In this third and final part of the series about Namirembe cathedral choir, DAVID LUMU and JOHN SSEKIBAALA show how the choir has evolved into an internationally recognised music outfit and its profound influence on today’s music scene.
The choir recruitment of the early nineties brought in a new breed of talent that distinguished itself to be of special and rare calibre. The culture of sharing knowledge played a big role in the early nurturing of these talented boys, many of whom went on to become established stars.
Inside the old choir practice room at Namirembe cathedral was a tonic sol-fa modulator pinned on the wall. Its main purpose was to train new choristers in the vocal notation before practice sessions on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
There was always this naughty chorister who would take the other boys through the paces until the choir conductor arrived to take over. His name is Geoffrey Kyagambiddwa, now more recognised as the artiste Chagga.
He was jolly, daring, but also reckless at times. He also had disciplinary issues and was never far from crossing the boundary on choir etiquette, yet he remained one of the popular members due to his affability.
In 1992 during the choir’s trip to Mombasa, Kyagambiddwa briefly disappeared from the hostel and created a bit of panic for the choir leadership, only to resurface later in the night.
He served a number of suspensions but always forged his way back. He was in many ways an embodiment of the new ‘rebel’ movement in the choir, which often defied strict hierarchical procedures and restrictions on the piano usage.
Other members of this group included Daniel Senninde, Paul Luggya, Ivan Kiwuuwa and Michael Kyemwa, among others. Around this time, the number of musically talented boys was now much bigger than in any of the past years. This talent boom had increased the pressure on the available pianos, precisely two.
So, this newfound interest to learn the piano created a stampede of sorts with some boys rising up to access the choir room through a window as early as 5am and some would leave late in the night. It was a survival of the fittest to get time on the piano.
Meanwhile, internal administrative tensions and divisions had threatened to split up the entire institution. These tensions were also characterized by poor relations between the choir administration and clergy.
Coups and counter-coups were the order of the day and many choristers found themselves in power one day and rebels the next day.
In one stormy choir meeting in 1994, Kyagambiddwa stormed out in defiance of the strict rules by the new leadership. He resurfaced months later as a secular singer under the stage name Chagga.
He was not alone in joining mainstream music. Senninde started moonlighting as a keyboardist for Afrigo band, while Kyemwa went to the UK only to re-emerge in music circles as Michael Chris.
Back at the cathedral, the strife in the choir reached a head in November 1995 when then dean, Daudi Serubidde, placed the choir under care of a normalization committee.
Most of the administrative responsibilities were placed under the care of Michael Ssozi as overall chairman. Amidst all these odds rose the likes of Luggya, Michael Mubiru and Kiwuuwa. Luggya, characteristically reserved and soft-spoken, rapidly rose and made steady progress on the piano beyond all expectation.
In 1996, organist Patrick Kabanda’s departure for further his studies in the US created space for Luggya to take over. He had made such amazing progress to take on the challenges of accompanist.
Fiona Carr turnaround
Fiona Carr is a British piano teacher who first came to Uganda in 1967 but left in 1973 only to return in October 1995. This marked a remarkable turnaround for the choir, especially the grooming of music scholars.
Carr quickly established contact with the choir with the aim of nurturing talented pianists. However, her biggest challenge and limiting factor was the lack of good pianos in Kampala.
Namirembe had two pianos, which due to poor maintenance, had totally depreciated and had practically outlived their useful life. Carr began serious business in 1996 with a handful of pioneering Namirembe choristers walking up to her house on Makindye hill for lessons at least once a week. The joy of playing on a fine instrument before a professional piano teacher soon turned into song expressly illustrated in every conversation at Namirembe hill.
However, establishing a workable methodological approach to teaching students whose early learning was through shared knowledge from colleagues had its own challenges.
The transition from informal instruction to formal piano instruction needed some time and occasionally innovation to forge a good teacher-to-student working relationship. The environment, language of instruction, and general approach to learning, all made the whole concept of piano learning seem new to many choristers.
Complaints soon came in on ‘chronic scales’ that took a big percentage of lesson time, followed by ‘new music’ for each lesson and some pieces ‘too easy’ or of a grade lower than where they presumed themselves to be, especially those found attempting more ambitious pieces.
Consequently, some boys experienced a dip in morale to the effect of temporarily breaking off from lessons, while those with faith in themselves and their teacher carried on. It was the steady progress of the faithful that prompted the doubtful to return for lessons.
Carr took the pains of sowing the musical ‘mustard seed’ with faith and belief in the fruit it would have to bear. Interestingly, lessons covered other attributes of life like time management, one critical discipline that had eluded many, but was soon grasped as a quality trait and culture.
The first signs of progress came through the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) exams in June 1996. Kabanda put on an impressive performance, passing his grade six with distinction.
Plans of sourcing for better pianos from the UK now came to the forefront to enable students preparing for higher grades achieve better results.
In August 1998, a company, Pianos for Uganda Limited, was founded and within a year, more than 20 pianos had already been flown into the country from the UK. These were strategically placed in key musical centres like churches, schools and higher institutions of learning around the country. Namirembe had the luck and privilege to get two of the finest pianos.
With better-quality pianos in the country, the door was now open for unhampered rapid progress, a fact cemented by the rise of students such as Luggya and Kiwuuwa.
In a short while, Kiwuuwa was awarded a scholarship to The Wells Cathedral School, one of the most reputable schools in the UK. Scores of many other boys went on to perform excellently at ABRSM examinations.
Luggya too, travelled to Liverpool to further his piano and organ studies. The creation of Kampala Music School absorbed most of Carr’s students and from then on, dozens of Namirembe choristers started pursuing careers in choral music and went on to become entrenched in the classical music movement that swept the country in the mid-2000s.
Groups such as Sauti Ya Africa, Soul Orchestra have their foundations in Namirembe cathedral choir and many more individuals have also graduated from this chain of learning.
In May 1998, the choir leadership structure was revised to bring back the position of organist and director of music. David Katuramu took over the leadership mantle with two immediate assistants: Mubiru and Luggya.
Katuramu introduced a liturgical committee that organized and coordinated choir programs on a regular basis. In 2000, he voluntarily resigned his position, leaving Mubiru and Luggya in charge.
Since then, the choir leadership has been relatively stable with smooth transitions to the extent that many of those that had left under bitter circumstances have since returned to the fold.
His music career may have stalled a bit but Chagga was born to be a musician. His five years in the choir were quite eventful and he went on to forge a rollercoaster career in secular music. In his entire career, Chagga has never been far from controversy but remains a popular figure among peers and fans.
Michael Kyemwa spent five good years in the choir before moving abroad where he established his career as a secular musician before turning to gospel music which he performs to date.
He is best known as the keyboardist for Afrigo band as well as an accompanist for many other choirs. He joined the choir in 1980 and rose to become head chorister before pursuing a career as a pianist, keyboardist and organist.
The multi-talented Ssenninde is still part of the choir.
Luggya’s younger brother joined the choir in 1992 and rose above the challenges under Carr and won a scholarship to Wells Cathedral School. He never looked back and went on to perform across Europe and the USA for many years. Kiwuuwa continues to perform occasionally but he is also a certified accountant.
He is the chief cathedral organist and joined the choir at the encouragement of classmate Kyagambiddwa in 1991. Within just four years, he had risen to play the organ and has never looked back since.
By 2001, he had proven himself to belong to an exceptional class after accomplishing two distinction diplomas in piano performance and organ in the same examination season. Later, he attained his Associate of the Royal College of Organists (ARCO) professional diploma, the highest recognition for organ performers.
Francis Derrick Mutesasira
The current music director joined the cathedral choir in 1991 as boy chorister from Namirembe Infants primary school. He got his first training in singing from Samuel Nkugwa and the late Michael Mubiru. He later got introduced to the piano by Ssenninde.
During high school at King’s College Budo, he was the chapel organist and music director for the Nightingales choir. Under training from Carr, he rose up to Grade eight ABRSM, later on taking voice classes with Ulrike Wilson, a German teacher, up to the level of Diploma ABRSM in both performance and voice teaching.