Moses Matovu is one of the most celebrated and influential figures in Ugandan music history. Renowned for being the band leader of Afrigo band, Matovu seems to age like fine wine but the increased responsibility to keep the band’s image glowing does not seem to slow him down, writes David Lumu.
Fifteen years ago when I first attended an Afrigo band performance, their home base was at Club Obbligato, then in Industrial Area, just a few metres away from the now defunct Club Silk.
Those days, Moses Matovu often shared the vocal duties with Charles Sekyanzi on the band’s classic hits such as Maria, Olumbe lw’Obwavu, Eneeyisa and Oswadde Nnyo, among others.
Matovu’s protégé, Don Canta, always provided the vocals on the Lingala segments of the songs Mpeddembe and Julie, plus several other rhumba classics.
Meanwhile, the legendary Mansour Bulegeya complemented Matovu’s saxophone duties when the latter had to sing or take a break. Even fabled Fred Masagazi, though not a member of the band, also used to chip in with his some memorable songs as well as medleys such as Twejjukanye.
Over the years, the band has seen a wide range of changes in their ensemble but most importantly, Afrigo remains as solid as it has ever been; the signature sound has not changed and they even have more variety in style to fuse reggae and pop sounds into their music catalogue. If anything, the band has continued to grow from strength to strength since its move to the new Club Obbligato along Bombo road as it endears itself to younger fans with its unique sound.
Unfortunately, the foursome of Sekyanzi, Masagazi, Bulegeya and Canta have since passed on, leaving Matovu as perhaps the remaining constant in those band roles. This also means that Matovu has had to embrace the role of multi-tasking to keep the band’s lofty heights. Today, if you happen to arrive early for an Afrigo performance anywhere, you will likely find Matovu, a drop-dead perfectionist, fine-tuning the sound of every band instrument with the mixer.
This tedious process sometimes takes him 30 minutes as he meticulously seeks to get the perfect sound for the fans. Then on stage, he is increasingly performing more than one task at the same time for sometimes as long as five hours.
For instance on the hit Maria, he performs the catchy saxophone intro before diving in with the vocals and later on in the song, he has to play the tambourine, something he finds exhausting as much as it is enjoyable.
“There are days I get drained because in the past, there was a variety of role-players,” Matovu says.
“But in life you cannot dwell on the past, especially on something you cannot bring back. I didn’t embrace covering up for their roles but it is something I have little choice of doing because in Afrigo, we have to play every song exactly as it should be, even if it means some of the band members multi-tasking.”
This is not to suggest that Matovu is doing it all alone; old Afrigo band faces such as Joanita Kawalya, Herman Sewanyana, Saidi Kasule, Rachael Magoola and Eddie Ganja are still around. And in the absence of the departed colleagues, he has drafted into the band several talented replacements such as trumpeter Adam Katongole, who is still trying to grow into the Sekyanzi element, and Prince Kazuno, a charming Congolese vocalist with a similar aura like Don Canta’s.
In fact, Kazuno’s voice is so tailor-made for the Lingala segment of Mpeddembe that one may think Amigo Wawawa had him in mind when he was composing the song back in 1995. A few weeks ago, Matovu celebrated his 70th birthday [June 19, to be precise] with a series of commemoration parties organised by different sections of fans.
Matovu, who has steered the band since 1977 when original leader Jeff Sewava left, continues to defy age both in appearance as well as in performance. This milestone, which also coincides with his 55 years in secular music, has won him several applauses of reverence from the band’s long-time faithful fans, but at the same time something to ponder about the future.
It goes without saying that as he ages, his powers may also be waning, especially with the increased responsibilities, but Matovu is not the kind to take a back seat.
“Many people wonder how I keep going or when I will take a back seat, but I have no answer because all I live for is music. I’m entirely devoted to music and only God knows how long I can go,” he says.
“I’ve trained quite many musicians to one day take over from me but unfortunately, many have failed to live up to the high standards of the band and dropped off. There is a standard we set in Afrigo that we cannot compromise on…that’s why sometimes I have to play different roles.”
On whether he may one day have to comfortably sit back and watch the band perform without him on stage, Matovu is optimistic but unsure whether it will happen.
“Music is a calling to me and as long as I have the strength to perform, I will keep going. This band will outlive me because there are enough singers and instrumentalists, but quitting music is out of my plans,” he says.
Indeed, Matovu is already working on a new album, his first in almost a decade. However, he remains cagey.
“I don’t want to divulge everything at the moment but just know we are dropping something big before the end of the year,” he says.
For someone whose music career started at the age of four as a chorister in Namirembe cathedral choir, spells in Crane band and later Afrigo, there seems to be nothing to stop his musical calling. It is all he knows.