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SOULFUL: For people that appreciate good music, Kenneth Mugabi is a household name but the singer’s profile did not rise up overnight. Mugabi has built a fanbase that has attracted even young people who not only connect but listen to his music religiously. Andrew Kaggwa looks at his career ahead of his debut solo concert.
The first time I interviewed Kenneth Mugabi was out of sheer luck. I was initially looking for film director Ken Ssebaggala. At the time, he was finishing his film, Reformed.
The film follows a high school bully whose life turns around when he is forced to join a poetry club.
No, Kenneth Mugabi was not an actor in the film. He, however, did the soundtrack for the film. To date, the music he sang in that film is still untitled and probably will never be released.
Those were the years when music in film was still a luxury, since most filmmakers could not afford paying for music rights of established songs; they would opt for a little-known artiste, pay them to sing all the songs that ended up in the film or pay them to sing one song that would be used in all situations.
For Reformed, Mugabi sang one song that kept showing up in different scenes of the film and trust me it was not a fun experience as it made the film seem like a long music video on loop.
The first time I met him, he was there to record the music for that film and he introduced himself as Mugabi, a singer and songwriter. He later said a thing or two about working with Qwela Band at the time.
During the film premiere, he performed Kibunomu and Nubuka, the latter would become the lead single of his debut album. Nubuka on the other hand remains that Kenneth Mugabi song that was posted on SoundCloud but never gets performed. Nubuka was one of the first songs he released after being eliminated from Rated Next, a televised talent search on Urban TV.
After that, he has since released three albums; Kibunomu, Ugandan and People of the Land. Word is that he has an unreleased album he produced with producer Kaz Kasozi but he is yet to release it.
“I actually want to try something like 40 albums,” he says.
His quest to release as many albums comes from the fact that he believes an artiste needs to release music to grow.
“An artiste is like a vessel, you need to let music go through you to the people, you cannot record it and keep it to yourself,” he says.
Mugabi is inspired by Oliver Mtukudzi’s work ethic; the Zimbabwean artiste is said to have released about 60 albums during his lifetime.
Mugabi has always found a way of celebrating his albums, sometimes he is intentional, though other times it is simply fate.
Take an example of his debut album Kibunomu, released during one of the memorable Qwela Junction editions, The Crooners. He did not need to throw a concert, fate had taken care of that.
That night was also the first time Mugabi announced himself to an audience that included media personalities, socialites and a big part of Kampala’s corporate class. With a stroke of Kibunomu and Naki, he had most of them eating out of his palms.
Surprisingly, some of the people in this audience were radio schedulers and presenters, who shortly before that Qwela Junction at the Kampala Serena had noted that Kenneth Mugabi’s music fitted into their radio stations’ formats.
A week after Kenneth Mugabi’s performance at Qwela Junction, he was hosted by Crystal Newman on her weekly show on Sanyu FM. He later graced other radio shows and along the way, they all played the songs that could not fit their system, only weeks before.
For years, he became Kenneth Mugabi of Naki, yet he always had to introduce himself.
“I have worked with very many people and at times I get favours from them. One time, Innocent Nahabwe gave me an opportunity to perform at the Zzina Fest. I showed up with my guitar and before I said a thing, I was heckled by a fan. However, by the time I finished performing, they wanted me to do more songs,” he says. Since Kibunomu’s release in May 2016, he had gone from ‘Who is he?’ to ‘There he is again’.
His Ugandan album, released three years after Kibunomu shed a light on the direction the artiste was taking. He still sings for the ladies on the album but what stood out was him getting out of the box, working with industry artistes some of whom were unexpected.
For instance, he brought Lilian Mbabazi, Angella Kalule, Iryn Namubiru and Maureen Nantume and he produced a very big part of the album with Francis Kisakyamaria, alias Pyret Beats.
He says he collaborates with people at times to challenge himself or tap into the unknown – through the collaborations, different people that may not have known about him have discovered him.
Yet some collaborations have been a constant in his life.
Take an example Happy Kyazze, known by many as Happy K, a saxophonist who has performed with Mugabi since his first show. They have even collaborated on a song , Rita, off the Kibunomu album.
Kyazze, Mugabi, Aloysious Migadde, a guitarist, JJ Bugoma, a percussionist, Lawrence Matovu, bass guitarist and Ronnie Bukenya on keys formed part of the collective Arpeggio Band. The group had met at Makerere University where they were all Music Dance and Drama students. After graduation, they came together and formed Arpeggio Band.
Mugabi reveals that most of the songs off his Kibunomu album were written when he was at the university. In fact, it was at the university that he got his first guitar. He picked it.
“So, one time I was leaving campus and I see this broken guitar that had been thrown away. I picked and examined it. It seemed like one of those that could work with a little fix. I carried it with me. I did not have transport, so I walked from Makerere University to home with it. I remember that day so well, it was even raining,” he says.
The guitar was fixed and would later aid him to write Kibunomu and more songs on and off that album.
“There are songs that I wrote when I was at the university but I never put them on the Kibunomu album. Some later found space on Ugandan while others have never been released,” he says.
One of these songs is Wakikere, a song that seems to question many decisions of our political leaders and how they have left the deteriorating situation to the grace and mercy of God. Much as the song neither mentions a leader by name, or Uganda as a country, connecting dots is not hard.
“I did not put Wakikere on any album, but I could say that I still released it for those that maybe interested in hearing the message,” he says.
Wakikere was first released on SoundCloud only for the artiste to restrict it and later avail it on sites such as YouTube.
Today, Mugabi will be hosting his People of the Land concert at Kampala Serena Hotel’s Victoria Conference Hall. This is the same place many Ugandans got familiar with his craft at that edition of Qwela Junction.
People of the Land
People of the Land concert is a celebration of his third and one of his most ambitious albums, People of The Land. The album was initially supposed to come out in 2020 with a different name, but then there was a lockdown.
“With the lockdown, there were increased domestic abuse reports which rechannelled the album altogether,” he says.
He has two songs on the album that address domestic abuse; Enjovu, which looks at the crisis from a perspective of a child and Ankuba, where a man complains to his mother about physical abuse from his wife, yet he is afraid of coming out. People of the Land, the title song is about climate change and a call to action for people to protect the environment.
He says the concert at Serena is not a flex for him, but intended to exhibit his growth over the years and of course, it is the first time he will be hosting a full blown concert with his always growing audience.
“I have heard people say our kind of music cannot sell in Uganda but it is not true, Ugandans love good music, it is just that they do not know where to find it,” he says.
Mugabi has built a fanbase of young people that not only connect but listen to his music religiously. During his show with Naava Grey at Guvnor, they showed up in numbers and they did not only sing to famous hits such as Sanyu and Naki, but kept asking for songs such as Ensi Ensuubize or Awuununa.
This is a great movement he seems to be leading, unfortunately, there are not many artistes such as him who receive the same love.
His intention is to create music that people can connect with beyond his time. He says he is not trying to create an immediate hit, but a song that a person born after him will find ways of falling in love with.
For his concert, Mugabi says it is going to be an experience; he will own the show and take people through different emotions.
During his rehearsals, it is vivid some of the songs have been rearranged for the concert, how people are going to connect and what he has done to the songs is something we are finding out tonight.