There is a new term taking shape in music circles. It is the Pearl Rhythm, a term that could soon become the identity for Uganda’s music if the dream of five musicians comes to pass.
Three years ago, ethno musicians Suzan Kerunen, Myko Ouma, Ambrose Mugume, Jude Mugerwa and Rose Kerunen came up with an idea to start the Pearl Rhythm, which would act as a pool of authentic, creative and original music from Uganda to be served at the annual Pearl Rhythm Festival.
“We want to contribute to the formation of an identity for Ugandan art, by trying to clean the industry as far as our ability can take us, professionalise it and make it marketable to ourselves and the world,” says Suzan Kerunen. “We want artists to record their music professionally and make sure that sound that comes out is not off key.”
Kerunen notes that many artists on sing off key.
“Unfortunately such music gets airplay on our radio stations and crosses borders. And people look at us as fools because you can’t do a song in one day and expect it to go international.”
A lot has been said about Ugandan music failing to make it to the international stage – with international festivals dominated by West and South African artists. If there is someone from East Africa, it is the usual suspects: Kenya’s Susan Owiyo or Eric Wainaina. And where there is a Ugandan, it is someone like Geoffrey Oryema living abroad.
This is partly attributed to Ugandan music having no identity . While countries like South Africa and DR Congo are known for Kwaito and Soukous respectively, defining what Ugandan music is has always been a puzzle. Afrigo band is harshly criticized for failing to create an authentic unique music style for Uganda, choosing to live in the shadows of Congolese music.
Critics say this was the genesis of Ugandan musicians’ confusion – trying to copy other countries. What the Pearl Rhythm is trying to do is build a new crop of musicians, doing music rooted in their culture with a fusion of western instruments. It is what the Americans call world music, or call it ethno or rooted music.
Every year, the festival opens with the stage coach talent search where they search for young and fresh artists to join the team of talented and skilled artists of the Pearl Rhythm. This year’s selection included Makerere University’s Arpeggio band, Undercover Brothers, Parwot and Charles Obina & Matata Africa band.
They underwent a two months mentorship, including studio production where they compiled a music CD before performing at this year’s festival, last Saturday at the National Theatre. “Pearl Rhythm Festival does not allow substandard work; whether you are good, we don’t care.
As long as you come on our stage, you must be original, professional and have material. Those things of saying I am a celebrity , I do shows everyday so I am not going to rehearse, no, we don’t want; you do those shows elsewhere,” Kerunen says.
“But once on our stage, your product must be world class. We don’t accept playbacks, or an artiste picking a Lionel Richie song and singing it in Luganda, like you cannot compose. How do you do that to someone who took time to compose and harmonize their song? We can’t accept that mediocrity.”
Kerunen says their concept doesn’t work for musicians who want quick money .
“Artists do music for different reasons. There are people who want a short life career; make money and move on. But there are those who want to leave a legacy and sometimes trying to leave a legacy is not about making money in the short run. It is about creating a product, brand and growth,” she notes.
That is what has kept artistes like Ouma and Mugume going. The guitarist and drum player were part of Soul Beat Africa, one of the first bands in this country to start fusion music, bringing folk sounds into the mainstream. The band toured extensively, which inspired other bands like Janzi, Qwela and Milege to come up, plus a host of musicians such as Kerunen, Tshila, Sarah Ndagire, and Joel Sebunjo among others.
However, they did not get that deserved local airplay , forcing people like Herbert Kinobe to focus more on the international market.
“The media is part of the problem. They failed to analyse the diversity of the artists’ representation in this country . They hinge on a popular face, which is of course a good thing, but is not a representation of Uganda. Uganda is diverse; we have so many cultures and languages,” Kerunen says.
“It is difficult to have one Azonto rhythm. Even the Azonto rhythm in Nigeria has been popularized by artistes who have money , but it’s not representative of Nigeria because the country has diverse cultures.”
With the pearl rhythm concept, Kerunen says they will keep the country’s diversity.
“We are letting Baganda artistes be Baganda, Acholi be Acholi...at the end of the day, we are all Ugandans. And it’s possible because it has happened in America. There is a lot of sound coming out of America but there is a signature to it; you listen to jazz and know it’s coming from America, hip hop, gangster rap, soul music, R&B...” Kerunen notes.
Kerunen is optimistic their approach will widen Uganda’s changes of selling its rich music. Just like the West African countries have marketed the kora, Kerunen says Uganda can be known for endingindi (tube fiddle) for Buganda and Busoga. The larger north can be represented by the adungu (harp) or the thumb piano, which crosses into the east.
The western part of Uganda can be represented by the ennanga and flute.
“We can sell at least three or four instruments, which are representative of Uganda,” Kerunen says.
“Fusion is the way to go if we are to create a huge creative industry where there is conservation across borders. Fusion doesn’t necessarily lock
us in Uganda.”