James Ssewakiryanga Junior hails from a musical family. His parents, the late James Ssewakiryanga Senior and Betty Namata were directors of a historical traditional musical troupe called Tebifanana Abifuna.
Naturally, he was raised in a musical surrounding. Besides his parents, he got to mingle with other traditional musicians like Albert Sempeke Senior, Stephen Rwangyezi as well as Moses Matovu of Afrigo Band.
From the family troupe, he had the opportunity to work with Nkwanzi troupe, Ndere troupe and Ngoma troupe which introduced him to a number of traditional instruments.
Later on, he took interest in learning how to play them. The instruments were from different tribes and cultures of Uganda. When he was older, he needed a platform from where to play and Qwela Band opened doors for him.
Qwela does afro-fused music. While in the band, he got to interact with two musicians he admired guitarist Myko Ouma and Hebert Kinobe.
“Music is my life. While I was at University studying and playing for Qwela in 2009, I had an idea of forming a team that had an objective to play Ugandan music fusing instruments,” he recalls.
He approached musical friends like drummer Abraham Sekasi, Jackson Kirya Kuti who was pursuing a solo music career in South Africa and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Steven Oundo who now lives in the US. They formed Janzi Band on August, 27, 2009.
Along the way, Ssewakiryanga started thinking about legacy and innovation. He started working on a music instrument he named after the band-Janzi.
First, he thought of a modern Adungu with a more beautiful look, well-decorated and amplified which he managed to do. Later on, he created the Janzi, a two-sided instrument. Janzi is a name they got from the local name of a grasshopper. Ssewakiryanga explains that they chose the name because they wanted their music to fly around the world.
In making the Janzi, he wanted to create a new instrument from Uganda that would match other instruments around the world. He also wanted to come up with something that he would call his.
“I had to think of how different it would look or sound compared to the other African string instruments such as Adungu, Endongo, and Endingidi from Uganda and the Kora, Ngoni from West Africa,” he recalls.
He designs everything and participates in all steps of making instruments with the help of a carpenter who helps put the wood together since he does not have the machines that connect wood. He plays a supervisory role.
All work is done at his home in Mengo. “I have a gentleman who works with me. I call him home and I explain what I need him to do and after he is done, I do the rest myself,” he says.
The Janzi is a different instrument in terms of how it is tuned, played and its whole set-up.
He has also re-modified the Adungu. “I had to think of how better and modern I wanted it to look like, so I decided to use wood entirely which would give me a distinctive sound that is quite different from the usual Adungu,” he further explains.
He amplified it so it is easy to play in harmony with other instruments. He adds, “You just plug in the cable like you do with the guitar. I also decided to use guitar pegs unlike the usual Adungu that uses local wood pegs or nails. And with those features, the Adungu I re-modified looks more modern and flexible and we play it in Janzi music on stage.”
Ssewakiryanga has given the traditional Adungu, which has lived through centuries, a new look that will make it more marketable and appealing to more players within and outside Uganda. “The Janzi, I feel, marks growth in Uganda’s music industry and I am proud to have come up with the idea of an instrument that looks attractive and unique,” the musician says of his innovation.
He hopes it can be accepted and help draw attention to other Ugandan instruments. He has made 10 Janzi instruments and is still experimenting with the others because he is looking at serialising them.
“I intend to make sure the Janzi instrument has more activities in my music and the band’s music so to help sell its sounds around,” he explains. He is currently working on a 10-track album which he says will describe Ugandan music culture and showcasing instruments he can play.
These will include the Janzi, Akogo, Adungu, Endongo, Amadinda, Endingidi, Engoma and Mbira. The album is almost done. He is doing fill-ups and mixing. He will soon release some songs for public consumption.
Ssewakiryanga is realising his musical dream of being the instrumentalist whose passion is beyond playing but also adding his knowledge and creativity to Uganda’s music.
Away from the artiste, he lives a simple life. He likes keeping indoors with family and friends and playing football. He loves pets. He has two beautiful female dogs, Coco and Rox. He supports Manchester United football club.