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Kadongo Kamu is dying

By Vision Reporter

Added 28th September 2006 03:00 AM

In the 1950s, a slender and handsome young musician with a melodious tenor voice picked up his Galton acoustic guitar and plucked a traditional Bakisimba tune.

In the 1950s, a slender and handsome young musician with a melodious tenor voice picked up his Galton acoustic guitar and plucked a traditional Bakisimba tune.

By Joseph Batte

In the 1950s, a slender and handsome young musician with a melodious tenor voice picked up his Galton acoustic guitar and plucked a traditional Bakisimba tune.

Elishama Lukwata Wamala (later shortened to Elly Wamala), then wrote a love song with playful lyrics titled Nabutono, walked into a recording studio and recorded it.

Nabutono became the first kadongo kamu song to be recorded on vinly and Wamala (RIP) went in the record books as the artiste who invented this genre of music.

Since lyrics were deeply rooted in local literature, the melody in folk and the style basically rural story-telling, other older, but not-so-musically-trained artistes especially Christopher Ssebaduka (RIP), instantly picked interest and became Wamala’s disciples.
Strangely, Wamala turned his back on kadongo kamu in preference to other sophisticated genres of music like the calypsos of then foreign stars Harry Belafonte and Lord Kitchener.

However, although he never made any other kadongo kamu recording since the Nabutono single, kadongo kamu continued to thrive.

Artistes like Matiya Luyima, Fred Sebatta, Herman Basudde (RIP) and Paul Kafeero joined the field with zeal and pushed this simple folksy style of music in our hearts.

Subsequently, it gained mass acceptance through hits like Oluwala Olunyunyusi (by Sebaduka), Mukyala Mugerwa (Basudde), Walumbe Zaaya, (Kafeero) and Agawalaggana mu Nkola (Baligidde).

Kadongo kamu became the only indigenous form of popular music that could well be described as ‘truly Ugandan.’

Five years ago, I asked Mzee Wamala why he turned his back on the style of music he created. I was shocked by his reply: “My son, I was disgusted that the style of music I created was being taken over by semi-illiterate musicians and groups that called themselves ridiculous names like Entebbe Guitar Singers, Kadongo Kamu Super Singers and Matendo Promoted Singers. What does Promoted Singers or Guitar Singers mean?” he asked with palpable distaste.

Wamala, a trained musician with a diploma in Banjo, Mandolin and Guitar (BMG) from Britain, was also of the view that kadongo kamu was doomed because the artistes lacked adequate and basic knowledge of music.

He scorned them, saying they could not “expand the vocabulary of their guitar chords from the basics that are most important in establishing the tonality. In music these are; the first degree (the tonic) the fourth degree (the sub-dominant) and the fifth degree (the dominant).

Wamala also blames the changing trend of kadongo kamu on the advent of new multi-track recording technology. Today, what is now called kadongo kamu, is different.

Over the years, producers have indeed tried to add extravagance and exuberance to kadongo kamu music, but in view of intense preoccupation with invention and experimentation, they instead seem to have killed its spirit and soul.

The first producers to change the rules of kaddongo kamu were Tim Kizito and Steve Jean. They were convinced (and to an extent, rightly so) that kadongo kamu should adapt to modern technology and embrace new music traditions if it was to survive. The result of this conviction was Omwana Wo’muzungu by Paul Kafeero and the beautifully composed but outrageous Nfisizawo Akadde (Dolly W’omwana) by Fred Sebatta, where Steve Jean went on to break every rule in the recording of kadongo kamu by constructing intricate studio soundscapes that could not be replicated on stage.

Of course one cannot deny the fact that modern recording technology has helped break down barriers between cultures and improved the quality of sound, but it has also placed musical forms like kadongo kamu in danger of extinction.
What we describe as kadongo kamu today actually bears little resemblance with the original style.

The new kadongo kamu music sounds more like mainstream pop. The good old Bakisimba beats, which are its backbone, can barely be traced in the recordings. Today, kadongo kamu is now driven by zouk, rumba, reggae and soukous! Abdu Muraasi’s recordings are a case in point. He emerged on the scene as a kadongo kamu singer, a broad caricature of Herman Basudde (RIP), but has since lost direction. Actually he is too detached from his folk roots to be considered a kadongo kamu singer today!

Damn the computer
Technological innovations like the computer have repeatedly altered the sound of kadongo kamu. And because of this, music is no longer something kadongo kamu artistes do themselves. They watch other people do it for them, with the help of a computer.

The computer has killed creativity. Professional recording studios have turned into places where musicians can create just about any sound they can imagine – whether or not they actually have the skills to play those sounds on their instruments! For instance, a song like Dolly W’omwana cannot be reproduced live on stage.

The final product sounds artificial because it is no longer recorded live. The music is no longer a fact but an idea programmed into a computer!

The down side of the computer is that it has given birth to a new breed of studio-manufactured musicians who cannot even sing a whole verse live on stage. In fact, this explains why many artistes these days ‘sing’ (read mime) over recorded CDs when on stage.

In the name of modernity
Many of the artistes who previously enjoyed popularity as ‘kadongo kamu singers’ today hate to be referred to as such. They claim that such a tag means they are old fashioned and so is folk music.

This explains why some kadongo kamu singers appear on stage in designer suits (for men) and not in kanzus and coats, while women wear designer clothes as opposed to the traditional gomesi. Queen dancers today wriggle like agitated caterpillars and pull off erotic dances, which they have replaced with graceful Bakisimba moves that used to grace kaddongo kamu concerts.
And what do the kadongo kamu stars say? “Kadongo kamu for long sounded so similar and stagnant. I am a progressive musician always searching for new ideas. That is why I don’t use one producer to do my album,” said a defiant Fred Sebatta.
“Although it is modern, you can still trace the original kadongo kamu elements in it. Formerly it appealed to only a small section of fans, but now the young and old alike accept it.”

Moses Matovu, the leader of Afrigo Band says, “The urge to make kadongo kamu hip and current, and lack of adequate music knowledge is responsible for its demise says,” he says.

“But the death actually started a long time ago when I was still young. At first kadongo kamu was played on an acoustic Galton guitar, meaning it was acoustic-based and lyric-driven. To keep the time, they used ‘timing sticks’. The only percussion instrument were the maracas (shakers), locally known as ensaasi,” Matovu says.

“Even at the time kadongo kamu artistes always yearned to modernise and expand their music like ours. When they listened to Afro pop that we played and the instrumentation created by the arrangements of the bass, rhythm, and lead guitars, the brass section made up of soprano, alto, tenor saxophones and clarinet, they also tried to incorporate this in their music.”

He says the little knowledge of music and lack of well-trained saxophonists always suppressed them artistically. So they got another alternative –– the keyboard. Although it did not really duplicate the saxophone, at least it could imitate other wind instruments like the trombone.

“The problem is kadongo kamu artistes want to do things they do not have an idea about. It is why arrangement of their music has always been poor. Instead of the instruments conversing, you hear them fighting.
Matovu likens kadongo kamu artistes to people who bleach their faces but leave the lips and the rest of the body black.

Kadongo kamu always has been lyric-based music while the instrumentation has always played an accompanying role only. But today the instrumentation tends to overshadow the singing.

Matovu also says the urge to make quick millions, drive expensive cars and build bungalows like their peers in the mainstream, has also seen kadongo kamu singers lose direction and forced them to grab any popular music style they think will sell.

The only way forward, says the veteran musician, is to go back to the basics of kadongo kamu and improve its quality like Paul Kafeero. He is still trying to keep the flame burning in the midst of the raging storm by refusing to venture too far away from the original style!

Kadongo Kamu is dying

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