How Elly Wamala song shaped Ugandan music

Elly Wamala’s daughter, Ms Lydia Wamala, signs on her father’s poster during the launch of the Elly Wamala Tribute concert in Kampala. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Every music industry is influenced by forefathers renowned for pioneering commercial music recording.
  • In Uganda, Elly Wamala’s Nabutono in the early 1950s received the distinction of being the country’s first commercial recording. This past week marked the 19th anniversary of Wamala’s death.
  • As Gabriel Buule writes, the influence of Nabutono on Ugandan music remains undimmed.

Brian Jerome Busuulwa, a music teacher, producer, singer and songwriter, does not hesitate when asked where he draws his inspiration for music from. Elly Wamala is the quick answer.
Busuulwa shares that his neo-soul style is influenced by the simplicity that Wamala deployed when he was writing his music.

Attributing the key elements in Wamala’s music to the precision he used in crafting stories to build his lyrics and his choice of instruments, Busuulwa hails the source of his musical inspiration for an execution that was bang on.

“He was never too much,” Busuulwa explains, adding, “He kept every aspect of his music simple but properly executed.”

Busuulwa in his assessment reckons Wamala’s music left an indelible mark on Uganda’s music, influencing the way Ugandan music is written and presented. Wamala’s meticulous approach also greatly influenced the choice of theme. 

Much as his music gravitated towards love themes, Wamala used stories of love to interrogate various issues. These ranged from family and other social aspects. He, for one, mirrored love in his music differently while sharing issues and prescribing solutions.

In his song Yalaba Sirina Ssente, Wamala shares a story of a lover who abandoned him on account of being cash-strapped. He later suggests that love can never be created by money. A similar dimension is witnessed in the song Nkole Mpakase where Wamala imagines working hard to grow his finances such that he gets a right spouse.

Nabutono unparalleled 
The lure of simple lyrics and a guitar that was not suffocated by other instruments is also not lost on Busuulwa.

“In the song Nabutono, he played the guitar alone but still he delivered a powerful song. Wamala is a testimony that you can choose not to complicate anything to deliver good music if the lyrics is right,”  Busuulwa notes.

The lyrics in the song were simple enough. Wamala crooned thus: “Nabutono vvaawo tombonyabonya bwootyo, Nabutono amaanyi gandi mugwe.” Crying to his love not to make things hard for him, Wamala strummed away at an acoustic guitar.

Elly Wamala with his daughters Lydia, Patricia and Trudy

Singer Diplock Ssegawa explains that one would require a small vocal range to cover two octaves. All of this is requisite if an attempt to deliver thrilling high notes whilst having a brilliant shining reverberation is to materialise. It is no mean feat; yet Wamala pulled it off effortlessly.

“If he was to sing in an opera, he would be the primo uomo, the leader. He was a tenor, a voice that later influenced commercial music recording among many male singers in Uganda,” Ssegawa says of Wamala, adding, “He was a tenor in a manner that the quality of his voice was very clear and audible.”

Simplicity at its best
Andereya Baguma, another singer, shares that the song was recorded with simple guitar keys of E and B, major which made it clear to the listeners. However, his style kept evolving and that birthed the title Evergreen that was affectionately ascribed to Wamala.

Having started his career in a music outfit called Opero Tom in the late 1940s, Wamala travelled to Kenya in the early 1950s and joined Sports Cha-cha band. He would then record the song Nabutono in a HiFi recording studio where he was working as a guitarist.

Ssegawa notes that the recording of Nabutono changed the face of Uganda’s music industry. Most creatives who were building a career in music soon started going to Nairobi to record.

“He is the father of Uganda’s modern recording music industry. After recording Nabutono on vinyl in 1954, many songs were recorded and that is how Uganda got music from people like Frederick Masagazi and others,” he adds.

In an interview that Wamala gave Bart Kakooza, a journalist, in 1999, Wamala explained that the song that started like a humble project became a hit when it was endorsed by the Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Mutesa.

Wamala shared that one day, he woke up to find a headline in the papers. To his utter surprise, the headline read: “Ssaabasajja ayagala nyo Nabutono” (The King loves the song Nabutono). From there on, the public picked interest in the song.

Consequently, the Kabaka invited Wamala on multiple occasions to perform at the palace.

Why Evergreen
Francis Kisakyamaria, alias Pyret Beats, a producer explains that besides mastering how to play the guitar, Wamala was very musical in a manner that he chose to learn instruments first before starting to sing.

Pyret Beats says a musician who understands an instrument or two will always deliver quality music as compared to a person who masters the lyrics before heading to a studio. He notes that Wamala thrived on major scale notes to blend Western harmonies as he played minor scales notes to offer rich harmonic and melodic variety to deliver beautiful music that resonated with the listeners.

The producer also notes that Wamala’s style—as seen from the song Nabutono to Boda boda—kept evolving to meet the new trends in the music industry.

Per Ssegawa, Wamala was flexible in every aspect. This, he adds, made him a trend setter. Ssegawa further suggests that Wamala inspired musicians to dress elegantly, making sure he turned up in an elegant suit to perform.

About Elly Wamala

A school dropout who worked at a music instrument store in Kampala, Elly Wamala was never ashamed of his impoverished past. Wamala often revealed that as a boy he would fetch jerrycans of water in exchange for an opportunity to learn a guitar.

A son of the late Ignatius Mutambuze and Gladys Nabutiti, he was born on December 13, 1935 in Bulucheke in Mbale.

While in Nairobi, Kenya, he worked as a guitarist at HiFi recording studio. He would later become the band leader at the Sportsman ChaCha band, which was touring East Africa to promote Sportsman cigarettes.

Various reports indicate that in 2000, he underwent surgery. A series of rounds of punishing chemotherapy soon followed. He later released the Ani Yali Amanyi album.

When Pope Paul VI came to Uganda, Wamala recorded Welcome Pope Paul. His efforts did not go unnoticed as the visiting Pope imparted on him his Apostolic Benediction.

In 1963, Wamala worked with the state broadcaster, UTV, until 1981 when he returned to music. From Nabutono, Leticia, Aniyali Amaanyi, Muka Ssentebe, Omuntu wa Nateebwa, Sacramento, Namiiro, Welcome Pope Paul, Wamala recorded more than 65 songs.

He lost his battle against throat cancer on August 22, 2004 at Mulago hospital.