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Magembe championed Congolese music in Uganda

Israel Magembe (L) on the guitar on stage at Kyeggundda in 1958

A great composer, singer and dancer, he pioneered a revolution that set the trend for Congolese music influence in Uganda.

He was such a backbone for Uganda’s music industry, who nurtured great musicians such as Eclaus Kawalya and dance maestro Christopher Kato. Simon Musasizi and John Clyde Mayanja look at the life of ISRAEL MAGEMBE, an accomplished musician rarely talked about today because he has been blanketed by newcomers.

Born in 1924 to former Buganda Katikkiro, Samuel Wamala, Israel Magembe developed his musical knowledge while a student at King’s College Budo – where he was with his friend, Prince Edward Muteesa, who later on (in 1939) became the Kabaka of Buganda.

Like to appease his friend, Muteesa in 1940 picked Magembe’s father, who had served Katikkiro under Kabaka Daudi Chwa, to continue serving as Buganda Katikkiro until 1948. This brought Magembe closer to his friend’s Lubiri because his father resided at the official residence of the Katikkiro, Butikkiro, opposite the Kabaka’s Lubiri (palace) at Mengo.

During school holidays, Magembe would sneak out of Butikkiro to go to Budonian club in Kisenyi-Mengo, where he performed with Mengo African Orchestra that had been started by two brothers; Serunkuma and John Bbosa, who were ex-servicemen of the World War II.

By 1946, Magembe had left school to concentrate on his newfound passion – music. And it was a wrong choice for him. In 1948, a white man only identified as Chicco spotted his talent, recruiting him for his band in Mombasa. But his stint here was cut short following Muteesa’s visit to Mombasa in 1950. Muteesa asked his old time friend to return to Uganda, which he did in early 1951, and the Kabaka rewarded him with a working table in his private office.

In 1952, the musical desire in Magembe again guided him out of the Kabaka’s private office and planted him in Top Life club owned by Omuttaka Kabazi Mitti. At Top Life, Magembe was with a veteran musician, Kalinimi Mpagi, who was an expert in playing the accordion, plus a host of other instrumentalists among which was Ddamulira on the drums.

After a spell of four years at Top Life club, Magembe’s turning point was in 1956 when he left for Congo, which was then under the Belgiam rule. What took him there was to venture into new horizons in music. While there, between 1956 and 1959, he teamed up with Congo’s most talented singers and guitarists such as Franco, Dr Nico, Kabasselle and Rochereau/Tabu Ley, among others.

He tried his hands on various instruments, which gave him chance to master the Congolese style of playing the guitar. He also mastered the Congolese way of singing, especially African rumba and dance in that when he came back to Uganda in October 1958, Magembe was the most admired musician around town. He had come back with a hairstyle called French cut, which took Kampala by storm; it was the in-thing for modern Kampalans of the 50s and early 60s.

That aside, Magembe had made some savings, which he used to deposit with Grindlays bank on Kampala road opposite Church building. From these savings, which amounted to Shs 15,000, he bought himself a scooter, making him the first black Ugandan to own and drive a scooter. 

He also bought musical instruments of a full jazz band. All this, he said, cost him Shs 7,000. The balance of Shs 8,000, he bought a van for his band plus a plot of land with a finished house in Ndeeba near Kabaka’s well next to Lubiri. With his own musical instruments, Magembe recruited skilled musicians in the names of Eclaus Kawalya on the bass guitar, Simon Kate Nsubuga, a gifted vocalist, known for the famous hit Ye Yekka Obote Waffe.

Israel Magembe and a friend

He also recruited a Congolese saxophonist called Michele. He put them under intensive training for three months and once they were good to go, he called his band, Kampala City Six band. The band had its base at Kyegundda club in Nakulabye, which was owned by a gentleman called Katantazi, who later sold it to two Zambians; Richard and Shelton, who renamed it Palm Tree, which later became Suzanna nightclub.

Magembe was such an entertainer. He used to play the solo guitar, which he used to hold like an AK47, plucking it with a lot of life and energy, something which set him apart. His style of playing the guitar and artistic stage movements were soon copied by Ugandan guitarists who traditionally would just stand on stage lifeless.

Magembe’s specialty was in African rumba, although he would play ballroom music to an elitist audience. Some of Magembe’s best songs that thrilled his fans were Muduke Emotoka, Nebwembugutana Sirina Ssaawa, and Oh Sherry Wange.
His Congolese saxophonist Michele was a crowd puller, because it was unusual to find a saxophone outside the police band.

The audience was usually mesmerized with Magembe’s coordination and music conversation with Michele, who also had a French cut and always in designer clothes, which made him the ladies’ favourite instrumentalist. This made Kyegundda such a popular hangout, setting the stage for nightclubs to start scouting out for Magembe and his band.

After some spell at Kyegundda, Magembe left to start playing at Tablois at Norman cinema on Kampala road. In the mid-1960s, he firmly settled at Sebalamu nightclub in Bwaise. While here, he embarked on training ballroom dance such as rumba, foxtrot, jive, tango and chachacha to professional dancers of the time like Christopher Kato and John Clyde Mayanja.

In 1961, he moved to White Nile club, Kibuye/Katwe, but would go back to Sebalamu’s every Monday when he was off and entertain his fans there. All this period, his Congolese music had gained momentum among music lovers and nightclub goers.

This created opportunity for Indians to start importing Congolese music plates, which were played in jukebox player whereby you would put a coin that allowed the music plate of your choice to be played. Magembe’s Congolese style had great influence on other musicians – with jazz bands of the time also adopting his style.

These included BKG of Mzee Bukenya at Ntinda, Kezaala of Fred Masagazi and Sebirumbi jazz band, among others. In 1963, Magembe left his band at White Nile club and went back to Congo to search for a Congolese band that would replace him at White Nile club – as he planned to start doing upcountry tours.

He was able to land on Glacia jazz band, which succeeded him as he embarked on roaming to different towns, an idea that popularized further his band, plus spreading Congolese music. Here, he also had a chance of performing at different special occasions, including Kabaka’s victory party in 1964 after he was approved by National Assembly (now parliament) as the first black Ugandan to be the head of state of Uganda.

Israel Magembe at Memorial Hall at the Church of the Nativity

Following the 1966 political turmoil that led the Kabaka to exile, the entertainment atmosphere in Kampala, and Buganda at large, was greatly affected as night events became risky. This affected musicians’ cash flow. As a result, Magembe in 1968 quit music, selling his band equipment to the Uganda Hotels, a government subsidiary headed by Fred Irumba.

He became a businessman and put up a retail shop at Katwe, specializing in selling music records of Congolese and local musicians. In 1980, Magembe left Uganda for London on invitation of his sister Florence Nalubega, who was the first black Ugandan woman to be a member of the National Assembly (parliament) and cabinet minister of Obote I government from 1962-71.

While in London, Magembe stayed in a home of born-again Christian Britons, who preached to him the word of God, eventually becoming born-again too. In 1982, Magembe returned to Uganda and acquired land at Ntebetebe in Bweyogerere where he set up his home, because while leaving the country, he had sold off his Ndeeba house.

As a new landlord of Ntebetebe, he donated part of his land for the establishment of a church for born-again Christians.

In 1990, Magembe shifted to Nakasajja on Gayaza-Kayunga road from where he went into farming, rearing Friesian cows. As a born-again Christian, he also erected another church at Nakasajja, and became its preacher until he passed away in 2014 aged 90 years.


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