The faces behind Uganda’s carols

What you need to know:

  • From the church right through to individual artistes, Christmas carols with a local touch are not in scant supply in the country.

There is more to Uganda’s festive music than José Feliciano’s 1970s Feliz Navidad classic or indeed any other popular noel. 
From the church right through to individual artistes, Christmas carols with a local touch are not in scant supply in the country. 
This Christmas will be the 143th since Christianity arrived in Uganda. It was in June of 1877 that the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sowed seeds of Christianity in the country. 
They paved the way for the Roman Catholics (Simeon Lourdel and Brother Amans) who arrived in February 1879.

It is understood that Uganda’s first Christmas was celebrated on December 25, 1879. Five Catholic congregants are said to have celebrated the first-ever Christmas in Uganda. 
Today, not even economic headwinds and tailwinds can stop residents in Uganda from toasting to Christmas. 
The celebrations are usually punctuated with songs such as those off Philly Lutaaya’s ground breaking 1986 Christmas album titled Tumusinze. Joining Lutaaya in finding warmth amongst many residents of Uganda are noels by the likes of Boney M, Céline Dion, and George Michael to mention but three

Lutaaya’s 1986 album, however, remains a staple. Jam-packed with classics such as Merry Christmas, Zukuka, Sekukulu, Gloria and Katujaguze, Tumusinze is truly a monumental piece of art.  The song Katujaguze resonates well with Ugandans who struggle to make things happen, calling out Christians to celebrate the birth of Christ. 
Recorded with a synthetic brass and a prominent baseline that was reportedly played by the late Sammy Kasule of the Kitoobero fame, the noel’s big band feel hits differently. Similarly, Gloria is another groovy song on the same album with sing-along lyrics that makes it easier for Ugandans to sing to it. 
The song thrives on the base with a delectable solo guitar. Merry Christmas, another classic off the album, is also received with radiance.

‘70s classics
Before Lutaaya, there was Peterson Tusuubila Mutebi and Hadijah Namale.  They both released a song that shares the same title and theme. Mukulike Omwaaka rings in a New Year whilst recounting what people went through in the immediate past. 
In 1973, Namale released her version of the song that is destined to live with us for centuries. It instantly became a New Year’s Day anthem. 
Surprisingly, the song is reportedly a direct translation of another she had composed in Lingala while still in Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

That was back in 1963 when Namale worked as a house-help for a Congolese family. Mutebi and Tames Band’s version of Mukulike Omwaaka was recorded with pacifying percussions and a solo guitar.  The song celebrates the previous year as the singer cries to God for blessings in the New Year.
‘New Kids on the Block’
Ugandan noels, though, are not entirely from the past. Singers Bobi Wine, Jose Chameleon and Ykee Benda have under their belts noels such as Christmas y’omwaka, Sekukulu and Merry Christmas respectively. Together with famed music producer Paddyman, singer Bobi Wine alias Robert Kyagulanyi recorded a song dubbed Christmas y’omwaka. 
The noel evokes Ugandan Christmas memories. Similarly, Bebe Cool alias Moses Ssali, Maureen Nantume and Judith Babirye have songs in respect to Christmas.

Christmas Cantata
Watoto Church takes it a notch further with their Christmas Cantata. Watoto’s annual Christmas cantata. This year’s production is titled Great Joy.  
It will be the first in-person Cantata since pandemic curbs forced the church’s congregants to watch productions remotely in 2020 and 2021. 
This year’s production runs from December 19-23 at the church’s downtown campus.  
Online shows on the Watt App, Facebook and YouTube will be streamed on Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day.
Church hymns
A number of Psalms, hymns and other Christian-related Christmas songs have been recorded to celebrate Christmas. Joseph Kyagambiddwa, the man behind the songs sung during the Canonisation of the Uganda Martyrs at the Vatican in 1964, is among the popular authors of Catholic Christmas songs. Mbuuza abataka is especially popular.
Other composers include: Fr James Kabuye, Anthony Musekura, David Benjamin Kateregga and Lawrence Ssemanda among others.

The latest toast to Uganda’s festive music, however, is Kenneth Mugabi’s Sekukulu. An alternative musician with a coined genre dubbed afro-fusion, Mugabi uses a guitar to tell Uganda’s Christmas story with relatable tales of the Christmas tree, transport and food. The end product is a nostalgic single that celebrates the Christmas season.

Christianity in Uganda
The festive period continues to hold sway in Uganda. Statistics explain why. Available data indicate that about four-fifths of the population in the country is Christian.  These are primarily divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants (mostly Anglicans but also including Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, and Presbyterians).
According to the National Population and Housing Census findings of 2014, Catholics are the largest religious denomination. 
They constitute close to 40 percent of the population followed by Anglicans with 32 percent and Moslems with about 14 percent.

Origin of Christmas Carols
According to English-heritage, a British website, the first carols were produced by Franciscan friars in the 1940s. Franciscan friars were followers of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The carols took the form of a dance in a circle with linked hands and everybody singing the song. Huge numbers of Christmas carols survive from the 15th century, making it the best-preserved aspect of English medieval music. Other sources indicate that the first Christmas carols were sung in 1223 by the followers of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy.