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Recollecting the tunes of Buganda’s lost sounds

Buganda determined to find her lost sound

The journey to save Buganda music from the brink of extinction has been ongoing for more than two decades, according to Abdu Naru Kimbowa, a former player of the entamiivu – a drum usually accompanied by a xylophone.

Kimbowa says the first time he was approached by researchers about Buganda’s lost music was more than 25 years ago.

“Two white men picked us from Ggavu and we visited the Bamunanika palace and later to the Mujaguzo in Kabowa,” he recalls.

It was just the beginning of many trips he has since made around the kingdom talking about these instruments.

But the most promising trip yet was in 2012.

It was led by Salongo Muyimbwa Byakyalo, a former player of the makondere (trumpets) along with James Isabirye, a lecturer and music researcher at Kyambogo University, and friends from Singing Wells, an online platform that has recorded and archived traditional sounds from East Africa.

This trio was looking at ways of preserving the sound.

The process of saving the music is slow; Isabirye notes, however, that it is promising.

For instance, with the help of friends such as Peter Cooke, Singing Wells has facilitated Musisi Mukalazi, one of the few known entenga players, to teach others how to play the music.

Cooke is a retired ethnomusicologist and research associate at the School of African Studies, London. He recorded lots of royal music during his time as a lecturer at Kyambogo in the 1960s.

“My work in Uganda led me to begin exploring that country’s traditional music initially with the aim of collecting useful materials for teaching purposes,” Cooke tells Singing Wells.

It is then that he met Mukalazi.

And last May, Mukalazi led a team of six entenga players to open the annual Doa Doa performing arts festival at the National Theatre in Kampala.

Clad in black shirts, the six players took to the stage, each taking a position that made him responsible for at least two of the fifteen drums aligned according to size.

Usually arranged to produce adistinctive drumbeat tuned like a xylophone sound, 12 smaller drums are aligned in the first row and are played by four people, while three bigger drums are placed in the upper row with two players.

The smaller drums are beaten with smaller sticks curved at the end, while the bigger ones are hit with a big stick culturally known as omunyolo (knob).

According to Kimbowa, the big stick was what the entenga and entamiivu had in common.

One of the biggest skills, according to Mukalazi, was for a player to protect his sticks from getting entangled with those of a neighbour.

The group known as Entenga Royal Drummers played well-documented songs including Muno Muno, Ekyuma Kya Cotton and Ssekanyolya, among others.

Mukalazi says he had trained the group since last November, although Doa Doa was the first time they were performing for an audience.

Unlike his palace days, things were different this time. For instance, they were playing for laymen, rather than the king.

Also, players such as Mpina Robert, Kalwanza Shaban, John Ssempeke Jr are not from the Lugave clan and, most interestingly, two of his troupe members, Mwondha Muzafaru and Okiror Okwi, are non-Baganda.

Isabirye notes that much as he values culture, the main reason for reviving the music is not to hide it within the walls of the palace but to conserve a unique sound.

“We looked for people that were willing to learn how to play, than those fit to play the music,” Isabirye said after the performance.

It is not only the entenga that is being revived, though.

Deep in Kikuli, Lugenda in Buikwe district, another group of former entamiivu players led by Robinson Wasswa and George William Ssemuwemba are working hard to see the sound survive.

The two were taught by their fathers who used to play in the palace.

“Many people continued playing the music secretly [after 1966 crisis] because of their love for the Kabaka,” Ssemuwemba says.

Wasswa notes that when the kingdoms were reinstated in 1993, they were at last lucky to play again.

“Things were not good at the coronation in 1993, but since we were overwhelmed by the fact that Buganda had been restored, we ignored the details around our treatment,” he says.

But the discontent grew as they continued playing whenever summoned.

Ssemuwemba says the values were barely respected and the instrumentalists were not treated well.

However, it was the lack of their special uniforms that infuriated them most.

As a mutamiivu, a tunic, belt whose buckle had an emblem of the kingdom and a munyolo were the things that defined one. In fact, dressed that way, one could access any place at a kingdom event without barriers. How those times have changed!

“The last time I played was in Mukono. We were stationed in the sun for almost a full day. Of course there was a stage, but it was reserved for only [contemporary] artistes,” Wasswa says.

Wasswa and Ssemuwemba run a troupe that plays at different events to ensure the entamiivu is not forgotten. The two have since taught their sons how to play, fusing the entamiivu with the more common nankasa, mpuunyi and at times a piano and guitars.

“It is true we don’t want to lose the sound but we still need to survive; that’s the reason we make the fusion people can enjoy and dance to,” Wasswa says.

During the just-concluded Bayimba International Festival of the Arts, Ugandans got a taste of the entamiivu when the Madinda Sound System, a collaboration between Ugandan and Austrian artistes, performed Omusango Gw’Abalere.

The song, according to Kimbowa, was inspired by an incident where the balere (who played the flute) were vulgar before the king.

“The kabaka banished them to Bbira, where they were to be executed.”

One story says the song was from a letter written by one of the accused begging for mercy, while another story suggests it was a cry by all the convicts – either way, the cries and pleas paid off as the balere got a reprieve from the king, but the song stayed.

The performance of the song at Bayimba had twists to it; much as Lawrence Okello did justice to the madinda (xylophone), this time it was fused, thanks to the Austrian artistes. The otherwise sad song had a feel of garage and house to it that got revellers dancing.



“At the moment, media says Ugandan music lacks an identity; I guess the restoration of such music will help music find a true authentic sound,” says Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi a folklore artiste.

Paul Walusimbi, a filmmaker and arts fanatic says any music as long as it is authentic and truly ours needs a chance.

“You don’t want a time to come when our kids talk about Buganda as a culture of the past.”

But the music is largely unknown to many Buganda millennials who don’t really care what happens to it. During the Doa Doa performance in May, one of them was overheard questioning whether the entenga were not satanic!

Simon Musasizi, an arts enthusiast who was in the National Theatre auditorium when the entenga was played, noted that the sound was confusing and hard to follow since it was all over the place.

Isabirye, however, notes the sound is always better appreciated in an open space rather than a closed auditorium.

According to Frank Magala, the Buganda Kingdom chief drummer (Kawula), drums like entenga and entamiivu still exist, though not in the right number.

“They are meant to be kept in Kabowa Ku Mujaguzo but are not there because many were destroyed during the attack,” he said.

He says the kingdom is aware of the urgency for the sound’s restoration.

“We are currently working with some music professors to see to it that the sound is restored,” he says.

Magala also says the kingdom is dedicated to restoring the glory of sounds such as amakondere and omulere, which also used to be famous in the palace.

Indeed following these series, the kingdom’s research department has reached out to The Observer to trace the music and restore its glory.

Magala agrees instrumentalists were poorly treated and even went for days without pay, but says it is an issue they wish to sort out once they have the music again.

Prof Isabirye and the Singing Wells are in high gear as far as that is concerned; they are already supporting Byakyalo with the growing of maboga (gourds) and later making of makondere and in the same way working with Kimbowa and Kyobe on the entamiivu.

Their biggest triumph was in 2015 when they recorded at least eight entenga pentatonic songs including Nagenda Kasana, Olugambo Olubulire, Veneneka and Omusango Gw’Abalere among others.

A happy Musisi says he never thought he would ever hear the music again.

About Kaggwa Andrew

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