Benon Mugumbya, who simply goes by Benon, is a musician, producer and the face of music label Swangz Avenue. But beyond his trademark boyish grin, he has astutely created a music empire from almost nothing, writes DAVID LUMU.
It was a 2007 trip to the USA for a gig that opened Benon’s eyes to music entrepreneurship. Back then, he was a well-known star as the frontman for the duo Benon and Vamposs.
However, in spite of churning out a number of hits such as Nsazewo, Mumulete and I Know, he had not really established himself as household name in his own right. In an era when celebrities were associated with bravado, tattoos as well as fancy hairstyles and to some extent the ability to stir up controversy, Benon didn’t possess any of these.
On the other hand, he had a special knack of writing, arranging as well as producing music. Being an instrumentalist was also a big plus. On that background, Benon soon realised he needs to pursue what he does best and set about to create his own recording studio.
The downside to his dream was that he didn’t have enough money but after covering all his costs while on the USA tour, he was left with just $1,500 (about Shs 5.4m); this was a dream opportunity to buy from the best place at the cheapest rate.
“My music career was going well but not the way I wished but I had already worked in production with the best in the industry and I thought I could also make it,” he says. “It was a huge gamble but I firmly knew what I wanted and nothing could stop me.”
Benon would return home with just a computer, soundcard and two speaker monitors. His brother offered him a mixer and from then on, he never looked back.
Today, Swangz Avenue is one of the biggest labels combining production of music as well as commercials. It has also unearthed some of the biggest names in the industry such as GNL Zamba, Winnie Nwagi, Rabadaba, Irene Ntale and, lately, Vinka, among others.
From the start of his career, Benon’s biggest attribute was the ability to produce great hits, a skill he attained under the mentorship of Eddy Mpagi, the one half of music group Ngoni. “I had always been a gadget geek right from childhood.
So, during my senior six vacation in 2000, I used to hang around Eddy’s Goodenuff studios in Makindye, from where he introduced me to music production,” he recalls.
“At the same time, I used to work at an internet café in downtown Kampala and this exposed me to various music programs such as FlootyLoops, which I used to make my own beats. I immediately fell in love with the process of making music.”
Later, Eddy would leave Benon to take charge of the studio when he was away and in spite of breaking through as a musician with Nsazewo in 2003, Benon never really liked the limelight.
“I was never comfortable being at the forefront but nevertheless enjoyed performing because that is what I wanted,” he says. “At Goodenuff, we worked as a team and for me the hit that stood out was Sweet Lady, which is widely viewed as Mowzey Radio’s breakout hit.”
By 2005, Benon had established himself as one of the most sought-after producers. That is when Steve Jean, the biggest producer at the time, called him up to join his Fenon studio. “It was a no-brainer because Steve was one of my biggest inspirations. I had worked with him on Nsazewo and appreciated his attention to detail and perfection,” he says.
Among his tasks at Fenon was to conjure something special to propel the emerging careers of Blu 3 and Radio & Weasel. “We worked for two days and didn’t come up with anything significant and just as they were about to give up, magic came from nowhere and that’s how Where you are was done within about one and half hours,” he says.
However, the concentration on radio adverts at Fenon saw Benon veer off from his music career. “It was hectic and I reached a point where I felt overwhelmed yet my passion was music production,” he says.
It was on that background that Benon, while in the USA in 2007, made up his mind to go into production.
However, it was not a rosy start in 2008 when he finally settled in. “I started Swangz when I set up the makeshift studio in my bedroom because I wanted to follow my passion,” he says.
Luckily, he had made enough connections in the music industry and was greatly respected. Radio and Weasel came along and we made the song Dagala. Soon, he moved the studio to Muswangali avenue along Salama road, from where it loosely got its name Swangz Avenue.
Swangz quickly built a niche for nurturing young talents. Rabadaba and GNL emerged in 2011. But just when Swangz was hitting its stride, the 2012 death of Sera, one of its most promising artistes nearly brought it down.
“We had in greatly invested in her career but her sudden death rocked us to the core,” he says. “The conspiracy theories that followed also traumatised us but with God, we were able to overcome the tragedy.”
Along the way came Julius Kyazze, who partnered Benon to amplify the Swangz brand. “He [Kyazze] is one of the most important people in my life because he brought the business aspect into Swangz, something I lacked,” says Benon.
Today, Swangz is located in a two-storied building in Muyenga, a plush suburb. The company employs about 100 people in various capacities even though most of them are part-timers.
Benon remains cagey about how big the business is but he acknowledges it is worth more than a billion shillings.
Swangz has since expanded to venture into commercials, video shooting as well as organising events such as the popular Roast & Rhyme and, according to Benon, they plan to go into television production.
“These days I’m more into the management of the place and do little production,” he says. “My goal now is to expand the Swangz brand and who knows, we plan to become a fullyf ledged international production label.”
To mark the 10 years of Swangz, they have partnered Bell Jamz for a three-month countrywide music celebration dubbed ‘Bell Jamz presents The Swangz All-Star Tour.’ The campaign will feature a number of music engagements around the country with a wide array of artistes.
At just 37 years, sky is the limit for Benon.