Pragmo and Lillian Mbabazi’s danger concert

Serena swimming pool area was the venue for this unlikely musical pairing, even though as it turned out, they were not so different after all. The deemed lights, sound of the waterfall and even that of the frogs formed the perfect background for a quiet night out and a premonition of the style of music to expect: Jazz and soul.

Written by Elizabeth Namakula.

Lillian and Pragmo at Serena Kampala, 18.12.12.

There were two things that threatened to ruin this perfect setting and anticipation though. Firstly, it started almost an hour late. And secondly, what started as a slight drizzle nearly ruined the evening when the rain increased. The audience had to scamper for shelter. After thirty minutes, the show resumed but the flow became a little strained.

Apart from these two, however, the rest of the show flowed smoothly.

The trademark hat

It’s no longer news; Pragmo never dresses up for his shows. With the exception of a hat that has become his trademark, he was dressed casually in a white-shirt with his name spread across in red and cream pants. Accompanied by Chris Weigers on bass guitar, Valeur Kalinda on the drums and the talented saxophonist called Brian Mugenyi, mellow and slow jazz followed.

Pragmo was introduced to music at the age of seven and he says he has dedicated his life to playing the piano since. By the end of his secondary school years, he knew music was his destiny. So he horned his skills at World Evangelical Ministries in Fort Portal and Power Centre Ministries for more than 8 years. Eventually, he started Piano Boy Studios in Entebbe, which produces his music to date.

‘Real sunrise’ from the album Blackroots Unlimited kicked off the performance. The Yamaha Motif Pragmo was using felt his mastery and ease as his hands flew over the keyboard. The saxophonist consoled us after the downpour, “I feel your discomfort and pain, just hang in there.” He implied in a mellow way. It was so beautiful, it made one want to cry.

Solome has become quite a regular at Pragmo’s shows. She did one of Steve Wonder’s songs, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, which wasn’t bad at all. She followed it with Love You I Do from the musical Dreamgirls. Although she managed to pull this one-off, it was clear her focus was more on execution than feeling.

Harmony and inspiration

Pragmo is fluent in jazz and popular styles of afro beat, blues, funk and R&B among others. He mentions that he is inspired by Steve Wonder, Lionel Richie, Kenneth Edmond, ABBA, Anita Becker, Angie Stone, George Duke, Gloria Estafen, Hugh Masekela, Dave Koz, Four Play, and Brian Culbertson.

What attracts him to jazz above all the other styles, is that it allows him to work with harmony and improvisation.

“I am by far and largely self-taught,” he says.

The Pragmotive is “II” Chill Out, The Enfunkclopedia Of Jazz, Vol 1: Groove and 12 Funktions Of New Jazz are some of his albums.

A solo career

Later, it was Lillian Mbabazi‘s chance to show us what has catapulted her from a successful girl band to an equally successful solo career.

Lillian was part of Blu3, a Ugandan all-female band formed in April 2004 after winning the TV show Coca Cola Popstars. The name was contrived to mean “3 Beautiful (or Black) Ladies from Uganda”. Original members were Jackie Chandiru, Lillian Mbabazi and Cinderella Sanyu.

The judges were so impressed with the girls’ vocals blending so well that they compared them to the biggest voices in the industry then. They went on to record two albums, Hitaji (2004) and Burrn (2007).

By 2008, the band was one of the hottest girl groups in East Africa. After doing a successful tour of Ghana and Nigeria and about to start promoting their new album, Burrn, news came that their long-term manager Steve Jean was quitting the group. As if that wasn’t enough , Cinderella Sanyu, the most popular of the girls, was also quitting.

But that was not the end of Blu 3. The group recruited Mya Baganda to make a successful comeback thanks to the girls voices and talent. However, with the success of former band mate Cinderella Sanyu aka Cindy as a solo artist, the girls decided to pursue solo careers.

Lillian broke out with Vitamin, a song that left no doubt of what she could do with her amazing vocal technique and ability. Because of her love for live music, she went on to form a band, the Sundowners.

Archive photo: Lillian Mbabazi at Bayimba Festival 2011.

The queen of live music

Now dressed in a black blazer and flowered pants with her Rihanna haircut in tow, she appeared on stage calm and collected. She started off with a rendition of Etta James’s At Last.

It was very clear from the beginning that the feeling of her songs mattered more to her than their execution, although not to be outdone as a seasoned entertainer, she was pristine in that area as well. Lillian had total command of her audience and up to that point in the performance; none of the artists had had a grip on us as she did.

So strong was her voice and feel that she had us carried away and we happily obliged.

In the true spirit of Christmas, she did Mary Did You Know, in which she had the drummer accompanying her as well. Still with passion and energy she sang her current hit Danger to an audience that was already in awe of her.

Truly, she was the queen of live music!

Suburban roots

Lillian traces her roots in Kigali, Rwanda and Kampala’s suburbs. Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston were among her idols while growing up.

“I always knew I would be a singer. I could never stop singing no matter what I was doing. In fact, I think I almost drove my siblings crazy humming and singing all day long,” she says.

Her musical style is described as a cross between R&B and Soul tinged with African & Western musical influences as revealed in the songs she had done so far: Vitamin—a classic Ugandan style pop song featuring Weasel from the Goodlyfe. KawaSo in love—a sultry classic R&B track with hints of jazz.

“The beauty about Lillian’s voice is that she can sing almost anything, whether it is a ballad, a jazz standard, a pop song or a dance track. To have such vocal versatility is a true talent,” says Onoh, a producer from Market Makers while speaking to Big Eye Ug.

To sum up that night’s performance, it was as though Alicia Keyes and Dave Coz shared the same stage. They both rocked it.

Elizabeth Namakula is a freelance writer living in Kampala, Uganda. Her short story “A World of Our Own” was recently published in the Femrite-collection “World of Our Own”.