The influence of ancient drum practices on contemporary music

African societies, since time immemorial, have always been moved by the sound of the drum. Communication and celebration with percussions were norms within our numerous cultural contexts. Drums in African traditional societies were sources of identity that distinguished various social groupings.

Within these different contexts, a certain language was created that gave credence to a society’s place in the world.

Written by Samuel Lutaaya

Music has been, and continues to be, an integral facet of any society, and the development of this language happens over time. Ugandan music—contemporary, mainstream or otherwise—has been through an evolution that I can only describe as incredible. The level of adaptability to numerous influences cannot be understated and must be considered when it comes to defining Ugandan music.

I spoke with Brian Magoba, a performer of Rhythm Africa, which is a traditional performing arts ensemble, who had thoughts on our ever-evolving music and where it originates from.

Brian Magoba. Photo by courtesy of Brian Magoba’s Facebook-page.

1.     In your opinion, do you feel that there is a definite influence of the drum practices on popular music?

Except in instances where traditional musicians fuse performances with contemporary ‘pop’ musicians, the influence is hard to notice.

The instrumentation styles of the two cultures that give rise to drum practice and pop music are very different, traditional instruments versus studio equipment. The only exception is in forms like kadongokamu, a distinct Ugandan musical style, which has a definite traditional influence in arrangement and musical flow.

Other songs that fit the pop music mould do not show drum influence anywhere.

Songs to refer to would be Kamungolo by Bebe Cool and Annette Nandujja, Batuyise Embuga by Lord Fred Sebatta, old albums by St. Balikuddembe Mitala Maria, Loketo Lee’s rendition of Angelina (Acholi folk song), Mesach Semakula’s Njagala Nyimbire Omutanda versus the original folk divination song (Namalere akoona ekkondere) and Baligidde’s Agawalagana mu Lukoola.

2.     How have these practices evolved over time?

Albert Sempeke sr. (RIP) composed Kagutema in 1953 while he was still a palace musician. For years, the signature sound of Uganda/Luganda music was dominated by music influenced by former palace musicians like Evaristo Muyinda, who after the exiling of the Kabaka in 1966 became travelling bards.

The similarity between the epic, narratives form of palace music and the copycat kadongokamu style is clear. As pop music gained popularity, the traditional influences, along with their instruments and dances, began being side notes to the “headline” performances (such as Peterson Mutebi and his Tames Band when they released the Nyegenya “dance” album in 1975).

Over time, this has concretized into shows where the traditional drum-based music is an interlude or closer for the show (Afrigo Band featuring Kagutema and the Nnana-manage medley by this guy formerly of Tebifaanana Abifuna).

Cameo performances of traditional dance and drums are now the trend at most concerts (Rhythm Africa at Oscar Kihika’s jazz journey in early 2012, Milege Jazz Band shows, Qwela Band , and Crane Performers during CHOGM 2007, etc). At weddings it is now not uncommon to hire both a band and a drum group.

The interesting bit is when the group (e.g. Afrigo with Magoola’s Eyauni Maali) performs a song originally done by traditional musicians who also want to perform it at the same function.

Another evolution is to superimpose the dances that accompanied drum music to pop songs (e.g. at introduction ceremonies where for ‘traditional songs’ like Njagaana and Njagala nnyimibire omutanda, which is a compromise if one is to have dancers accompany the bridal entourage).

3.     How different have they become in modern times?

Despite the obvious strong history behind ancient drum practice, many artists of the day have turned a once almost sacred form of practice into the exact opposite, generating negative press. Most drum-themed songs have been modified and tend to be risqué in nature (Salongo Dembe’s taxi-park remixes of popular songs, plus Saava Karim’s Engoma Yange).

In ancient times, drums and their related practices were used to euphemize social ills. Nandujja’s Engo Y’akuno (Resident Leopard) about Uganda’s former president Idi Amin’s regime, Florence Namirimu’s Ziba bbiri and Olumbe lw’ekikajjo.

This is rarely the case in recent times since drums are only seen, not heard in some music videos now (Pastor Bugembe’s Nangirira, Aziz Azion’s video where he features Ndere Troupe, Mesach’s Njagala Nyimbire Omutanda etc).

There are a couple of developments that have taken place on the scene, and these have taken the form of fusion shows, drums for show and hybridization.

With the fusion shows one will find that there is an attempt at attracting lovers of both genres (it’s the equivalent of reggae artistes collaborating with hip-hoppers to capture both markets), plus the fixation on a “world” sound that mixes indigenous instruments with Western ones (think Kinobe’s Soulbeat influences, Qwela, Sundiata, Kerunen).

Navio’s song Kata is another that comes to mind which utilizes traditional music rhythms. If the video is anything to go by, there is a definite influence that comes from the Central region of Uganda.

Drums for show refer to performances that are purely focused on the drum. Culture is on sale once again, and with commercialization being as it is, demand for the drum has grown once again albeit in a different approach. Now drums are coming back in vogue after being sidelined for so long. So for homage’s sake is why I think they are showing up.

Last but not least, hybridization bears some similarities with fusion, although the term relates to the usage of the drums as opposed to the form/performance. There is hybridization, especially in the Luganda gospel music field, of drum music and pop styles (Betty Namaganda, Kagoma ka Yesu).

Fusion shows of pop and drum practice (Percussion Discussion Africa, Janzi Band, Furaha Band, Kika Troupe, Mizizi Ensemble’s Sunday shows, Sosolye Undugu Dance Academy’s Sunday shows) are illustrations of the influence of the drum and the shift in the way it is used.

In ancient times, drums held a very revered place in society, however, with the coming of the European missionaries with christianity, there was a systematic stigmatization of the Ugandan drum, and many started to associate them with ‘pagan’ practice and witchcraft.

Now they are back in church, and “acceptance” of their use is widespread. This is especially ironic considering that missionaries destroyed Father Kabuye’s drums at his first concert in Jinja in the early 1960’s deeming them satanic.

4.     Do you feel that musicians today have utilised the influences of these practices with the same motivation in mind? Please cite some examples.

They have, and a practical example is the Undugu dance show. Originally an initiative by Father Joseph Musere (a Jesuit priest from Tanzania), the Undugu project had several arms including tailoring, cookery, brass music, and a traditional dance troupe (UFCA).

Slowly, the brass and troupe came together, first for logistical reasons (sharing rehearsal space and artistes), then for financial reasons (hiring them at the same function), before they came together for artistic reasons (fusing the sound).

Since then, most “respectable” troupes which never fused the two have this idea. Ndere introduced an Afro-jazz session, which was like Percussion but done by Ndere kids (Sebunjo and Ouma plus Jude and Keyboard Moses were part of it).

Kika Troupe does it all out at its Sunday shows at the Kika Performing Arts Centre, and has also become synonymous with pop-drum performances (Omulangira OS and Kika/Kaddu Yusuf Ndabira Maama with its tube fiddle intro, Kika and Bobi Wine on Carolina, then in Wilson Bugembe’s).

5.     Do you feel that the Ugandan drum culture is still as relevant and potent today as it was in ancient times?

It is, and more so as globalization and the desire to make everything conform to a global standard is creating a cultural bankruptcy where ethnic forms are being strangled.

Before drum culture loses its exoticism to cultural exchange programs and apprenticeships for foreign scholars (David Cook’s Music of Uganda mode), it needs revitalization and branding in its original form.

Despite popular opinion, not every advancement is necessarily an improvement.

Sabar Percussion performing at MishMash, 2011. Photo by Thomas Bjørnskau.

Final words…

Whether artists are being influenced by the ancient call of the Ugandan traditional drums is a question for all and sundry to ponder. Also, whether it is homage to our cultural heritage remains to be seen. Having reviewed various artists and their music, it becomes very clear to me that we cannot divorce ourselves from our traditions.

With the advent of commercialization, Uganda’s traditional and contemporary music, as would happen in any other genre, suffers from the threat of bastardisation, or so the purists will argue. It is a common misconception that contemporary musicians have been the biggest champions of ingenuity and their music draws a lot from ancient traditions.

I wish this were the case, but we must recognise all Ugandan musicians for picking some of their material from the great repository of our cultural traditions with their constituent arts.

All culture in my opinion has to go through some evolution, because if it remains static, it loses relevance with the times. There is no doubt in my mind that the drum is central to all traditional Ugandan cultures, and we will ignore this knowledge to our peril.

The beat of the drum is in the air and we must embrace it with pride as we create for posterity, never forgetting the call of the ancients to press on and remain true to our roots.

Samuel Lutaaya is a freelance writer with a varying range of interests namely; dance, film, theatre, music, photography, fashion.

1 thought on “The influence of ancient drum practices on contemporary music

  1. Great Lutaaya. what i should say……….’Back to our roots’, just like what Lucky Dube always emphasized.

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