Qwela’s Afrotopia album

What I like about Afrotopia is the assertively used indigenous instruments like the akogo, the nanga and the tube fiddle. When I compare Afrotopia, though, to another Ugandan album; Sipping From the River Nile by Tshila from 2008; it falls short. In this album by Tshila, being very similar in style to Afrotopia, the wealth of syncopation, rhythm and sound is consistent within every individual song. This quality is especially lacking in Afrotopia.

Reviewed by Pamela Acaye

Qwela band started as a group of young musicians playing popular contemporary renditions in 2008 and evolved into a fully fledged live act with a popular following in Kampala. Their music features a unique fusion of African sounds with western musical sounds in the forms of trumpets, congas and guitars amongst other instruments.

Qwela Band, Uganda. Band photo 2012.

They fast became the most popular band because of their eclectic, contemporary and ethnocentric musical style. Coupled with efficient management by their band leader Joe Kahirimbanyi, this suddenly led to the band having a gig almost every night for most of 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Along the way, they decided they were burning out. In 2012, they retreated from active nights and weekends of live performance to compile an audio album. The result is Afrotopia, an album which is supposed to capture the fire trail that they have left behind on their live music performance stages.

The band is made up of Alice Nakato, Anita Brenda Asiimwe, Maureen Rutabingwa, Emma Dragu, Festo Mugume, Ian Busine, Joe Kahirimbanyi, Ricco Del Monte, Roy Kasika, Sam Bisaso, Vic Uringtho. The album also features artists like Keko, Qreaus, Solomon Ruhweza, and Don Mc; in no particular order.

Qwela’s new album, Afrotopia.

Many influences

Afrotopia starts with a folk-influenced song entitled Tendeko which remains one of my most likable tracks on the album because of its simplicity. It is not over-produced, and yet I can tell by listening to the track that time, effort and creativity went into its production. The skillfully played lead instruments of the Nanga and the saxophone imbue it with an Afro-jazz tone that makes the song very likable.

This is followed by Twinkle, a song influenced by gospel sounds and the childhood song Twinkle, twinkle little star. It is a song that can easily be played on a Sunday playlist of any radio station because of its message and tone. It is also a tune that a mother and a baby at the same time can fall asleep to. It features Solomon Ruwheza doing some of the vocals.

The third track, Okello, is dressed with beautiful thumb piano and tube fiddle melodies. This is a song of child soldier’s escape from the rebels. It centers around the voice of his mother calling him to return home before it gets dark . However, this beautiful song is disappointed by a very monotonous despondency in the tone of music. The message is about running to freedom, yet the song communicates more fear than courage and hope.

I found myself wishing for the background sounds to convey more of the context within which the story in the song happens. Instead, they were just quiet background sounds. Also, in this song Joe decided to sing the Luo lines of the song and forgot to pay enough attention to how to pronounce the syllables of the words he was singing . The result is that I was unable to decipher the meaning of the words being sung in Luo, my first language.

Sublime yet rich

Ingaha, the next track, is another beautiful song which captures the sublime yet rich character of Western Uganda through its melody and tone. It has a mid-tempo beat, infused with the familiar drum patterns of Western Uganda. It made me picture the rolling hills of Kigezi and a herdsman lamenting quietly about something that affects him and his cows closely.

I wish they had not repeated the chorus to prolong the song and just left it brief. Sometimes, less is more and I felt less of the song cold have had a greater impact on the entire album. The Nanga, played in this song should have been more than the chorus, for me at least.

Eija Nkutware is a disappointment. It sounds like a continuation of Ingaha rather than a song on its own and yet, it has so much potential. It sounds like it was rushed into a song by the studio when it should have been nurtured more into an art piece that boasts of a threesome marriage between Afro-beat, rock and hip-hop. The rap by Qreaus tends to take over the song to its disadvantage.

Mama tokaaba, is one of Qwela’s better songs for me, every time I have experienced the band live. On this CD, however, I was disappointed by the lack of attention to capture the emotive nature of the song. It is the voice of a daughter encouraging her mother to be strong, but it is made small through the sound balancing.

The seventh song, Mwana wangye, is another big song that was not done much justice in its mastering. It also gets repetitive and tends towards monotony despite the very catchy moments within.

This track, like the fast-track Tendeko, gives me a distinct impression of Qwela. It is firmly grounded in the culture of Western Uganda yet has reached out into the city and the wider world to embrace the kongas, trumpet and drums from the rest of the world. When it finally lands on your ears, it is with a sound so familiar that it becomes a citizen amongst the music of Uganda.

Dancing toddlers

Bhe, the eighth song, got my son dancing and twisting his two-year-old bones. That means it is a successful song. Kuddos! The electric guitar played in this track needs to be commended for its beauty within the track.

The ninth track, What goes around, featuring Don Mc and Qreaus has some very good ideas with Afro-Euro and Asian influences. It could do with a balance in the rap to the singing and music though.

The album could have done without Nalulungi, the last track on the cd. The sound production and quality is lacking, yet it was a live recording. The song also sounds very amateurish and needs more time being developed into a wholesome experience of what it is exactly he is attempting to say with it. For me, this song reduced the points of the album and sounded like it was used to fill time on the CD.

From the release party at Boda Boda, Kampala, Dec 28th 2012.

6 out of 10

This ten-track album that was executively produced by Joe Kahirimbanyi alongside Samuel Bisaso, Richard Kasika, Jude Kiracho and Nelson Muhire, is a good effort overall. Investing in proper sound balancing for their music is something Qwela might want to consider more urgently.

The album features afro-beat styles, hiphop and traditional ethno-patterns in the chanting, drums and tempo. In my humble opinion, technique alone doesn’t account for a great album; neither does the absence of a coherent technique account for a bad album. A lack of consistent quality in sound production and musical development however makes for an average album. My score for Afrotopia is 6 out of 10.

Will Afrotopia create, popularise or inspire musical styles like Afrigo band popularized and inspired artists to innovate ethno-centric indigenous music in Uganda? I leave that to you to answer. Music is individual after all. Go get yourself a copy of the album available at Banana Boat and Uchumi to form your own opinion.

Get your signed copy now!

Pamela Acaye is a the multi-media artist and arts critic.