Nicholas Sengoba: Philly Lutaaya among the greatest Ugandans ever

Philly Bongoley Lutaaya

What you need to know:

  • Lutaaya did not need so much time to live forever. He simply used his time well.  May we learn from him.

In Uganda you don’t need to check your calendar to know that the Christmas season has kicked off. 
It is when the air is inundated with the music, specifically the Merry Christmas album of the late Philly Bongoley Lutaaya that you know that the season is here. 
This is no mean feat. Ugandans are the sort of people with a short attention span that moves them on very quickly from one fad which they drop like a hot potato, to another. 

For Lutaaya to still hold fort for all these years cutting across generations, makes him something of an enigma. Luutaya as we know him today first captured the attention of the Ugandan audience in the late 80s. This is despite the fact that he had been around actively in the 60s and 70s, before he went to Zaire, Kenya, toured Japan and settled in Sweden. 
In Sweden he teamed up with renowned music producer and Musicologist Sten Sandahl (the one he sings about in Osobola Otya.)  Sten fell to cancer and passed on in 2010 at the age of 69. His association with Lutaaya led to great publicity and success.

So in 88 Lutaaya ‘arrives’ when Uganda was still recovering from the five- year Luweero war. This Ugandan from Sweden had a huge concert at Lugogo indoor stadium in 1988 and never really left afterwards. To appreciate Lutaaya one has to note that his arrival was at a time when years of war and instability had disrupted the creative’s industry.  There was looting of instruments and studio infrastructure, people had to be indoors early and the poor economic performance meant that there was little or no household income to spare on entertainment.  The 70s had witnessed the killing of Jesse Gitta Kasirivu, Michael Luzinda (captured in Tulo Tulo.)
In 88 the economy was recuperating. The absence of war and the presence of a relatively disciplined army and police meant free movement and the infusion of life in the entertainment industry, especially night life after years of insecurity. 

People were hungry for good fun. Most had resorted to converging in their neighbourhoods packed on the verandah of a corner shop or in a neighbour’s garage to drink beer and lament about the country going to the dogs. These small spaces are what gave birth to the kafunda in Uganda’s socialisation and the beer they called owo mubitanda (it was smuggled to beat rationing and stealthily stored under the bed.)  At that time Congolese music was quite dominant on the social scene. The likes of the late Luambo Makiadi aka Franco (AZDA), Tabu Ley Rochereau (Kafulu Mayay,) Josky Kiambukuta (Chandra Dechade,) L’ Orchèstre Vévé (Ndoona.) You also had the bands from Kenya like Les Wanyika (Paulina, Sina Makosa,) Migori Jazz Band, Black Savage etc. 

Of course on the local scene we had the indefatigable Moses Matovu and Afrigo Band that never goes stale plus Jimmy Katumba with the Ebonies etc. These were  some of the bands that would hold their own and give live performances with musical instrumentation.
Now in 1988 with NRA having established a new order, one could go out for a show and be assured of returning home late without the fear of being stopped and robbed at roadblocks by marauding soldiers and policemen. 

So Lutaaya attracted large crowds in need of letting their hair down. The music itself was very fresh. 
He sung about everything from the challenges of relationships (Naali kwagadde, Empisazo, Anifa) to worklife (Likambo Ya Falanga.)  He talks about the basis of Kiganda culture, the totems in (Emizizo.) At a time when many had taken to exile he sings about the daunting experience of the citizen in the diaspora in Entebbe Waala and Tugend e Kampala.

But perhaps his greatest stroke was his decision to rise up and provide leadership in the vacuum that had been caused by the HIV/Aids pandemic in the album titled Alone. We all had very scanty knowledge of the disease that wasted people away, plucked out their hair, spread boils on their skins and characteristically left them with diarrhoea.  When Lutaaya amidst a lot of stigma (some politicians claimed he was a ‘foreign patient’ trying to give the country a bad name) and skepticism announced that he was a victim of HIV in 1989, Uganda changed forever. 
Lutaaya opened the way and sang about it in Osobola Otya, (...ekintusse ko ka kiyigirize abalala...bayige...bawonne...) let me be the example that teaches and saves others. That gave him an eternal stage bigger than the musical pedestal that was an important component of his trade. Now that HIV/Aids had a human face, it became easier to educate and address it. Uganda and humanity became bolder and opened up. Whatever success Uganda has registered in treating HIV/ Aids is partly a result of Lutaaya’s effort.

Because every family has had their own HIV/Aids story to tell, Lutaaya enters their family picture and stays there.  It is, therefore, not surprising that the Merry Christmas album is evergreen, extremely popular and comes out at a time when families gather. It is reminds many of the son that went before them while fighting to see that many would not follow in his footsteps in as far as being infected with HIV/Aids is concerned. 
Interestingly, juxtaposed with his musical achievements, Lutaaya lived a very short life. He lived for 38 years (19 October 1951 – 15 December 1989,) but boy what a legacy he left behind -and it was not apartments or big cars as we conceive legacy today. It was work of art done with sincerity, passion, love and dedication to serve and save mankind.  

As Michel de Montaigne said, “Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life.”
Lutaaya, one of the greatest Ugandans of all time, did not need so much time to live forever. He simply used his time well.  May we learn from him in order to have a happy and prosperous New Year.

Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues
Twitter: @nsengoba

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