James Isabirye and Tabu Osusa Discuss East African Music

Jimmy sat down with Tabu and James during a break in recording to talk about East African music.   He was able to listen in on a fantastic conversation about on the topic ‘Why is East African music under such threat?’   Both James and Tabu are passionate about the topic, but more importantly they are committed to addressing the threat through their efforts to develop musicians committed to traditional music.

  • Tabu:   There are so many reasons our musical culture is threatened.  I know that Hugh Tracy blamed Christianity.  The churches came to the land and convinced the people that the old ways were evil.  Traditional instruments with drums were part of the pagan culture and needed to be erased.  Traditional songs about spirits, about witch doctors needed to be ended and replaced with Christian music.
  • James:   I think that explains some of it. But the church no longer does that and yet we still reject the old ways.  I think another reason is we were all taught to aspire to a “White Man’s identity.”   This goes way back.  I remember by Grandmother used to always greet me saying ‘Welcome back from school.’  It was very important that I went to school and she could say loudly in the village that her grandson was home from school.  She used to ask me how my English lessons were.  I would have to say, ‘Hello.  Thank you.  Please’ and she didn’t understand a word but she would be so proud and tell the village that I was learning English.  That was so important to her.  I was praised for aspiring to be an English man, not a Ugandan.  She only wanted what is best for me, but this is part of a larger problem we have today.  I’ve taught for 20 years now and my concern is that our entire system is training us to be like a white person from England or America, not to be Ugandan.  The English and Americans don’t want to know me because I am like them – they know I am not.  They want to know me because I am Ugandan, because I am different.  And yet that is not what we teach.
  • Tabu:  Exactly.  Rather than embrace our identify we aspire to be something else.  In Kenya, all the young musicians want to play Hip Hop and want to become like a musician from LA, all gangsta style.  But that is not them.
  • James:  What do they know about the criminal gangs in LA?  They repeat the vulgar, violent language of these songs and don’t know their meaning or origin.  So it just sounds vulgar – some Kampala teen-ager singing F this and F that in a bad American accent.  Why is this good?  Why is it unique?  Why is it art?   What they should do is learn about their culture, their identity – it is so rich, so wonderful, so new and exciting for others.  If I’m an American or English person, when I hear a Ugandan I would want to hear something new from their culture – why do I want to hear t hem cursing about the police in Los Angeles that beat up a gang banger?
  • Tabu:    We have a dozen musicians a week visit us at Ketebul wanting to ‘do what we do.’  Some have been on Project Fame, or have signed to some label to record a hip hop album.  They go nowhere.  All their instincts are wrong.   But after they’ve failed for a while, they hear about us, they listen to Makadem or Winyo and they say, ‘Wow.  That is so good.’ And they come and ask for help.  I tell them to go back to their village and learn their songs, discover their musical styles and instruments and then come back to me and I’d be happy to help them.  And some do.  Both Winyo and Makadem started out doing more R&B and lots of covers.  But they have re-discovered the music and styles of their tribes – it was in them all along but they did not listen.  Now they listen and guess what –everyone is listening to them.
  • James:   We need to move from being a nobody – neither a American/Englishman (but trying to be one) nor a Ugandan.  We need to move from being a nobody to being somebody, to understand what makes us unique.     When we hold festivals, we ask the musicians to talk to the audience, tell them their stories and who they are.   For almost every festival, I am told by some government official that they want to open the show and talk about culture.  I say no.  I tell them that the people don’t need to hear from some politician about their culture.  To learn about culture, you need to hear from people that live the culture.  So I ask the musicians to speak not the politicians.   And our audiences love it.    They learn what it really means to be Ugandan.
  • Tabu:  Yes.  We talk with one voice.  People from the government always want to help me.  I tell them simply:  the best way to help me is to stay out of my way. Let the musicians talk to their audiences.  Let them play. We don’t need a big government program on culture, we need to give the artist the stage and a microphone and an audience.   Let people rediscover their culture through great artists doing great things.  You don’t rediscover you heritage with a government policy.
  • James:  Exactly.    One other issue.  Part of the problem we have is our ‘everything now’ culture.  50 years ago, if you got a job, you knew that if you worked hard and stayed with the job and got promoted you could buy a home for your family, or a car.  Or help your children to be educated. Once you got a job, you knew not to lose it.   Now people work for a little bit and then quit and they complain about how hard life is.  I tell them, “Why did you stop the job?  You just lost a home, or education for your children.  Why did you lose that?’   But we don’t celebrate someone that works hard. We celebrate someone that is trying to make a quick buck. We want to take short cuts.  So we sing American music because some other artist has done all the work – we just have to sound a bit like them.  But we don’t. It is a bad copy.  But it feels easier to do that than it does to work with a traditional instrument, to learn how to be a good player, a good performer.  To do something unique. That is too hard.  It seems easier to copy a Beyonce video.
  • Tabu:  And the copies never work.  They are terrible. I have worked with people that have become amazing artists, but when they first came to me, they were terrible. Bad copies of Beyonce trying to make it big overnight.  It doesn’t work that way.  Audiences want something unique. They want something good and pure.  They don’t want bad copies.
  • James:   What I like about Singing Wells is you are giving a voice to the real artists.  They have learned their culture, they have mastered their art.  And you give them voice.
  • Tabu:  And what I like about the program you have arranged for us, James, is you have brought us so many diverse voices.  From the legends with 50 years performing, to the school boys learning to be in a brass band.  Each of them has a unique voice and each of them makes a great contribution to Singing Wells.

It was a good moment just to listen and take notes….

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