Kyagulanyi changing local jazz scene one guitar at a time

Kampala Jazz Orchestra doing their thing. Photo/Kampala Jazz Orchestra.

What you need to know:

  • Polycarp Kyagulanyi: A self-taught music student who grew to love the craft and he is now a lecturer of music and founder of Kampala Jazz Orchestra.

There is no place like a tree shade for a sit-down with a lecturer at the Department of Music in Makerere University.

Amid the constant buzz of student interactions and foot traffic across the lawn, Polycarp Kyagulanyi is routinely addressed as musomesa (Luganda for teacher) by passers-by.

You would be wrong if you concluded that he earned this title from being a lecturer. The 34-year-old Kyagulanyi first got the label  as early as Senior Four at St Noah Mawaggali Secondary School in Buikwe, Central Uganda. The school,  under Mbikko Catholic Parish had a brass band. 

“I like being a teacher and I think I am a very good teacher,” says Kyagulanyi who has been lecturing just more than two and half years at Makerere’s Department of Music. He started lecturing in July 2021 but his teaching career took off years ago when he was a junior instructor in his high school brass band. 

Kyagulanyi’s teaching extends beyond the gates of Makerere. He has put together and leads a talented batch of 20 young instrumentalists under the outfit, Kampala Jazz Orchestra. The group held their inaugural concert in April last year at the National Theatre and have since held a modest number of successful shows. 

From their sharp suits to the crisp sounds of their instruments and polished voices, the orchestra gives off an aura of order and discipline. None of this is an accident. When Kyagulanyi conducts the orchestra, it appears like there is music flowing in his veins. That is because he has been doing this gig so long.

Rise from nothing
Although he came from a household of humble means, musical talent and academic performance earned Kyagulanyi a scholarship that took him through secondary school. 

“When I started secondary school, my father had no money for fees. My mother approached the Rev Father [Wijnand] and offered to start digging in the [Catholic] parish garden so that I could get school fees. The band came along and I showed more interest in it than any other student. My growth was so big that in the second year after starting the band, Father started paying my fees. In the third year, he started paying fees for all band members,” narrates Kyagulanyi. 

Kyagulanyi was a protégé of Father Wijnand Huys, who presided over Mbikko Catholic Parish in Jinja. In his early school years, the young brass band player was fortunate to study under Arthur Musulube, composer of the Busoga Kingdom anthem. 

“I was in a band at St Noah Mawaggali Secondary School in Njeru. My teacher used to give me space to teach because he wanted me to grow. Sometimes he would give me work to do and I would take over. I would even go to gigs such as weddings. He would drop us off  there and I would do my thing,” he recalls. 

Beyond the early mentorship, Kyagulanyi did not receive much classroom instruction in music in secondary school. At O-Level, he did not study music owing to a shortage of music teachers. However, since he was already playing in a band, the shortage of O-Level music instructors was not a handicap.
At A-Level, Kyagulanyi was his own teacher. Without a music teacher, he navigated the syllabus, not an easy feat for a student, as he recalls.  Using books donated from friends in the Netherlands, he read everything about music from all over the world for his advanced school level exams.
“When we got to A-Level, the headmaster noticed that I was a music guy and I really loved music. I told them I wanted to do music (at A-Level) and they accepted. To this day, I still wonder how they accepted,” he says.  
“I studied so many things, basically anything I could get my hands on at the time.”

Kyagulanyi conducts the orchestra. PHOTO/Kampala jazz orchestra.

 Not only was he self-teaching, as an A-Level student, he also taught lower level music students.

He proudly recalls his four O-Level students who scored two distinctions and two credits in their finals. One of his students is a curator at the National Theatre while another plays saxophone for singer Jose Chameleone and one of his female students who also studied music at Makerere University is a teacher in various schools. 

Aspiring engineer cum  conductor 
At A-Level, Kyagulanyi studied History, Economics, Divinity and Music even though his preference was Physics, Music and Mathematics, a subject combination that was not on offer. For a while, he even attended Physics classes but had to drop the subject.

In an ideal situation, his first choice university course would have been sound engineering but it was not available. 

He did excel at music though and when he was admitted to Makerere University to study Bachelor of Arts in Music, his first year of university was a breeze because he had done so much studying in advance. He spent most of his first year teaching elsewhere. 

Next to teaching, Kyagulanyi’s other love is conducting; something he does with a flourish and has been conducting bands and choirs since his first year of secondary school. To be a conductor, you need to know how to read music, among many other qualities. 
“A conductor is like a producer. They anticipate what the show should look like and how the music should sound like way before producing. You produce everything that a composer has done on paper and bring it live on stage,” he explains. 

To be a conductor, you have to know how every instrument works, an advantage that Kyagulanyi enjoys. He plays almost all brass instruments, almost all wind instruments and where he cannot play very well, he knows how the instruments work, where to get every note and every technique because if you are teaching people and things are not working well, you need to give them alternatives of how to produce a certain sound.

So, you need to know everything as a conductor, including how to sing in multiple choir voices. 

“Amateurs copy and they need to copy right. If you have a bad teacher, things come out badly because students are always copying the teacher. In music, we copy our teachers,” he says. 

Polycarp Kyagulanyi is a self-taught music student who grew to love the craft and he is now a lecturer of music and founder of Kampala Jazz Orchestra.

For a self-confessed shy guy, you would not know it from watching Kyagulanyi speak about his work or when he takes to the stage to conduct. He is some sort of perfectionist, but then isn’t music supposed to be that way?

Either you are hitting the right notes at 100 percent or you are not. If he seems to have a good grip on things during performances and seamlessly move through routines, it is only because he has reconciled himself to the fact that aiming for perfection is the only way. 

When it comes to the pursuit for perfection, Kyagulanyi’s inspiration is Les Brown. He swears by the mantra: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you fail, you’ll land among the stars…” 

Hard choices 
Kyagulanyi holds a Masters in Music Orchestral Directing from the Netherlands and right after his studies, he knew he wanted to return home.
“I wanted to come back home. I thought returning here would have an impact, than staying there. Of course, there are many jobs there, orchestras and amateur bands that need conductors. It would be easy to get a job. 

The music conductor returned to Uganda after his studies in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He refers to his decision to return home as a selfish one—to satisfy his ego. 

The idea to return home was already there before the pandemic hit, but there was a lot of room to question that decision in light of conditions when he landed back home. Uganda, like the rest of the world, was still very much in Covid lockdown. 

Coming home, he felt, was a good opportunity to do something meaningful. Kyagulanyi then embarked on putting together an orchestra that only came together at the beginning of 2023.

Assembling the team that would make the band was not easy. Some of the young people he sought to recruit were discouraged right away by peers telling them there is no money in jazz.

For others, it was the level of mastery required that put them off. 

For almost a year, Kyagulanyi’s band had no guitarist: “the knowledgeable ones are busy and the rest do not want to read music,” he explains. The orchestra has 20 people now, with most aged under 23 and the youngest, a 16-year-old saxophonist.

It is not easy retaining and managing the youngsters. There are many challenges and Kyagulanyi has to be a counsellor of sorts, managing egos of these super talented young people. 

Filled with grand ideas
While it is a dream come true, Kampala Jazz orchestra is by no means the biggest of Kyagulanyi’s ambitions. His preference would be to have a 50-person symphony orchestra but this grand dream is still just that until he can find the means to make it happen. 

Years ago, a visionary priest nurtured young minds towards music. Kyagulanyi took full advantage of the opportunity and the dream goes on.

“Father Wijnand gave us a chance to dare to dream. You cannot dream if you do not have a reference point. At this age, I am grateful that my talent has taken me places. I have been to many places as a conductor, including  the Netherlands, working in spaces where there were no dark-skinned people. I have made many good friends and the opportunities,” he elaborates.

Kampala Jazz Orchestra doing their thing. Photo/Kampala Jazz Orchestra.

To do the kind of things he dreams of, Kyagulanyi finds it necessary to be a rebel to be able to cut his path in the jungle of archaic systems and the delay to adopt modern ways of handling music and performance locally.

His head is buzzing with ideas from developing apps to performance spaces, you name it; he dreams it. He is teaching his students to aim for more too, much more than exists within the limits of Uganda’s confined art spaces.

Although he aspires for more, for now, Kyagulanyi is just grateful that people are beginning to pay attention to jazz.