A Case for Good African Music

There were a number of magical moments in the World Music showcase by Joel Sebunjo and Ismaël Lo on Friday. One was watching Sebunjo play the opening kora-solo to ‘Nakato’. Many of the Ugandans in the crowd knew the words and sang along while dancing in front of the stage. Another one was hearing Ismaël Lo sing ‘Tajabone’, alone on stage with his guitar. Three minutes of bliss, at times playing both guitar and harmonica together. The message of this music was freedom, peace and love.

By Serubiri Moses

To ‘love Africa’ and to ‘be African’ were two important lessons learnt from watching the two musicians perform. Their introspective performances lifted the concert, at times showing lustrous singing in Bambara, Luganda or Mande, hence wrapping the audience in rare traditional forms of music and culture. This delivery conveyed a personal but profound message for Africa and the world. It all proves that this music will live on.

Ismaël Lo says: “My real dream is to speak all African languages… Africa is everywhere I go. (Africa) is my father, my mother, my brother …”

Ismaël Lo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of Joel Sebunjo.

World Music in Kampala

There is very little music out there with the kind of edge that Ismaël Lo and Joel Sebunjo brought to their Friday concert.

The seeds of this music were sown earlier in the century with the radio of the 1950’s playing Cuban music in Kinshasa, which touched and inspired a certain Franco Makiadi, a guitar-virtuoso that went on to define the modern Congolese sound, Soukous.


His singing with profound emotion in Lingala, again, introspective about his society paved way for a new voice – one that cared for the people and their culture. On reaching Senegal and Gambia, which already had a well-developed music scene, this voice reminded the Senegalese musicians of their own griot and kora traditions.

This Cuban-influenced Congolese fusion made a powerful impact on the West African music scene, that later produced the iconic World Music carried by masters like Salif Keita, Ali Farka Touré and Cesaria Evora.

When western singer-songwriters like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Bono started listening to these unique recordings, they made collaborations with the musicians, notably Youssou N’Dour and LadySmith Black Mambozo on ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, in albums that topped the European charts paving way for a generation of world music artists from Africa.

Joel Sebunjo today, solos on the kora borrowing from this same history. He also borrows the Mande language in which he sings, but most importantly, his band Sundiata consists of three virtuosic Congolese musicians on bass, drums and notably electric guitar. In fact, his guitarist is perhaps a musical cousin to Franco!

Joel Sebunjo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of the artist himself.

Ismaël Lo is part of that generation and went on to tour the world. He even wrote a song for the 1999 Spanish blockbuster film Todo Sobre Mi Madre – “Tajabone” – which he performed on Friday night to a swooning audience.

The World Music Audience

Today’s local bands aim at incorporating traditional lyrics and rhythms from Uganda, with minimal perfection. Gonno, that ancient form of singing for instance, is not as widespread as Dave Koz’s soprano sax playing, bringing more of the latter than the former.

As a result, bands are more about jazz than world music, two genres which have appeared to be similar in the past, but have two completely separate voices. One’s voice is undeniably based on the blues tradition of African-Americans, whereas the other is originally African music and speaks of African suffering, or in the case of Ismael Lo, speaks of the freedom, love and peace of African people.

Ismaël Lo & Joel Sebunjo showed a strong feeling and articulation of African music at their concert. The honesty of their music is universal. So much that people whether from Europe, Asia or Uganda can appreciate their music. Yes, there was a fair share of white members in the audience, but the quality of the music was indisputable, even to the black audience.

When Ismaël Lo played a Senegalese rhythm-driven song, he shouted out: “Anyone from Senegal?” In launching into an almost dizzying groove, the white audience members jumped out from their seats and ran to the side aisles to dance. It seemed as if they were the ones from Senegal. Geographically, Europe might be closer to Senegal, but musically and culturally speaking, we in Uganda are much closer.

Joel Sebunjo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of the artist himself.

Joel Sebunjo started as a music apprentice to masters like Dr. Sempeke who taught him the Endongo and the Ennanga, but eventually he went on to Mali and Senegal to study the kora. He is proud to be both Ugandan and Senegalese through music.

Ismael Lo says: “As a young man in Paris for the first time, hearing Heavy Metal rock was (for me) like hearing world music. It’s the same for the white audience; it’s a new thing (for them.)”

It just makes one think; why is ‘Africa’ (again, this is not the Africa defined by Ismaël Lo) cut off from the rest of the world? Why are we so cut off from the rest of the world that regards this as good music?

It should be obvious – judging by the number of black people who turned out for the show on Friday – that not so many Ugandans regard this as good music. Moreover, it is doubtful whether Ugandans think of ‘African music’ in itself as good music.

Joel Sebunjo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of the artist himself.

The future of African music

“We have to believe in the future of African music,” Ismaël Lo says.

Music must be relatable. Music must carry with it some kind of identity. It must reflect, like I have mentioned earlier, not just the history of African music or elements of African music, but the very history of a people and their culture. One must be able to feel the spirit of a people through music.

Ismaël Lo believes that ‘African music’ as a whole has a future waiting to be realized.

Joel Sebunjo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of the artist himself.

Is our Ugandan music – and by Ugandan music, I mean our traditional Ugandan musical heritage – any good?

In this country, we are so used to celebrate the music of other countries that our own music is treated like old, unused furniture collecting dust in the house. In many ways, we are much more comfortable having these instruments on display at the museum.

You might shoot back a question such as: “Don’t we flock to the concert halls to watch our own Ugandan musicians, Bebe Cool and Chameleon?” I comeback to ask whether you think Bebe Cool is quality music. Is this the kind of quality music where you would pay 70,000 Ugandan shillings for a concert?

The “world music audience” has supported an initiative which our own government has failed to do, which is the keeping alive of African music in the culture of present, through authentic performance and appreciation.

A case for good African music

In my mind, the society needs good music. Just like we need good roads, good schools, and certainly enough electricity. Good African music is one of those privileges that will allow our community to grow. It will grow our culture and our sense of identity.

Cultural education is most effective through music; this is how small children learn how to speak through singing. In Mande culture, music is an effective peacemaking tool which has worked for centuries settling disputes between tribes. It is also how a history of an African people is preserved, through singing the names of ancestors and telling their stories. Perhaps, this is a kind of patriotism that has not been addressed.

Ismaël Lo performing at Serena Hotel 2012. Photo by courtesy of Joel Sebunjo.

What if the whole of Africa was a little heartbroken when Ghana lost the World Cup in South Africa? What if several children around the continent hoped that Ghana would win, and in the end were disappointed to lose; there is something about that picture of millions of Africans rooting for an African team to win the World Cup.

This collective feeling is the exact message of world music; which is hope, love and freedom. It makes the world music musicians unique, because within it is something so relatable, even on the basic human level.

And this is what makes Ismaël Lo and Joel Sebunjo such unique world music musicians, and it is ultimately what brings them to an international audience.

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.

2 thoughts on “A Case for Good African Music

  1. Doreen, I would love to know the kadongo kamu records, both new and old, in your music collection. This should not include any Jazz (Congolese, Nigerian or Ugandan from before the 80s) nor Afrigo CDs.

  2. “Africa” is not cut off from the rest of the world in terms of its appreciation of World Music. This music was appreciated in its various locales long before it caught the attention of western audiences, long before it was given the generic label, “world music.”

    I also strongly disagree that we Ugandans treat our own music like old furniture. Have you been to any Kadongo Kamu concert?

    These generalizations mar your otherwise good review.

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