Did the art industry need Janzi Awards?

The Janzi Awards were held in December 2021. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Much as many creatives appreciated the awards, many were worried about the intentions behind it.
  • For instance, they hated the fact that the awards wanted to appreciate works people did during the Covid-19 pandemic, yet went on to sideline many of these works at the nomination stage.

On Sunday, December 12, 2021, curtains came down on the inaugural Janzi Awards. This was after two intensive days of the award show intended to celebrate Uganda’s creative economy. Thus, they were toasting to everything Ugandan art and culture for two days.

Like the Pan African Kora Awards that were famous in the early 2000s, Janzi Awards were named after an instrument. Unlike the Kora though, the Janzi is yet to become a cultural icon - it is a modern instrument invented by multi-instrumentalist, artiste and art entrepreneur James Sewakiryanga.

The awards were a celebration of Uganda’s modern art and culture with an original Ugandan instrument as a symbol. 

However, as all awards, the Janzi Awards too had a very hard landing - of course people’s disgruntlement stemmed from a number of issues they felt had not been addressed by the award organisers.

For instance, who was the show organiser, why were the awards rushed, who selected the winners, which criteria did they use and above all, how vital were the awards to an industry under lock for nearly two years?

Role of awards
In Uganda, awards or their importance has always been blurred. 
Since Isaac Mulindwa and a number of people created the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) Awards in 2003, the real role they play or played has been debated. 

This debate has gone on even to other awards such as film and fashion. 
For instance, even when the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) tries to claim the strides the local film industry has made since they introduced the Uganda Film Festival and a corresponding award gala, onlookers believe technology was going to organically force the industry to improve, with or without a UCC festival initiative.

In markets where the awards culture was cultivated, they were initially organised by institutions such as the media or academies. The awards were a culmination of their year’s activities that included art activism, promoting art or even reviewing it.

This was the birth of awards such as the Critics Choice Awards or the MTV Awards, Grammy Awards and the Oscars. They are mostly given by academies whose work in the industry is beyond the award show.

Because of the contributions of institutions behind award shows, winning or being nominated for an award was a platform and an endorsement - that even when the awards did not come with money or a fee, the win and nomination could change the life of a nominee.

Being an Oscar winner could drastically promote a C-list actor to the A-list, which meant that they could charge much more money for a role and often got approached by big studios to appear in their films.

Sometimes, when films won at the Oscars, the renewed demand usually saw them being re-released in cinemas. The same happened for music, a Grammy Award winning artiste easily sold an album, single or tour.

In Uganda, on the other hand, most awards have been events rather than institutions. Most of the organisers are neither involved in the creative industry and rarely do they have a plan for what happens once the show is done.

It is not a surprise that awards, without the exception of Janzi Awards, usually land on hard rocks; artistes don’t see their contribution or importance.

On December 12, 2021, singer Diana Hajara Namukwaya, alias Spice Diana, questioned the importance of the awards and why there was a rush to have the show staged.

“If you want to elevate the art industry, let’s have clear-headed people without selfish interests in our art industry. Open us up, let us go back and work,” she noted.

The artiste also wondered why they cannot be allowed to have shows organised in the same manner the awards had been organised. And since these shows were organised primarily to promote the arts in the country, the artiste couldn’t help but wonder why the government wants to promote art yet art has always been able to promote itself.

“Why would you want to feed someone who can work for themselves yet you still use art to organise events in which you only benefit?” Spice Diana wrote.

Besides Spice Diana, other creatives who preferred anonymity wondered why the government would spend billions of money to organise an award show for an industry that would use less money to come back to life.

“The industry has lost a lot because of the continued lockdown. Why not use this money in the artistes’ creation process and bring them back next year [this year], when there is work worth nominating for awards?” an artiste, who preferred anonymity, wondered.

While speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the awards, Sylvia Owori, the director of operations at Operation Wealth Creation (OWC), and also the chairperson of the organising committee of Janzi Awards, noted that the industry had gone through unprecedented times because of Covid-19. 

“Yet, in spite of this, the artistes and creatives have persevered and endeavoured to create content and provide information and entertainment to their respective audiences in innovative and novel ways. It is in this context that the inaugural Janzi Awards intends to recognise and reward these creators in their respective disciplines,” Owori said at the launch.

OWC was launched by President Museveni in July 2013 as an intervention to efficiently facilitate national socio-economic transformation, with a focus on raising household incomes and wealth creation by transforming subsistence farmers into commercial farmers to alleviate poverty.

However, in the years that followed, the organisation started engaging other sectors, including the creative economy. 

Early this last year, OWC was key in formulating some sort of a stimulus package for artistes, promoters, producers and different people involved in the creative economy.

As a result, this led to endless treks by artistes and different stakeholders to Gulu, to meet OWC coordinator, Gen Salim Saleh. 

Money exchanged hands and different decisions were made, one of which saw the establishment of an e-concert to reboot the industry.  These ideas were welcomed with mixed reactions by the industry. 

Besides the ideas though, the meetings in Gulu were usually characterised by fights among artistes and people who claimed to be their leaders. Some claimed that some people had swindled their money - sagas that went on, even to the award day.

Enter the Janzi Awards
The Janzi Awards were some of the many ideas born out of Gulu. Much as many creatives appreciated the awards, some were worried about the intentions behind it. For instance, they hated the fact that the awards wanted to appreciate works people did during the Covid-19 pandemic, yet went on to sideline many of these works at the nomination stage.

An example of the film category, two of the films nominated had existed at least a year or more before the pandemic. The lone nominated film, Tecora, that was produced and released within that time frame, did not win.
But the awards, Sam Okello, the chairperson of the board of the Uganda National Cultural Centre (UNCC) says, are more than the event but part of the process of bringing all cultural disciplines under an umbrella.

“This is one way in which UNCC and all other stakeholders in the industry will recognise and celebrate creativity, excellence, innovation, ingenuity, and originality to uplift the standards of our industry and also uphold professionalism. Indeed the time has come for creative products from the Pearl of Africa to shine brighter than ever before,” he said.

But besides celebrating art, how exactly are the awards going to benefit artistes, especially those not nominated for an award? 

It is a question that probably members of the National Cultural Forum could answer, although most of them chose not to answer any question from this reporter, noting that they agreed Owori answers all questions regarding the awards.

Our efforts to reach Owori several times were fruitless.
However, during the award show, Owori noted further that the creative industry suffers a lot of setbacks, which have been key in the engagements artists have had in Gulu. 

“We the creatives received our independence when we launched the Janzi Awards on November 3. The Janzi Awards represents a new dawn, this is the time culture will be celebrated more than it has been celebrated before,” she said.
Owori indicated that they hope to engage different stakeholders to strengthen things such as the revision of the copyright law that can work for the creatives.

Owori said while talking to Gen Saleh, she was asked what she thought the industry needed. “This industry needs an industrial park that can accommodate film, theatre, comedy and music in one place,” she said.

Unfortunately, the speech was not specific on how many of these could be achieved since neither a committee nor an academy was announced as a responsible party to follow up these developments.

Neither did they promise to create a fund to facilitate the most important creative process, creating art. 
Thus, for now, the biggest winner of the Janzi Awards are not the artists they came to celebrate, but the organisers for putting up such a glamorous event in less than a month, and Ssewakiryanga for distributing at least 200 Janzi instruments for an alleged $1,000 (Shs3.5m) each.

About the Janzi

Janzi is a musical instrument invented by multi-instrumentalist, artiste and art entrepreneur James Sewakiryanga.
Sewakiryanga is one of the founders of the famous Janzi Band, and as an artiste, he says the inspiration to create a modern local instrument came from the need to have a musical symbol ready for export.

“One time, a friend and I were coming from Denmark where we had been performing. At the airport, the friend was carrying a bow harp (adungu), since it had nails that were used to stretch it, the authorities thought it was a weapon and thus did not want it on the plane,” he says.

This got Sewakiryanga thinking, wondering if the airport personnel would have reacted the same way, had the instrument in question been a kora, djembe or balafon.

These West African instruments are phenomenal and renowned world over, thanks to the very many world music exports from Francophone West Africa.

Months after the incident at the airport, Sewakiryanga was trying to play an adungu when he noticed that it was broken, so he called a carpenter to fix it. That was the first time he thought about improving them, yet when it was all done, he easily noticed the carpenter had created a different instrument altogether.

“Our instruments are not appealing, they have not evolved with the times. Our generation has not added value worth exporting,” he says, adding that his reason for modifying the adungu was initially to have something admirable, something African yet modern.

Much as Ssewakiryanga’s modifications  were appreciated, he chose to create a new instrument altogether because as an artiste, even in good faith, he has no authority over the adungu to enforce or even suggest modifications.

“That’s why I decided to create something different but inspired by the adungu,” he says.
Janzi, as Ssewakiryanga calls it, is a two scale modern yet indigenous instrument made of 22 strings.

Much as the instrument takes its shape from the adungu, there are differences, for instance, unlike the adungu that has one neck with strings, this has two necks, each with 11 strings.

Unlike most pentatonic African instruments such as the kora, xylophone and enanga, among others, the janzi is tuned in two scales.

A typical scale is a diatonic with seven notes (A,B,C,D,E,F,G), the pentatonic on the other hand uses only five of those notes. With a janzi tuning in two scales, it becomes one of the two known Ugandan instrument that are diatonic, the other being the adungu.

“This means there is more the instrument can offer musically that a person with one scale may not be able to,” he says.

For years, Ssewakiryanga has not only invented the instrument but has gone on to teach different people how to play it, alongside creating the relevant literature in form of a book.

“The biggest problem our industry has suffered in the past has been the absence of documentation. Our forefathers created instruments and nothing was written about them. Years later, White men showed up and became authorities on these instruments,” he says. 

He adds that he doesn’t want to do the same with the janzi.


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