They release a song and it is a hit! But there is just one problem: the song sounds familiar. So you dance to its tune, but suspiciously. One day you are watching an international artiste perform and your fears are confirmed, it was stolen, writes JOSEPH BATTE.
If you cannot have a hit, steal one. That is what some Ugandan artistes do to get stardom. They copycat and steal other artistes’ songs or dust down old songs which they assume are not known to the public and release them as their own compositions.
It has become so sickeningly common and the artistes do it like they do not have a care in the world. Take the song Viola, for example.
It was recorded by Elly Wamala, a phenomenal songwriter, who made music on his own terms and during his hey days and always strived to sound unique.
Late last year, Goesteady, a relatively unknown, breezed onto the scene with his own ‘joyous’ contemporary version of Viola, which instantly catapulted him to stardom.
When questions were raised about the copyrights of the song, he went on a public relations offensive, telling the whole world (with a big smile plastered across his face) that he sought permission to record it from Wamala’s eldest daughter, UK-based gospel singer, Fiona Mukasa.
If Mukasa did give him permission, did she seek the approval of her elder brother, Spurgeon Wamala, the heir and custodian of Wamala’s compositions, or their lawyers?
Would US-based Spurgeon, a talented singer and songwriter like his father, readily let Goesteady re-do the song when it is only about two years since he recorded a better version of the same song with his siblings?
But the so-called music programmers on our local radio stations ignored Spurgeon’s rendition in favour of the wordy thudding mediocrity that they ceaselessly pump on airwaves. Mukasa flew into the country from the UK “to put the record straight.”
In anger, she said: “I never granted Goesteady permission to record Viola. He stole it. I cannot give out my father’s song without the knowledge of the entire family. I was in a recording studio with my brother, Muwanga, when Goesteady came and introduced himself to me.
He said he was an artiste and a fan of Elly Wamala. Yes, he did ask me whether he could record one Viola. I told him it could only be possible with permission from Spurgeon and the entire Wamala family. Thereafter, I went back to the UK.
“No sooner had I arrived in the UK, than I got a call from Kampala, informing me that Goesteady had gone ahead and recorded Viola and that he was telling people that I gave him permission,” she said.
Mukasa booked another flight back to Uganda. “I was determined to prove that I did not grant Goesteady any permission,” she said when asked about it.
Record TV invited Mukasa and Goesteady to “clear the air”. Only Mukasa honoured the invitation. She turned up for the interview with a Bible!
“I wanted to clear my name and reassure my fans that I never did such a thing. I carried the Bible because I wanted
Goesteady to swear by the word of God that I granted him permission. If he has proof, let him come forward with it.
“I am a born-again Christian. How can I grant him permission and then turn around and deny ever doing so? The fact is, there has never been any written agreement with my signature on it.
“There is no denying the fact that he (Geosteady) did a good job with Viola, but what he did is illegal. And, even my father, wherever he is not happy about it,” Mukasa said.
Copycatting is not new
Since the 1970s, Ugandan artistes have been copycatting. Hadijja Namale’s 1971 hit, Mukulike Omwaka, was washed out of a Congolese song she heard when she visited Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)) in the 1960s.
During an interview with Bukedde Radio recently, Namale, who speaks fluent Lingala, admitted that she borrowed the tune from a bunch of young Congolese musicians she met when she visited the DRC.
“When I returned to Uganda, I translated what I heard into Mukulike Omwaka that I released soon after Idi Amin came to power,” Namale says.
The song became a hit at the time as it rhymed with the celebratory mood after the toppling of Dr Milton Obote. Since that time, it has had renewed relevance, especially towards every end of the year.
Rev Polycarp Kakooza used a German tune when he was writing the new version of Buganda Kingdom’s anthem, Ekitibwa kya Buganda. The older version was written in the 1940s by his late brother, Byangwa.
Even Philly Lutaaya, for all his talent, borrowed some ideas and songs from other artistes. When Alone and Frightened was released, we initially thought it was the Swedish duo of Roxette that lifted the intro of Lutaaya’s song for their hit, It Must Have Been Love. But it was Lutaaya who lifted segments of Roxette’s song.
It Must Have Been Love was first released in 1987. Lutaaya recorded Alone and Frightened in 1988.
Omubeezi Gyali, one of the standout tracks on Lutaaya’s Christmas album is a Luganda translation of an old hymn, Emiziiro, which could have been washed out of a 1970s recording by the Cranes/Afrigo.
In the 1990s, Ronnie Kavuma travelled to Rwanda and returned with Jean Paul Samputu’s NimuzeTubine. He went to Kasiwukira studios and recorded Mubayambe Mubajjune, using exactly the same tune. When Samputu heard it, he was so bitter. He travelled to Uganda to confront Kavuma.
When the press learnt about it, slings and arrows were hurled in Kavuma’s direction. He was decent enough to admit what he had done and was ashamed about it. He has since disappeared from the music scene.
Forms of stealing songs
Some clever artistes, in desperation, mangle and mash up numerous hits from the past couple of years and impregnate their tired sound with it, to reproduce their own versions.
Last year, local radios pointed out the glaring similarities between Jose Chameleone’s Valu Valu and Sammy Kasule’s Afro-zouk song Ozze, which he recorded with his seminal band, Makonde.
Kasule, rather than get angry, brushed off the incident as one of those things which less talented artistes do. “I heard it. But have a million songs in my head.”
Bobi Wine’s Abalungi Balumya was a blatant rip off of Lord Laro’s World News. Lord Laro (real name Kenneth Lara) is from Trinidad and lives in Jamaica.
Three years ago, Bobi Wine almost burnt his fingers after recording another version of Paul Kafeero’s Dipo Nazzigala.
The gentleman who owned the copyrights of the song flew in from South Africa and threatened to drag Bobi Wine to court. He vowed never to touch an artiste’s song again.
A couple of years ago, the dynamic duo, Goodlyfe, were accused of stealing Bread and Butter from a computer on a flash disk.
Iryn Namubiru’s Begombeko is a bastardised version of WalaWala by Madagascan singer, Lianah.
Zambian songbird, Mimi, was shocked and distraught when she heard a Ragga Dee’s Swililili. She threatened to drag him to court, but was talked out of it.
One of Uganda’s most visible hip hop artistes, Gravity Omutujju, is not innocent either. His Joanita is a Luganda version of Sat With Me by Ironik.
DJ Michael recklessly lifted Mr Flavour’s Ashawo, while Nyanda by Billy Davio is a version of Slippery When Wet.
Stuck On You, by Ronnie Winter, is a blatant rip off of Lionel Richie’s Stuck On You.
All the above songs have imitated parts that far exceeded eight measures, the common standard of judging whether a song is plagiarised.
When Ugandan artistes became Nigerians and Jamaicans
Of recent, there has been a noticeably worrying development of young Ugandan artistes imitating Nigerian and Jamaican music.
What Ugandan artistes fail to understand is that Nigerians created their own style from their roots. They have found a bridge between their vibrant folk and modern Western beats.
Why Ugandan artistes are copycats
“Music is a manifestation of composers’ personalities and experiences. It is impossible for two people to come out with completely identical melodies, so why do Ugandan artistes steal other people’s songs? It is a combination of many factors,” says Kasule.
“For one, they have very little music education, both formal and informal. They cannot show variety in the chord progression. They have not invested themselves in studying it or even learning to play an instrument,” he adds.
Creativity is in very short supply here. If there were marks to be handed out for creativity, most Ugandan artistes would score badly.
Commercialism, rather than artistic creativity, which always helps facilitate discovery of new talent, has also encouraged the growing trend of copycat artistes in Uganda.
“Most of the young artistes join the local music industry as a way to escape poverty. Knowing how hard it is to make a lasting break, they resort to the easy way out — copy and release a song that will grab attention, rather than release anything forward-thinking or of stand-out quality.
So what do we do?
Kasule offers some practical solutions: learn an instrument. “That way, you will be able to vary your composition’s chords and their progressions and avoid the pitfalls of sounding similar and resorting to stealing.
According to Joe Tabula, the education secretary of Uganda Musicians Union and producer, the underlying mindset that has encouraged this practice can be summed up in four words: greed, shortsightedness and plain stupidity.
“It is not bad to copy. But how do you copy? Firstly, you should seek for the rights to copy. Ugandan artistes use the word rendition to mean copying another artiste’s songs. Well, you have to get permission to do a rendition. Being inspired should not be confused with calling someone else’s song your own.
“In music, the more creative you are, the more successful you should be. Of course, sometimes it might not work out that way. An artistic victory can turn out to be a commercial flop. You can adjust without compromising your artistic values,” Tabula says.
While some say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, in an industry that relies on the limitless creative energy and encouragement of innovation of its major players, this trend of copying and stealing songs is at best disheartening and at worst poisonous to the industry.
It reduces us to a bunch of song-pinching wannabes, who thrive on other people’s sweat.