Sep 22 2007

Uganda’s Musical Identity-Crisis

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:45 PM

Had lunch at Café Pap with Steve Jean, perhaps Kampala’s leading music producer. As everywhere, the pirating of digital music is well established in Uganda, sinking deep roots into youth culture just as the country’s first true copyright law takes effect. Jean, whose latest hit act is a band called Blue 3, bemoans the government’s unwillingness to crack down on copy-cats and imagines new approaches to distributing digital music – encrypted downloads at a music store he plans to open next year in the east African city.
Jean is also a realist. He spent a decade in southern California, learning the ropes of recording, and today has the most cutting-edge studio, creatively and technically, in Uganda. While he backs some acts out of passion, he also must take on commercial work in order to cover his expenses. And because of the difficulty musicians face in selling CDs in Uganda, he recognizes that a successful producer must build a multimedia “brand” for his clients. That means working in radio, television and of course live performances.
“Musicians still don’t get their fair share, but the situation is much much better than 5 to 10 years ago,” Jean says. Over this period, Ugandans have learned to love their own music. “Coming up, people only wanted to hear copyrights,” or songs made popular by American musicians. Now Ugandans want original songs from their star musicians, sung increasingly in their indigenous languages. The same sentiments preside over popular music tastes in neighboring Tanzania and Kenya, where Swahili is the language of choice in studios.
These songs, despite lyrics in local languages, are invariably imitative of Western pop music, or niche styles such as hip-hop. Jean concedes that Ugandan musical originality remains problematic. “We are trying to make international styles our own,” he says, and he thinks the adoption process  – in reggae and hip-hop, in particular – is successful. “This is our music now,” he says. But what about the emergence of a distinctive Ugandan style, a set of national musical traits that are instantly recongizeable in the same way that music from Mali or Senegal or Nigeria is immediately distinctive?
“Not yet,” Jean says. And even the roadmap isn’t clear.

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