Nah, you don't. Uganda—a landlocked country between East Africa and Congo. Swahili culture versus Congolese rumba. The geography doesn't leave a whole lot of space for Ugandans to develop their own musical identity, and for years Kampala people danced almost exclusively to foreign music. For the past decade, foreign dancehall has dominated, and most Ugandan artists have been making dancehall.
When I arrived in Kampala, Uganda's capital, I knew very little about the scene there. I was aware of the dancehall craze, but hoping to find something different. On the last night of my stay I headed to a huge concert, where many of Uganda's top artists were performing. Seemed like a pretty appropriate place to get schooled. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a musical dynasty, the Kirya family, who is dominating a new kind of Ugandan scene. So we hung out. This is what I learned.
Maurice Kirya has been the most successful outside of Uganda, winning the prestigious RFI music prize last fall for his polished neo-soul sound. RFI is the international arm of French public radio, which has always been heavily involved with African music. This is what won the RFI jury over.
Maurice is the man outside, but in Uganda, the concert headliner is his little brother Vampino, who gravitates much more towards dancehall, and was quick to grab the attention of Uganda's youth. I got to spend the most time with their older brother Alex, aka Saba Saba, one of Uganda's hip hop pioneers and a founding member of the Bataka Underground crew. Alex grew up in Kampala, founded East Africa's first hip hop summit almost a decade ago and now spends his time between Kampala and LA.
Here's a fine example of Saba Saba's sound. The beat sits somewhere between dancehall and hip hop, and the lyrics—take my word for it—are a call for Ugandans, and more generally Africans, to work together. Keep in mind Uganda is involved in a huge mess in Eastern Congo, an area where rebel groups, foreign armies and the Ugandan army keep chaos alive to make sure minerals (the ones that make our cell phones work) can be smuggled and sold at a cheap price. It's not quite that simple, but the point is, in a country where politics are shady and borders are deadly, Saba Saba's call for unity rings deep.
Download: Saba Saba, "Harambe"
Alex and I talked about his music, but also about the state of the Ugandan music scene. Ugandan airwaves shy away from surprises and substance, so it's difficult for Saba Saba or his brother Maurice's music to get much airplay at home. This is a story I've heard before—Wanlov The Kubolor had a similar experience in Ghana.
The frustration with payola and lack of risk-taking at home is what motivates Saba Saba to open doors onto the outside world. He is very much aware that Uganda has no exposure outside of Africa, except for those who remember the atrocities of its civil war in the 1980s. He is also aware of the strong impact music has on the people in his country. The will to change Uganda's image and steer its young people in a more positive direction motivates him to break down boundaries. And the timing is right—today Kampala has some great studios, some very talented musicians, and an irrepressible will to diversify and spread its music.
The climate is not only right in Kampala. Saba Saba sits right alongside fellow African hip hop pioneers such as Awadi, Wanlov, Blitz and Baloji. As a matter of fact Saba Saba used to rhyme with Wanlov in LA a few years back at Project Blowed in Leimert Park. It was pretty funny leaving Accra to talk Kokonsa with him on the other side of the continent! Why he and I never met in LA will remain one of the great mysteries of the world.