me that the signature was to show I had trusted them to look for deals on my behalf, so I signed, although I did not know that the contract would bind me for 10 years because he did not explain to me that part of it,” said Atude, looking rather exasperated about the period the contract would stand when I interpreted it for him.
Teso Nites are weekend theme nights that have been doing the rounds in Kampala night spots for over a year now, with Emaali as the theme song, as it basically just summons everyone from Teso region. With the contract now in force, Atude should be on some kind of payroll, which should end the kind of miserable life we found him in.
As if annoyed with himself, Atude suddenly grabbed his akogo and started playing furiously, and then later kept calming down, his playing soothing. After lunch, we took a stroll to the trading centre and Atude joined his group-mates in the drinking of the local brew ajono.
Oloyit Enosi Kong Kong, an old friend of Atude’s, told me to tell the world of how furious Kelim village and Kumi district were of the cowardly act by Magoola and band he called “Afurogo”. Peter James Omongole, one of Atude’s bandmates, said the group sometimes makes as little as sh3,000 each after a gruesome performance, which is so sad since others are cashing in on their efforts.
What does Chancy plan for Atude?
Chancy Twister insisted that he interpreted the contract for the old man, and that he means well in everything he is doing for the old man, just that “Teso Nites as a business entity has costs, debts, etc, “so we need to get on our feet before our artiste can live well. Clearly, we are still struggling.
He adds: “But I got in touch with Rachel Magoola so we could join hands, organise fundraisers for him and at least build him a house.”
Magoola, according to Twister, said she had no money to give, but that she was willing to perform at the fundraiser.
It looks like there is no hope for the partially blind, 65-year-old Atude. From my interviews with the concerned parties, there was not much of a promise or word one could cling on to help the old man.
In fact, they sounded like ideas they had, not something they were working on. Atude, who has a family of up to 25 people, including grandchildren, can barely feed them all off his 51-year-old akogo.
He is broken, both emotionally and physically, with his hands having not much more time to play. He cannot even grow food, not even if he had enough land. Can he take another blow now?
Interestingly, he does not want to go to court. “I cannot fight with those rich people. I will lose,” he says. “I just need anyone out there who can come to my rescue. I might not be worth a lot, but at least I am sure my sweat has fed people in that band, and entertained millions too.
Even Warid got millions from that advert where they used my song. But how can a poor man like me take Warid to court? At least let them just recognise my input towards their being and pinch for me a piece of the chunk, just out of good will,” he prays.
And that is how big a dilemma this man’s looks like, with no visible help. Can’t we, can’t they, all those that have tasted this culturally rich song say thank you to Atude?