A random search of music schools in Uganda will quickly land you on Esom School of Music as one of the top results. Founded 15 years ago, owners say it generates more than Shs500m annually from their services.
Rewind to April 2006: Eternity Source of Music (Esom) was founded by Daniel Innocent Kiyega on a trial and error basis with an initial investment of Shs700,000. He knew what he wanted to do but was not sure of how to do it.
“Looking back, I cannot imagine I have come this far,” Kiyega says.
Firstly, the school needed a leader, who could bear the vision of teaching music aligned with international innovations in music teaching. Kiyega, who had just returned from South Africa where he had obtained a Diploma in Music, had two money-making options on his mind -- to open a restaurant or follow his dream of a music school.
“At the time, many young people loved to eat fried fries and there were few places offering them. I felt starting a restaurant was something I could do,” he recalls.
But a visit to Makerere Performing Arts institute left him underwhelmed and planted an idea.
A unique vision
With Shs700,000 at hand, he went to Kisekka Market where he obtained a used bass guitar and spent Shs450,000 on paying rent for a two-roomed apartment on Rubaga Road.
He hired an administrator and pinned posters across the town announcing his services.
“From the beginning, I wanted to offer something different,” Kiyega explains.
That something different was a music school with a strong focus on new music, performers and composers.
His first students were interested in the piano and he charged them Shs1,000 per lesson.
Kiyega’s early stroke of genius was employing already established music teachers. This did not work though, as there were few music teachers in the country willing to join a new school. He ended up multiplying talented staff from his students. This has laid the groundwork while setting the trajectory for the school’s success.
Having spent his childhood as a street child, Kiyega says music was a challenge too hard to resist. As a child, he used to sell buveera in Owino Market (now St Balikuddembe) and made his own soul guitar and drums.
In 1994, he was given a chance by one trader to sell cassette tapes as a hawker in the Old Taxi Park at the time when radio cassettes were a booming business.
It was during those moments that Friends of Children Association (Foca) with current Buyaga MP Barnabas Tinkasiimre, playing a helping hand to get off the streets.
“Most people under trying times listen to music. For me, music was part of life,” he recalls of his childhood.
He was taken to Youth Alive and later Africa Youth Evangelism Ministry from where Betty Nakigudde singled him out in 1997 with former Firebase crew member Abbey Mbabazi aka Casanova, who sung the ‘Ayagala Mulaasi’ hit. Nakigudde took them into her home as her children and they started attending Trumpet Centre Church and later Prayer Mountain Church Seguku where they played instruments.
“When Nakigudde asked me what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to do music. She bought me a small keyboard,” he says.
From there it was a stellar path to an international success studying music at Reformed Theological College in 2000 before attending Creare Training Centre in Bloemfontein, South Africa. it was here that he acquired skills in sound engineering, audio production, dance and drama.
“Everything is possible if you focus on it,” Kiyega, who loves to play piano and guitar as well as teach, says. He returned in 2002 before taking a tour to Europe sponsored by the World Trumpet Mission Church to perform at church events.
Bringing music to the city
His decision to start a school of music was a game changer as he permeated music networks around the country.
“We have many success stories in different sectors such as Producer Bless Touch who has worked with Jose Chameleone, Nash Wonder and R&B singer, Ronald Magada, popularly known as Maro, among others,” he says.
Another stroke of luck was putting the school near former Pride Theatre on Rubaga Road where many students could easily commute. The school has since rented three levels on a building along Namirembe Road to cater for increasing numbers.
The school is now an acclaimed centre of excellence offering services in six programmes including; holidays, group, private, evening, weekend and short courses.
With the current enrolment of 230 students, Esom offers courses including; piano, guitar, voice training, music production, sound engineering, video production, deejaying, drums, saxophone and violin.
As the school prepared to celebrate 15 years in music, the coronavirus pandemic hit, sending them into survival mode.
“We have been forced to do a lot of short-term activities in order to survive,” Kiyega says.
He recalls the total lockdown months as a total mess saying “It was more expensive to deliver lessons because no one had prepared for it”.
Kiyega says most of the students did not have computer/mobile enabled internet.
By the time they were allowed to resume under strict guidelines, he was Shs52m in rent arrears.
To make ends meet, he put his IT knowledge to use by starting an e-Commerce platform, Nofeka Online Shopping to make deliveries of music equipment as well as electronics, groceries, phones, computers, health and beauty, fashion and automobiles, among others.
Although he maintains a professional stance, Kiyega says music is facing challenges, most especially, perceptions.
“There are people out there who have made it big without going to music schools. This makes some believe that is the right way. This is actually the reason why our numbers don’t grow as you would expect. But we shall continue to emphasise on music, professional ethics and discipline such that people get to see the difference training brings about,” he says.
“There are people who still hold the idea that music education is for the rich. We want to demystify that by offering our services at affordable fees,” he says.
Private classes for instruments range from Shs280,000 for 30 minutes to Shs480,000 an hour per term while group classes range between Shs480,000 to Shs540,000.
Some music schools in Uganda offer Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music exams (ABRSM) but Esom has opted for internal and vocational exams offered by the Directorate of Industrial Training (DIT).
“This is another gap that needs to be filled,” Kiyega says. The school has held graduation ceremonies twice until the Covid-19 outbreak.
Kiyega, who is wonderfully optimistic, has a big project on the horizon. He wants to discover new avenues of growth while offering vibrant programmes. He has a band that offers numerous music-related opportunities.
The school plans to expand with a planned state-of-the-art building where emphasis will be put on local music and attracting foreign students. Artiste management is another plan for the future.
“I think we can realise this in about five-10 years because growth is now visible,” he says.