We can vividly remember the excitement that surrounded the first edition of the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) awards in 2003 like it was yesterday.
Some of us miraculously became sick to secure leave from school to attend the event at Speke Resort Munyonyo. It was nothing close to Hollywood besides Steve Jean changing clothes every time he made a stage appearance, Bebe Cool stepping on tables and yes… that elegant Elly Wamala performance of Ebinyumo!
It was the first time I was hearing his voice outside radio or TV box. And he went on to receive the lifetime achievement award, thanking the Buganda queen and South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who graced the occasion. I remember making a commitment to attend the next year’s event well assured that Wamala would still perform.
But sadly, slightly ten months later on Sunday, August 22, 2004, he succumbed to throat cancer at Mulago hospital. Last Friday, ten years later, artistes Bobi Wine, Irene Ntale, Joanita Kawalya, Rema Namakula, Chris Evans Kaweesa, Mesach Ssemakula, Ronald Mayinja and Judith Babirye, among others, convened at the Kampala Serena hotel to celebrate the legend’s life.
You could think it was a re-enactment of the PAM award night, complete with the presence of the Nnaabagereka of Buganda, Afrigo band, with Charles James Ssenkubuge and Isaac Rucci as the MCs. Kawalya really upstaged Iryn Namubiru with her version of Talanta. Being an artiste that got chance to socialize with the legend, she pulled off the song with commanding vocals that were in synch with the band.
Ntale’s performance was lukewarm. She could have nailed her own version of Wamala’s Nkole Mpakase, but she seemed tired and highly unmotivated. In high spirits, a heavy Rema did a job better than what she did in studios. Lowooza Kunze got many people on their feet. For a person that hasn’t had a good year, Rema is definitely riding on the success of her rendition.
Talking to The Observer, Rema noted that she was surprised when she was asked to be part of this project.
“I thought they would be interested in older artistes than the young bloods,” she said.
She picked Lowooza Kunze because it inspired her, especially the second verse where the writer talks about having a baby girl for a first born.
“In my current state, the song talks to me,” she said.
“We have a lot to learn from Wamala and I guess even artistes that will come after us will learn from him.”
Kawalya, on the other hand, believes you can’t talk about Ugandan music without mentioning Wamala. The Afrigo band vocalist made three appearances on stage, twice as a singer and as a backup for veteran singer Frank Mbalire – who did Wanyana, a song that Wamala wrote as a dedication to Kawalya’s older sister Rose Wanyana.
“That song means a lot to our family since Wamala and my father were close friends,” Kawalya said.
The song reminisces a day when Wamala visited the Kawalyas. On arrival, all the family elders were away but this young girl had successfully taken control of the home.
As all the artistes came together to crown the night, performing Ebinyumo, it was clear Wamala’s music is timeless. It can’t be duplicated or locked to one genre. And seeing artistes struggle to master songs such as Kamaadi or Sacramento was evidence that Wamala will always be a class apart and a great brick to the Ugandan recording industry.