The music is good, no surprises there because no less is expected of Afrigo band. The party however starts when Joanita Kawalya steps on stage, regal in a floor length black gown, and dripping with jewelry, her trademark hair a cross between sleek pony and bouffant.
Kawalya works the crowd with the ease of someone who has done this a thousand times before, but without the complacency or insincerity of doing this one too many times. It is clear she is in her element as she gyrates and teases the audience with Lingala dance moves, unabashed by the whistles and catcalls.
The name “Joanita Kawalya” and silky vocals are synonymous with the country’s most enduring band, Afrigo. And it in turn is synonymous with Ugandan music. She as the female vocalist and leading lady, is always at its helm. Wherever the acclaimed band goes, she does and good ageless music follows.
An undeniable star at her game
It is no exaggeration to call her the queen of Ugandan Music. When she steps on stage, she spurs the audience, both young and old to get on their feet.
As a woman, she is a mother, professionally, a teacher and as a performer, a true star.
The daughter of a musician, also great in his own right, Eclass Kawalya, Joanita started singing at an early age, and has been quoted as saying that the first song she ever sang was her father’s classic Gugude in nursery school. All her nine sisters can also sing.
She went on to sing in choir in school and later as a part time member of the Wrens, a band led by Dippy Katumba.Long before she even joined Afrigo, the talented Kawalya had performed with them, courtesy of her father’s guest performances with the band. He would take the whole family then.
Kawalya was to join the Afrigo band in 1986, a tender but immensely talented sixteen-year-old, to replace her sister, Margaret, also a vocalist who was leaving for Germany.
She went on to learn all there was about the business, go and complete a teaching course at Kyambogo, get married and juggle her three roles until 1993 when she quit teaching and concentrated on music and mothering her two children.
Afrigo, hard work and discipline
Today, that wide-eyed young vocalist is a seasoned matriarch of the music industry as the reigning lady at Afrigo, with 25 years’ experience, with one solo album and another in the offing.
It is the band, which has been in existence for 36 years, that propelled her to fame but it is sheer hard work and discipline that has kept her on top, and preserved her as the music lover’s darling who will never be seen with a thread out of place.
Beautiful and elegant, Kawalya has stood the test of time in an industry wrought with sensationalism and shallow popularity. To date, few can match her ability to sing to a live band and sound as good as she does on CD. She may have fewer albums than a lot of artistes that have been out less than her, (one in the 26 years she has been performing compared to the average rate today of one album every two years), but with the level of excellence in Y’abasinga easily qualifies it as a collector’s item.
Despite raving reviews of her album, and constant place under the media glare, Kawalya, or Mrs Muganga as she is otherwise known, has managed to keep her two children and husband out of the prying eyes of the public.
Her non-musical projects
Kawalya finds time to work as a social activist and community mobiliser. She has served as a community advisory member on the National Aids project, the Walter Reed project and the Makerere John Hopkins joint project. She has also been involved in grass root campaigns for HIV and her face is now recognisable as one of facilitators for the Nabagereka’s annual cultural fete, the Kisakaate.Kawalya is also involved in mentorship of talent.
Often described as down to earth, Kawalya has survived in showbiz, longer than a lot of female stars and for the right reasons too. She attributes this to sheer discipline and a firm family and religious foundation.
To date, the vivacious star takes to the stage every week at the band’s home, New Obligatto, Little flowers on Bombo road, and shows no signs of slackening. If anything, she looks to be rediscovering herself anew, with each show being more energetic than the last.
As a member of a great band and as Kawalya, the woman, mother, artist and brand, she is still a shining icon.
Away from the limelight
The legendary musician is a down to earth woman who loves to stay home and be with her family as much as she does being on stage with all the public adoration. “I love taking care of my home, it is not the same when I am not there,” says Kawalya who married her fellow teacher Christo Muganga in 1995. “My best achievement is my family; I treasure them,” she says with the look of a fulfilled mother.
Kawalya speaks highly of her husband whom she says is not rattled by her fame or the attention men, and women alike, give her. “He even opens the gate for me when I work late,” she says of her husband who is now deputy head teacher at Kitebi High School.
For all his support though Kawalya mentions that he has, probably attended only two shows throughout her career. “He is an academic, totally happy away from the public eye reading a book, the night scene is not his cup of tea, but I am fully appreciative of his support,” she says.