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FEATURE: Why Ugandan music isn’t crossing boundaries

Uganda, is now ranked number three in Africa as far as music and entertainment is concerned. Uganda is home to over 65 different ethnic groups and tribes, and they form the basis of all indigenous music.The Baganda, being the most musically vibrant nationality in the country, has defined what constitutes culture and music of Uganda over the last two centuries (PHOTO/Courtesy)

Uganda is now ranked number three in Africa as far as music and entertainment are concerned. Uganda is home to over 65 different ethnic groups and tribes, and they form the basis of all indigenous music. The Baganda, being the most musically vibrant nationality in the country, has defined what constitutes the culture and music of Uganda over the last two centuries (PHOTO/Courtesy)

At the start of the 21st century, the music industry in Uganda seemed to be on the right path to success. The industry’s up-and-coming stars at the time (Bobi Wine, Jose Chameleone, and Bebe Cool) were rocking airwaves ending Congolese and to a lesser extent western – mostly American music – dominancy.

There seemed to be hope that Ugandan music would make gains beyond the East African region. True to this, Jose Chameleone, often described as the country’s most prominent artist of his generation, made significant gains with songs such as mawoko na mawoko which helped him enter the Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola, and Democratic Republic of Congo markets. This gave hope to the industry that there was a bright future.

Fast forward, Blue 3*, Radio and Weasel were some of the other artists that tried to cross borders into markets like Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Angola, and Malawi before Eddy Kenzo’s BET catapulted him to heights any Ugandan musician would dream of.

Much as Kenzo’s music has crossed borders, his presence on the international market isn’t as felt as his Nigerian counterparts such as Burna Boy.

“Eddy Kenzo is no doubt one of the biggest artists to have come out of Uganda, but his presence at the international isn’t that much felt. His major markets are Nigeria, Ghana, and Sierra Leone among other West African countries,” James Propa, a music analyst, says.

Today, most Ugandan music is consumed locally with only a handful crossing beyond the East African region. But why has it become a problem for Ugandan music to cross borders?

Where is the problem?

In an interview with one of the local daily newspapers, Moses Ssali alias Bebe Cool attributed the problem to DJs in other countries not prioritizing Ugandan music which he says comes as a result of poor market and selfishness on their side.

“Their DJs (in other countries) do not play our music and the same can be said of other countries mostly in markets such as Nigeria. This is done intentionally. It’s not that our music is bad,” he said.

Ugandan in foreign countries most especially western countries are not as many compared to other countries like Nigerians. This, James Propa argues, has done a lot of disservice to Ugandan music since the demand for Ugandan music isn’t on demand there.

“Nigerians have the numbers in countries like the US, UK, Germany among other countries. It these people that eventually lead to a huge demand of Nigerian music even in social places like clubs and bars,” he says adding that, “as a result people not of Nigerian decent end up liking the music too since its almost everywhere.”

In some cases, some music observers have attributed the problem to poor production of Ugandan music which in turn leads to Ugandan music not being played on international platforms.

“Much as our production has greatly improved, we still have a challenge of it not meeting internationally recognized standards,” Edward Sendi, a music critic, says.

Some however disagree with this argument saying Ugandan music production has since improved and can be played anywhere in the world.

“Yes poor production was a problem back in the days, but today it isn’t. I think we are at a point where the quality of our music can sell in any part of the world,” says James Propa.

Lack of professional organization and enough money are the other factors that some believed are hindering Ugandan music from crossing to other countries.

Big budgets, according to James Propa, have played a huge role in helping Nigerians penetrate markets that seemed to be impenetrable in the first place.

“Our artists here don’t have enough money to promote their music globally. Sadly, international music labels that have signed some Ugandan artists haven’t done much to propel our artists to greater heights,” he says, adding that, “artists also are not organized enough to make great strides. They need professional help, but are not willing to get it.”

What can be done?

Ali Albahai, CEO of Talent Africa, says Ugandan musicians need to understand the international market and churn out relevant music. In doing so, he says, they need to avoid losing the local audience because at the end of it, at least they’ll always rest assured of support back home.

“The international market is quite tricky because you are dealing with an audience of people from all walks of life. The schooled, the not so schooled, the rich, the poor et cetera. So one has studied carefully and come up with a strategy that would help them make gains, but also avoid losing the local audience,” he says.

In an interview with one of the local TV stations, female musician Aroma, expressed fear of losing the local audience when trying to get into the international market.

“Our local audience likes us because we have packaged something that is in line with what they would love. If I am trying to chase the international audience, what if I end up losing my home base?” she said.

Quite a number of artists have this fear. Perhaps it explains why some haven’t tried at all.

TV show host, Edwin Katamba popularly known as MC Kats says the private sector should also consider investing heavily in the entertainment industry if they are to compete favorably in the international market.

“Our musicians don’t have the money to do things that would get them recognized the world over. This is because a lot of money is required to achieve this. If only people in the private sector would consider investing, then that would be the start of a bright future,” he says.

Despite these calls, some feel the private sector has stayed away because of the confusion in the music industry.

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