What is Original? Do-cultures and don’t-cultures

The current generation of recording artists and performers of Ugandan music is one that has not been talked about much. This could be in fact, that there is very little in terms of music to speak of.

You could summarize an entire decade of music in just a few sentences; very little music has been produced in the last 20 or so years which has gotten the entire country talking about an issue, an epidemic or even a political regime.

Written by Serubiri Moses

‘A good composer does not imitate, he steals.’ – Igor Stravinsky

The media has taken to either mocking, idolizing or ignoring a particular musician before the public. Never mind the music, but the artists themselves have become media cogs. Of course, they’ve given into the money and fame.

Photo by Anne Kari Garberg

This is a classic example of artists that have been ruined by a capitalist machine which has milked them to soulless, uninspired, tired and aging musicians. This is no separate identity from post-colonial figures like Muammar Gaddafi and Mobutu Sese Seko, who died at the hands of greed and infamy.

Genuine music is a no-no

You wonder if the artists really have an audience they are speaking to except for the newspapers, TV and radio stations. An imaginary, self-aggrandizing marginal audience that approves of recycling pop music and does not settle for any kind of innovation. The artists have gone to the finished product for inspiration, instead of finding any original material to work with in order to make some genuine music.

Genuine music is a no-no for this generation of musicians who believe in copying or recycling the finished product of another equally fabricated pop artiste. There is even a standard prototype within the media which dictates the clothes, the look, the sound and the image of a musician.

Again, never mind the music! Music is so much less about listening and so much more about seeing and doing, that it has lost an immediate sensory impact.


A “don’t culture” has emerged from all this, strongly limiting the innovativeness of new emerging musicians and artists. The rules have been laid out and steadily maintained. And because the prototype is not a very diverse figure, the music suffers a tight constraint.

The lack of variety is staggering. The vast majority of recording artists sound like each other. It is a conflagration of murky sounds, all too closely similar to bring any richness or inspiration to our society.

“It would be nice if there was more talk about our musical DNA, which is, our shared musical heritage. Rather than dwell on the traditionally known music, I’d like to discuss the continuity of our musical heritage through evolution; music that carries on our heritage or contributes to it,” writes Kampire Bahana, a writer on the arts and a founder of Vuga!

Thus, the continuation of the musical heritage is most important. It seems that the current artists are not necessarily building on the heritage. In short, their music is a bit too short-lived for us to enjoy entirely, and for our children and grandchildren to do the same.

Performers at MishMash. Photo by Will Boase (www.willboase.com). All rights reserved.


Artists being trapped in this don’t-culture have simply not thought enough about the generations to come or the ones that came before today.

This kind of music, undoubtedly, connects with vast audiences. It would have taken responsibility to cultivate a perennial African identity, and in consequence unite or inspire audiences across the continent and definitely across the world.

We can see this in the music of Brenda Fassie and indeed Bob Marley, who both became role models for youth across the continent and the world, influencing their fashion sense and their philosophies in life.

Music has this foremost responsibility to bring out the heritage of a people. Capitalism, however, has ignited don’t-cultures in order to maintain their brands and to keep the money coming in. This way, imitators of big brand musicians and their products have spawned throughout the world.

One way through which capitalism performs is through the media and advertising. By getting everyone to speak about something, they bring the product closer to the people with the purchasing power. Commercialism, therefore, becomes the final inspiration of our emerging Ugandan musicians, leading to music that has neither regard for a Ugandan heritage nor regard for the people that listen or buy the music.

Kampire goes on to say that few Ugandan musicians actively – if ever – think about our heritage while making music. They are bogged down and trapped in the don’t-culture which does not define the music this way, and therefore does not allow them to explore our heritage. Even if they would like to.

Indeed, it is not something that many think about: “Chameleon taps into something, but I am not sure if it will stand the test of time,” she goes on to say.

Do-cultures are permissive, experimental, vigorous and challenging. (Transition, 1966).

Nigeria may be more of a do-culture than Uganda, just off what has come out of Nigeria in the past decade alone. It boasts trendsetting fashion, trendsetting music and trendsetting film which is not only popular, but which communicates to a wide African audience about their own identity.

As a result, Nigerian musicians, filmmakers, actors and writers have been celebrated across the globe.

In a globalized world

With her latest CD, Rwandan-Ugandan jazz singer Somi has been pre-nominated for a Grammy. The singer is the proprietor of New Africa Live (http://newafricalive.org).

This non-profit organization in New York aims to carve out a cultural space of belonging for contemporary African artists. The organization produces events that create awareness of the value of African culture in a globalized world. It celebrates artists whose creations challenge African identity politics with a cosmopolitan spirit.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ghanaian Philosopher says of the cosmopolitan:

“Notice that the cosmopolitan values a diversity of this sort, because of what it makes possible for people. At the heart of cosmopolitanism is a respect for the diversity of culture. Not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.

And when culture is bad for people – for individual men, women and children – the cosmopolitan is not going to be tolerant of it. We do not need to treat genocide or human rights abuse as just another part of the quaint diversity of the species, a local taste that some totalitarians just happen to have.”

Kwame asserts the fact that cosmopolitanism does not stand for don’t-cultures; the cosmopolitan will stand up in the face of genocide or human rights violation and seek change.

Appreciation of African culture abroad

I feel that Somi’s vision for New Africa Live is aligned with this philosophy. Cosmopolitanism through the arts, through the music of Africans in the diaspora, will no doubt allow other people to appreciate African culture.

Album cover Somi

For Somi herself, this has culminated into her live album “Somi: Live At The Jazz Standard” in which she speaks three different East African languages, and in which she weaves influences from the traditions of jazz and soul music to well known local traditions of rhythm among the western tribes of Uganda.

There’s something about being able to keep the rawness of traditional music and dance that is outstanding with both Somi’s recorded music and live performances. But generally, this rawness is more apparent while watching Somi’s live performances with her band, where she moves her hands in the air like a crested crane, dancing the traditional Rwandese dance.

Her band itself is comprised of several different ethnicities, her pianist Toru Dodo is Japanese; her bass player Michael Olatuja is Nigerian, while on her album “Prayer to the Saint” she employs the percussion skills of a different tradition altogether through a Senegalese drummer.

They all keep a core of understanding each other, which is then channelled into the music, and in result giving a traditional – and often underlooked – dazzling kaleidoscope of colors.

Artistic evolution

When asked what ‘original’ means Gloria Wavammuno, noted Ugandan fashion designer, talks about being inspired or moved by existing things, but interpreting them in a unique way.

The Oxford dictionary mentions that everyone likes to think that he or she is creative, but original is more specific and limited in scope. Someone who is original comes up with things that no one else has thought of.

The main challenge here I feel, is about the material. Our artists, independent or part of collectives or under a particular producer, do not possess the immediate desire to consider material that is of Ugandan origin.

There is a major problem, when these artists look at finished works published, printed or on the radio, and use this finished artistic invention as a raw material for a poor imitation.

The fact that what we hear on the radio has gone through several changes and influences before becoming it’s full manifestation, brings serious limitations to the artistic inventor that ideally wants to evolve, that wants to bring it to the next level, as they say.

Often, bringing it to the next level requires a studious and seriously innovative artistic mind. Studious in a sense that, he or she will go down to the root of things and try to re-imagine that central knowledge, then cultivate it into a new creation. Thus, the proper integration of these materials, however eclectic they may be, is a prime appreciation of culture.

Incorporation of local fabrics

Gloria Wavamunno, like Xenson Senkaaba, incorporates startlingly iconic African fabrics into her work. It is no secret. We all agree barkcloth is Ugandan, as well as the Kanga is East African. There’s nothing to hide there. You see it and you know it. Their creations can be approximated to both our country’s geographical boundaries and its wealth of cultures.

Design by Xenson (c) 2011.

What I feel in their work, is a distinct voice that is not imitating any kind of original Ugandan art, but in truth they are stealing the original material and transforming it, through each one’s skills of creative interpretation.

They are becoming – increasingly so – the iconic fashion designers that we recognize and that the international fashion scene welcomes.

I learn from Gloria that African fabrics are the current trend on the international fashion market, and because of that her work is gaining more awareness and interest. But she hopes that as time passes by her use of African fabrics will be recognized as natural and not simply a passing trend; as the essence of her designs.

Here she is speaking about the artistic process, and the measure of her work based on critical acclaim. To those who suggest that her success has come only because of the current trend of African fabrics on the fashion market, she is defiant, chiefly because her use of African fabric is part of her creative process; and that with time people will learn to appreciate her use of African fabrics as original, and not just creative.

At the loom, Wawoto Kacel in Gulu. Photo by Will Boase (www.willboase.com). All rights reserved.

A philosophy for originality

“In a nutshell, allow yourself to grow, be honest with it and true to your nature. Don’t fight development or the new. That in general is what makes everyone unique: when one accepts who you are, but allow for growth and change, naturally. We all evolve differently, and should be allowed freedom to do so; not to be put in boxes, stereotypes and fear,” she writes.

This philosophy could benefit a multitude of Ugandan artists, simply by letting the fear go. Looking out for who you are, case in point, the Lugaflow Hip Hop movement, and not resisting change and growth thereafter.

Essentially, the artist evolves, first by going within themselves to discover who they are before trying to find a definitive artistic voice.

It begins with one’s appreciation of one’s own identity. In this way a do-culture will be cultivated, and – only then – artistic expression can emerge as original.

Serubiri Moses is a published writer who enjoys philosophical debates on jazz, classical music and the history of African art. He is currently a freelance writer who in addition, plays 2nd Violin in the Kampala Symphony Orchestra.

5 thoughts on “What is Original? Do-cultures and don’t-cultures

  1. Originality might be another Sisyphus debate like life itself.
    The question is who provokes their peril most with an inner self-serving bias, who seems to be and not be at the same time emphasizing the clues to their story?
    Who mocks the king and makes him feel alive?
    Who whines entertainingly?

  2. Kampire, I do not profess to mastering Ugandan music in any way, shape or form. But with my knowledge of other forms of music like Avant-garde & be bop jazz, classical music and other traditional indigenous musics from Uganda, Ethiopia and Mali, I can tell that what we have on the radio and in concert venues does not have the full potential to draw in a crowd from “The New World”. Clearly, even other African countries are ahead of Uganda because of our uninspired ways in recent decades.

    This does not mean in any way that Ugandans do not have the potential to commit to original, honest works of art, music or drama. It is simply that there is a nerve in today’s musicians to avoid (heritage) and all the things which would bring us into an international spotlight, not for vanity sake, but to show what we have to offer not only the world but ourselves, our children and their children.

  3. Thank you very much, Moses. Exactly, the problem of originality is seriously affecting this Dot com era across the globe. But when people stick to their cultures and traditions that will no longer be a problem
    . lets forget the caves of arrogance and ignorance.

    So concerned about the article.

  4. Thanks for the article moses. Very strong opinions, I would have liked to see them backed up by examples and facts. Which songs/videos are sad derivatives and which ones try to do something original? Which ones have proved more popular over time?
    Also you say at one point that this situation has given rise to a don’t-culture and then contradict yourself by saying the don’t-culture has created this situation. To me it is clearly the latter. Which factors created the don’t-culture, and which of these faced are universal (capitalism) and which are unique to developing countries (colonial hangover) and which are uniquely ugandan (religious fanaticism)?

    Thanks for letting me be part of the conversation.

  5. really interesting article! the problem of originality is not only ugandan though. i think what has been said in the article, about the capitalist drive to conform, is true. we see it in the west as well. there are a few striving to find their own voices in the arts, but less than there used to be.

    in the 1980s, for example, there was lots of debate about ‘fashion’ versus ‘style’, with greater respect given to those who develop their own style. now everyone is very mainstream: buying into a culture of accepted norms or trends that are propagated by big business interests. consumerism and mass consumerism now drive ‘creativity’.

    very hard to fight this in cultures that tell you that you have to have certain things/objects to be considered successful. easier perhaps in the west, where there is less extreme poverty, but we still have less creative innovation than before. where conditions are more challenging it is understandable that earning money is the most important thing for some in artistic fields.

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