Lure of quick money keeps music quality poor - Wasula

Saturday June 23 2012

James Wasula

James Wasula 

By Jude Katende

MUSIC: Even with a dedicated organisation to lobby officialdom on behalf of artistes, many artistes do not even know their rights. They are many times exploited with impunity.

My father was a chorist. I grew up in a singing family. But everybody sings; weren’t you born singing to the world?” James Wasula, General Secretary Uganda Performing Right Society (UPRS), jokes as he explains his foray into the music world.

A chorist at St. Andrew’s Church, Bukoto, Wasula was exposed to the industry early. He would later compose songs and play bass guitar. Seeing the bespectacled Wasula in his big office, where he has been since the Coffee Marketing Board days, one could find it hard to believe he wrote Afrigo Band’s hit, Nyikira Okola (work hard) among others.

He has composed music for NGOs such as UNESCO, the Safe Motherhood Project and for the Privatisation Unit. Today for tomorrow, written for the latter NGO, played a vital role during Uganda’s privatisation process. “It won accolades and the Americans wanted to use it to promote privatisation worldwide,” Wasula recalls.

Besides commissioned music, Wasula is also known for Christmas carol adaptations. Today, he is the Executive Director of Afrigo band, of which he has been a member since the start. He hasn’t been on stage save for a short stint playing bass guitar in the 1980s, though. On one of his office desks lies a keyboard as if to remind the observer that he is still very much into music.

Besides UPRS, Wasula is also the chairperson of the Presidential Investor Round Table Creative Industries Technical working group. President Museveni, through the Uganda Investment Authority, identified people who have contributed to transforming the economy from a traditional manufacturing one to a knowledge based one.
Wasula has been part of Uganda’s music journey and according to him, the graph is not straight. Band music started in the 1940s when World War II veterans returned to Uganda with band music ideas they had been exposed to.

“In the 1960s, we had the Kawalyas, Fred Masagazi, Stephen Ssempasa, Elly Wamala, Andrew Kyambadde, Hadijja Namale and many others. During that time, we had few bands,” he recalls. He struggles to remember some prominent ones and three come to mind in Rwenzori, Top ten and King Jazz bands.

Since there were no recording studios, people would go to Nairobi to record yet it was expensive. “We lost a lot of music that would have been recorded,” he notes. In the ‘70s, The Thames, Afrigo and other bands stormed the scene although recording challenges still persisted.

However, this didn’t take the wind out of their sails. They instead started touring outside Uganda. Peterson Mutebi of the Thames went to Rwanda, Rwenzori went to Japan and the US while others went to Kenya.

Wasula notes that foreign music’s dominance in Uganda is not a recent thing; rather, a trend that started long ago. Ugandans didn’t always like their own; they were drawn to European and Congolese music.

The big cinemas of that time; Neeta, Odeon, Delight and Drive-In used to show films, some of which had big music names such as Elvis Presley acting. English music was mainly for the elite, while the majority enjoyed Congolese.

A new rush
Fast forward to the 1990s, Ugandan music started taking shape with people liking their own. The likes of Peter Ssematimba and the Perfect Generation, Rasta Rob, Ragga Dee, Jose Chameleone came on the scene. By diversifying into other genres, these artistes helped consolidate Ugandan music.

Wasula notes that from not recording in the past, having many studios today is a problem. Kind of a paradox even. He struggles to come up with names of professional quality studios he knows.

He can only come up with Hope Mukasa’s Bava Studio. “I am not aware of any other in the real sense of a studio. What we have is domestic equipment meant for demo products,” Wasula argues. He adds Afrigo and the National Theatre as also having serious studios and I remind him of Steve Jean’s Fenon and he concurs with me. He sounds incensed that people get a computer and keyboard and call it a studio. He argues that because we have very few professional studios, our music quality remains low.

“Quick money has spoilt the industry. Everyone now thinks they are musicians. We are copycats with no identity. Some remove original lyrics from tracks and put their own without the owner’s permission. Ugandans should pray that they are not caught, otherwise people are going to be sued,” he observes.

He cites renowned pop artist Shakira who was sued for about $11m for using the “Waka Waka” chorus for her 2010 World Cup theme song without permission from the owner. He blames our lack of music identity on not wanting to compose songs and having few good producers.

Wasula thinks that competition has been abused. “Compose one album and let it last two years. You cannot launch four times a year. The quality of your work will be shoddy,” he argues. But to some extent he doesn’t wholly blame these artistes citing piracy eating into their income.

Despite some hiccups, Wasula observes that serious musicians are doing a good job coming up with compositions and live music is being embraced. He also notes that there are some good producers coming up.

UPRS has grown towards 1000 members. Wasula says, one of the challenges the body faces is that some musicians are still not sure who they are. Although, they are invited to meetings for sensitisation about the relevance of UPRS and their own benefits, they fail to attend. He blames their failure to attend on sleeping late at night due to a gruelling schedule.

“They are supposed to be professional with administrators and managers but they want to be everything,” Wasula notes. Besides this challenge, enforcement of the copyright law is still a challenge with some broadcasters not wanting to pay.
But he remains optimistic that Uganda’s performing arts industry though patchy is poised for better times ahead.