For a Ugandan music industry where beats determine the success of a song, the vocal prowess of Sauti Ya Africa has won them international fame in spite of the fact that they are yet to be wholly embraced at home, writes DAVID LUMU.
The Sauti Ya Africa singing quartet of Francis Mutesasira, Ben Katumba, Charles Awany and George Semaganda is simply extraordinary. There is a high chance you have watched them perform during a church service, been serenaded by their music at a wedding or high-end restaurant.
For the affluent, they are regular entertainers at consulate functions. But don’t get it twisted; they are down-to-earth guys who have even performed on the streets before. Many confuse them to be an a cappella group or even a Christian choral outfit but their music is pop operatic.
Their music is diverse; from Christian anthems such as Hallelujah to romantic tunes including the Aladdin soundtrack, Can You Feel The Love Tonight. They simply perform sounds that appeal to the occasion. What makes Sauti Ya Africa special is the vocal blend of Awany’s tenor, Mutesasira’s baritone, Semaganda’s high baritone and Katumba’s bass baritone.
These guys can melt even the strongest of hearts. They are accomplished instrumentalists and all play the piano. Depending on the size of audience, they may perform alone, with a chamber or even a full orchestra for large gatherings. Oftentimes, they show up without prior notice, belt out a couple of songs before leaving the audience yearning for more.
In fact, they are some sort of an enigma, because you never hear them advertised for concerts yet everything about them is over-the- top; from the unconventional music style to their impressive tuxedos as well as their trademark fleet of Mark X machines.
When they sing Christian classics by legendary classical composers such as AntonWebern, Frantz Schubert, among others, they add an African touch by fusing in traditional chants.
That was the case with Ave Maria, which they performed for Pope Francis at Lubaga cathedral. However, their diversity also includes mainstream covers from Elton John, Billy Ocean to Luther Vandross and Adele.
Sauti Ya Africa also has its own compositions amidst these classics and How Do I is the standout. In fact, the group is soon releasing a debut 12-track album. Whereas Sauti Ya Africa is at the evolving stage, they have already scaled global heights. They were singled out to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Kampala.
Two years ago, they performed as the main act at the exclusive Guildhall in London, whose audience included former US president Bill Clinton, Prince Charles, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. As a matter of fact, Sauti Ya Africa’s biggest fan base is not the ordinary folk, but music-savvy people with an inclination to vocal excellence at the expense of beats.
That is why it is not easy to hire the group for a concert, because the tune they understand most is dollars. In spite of that sophistication, most of Sauti Ya Africa performances are free and in many cases proceeds go towards charity.
I have known the foursome for years – some even before the group was started in 2007 – and recently spent some time at their lavish base in Kira on the outskirts of Kampala.
The group draws its inspiration from their classical music background, with all members having been choristers from tender ages. Interestingly, only Katumba studied music up to university long before the quartet came together. Mutesasira was an urban planner based at Wakiso district headquarters, Semaganda a budding visual artist while Awany was a professional carpenter.
However, all were music enthusiasts and it was deeply entrenched in their lives right from childhood. The group’s foundation was built at Kampala Music School (KMS), where they were mentored by acclaimed German opera singer and teacher, Ulrike Wilson, who was at the time the IMF representative in Uganda.
By 2005, all members had graduated with flying colours from UK- based Associated Board of Royal School of Music (ABRSM) after passing grade eight, the highest accomplishment. ABRSM is the top-rated musical institution globally. It was around that time that the foursome started to meet and per- form as an a cappella group.
“We were singing for the fun,” says Katumba. “It was just a hobby and we had no plans of forming a group.”
With time, people took notice of their vocal excellence and started inviting them to perform at weddings and parties. Their breakthrough performance was the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Kampala when they were commissioned to perform alongside world-renowned soprano, Lucie Crowell.
“That’s when reality set in and we went full blast, because we realized our potential,” says Mutesasira.
Thereafter, the quartet tried out several names such as Melisma, Beautiful Singing and Cantori before Awany came up with Sauti Ya Africa in 2008.
“Since we are doing something unique, the name is a reflection of our African heritage in a genre that is dominated worldwide by Europe- ans and Americans,” he says.
People around them were initially skeptical because they were doing a first of its kind in Uganda but Sauti Ya Africa remained focused and was warmly embraced by the local expatriate community that related most to their musical style.
Hardly a week passed without them being booked and this greatly enhanced their profile internationally. “We’ve performed gigs in all over East Africa, the UK and US,” says Semaganda.
Granted, the success of Sauti Ya Africa has come with a lot of skeptics to the extent that the quartet still has to stave off doubts about their nationality. Understandably, people find them strange because they have strong and beautiful voices. But it is the way they arrange their harmonies that stands out.
Their vocal excellence speaks to the soul more than just the music. It goes deeper and the lyrics penetrate to the soul. At one time, some incredulous fans forced them to perform with- out any microphones to prove that they were not lip-synching.
“Many times we have met fans who express disbelief that we are, indeed, Ugandan and can even speak Luganda. Some people think we are Americans. The shock of what we do stems from the belief that we cannot do it,” says Semaganda.
Mutesasira adds: “At one wedding at Golf Course hotel, the guests requested us to say a word in Luganda to prove we were actually Ugandan.”
A UK tour in May 2014 forever changed their lives and opened their eyes to how good they were. Invited by the Rothschild Foundation, Sauti Ya Africa did several gigs across London and Manchester.
“We got standing ovations after every performance and people kept wondering what took us so long to be recognized,” says Awany.
This two-week tour included shows at the famous Eton College and was capped by a request by the Lord Mayor of London, who then commissioned for a special performance of Nella Fantasia at Guild- hall alongside Katherine Jenkins, a multiple award-winning classical music icon.
“That tour gave us a clear path to the future and from then we decided to incorporate a business aspect to our music,” says Mutesasira.
The foursome is cagey about their financial status, but you only have to be with them to understand their intricate lifestyle. Their magnificent Sauti Ya Africa home is on course to change the face of Ugandan music.
Already, they are putting final touches to the spacious air-conditioned state-of-the-art recording studio fully equipped with guitars, drums, keyboards, mixer and speakers among others.
They also have a vocal section, boardroom as well as resting area. These guys have, indeed, invested a lot in their talent and are on a serious mission.
“We are still building our fan base because many Ugandans are still getting to learn about our music,” says Semaganda. “There was a
time we performed to an audience where 99 per cent was white but that is changing and many more Ugandans are getting to appreciate our style.”
Surprisingly, Sauti Ya Africa has no manager or choreographer but they mainly rely on a team of volunteer fans. Having been compared to international pop operatic group Il Divo, Sauti Ya Africa is not merely taking it in stride, but have their eyes firmly set on international fame.
“We are looking at releasing more albums and hopefully signing up with international record labels,” says Mutesasira.
Mutesasira joined Namirembe cathedral choir as a boy chorister and has risen through the ranks to become the choir’s music director. He studied at King’s College Budo.
Katumba started out at Bunamwaya church choir, which he joined as an eight-year-old. He is also a product of Namirembe cathedral choir, which he joined while still a student at Mengo SS. He would later graduate with a bachelor’s of music at Makerere University.
Meanwhile, Awany started his journey as a chorister at St Balikuddembe Catholic church before joining Christ the King church choir.
Semaganda’s path to Sauti Ya Africa was unorthodox, because he was a part-time singer at the National theatre jam session in the early 2000s, often performing covers of classic love songs. In his quest to polish his vocal ability, he joined Kampala Music School in 2003.
Beyond Sauti Ya Africa, all of them are professional voice teachers and each has a separate group of students.