Going with the flow

Jackson Biko delves into Uganda’s musical heritage and examines the influences that have led to the revolution of the Luga Flow genre

Ugandan music has legs. That’s what a Kenyan producer once told me during a discussion about the merits of East African music. As a Kenyan looking in, Ugandan music also seems to have a lot of breath and timbre. Music that can hold its breath for a long time. It’s not only rich musically; it always seems to recount a long cultural narrative about values such as pride and love – which you could say is the commonplace of most musical themes, only Ugandans seem to garnish it more.

Ugandan music is largely informed by the indigenous voices of the 30 different tribes that make up the nation. Although most of the tribes in Uganda have a unique musical style handed down for generations that go back to the 18th century, it’s the Baganda – the most prominent tribe – that has dominated the sounds that have come from Uganda over the past two or so centuries. The formative sound to emerge from this tribe was the Kadongo Kamu (meaning ‘one guitar’), which employed only a solo instrument – normally a bass guitar – to create a tune. Fred Masangazi, the ’60s virtuoso, is well-known as one of the biggest artists of the Kadongo Kamu era.

Then globalisation happened. MTV entered the scene and transformed the way Ugandans (and Africans, at large) made and played their music. One of those bold sounds was Hip Hop, a ’90s entrant that appealed to the youth for it’s street narrative. But Ugandans, like the rest of Africa, quickly realised that reproducing American Hip Hop would not only be foolhardy and phony but it wouldn’t make sense at all – artistically or socially. Even though a few dabbled in this raw musical genre a new crop of Hip Hop enthusiasts decided to infuse this new sound with the local Luganda beat. Luga Flow was born.

The Luga Flow revolution
The question of who pioneered Luga Flow is contentious, as you can imagine. But there seems to be a consensus amongst many producers, artists and music journalists that a group called The Bataka Squad were the formative ‘founders’ of this genre.

The group Bataka (meaning ‘natives’) was formed in 1994 by a few friends who were searching for their identity in a space that was becoming amorphous due to all the foreign sounds that were infiltrating the airwaves. The group consisted of Babaluku (Silas Bababyekkubo), Saba Saba (aka Crazy Native), Big Poppa, Newton, La Raat, Lyrical G and Shilling (who was known for his tongue-twisting). Over time, a few artists joined and left The Bataka Squad. The group has since broken up and are now scattered all over the country, in Europe and America and only Babaluku and a new member – Tshilla – are still holding the dream together.

Babaluku explains: “The old name ‘Underground’ simply meant we weren’t commercial. The group was formed to let Ugandans know that they were living in a new-age.” He continues, “Luga Flow was essentially born from a trip where we had represented Uganda at the Coca Cola sponsored Hip Hop summit on Sanane Island in Mwanza in 1995. We noticed how other countries drew heavily on their communities and local tribes to create music that expressed who they were, while all we had were songs aping what the Hip Hop artist in America did. Of course we were mortified and decided that we needed to do something.”

The group produced their first video Tujjababya and went on to win 2007’s Best Hip Hop single at the Pearl of Africa Music Awards with Utake Anthem.

Babaluku – a pan-African enthusiast – constantly uses the word ‘indigenous’ when he speaks about Luga Flow. “This music acts as a vehicle to help young people to reconnect with their heritage, a reason to go back to their language and take back what was taken away from them by the colonialist. A person without a language is a slave. We are here to make our language cool,” he chimes.

Flow’s future
The Bataka Squad might have started this Luga Flow revolution, but the one artist who is credited with having popularised Luga Flow in Uganda is GNL Zamba. He filled concerts, he made it fun and hip, by avoiding the usual songs that condemned corruption and sang about politics. GNL Zamba took Luga Flow to the clubs.
As one of the pioneers and Luga Flow’s most visible artist, GNL Zamba admits that although ‘cool’ has descended on Luga Flow, it still acts as more of a creative expression than as a viable commercial venture. He explains that he picked the genre right after campus (he holds a degree in environmental science from Makerere University) and has struggled and fought through the whole drudgery of genre-acceptance, defunct copyright laws and commercial reality.

“Every third artist now is a Luga Flow artist, which goes to show the influence that this genre has in the market. Although we are challenged commercially we are doing much better than we did back when I started.”

GNL Zamba has just released his third album, Renaissance, which he calls a roaring success even though he had sold only 25,000 copies at the time of this interview. He explains that selling 25,000 copies in Uganda is something unique because folk just don’t buy albums. His earlier album Koikoi (2008) reached barely half that figure. To supplement the money coming in from concerts and album sales, the robust market of mobile telephony has saved the day by providing ringtone solutions to its subscribers. “A song goes for 500 Ugandan shillings. From this money I take 200 shillings and the rest goes to the ringtone mobile company I have signed up with. The trick is to sign up with several of these companies that have opened up shop in Uganda.”

Although driven by the local dialect, Luga Flow isn’t as easy to wing as it might seem. The Luganda language doesn’t bend easily into the rhythm and flow that conventional music requires. The syllables, for instance, are long and one can’t change the pronunciation of words easily. Benon, a popular singer-turned-producer, who runs one of the biggest record labels in Kampala called Swangz Avenue, gives an example: “ If you want to say ‘I love you,’ in Luganda, you will have to sing, ‘Nkwa gala…’ which sometimes is easier to say in English than Lugandan if you want to maintain the tempo.”

Challenges aside, Benon praises GNL for taking the genre to a level that has finally given it prominence. And although he is confident of the future of Luga Flow, he’s worried that the genre might be stuck in a rut because of lack of momentum. “Every artist who comes in here wants to sound like GNL. We need more people to come up with their own voice,” he moans. More people like Mun G who has carved his own niche even though his talent was moulded at the feet of GNL.

Making music in Uganda
Even though the floodgates of this genre have swung open and everybody is trying to get a piece of the action, making music in Uganda isn’t cheap. The truth is, nobody is selling albums – at least a number worth making any noise about. The burden of success in the music industry is carried on the back of concerts, which are charged at a higher rate than in neighbouring East African countries and, curiously enough, are the best attended in East Africa.

Given this background, most artists depend on invitations to guest perform at big concerts. To be invited, artists need to have a popular single – a single that requires you to walk into one of the dozen or so reputable recording labels in Kampala. “ We charge about 500,000 Ugandan shillings to produce one song. You can get that cheaper if you compromise on quality by going to other less professional record labels,” says Benon.

Undeterred, young men and women keen to leave a mark are forking out large amounts of money to record labels to make songs in the hope of being the next big thing, not only in Luga Flow but in other genres of music.
“Hip Hop is the fastest-growing genre in Uganda at the last check,” says Dennis Asiimwe, a music critic with the Vision Group – the biggest media conglomerate in Uganda. “ Hip Hop is big in numbers in corporate sponsorship, which is another massive money generator for the big artists in Uganda.”

The speed at which Luga Flow has grown, he adds, has surprised not only him but the public in general.
“It’s a genre that I didn’t keep an eye on because I didn’t think it would pass a certain threshold that would have made it a contender as a significant genre,” he states, “It first started as humour-based music with stumbling punch lines and I foresaw its imminent death because I knew the humour would be hard to maintain in the long run. Then somehow they found their voice and their fans. Now it seems that they have won the hearts of many, given that some artists are now getting in excess of  US$5000 to endorse products – something that would never have happened a while back.”

A while back isn’t too far, if the mid-’90s – the period when The Bataka Squad broke this new musical ground – is anything to go by. Major strides have been made and the sound has evolved into something that strives to go beyond telling the stories of Ugandan youth.