NATIONAL THEATRE, Kampala – The moment you get into this place, a queer spirit of art possesses you. It’s something about the atmosphere that instantly ignites the creative person in you. It’s not a surprise that one of Uganda’s golden voices chose to have an office situated here.
As he goes through files in his rather simple office, Diplock Ssegawa Katumba wears a blue stripped white shirt, dark pants and well shined sharp shoes, which all add up to a behind the desk accountant look.
But, beyond the outfit is arguably one of the most talented artistes Uganda has ever produced. Ssegawa is one of the few self-contained artistes with hand on skills as a songwriter, Producer, composer and arranger. He became a hit in the 80’s and mostly remembered for his runaway hit Sooka Omunonye which became an anthem on marriage and introduction celebrations to date.
On this early- September morning, the 80’s megastar is quite literally looking at the world through his office window, which is well placed to pick a glimpse of different music and arts hopefuls that visit the theatre on a regular basis.
He was once like the youngsters, growing up with a passion for the stage and starting to read music at a very tender age.
Ssegawa is born to Benjamin and Aida Katumba in Wakiso, Busiro. Benjamin Katumba, was a primary school teacher as well as a chorister and music director in the different Anglican churches he served.
“I grew up in a musical family where we used to put up small performances every Sunday and my dad was also good at helping us understand the different chords and music symbols,” he reminiscences.
They later organized themselves to form the Mirembe Family Gospel choir. The family choir became popular among the area church goers and in the 70s, through his older brother, Benon Katumba, the choir was booked for a gospel gig on both Radio Uganda and UTV.
“Benon used to debate for Lubiri secondary and the sessions were recorded at Radio Uganda, while there he heard of an opportunity that the station was starting a Praise and worship show where they needed a choir,” he says.
That was the beginning of Ssegawa’s roller coaster and flamboyant life of music, he went on to grace more stages, lead different school choirs and above all, grace the national TV screens every weekend.
“I remember the village delight when the UTV van came and packed in our compound, we became quite an item in the area,” a joyous Ssegawa says.
There shows were recorded and produced by some of UTV’s greats like James Magambo, Treza Matovu and the ever green music sensation, Elly Wamala.
Ssegawa’s music star would later rise to attract well-wishers, among them was William Lugobe, Yacobo Ssekungu, Ssebana Kizito, Francis Kitaka and Pastor John and Milly Kakembo’s family which financially supported and also horned his singing ability.
“Staying with the Kakembos was a blessing, it’s like we would spend an entire day singing and praising. They mentored me on how to write songs,” he profoundly says.
It was however in 1982 that Ssegawa embarked on forming his own band, he gathered some of his former classmates and with the helping hand of Ssebana Kizito through his Statewide Insurance funding; a group Diplock Ssegawa and The Wrens was formed.
They performed in worldwide festivals like the Euro Cross Festival in Leicester and Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham both in the UK.
In 1994, in one of the festivities towards the celebration of 150 years of YMCA at Framlingham College in Ipswich, Ssegawa attended a reception hosted by Her Majesty the Queen at her Lamberth Palace where he was personally introduced to her as the youth representative from Uganda.
The band continued touring UK, Sweden and performing on more festivals and human interest gigs.
In 1987, the band released one of the most successful songs in the history of Ugandan music, Sooka Omunonye.
“The song was inspired by an incident where I was really lost in someone’s garden,” he sheepishly says and adds; “I was in a car with someone checking on his garden, he went out of the car to make some consultations living me in, when it started becoming dark, I got scared and I was like, ‘I think I need to look for him’, as I was brushing through his banana plantation, the tune started ringing…Sooka Omunonye…and as they say, the rest is history,” he says.
Though, much as it was released in 1987, the song had been written by Ssegawa back in 1982 after the garden incident.
The song didn’t immediately book its place among the wedding songs until the band was performing on one, Maria Nakyagabba, a member requested that they perform Sooka omunonye at the part the bride looks for the lost groom, since then the song became an anthem for that part of the ceremony and even crossing over to the traditional Kwanjulas.
Sooka Omunonye has been a phenomenon that the artist has since reproduced it four times, first in 1987, 1991, re-mastered in 1997 and a new century version in 2008, all the versions were recorded in London.
Ssegawa loves his music, in fact, the first time you talk to him, he will easily come off as a calm talking dad, but when he starts talking music, even the voice tone changes, he stands up and gestures, gives free acapellas and on many musical topics, his voice is louder, it obviously echoes his singing deep voice – which is really – really cool.
His love for music conquers it all, before leaving the country, in between 1980 and 1995; Ssegawa translated and re-arranged about 300 church hymns to Luganda and are currently used in Ugandan churches.
“I grew up and sang for the church, so I translated songs not to be paid but because I felt I had to,” Ssegawa says.
Ssegawa is not just a phenomenal singer, when the guitars and keyboards go silent; he exchanges the microphone with a pen. His dedication to the art of writing goes beyond writing 380 songs. In 1992, he contributed many articles to the Youth Awaiting the 21st Century projects, much of the articles were compiled into books which were launched in 1996 and 1997.
Today, he uses his wit to advocate for peace, human rights, justice and social progress. Earlier this year, Ssegawa was contracted by a UN body to train and audio produce several songs by South Sudan artists.
During his two week stay in Juba, Ssegawa trained and co-produced songs which were used as ringtones to spread a message about youth disarmament.
However, even when Ssegawa has the immeasurable talent and discipline, like many Ugandan artistes, he too has had a taste of bad luck and fate. In 1994, a young Diplock Ssegawa faced it rough when many of his Wrens band members disappeared after a show in London.
“It was a very low point in my career, I didn’t know what to tell their relatives after returning, it’s Moses Matovu (Afrigo) that helped me regain confidence, I almost gave up,” Ssegawa says noting that he has always depended on the Afrigo front man Matovu for advice.
“When I was starting out, I was very much influenced by the brilliance of Jimmy Katumba, Elly Wamala and Afrigo band, so whenever I had a chance, I would consult them,” adds Ssegawa.
He speaks highly of Jimmy Katumba as his mentor, in 2006, during an interview with The Observer’s Abu Baker Mulumba, Ssegawa noted that he’s lucky to have shared his last name with the legendary artiste.
“It’s absurd we were not related in anywhere, though, Jimmy’s father was a great friend of my dad. How I wish they were brothers,” Ssegawa says.
He notes that technology has aided Ugandan music though killed live performance and made artistes lazy.
“People dance to thunderous beats that artistes have stopped putting in time to write better lyrics and as a result, many untalented people have overshadowed real art,” he says angrily adding; “the public too should stop pressuring artistes for new songs, it makes them do shoddy works for the sake of the fans request.”
Ssegawa stresses that artistes shouldn’t be forced into doing certain music genres because they were convinced it’s what will sell them and should stop being vulgar for publicity.
“Genuine artistes don’t look for publicity but it instead looks for them, let their works do the talking,” he says.
He adds that he didn’t need to do drugs to produce a good record.
Ssegawa still writes music, and in 2008, he recorded a song Nkomyewo whose video was shot mid-2013 and already receiving massive airplay on local TV stations.
His currently under intensive rehearsals for a ‘Diplock Ssegawa and Friends’ concert he hopes to hold mid next year.
He also hopes to revive the Mirembe Family Choir and the spirit of choir music in the country.
“Choir music sets the pace, if many artistes today had been exposed to such music, few would be depending on computer sounds while performing,” he says and reckons schools that have replaced choir performances with karaoke mimes of famous songs; “Teachers are killing the kids talents at a tender age, these kids need a chance to express themselves through music not expressing what Julianna says in Nabikoowa because they don’t understand it.”
Ssegawa is also a family man, married to Norah Katumba and have been blessed with six children. He’s however very proud of his oldest daughter Flavia Nantayiro.
Even when she’s both deaf and mute, Nantayiro has grown up to become a professional banker at Crane Bank, and yes, she loves his music even when she has never listened to it.
“She’s my symbol of never giving up regardless of what life throws infront of you,” Ssegawa humbly says.