Ugandan Musicians Attract International Acclaim, Seek Support


Article Highlights

Afrigo Band influences younger artistis to embrace Ugandan culture.  

Although Western and Congolese music dominated Ugandan audiences in the past, the local music industry is growing.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – Afrigo Band stands as the testament to the evolution of Ugandan music.

James Wasula, executive director of Afrigo Band, says when the band was formed in 1975, Ugandan music was not popular with the local audience.

“This was a time when Western music was quite popular, and there was no infrastructure for music recording productions,” Wasula says.

For example, there were no local recording studios.

“The few Ugandans, like the late Fred Masagazi, who managed to produce some music, had to go all the way to Nairobi and do all the recordings and come back with a finished disc,” Wasula says.

Initially, Moses Matovu, Afrigo Band’s leader and founder, wanted the band to sing original compositions, Wasula says. But other band members, taking into account the popularity of Congolese music at the time in Uganda, overruled him.

The band sang the songs of popular Congolese singers, such as Franco Luambo Makiadi, who goes by “Franco.” Before Makiadi's death in 1989, he attended one of the band's shows in Kampala, Uganda's capital, where they played mostly his songs and only two of its own compositions during a five-hour concert.

Makiadi complimented the band on their excellent performance but asked why he did not hear more of their own compositions, Wasula says. Wasula told Makiadi that the band played the music the audience loved. 

“‘A musician is a leader and not a follower,’” Wasula says Makiadi told him. “‘If you keep playing other people’s music, what legacy will you leave behind?’”

Wasula calls that moment a turning point for Afrigo Band. The following week, the band members voted to start singing their own compositions. At first, fans hated the new sounds but later grew to love the band’s music.

Afrigo Band continues to inspire a new generation of musicians to play live music and sing original compositions in Uganda. The Ugandan music industry has also grown thanks to technological advancements coupled with international exposure and recognition. But stakeholders say that a lack of support from the government and universities hinders the development of music here. The government urges artists to register with the Uganda Performing Right Society for protection and promotion.

“‘Kadongo kamu,’ or ‘one-guitar music,’ was a popular style of narrative song from central Uganda that dates back from the courts of the kings of Buganda,” Wasula says.

Wasula says that musicians accompanied their stories only with the “endongo,” the bowl lyre of the Baganda people.

“Kadongo kamu performers – especially in the past ­– would devote 15 to 20 minutes to the telling of a particular epic, stretching and embellishing them as narrative twists caught the attention of their listeners,” he says.

Wasula says these artists started recording their music in the 1950s but had to travel to Nairobi to do their recordings because of the lack of studios in Uganda. The opening of the state owned Radio Uganda, now UBC Radio, in 1954 meant that music recorded by Ugandan musicians, mostly rumba, could be heard around the world.

Live performances in Uganda started in the 1960s with the development of nightclubs. Still, Congolese guitarists figured prominently.

But now that has changed. Famous Ugandan musician Maurice Kirya is among the new generations of musicians inspired by Afrigo Band’s shift from Congolese covers to original Ugandan music.

Kirya has created his own unique brand of Ugandan music called “mwooyo,” which means “soul” in Luganda, one of the most widely spoken languages in Uganda.

“It refers to Ugandan soul music, which is a mixture of R&B, Ugandan traditional vocal tunes, jazz and a bit of hip-hop,” he says. “I do that so that my music can cut through to any age and to just about anyone.”

Two of Kirya’s brothers are also famous singers in Uganda, “Krazy Native” and “Vampino.” Kirya says his father and others discouraged him from following in his brothers’ footsteps, as many associated Uganda’s fledgling music industry with poverty, drugs and sex.

“When I chose to go into music full time, I was discouraged by certain people, but not for my talent but simply because my dreams were too big and appeared impossible to them,” he says.

But Kirya has become famous. He has won several local and international music awards, including the prestigious Radio France International Discoveries Music Award in 2010 as its first Anglophone winner. As part of the award, he performed in 14 African countries in two months.

Kirya says that today, his father is proud of his achievements.

“He understands that music has only been given a bad image,” he says. “In the past, people have misrepresented the integrity of music.”

In addition to solo acts like Kirya, there has been an explosion of bands in Uganda that compose and perform original music.

Milege Afro Jazz, formed in 2008, named itself after the ankle rattles that ancient kings among the Japadhola people of eastern Uganda wore to alert their people that they were approaching, says Francis Manana, the band director.


Lead vocalist Gloria Akugizibwe says the band encourages originality.

“Copying kills creativity, and that is why Milege encourages originality,” she says. “It is also about identity. Even if one picks up something along the way, but the end result should be yours.”


Every year, Milege visits a specific region of the country on a quest for raw, unique Ugandan talent. It develops material with the locals and later produces an ethnojazz show.


Manana says that band members are professionals from different fields.

“There were two tigers in my body as I was growing up – music and medicine,” says Akugizibwe, who also practices medicine. “And I am glad they are still living together.”

Kirya also attributes the phenomenal growth of the music industry in Uganda to technological development.

“Back then, I would imagine not everyone had a radio,” he says. “And there was only one radio station anyway!”

Justus Archangel Mugumya, a teacher at Kampala Music School, a private school that teaches classical music, says newly accessible technologies have ignited more interest in young people to produce music.

“The conditions are better for the musicians, unlike long ago when they had to go out of the country to cut their discs,” he says.

Asaasira Anita Desire, a music teacher at Makerere University and the Africa Institute of Music in Kampala, also credits increased international exposure.

“There are also more international music channels such as MTV, TRACE, VH1, Channel O, Soundcity, to mention a few,” she says. “These channels have granted musicians and Ugandans access to what music on the international world market looks and sounds like. And this has put pressure on the practitioners to improve.”

Desire also commends the various national and continental music awards.

“The first music awards that influenced the music industry in Uganda were the Kora Awards for African musicians, when Klear Kut and Pastor John Ekudi were nominated,” she says. “Ekudi actually won an award.”

She says this triggered Ugandan’s own awards, the Pearl of Africa Music Awards.

“Now, Ugandan musicians are eligible for international music awards such as Channel O Music Awards, MTV Africa Music Awards, BET Awards, as well as other local and African music awards,” Desire says.

Jackson Kamuntu, an assistant lecturer in the Department of Performing Arts and Film at Makerere University, says learning from other musicians from other countries has challenged young, talented Ugandans to improve.

“Because of the success of those who went to Kenya for training, the attitude towards music is changing in circles of young people,” he says.

Kamuntu adds that corporate companies, such as Mobile Telephone Networks, Coca-Cola and Nile Breweries, have also sponsored musical talent search competitions and musical concerts since the late 1990s.

But Manana differentiates between growth and development of music in Uganda.

“While it is true that local music has grown in the last 20 years or so in this country, it is also true that it has died!” he says. “It has grown but not developed.”

For him, current music lacks the richness of older Ugandan music.

“The older music like that of Afrigo and kadongo kamu was very rich,” he says.

Stakeholders are calling on the government to support the music industry’s development through strong policies.

“Although the industry has grown tremendously, it is still growing, and therefore it needs to be protected by the law,” Kirya says. “Problems of copyright drive fear into the hearts of all artists. If it was not for weak laws, we would be doing even better.”

Pamela Batenga, principal culture officer at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, which covers musical artists, says the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act of 2006 protects artists’ work. To receive protection, the artists must register with the Uganda Performing Right Society, which is responsible for collecting royalties.

“Although the law is in place, the artists have been skeptical about registering,” she says. “Uganda Registration Services Bureau, which was set up by law, is now training policemen specifically to prevent copyright theft and pirating of artists’ work. It has also enlisted the cooperation of Uganda [National] Bureau of Standards to guide the public on what is original and what is pirated work.”

Wasula, also the CEO of Uganda Performing Right Society, says that registration with the society is free, and artists need just one original song to qualify. But because the society is new, artists have been reluctant to register.

“In the last few months, the society carried out a sensitization campaign,” he says. “And last month, there was massive registration of artists. The society, however, still has a challenge of collecting royalties from users, such as radio stations. But definitely, the situation is slowly getting better and better.”

Kirya adds that the government needs to support the music industry because it creates jobs and revenue.

“Music creates income for all those involved in it,” he says. “The government needs to wake up to the fact that the arts industry generates revenue for the country and begin to set up systems that are in its favor.”

Desire calls on the government to promote music in the public education system.

“Even with all these developments, the education system does not recognize music as an important subject that people can study and then make a career out of,” she says.

Kamuntu says things have improved at the Department of Performing Arts and Film since the 1960s, when people used to refer to it as “Musiru Dala Dala,” meaning “for fools” in Luganda.

“The music industry has grown and the attitude is changing, but it is still threatened by new Ministry of Education regulations, which do not favor music teaching in schools,” Kamuntu says.

But others cite the growing trend of private music schools as a positive improvement.

“There are music schools that have cropped up and teach music to anyone who wants to learn, even though they are not part of the Ugandan educational system,” Desire says.

Wasula says that music can play an important “edutainment” role.

“Musicians are educators, storytellers, counselors and foretellers,” Wasula says. “And music has no language.”