If there is one Ugandan that dominated December for more than 30 years, it is definitely Philly Bongoley Lutaaya.
He is highly known as one of the first Ugandans to publicly declare their HIV status. He then went on to release the iconic song, Alone and Frightened, inspired by Swedish band Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love. The song went on to become the poster child of Uganda’s fight against HIV/Aids.
December is the month known to many as one that is dedicated to creating awareness around HIV/Aids, thus, Lutaaya’s Alone and Frightened graces the airwaves more than once when the month starts.
But as it progresses, people launch into the festive season. Lutaaya still dominates thanks to a Christmas album, Merry Christmas which he released in 1987. With songs such as Zukuka, Tumusinze and Gloria, he rules many airwaves since these songs are part of Uganda’s festive season soundtrack.
Today marks exactly 30 years since Lutaaya passed at Nsambya Hospital. And as poetic as lady fate could be, the 30 year anniversary of his death comes only five days after the death of Roxette’s lead singer Gun-Marie Fredriksson.
Fredriksson is one half of Roxette and the voice behind the 1987 runaway hit It Must Have Been Love, which is said to have influenced the Lutaaya while recording Alone and Frightened. Fredriksson died at the beginning of this week on December 9 after a 17 year health battle. Surprisingly, It Must Have Been Love started its life as a Swedish Christmas song, but after reworking it and removing the Christmas references, we got what became an iconic song.
It is said Lutaaya came back to Uganda from Sweden a few months into 1989. On April 13, during a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel, a local newspaper says that he declared his status.
“Fellow comrades of Uganda,” he said, “it is with utmost regret that today I inform you that the sickness bothering me has been diagnosed as Aids.”
The next day, New Vision ran a cover story, Lutaya Has Aids that was followed by an editorial applauding his courage. This was at the time the disease had ravaged the country, yet people did not talk about their positive status openly.
However, the journey to his coming out had started when he was still in Sweden. There he had told his brother that he had the disease and had asked him to prepare a press conference both at the airport when he returned and another one at the National Theatre.
His announcement is said to have changed how Ugandans viewed HIV/Aids, although Donald Mulosi, an actor and playwright from Botswana believes Lutaaya’s influence spread beyond Uganda.
In an interview in 2015, while in Uganda for the Writivism Festival, Mulosi said he learnt about Lutaaya while in the US from another African. His story touched Mulosi that much that he decided to do something about it.
Mulosi is the playwright behind the play Today It’s Me that has been performed in Botswana, Off Broadway in New York and of course Kampala.
Much as the play maintains many of the facts, Lutaaya make his declaration at the Entebbe airport as opposed to the Sheraton hotel.
It’s after the declaration that Mulosi plagues his audience into an emotional rollercoaster of Lutaaya driving from Entebbe to Kampala with a signature song, Entebbe Wala.
Mulosi did an amazing job of embodying Lutaaya in the one man play that when he ends it with Alone and Frightened, some people can’t help it but join in and sing along.
Today It’s Me also won Mulosi the Robert Potter Playwriting Award in 2012.
One of the most memorable parts was when Mulosi playing Lutaaya embarks on sensitising Ugandans about HIV/Aids, he visits schools such as Gayaza High preaching against the scourge.
Outside the play, Lutaaya went on to visit different corners of Uganda sensitising people and preaching against reckless sexual lifestyles. Luckily, he had the support of some clergymen.
In a 2014 Daily Monitor story, it is said that on August 26, 1989, he staged what was his biggest showcase at the Nakivubo War Memorial Stadium. Apparently many in attendance had different opinions about him, with many believing he was telling lies considering the fact that he was still strong and could afford to sing and dance. While others thought he had been cured.
It is also written that other people booed him instead.
The story further says many people in the audience believed Lutaaya had eaten Yowerina Nanyonga’s soil and thus was able to live to that day.
Nanyonga was a woman from Ssembabule that became a national phenomenon in the 1980s after she claimed to have received a vision and thus was able to treat HIV and Aids related illness using soil from her backyard.
Others believed he had been paid by Europeans that wanted to make films about Ugandans being ravaged by the scourge. These people believed he had used a drug to lose weight.
It is also said that most Ugandans in attendance were there to enjoy a performance by a famous artiste they admired, his message was none of their business.
At that time, he had worked on his final album Alone, but he briefly left Uganda for Sweden once more.
It is said that on knowing he did not have enough time to live, he knew he wanted to leave a legacy. He thus, spent a big part of 1989 doing advocacy work as well as recording new music.
Tezra Lutaaya, one of his daughters in a 2010 interview says the period wore him down; “Because of the music he wanted to release, he did not mind his life anymore; he missed his appointments with the doctors and even his medication.”
While he recorded his albums Alone and Tumusinze, his hair had started falling off. A relative intervened by making him a dreadlocks wig.
It was mainly because of his family and music that he was in and out of Uganda all the time.
However, on December 2, strangely a day after what is World Aids Day today, Lutaaya returned to Uganda in 1989. It is written that he was too weak to walk that a stretcher was used to get him from the plane to an ambulance which whisked him off to Nsambya Hospital.
Talking to journalist Vianney Nsimbe, Tezra in 2010 said Lutaaya’s final words were asking his mother to lift his head to have one final look at the world he was about to leave, he died in his mother’s arms after that glimpse on December 15.
Impact on the industry
Lutaaya has been lauded for being strong and brave for declaring his HIV status at the time people were not talking about the disease.
He became the face of a disease many had discarded as a myth and on another day, witchcraft.
His impact saw many more people come out to declare their HIV status, many that ended up becoming activists such as artistes Livingstone Kasozi, Prince Juuko Mawanda and Aloysius Matovu, among others.
In 2007, in celebration of his legacy, artistes such as Bebe Cool, Iryn Namubiru, Julianna Kanyomozi, Bobi Wine and Mesach Ssemakula came together to breathe new life to his classics such as Nazagwaki, Born in Africa and Diana.
The songs excited Ugandans and the world alike, for instance, Bebe Cool got a Kora Award nomination for his Born in Africa rendition and later got to perform it on Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration on June 27 2008 at Hyde Park, London.
In 2014, the rendition was again placed number 15 on the BBC African Anthems list that included other songs such as Mama Africa by Akon, Angelique Kidjo’s Agolo, 2Face Idibia’s African Queen and Oliver Mtukudzi’s Todi.
Born in Africa was the last song Lutaaya performed during that concert at Nakivubo, he told the crowd that he was going to Europe that Saturday but was coming back in December; “and if God wishes, I will stage a concert at Lugogo Indoor Stadium.”
Additional information from Internet sources.
About Philly Bongoley Lutaaya
Philly Bongoley Lutaaya (19 October 1951 – 15 December 1989) was a musician who was the first prominent Ugandan to give a human face to HIV/Aids.
Before his death, Lutaaya spent his remaining healthy time writing songs about his battle with Aids, releasing his last album Alone, including his famous song Alone and Frightened which is said to have been influenced by Swedish duo Roxette’s hit song It Must Have Been Love, as well as touring churches and schools throughout Uganda to spread a message of prevention and hope.
Lutaaya was popular in Uganda in the 1960s, and in the 1970s he toured the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, and Japan. In the mid 1980s, he settled in Stockholm, Sweden. There he recorded his hit album Born in Africa, which is still popular in Uganda.
Lutaaya’s Christmas album, produced in 1986, remains his most popular album to date. The album, whose songs were written in native Luganda, remains central to Christmas celebrations in Uganda. It includes classics such as “Merry Christmas, Zuukuka, Tumusinze, Ssekukkulu, Gloria, Anindiridde and Katujaguze. To date, Philly Lutaaya remains one of the best recording musician in Uganda.
In 2004, during the second edition of the Pearl of Africa Music Awards (PAM) he was posthumously honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Three years later, artistes such as Julianna Kanyomozi, Bebe Cool, Bobi Wine, Nubian Lee and Iryn Namubiru among others came together to do a tribute album where they re-recorded many of his classic songs.