Playing with me or against me?

From the Percussion Experience at the Lions Bar Sheraton Hotel, Kampala

A recent percussion show at the Sheraton Lion Bar collected Kampala’s most sought-after drummers and tried to incorporate the element of hip-hop. But what did it mean for the beatboxers and rappers, who were simply asked to show up even without a soundcheck?

Reviewed by Serubiri Moses

A musician once told me, “I always get stage fright.” Scientifically, stage fright usually causes a “racing heart, a dry mouth, a shaky voice, blushing, trembling, sweating and nausea.” Then they added, “This happens before I go on stage, but after I sing a couple of songs, it goes away completely.”

When Qreas-Emmy got up to raise the curtain, he looked very confident. Emmanuel Dragu, the MC, introduced him as “the best rapper in Uganda”. A CD started to playback through the monitors placed around the open air amphitheater style stage of the Sheraton Lion Bar.

It could have been the mass of nimbus clouds that had darkened the sky that night, or the chilly breeze that sprawled from the valley uphill blowing palm trees in the Sheraton gardens, but Qreas’ hands were cold stiff when he got off the stage.

The audience applauded loudly. He was quickly followed by an R&B singer who looked and sounded as if he’d jumped out of the 1970s Motown era. He sang in an earnest contralto, all the while reprising the line, “I’ve never seen a beautiful African like you.” Beside casting a retro atmosphere on the little amphitheater stage, the phrase sounded a bit patronizing.

From the Percussion Experience at the Lions Bar Sheraton Hotel, Kampala. Photo by Serubiri Moses.

Setting the stage

Since the lineup of the show included musicians as widely sought-after as drummer Roy Kasika and percussionist James Ssewakiryanga, everyone in the audience expected the predictable cover of Carlos Santana and R&B duo Product G&B’s song Maria Maria. However, the addition of hip-hop rappers and beat boxers was an anomaly that would shine throughout a concert which aimed at combining jazz and hip-hop.

Because Qreas-Emmy is known outside of and not within the jazz circuit, there was a crucial conflict of identity on stage. The tension between hip-hop and jazz grew so taut during the show that one thought it might fracture, even though it is a subject which might have inspired the concert in the first place.

The audience was left slightly agape when “the best rapper in Uganda” was asked to curtain-raise. Was it because hip-hop is percussive; was it because rappers are known to appreciate “rhythm”; was it because hip-hop, like all African music, is “rhythmic”?

I am fascinated by all of the questions, but care mostly for that last one. It would be evident throughout the show that percussion players needed to prove their ability to stand independently.

But as a result, or as a matter of fact, there seemed to be no time at which each instrument could breathe life into the overall performance.

Conga playing

The exception would appear when James Ssewakiryanga boldly broke the funk band set up of the show, to play a relaxing yet exciting solo on a series of Caribbean membrane drums.

Ssewakiryanga’s conga playing is perhaps one example of the various art forms which have been repatriated and carefully molded to include local vocabulary. He had a very fascinating story about how Rico (the Latin American conga player in Qwela Band) told him that he’d keenly observed that on the congas, James is “playing Latino stuff but at some point you are in Africa.”

Just like the likembé (the thumb piano aka kalimba or mbira) players of the Congolese band Konono No. 1 — who managed to amplify the local instruments using locally made electric amps — James Ssewakiryanga removed the tough desert cowhide on the congas, and used a much softer hide from local calves. This produced a refined tonality, meaning he could alter the rhythm and tonality of the Latin American conga players.

“It is a shame that Ugandans think we are local. There are companies in Europe which are making koras with nylon strings,” James added.

From the Percussion Experience at the Lions Bar Sheraton Hotel, Kampala

Funky grooves

Looking at the other side of the show, which presented a complex mixture of funk jazz and R&B with an African twist, the combination of Roy Kasika on jazz drums and Abraham Sembatya on bass, plus Trevor Muhumuza on keyboard could fulfill any R&B-phile’s dream concert. Their timing was spontaneous, and they had a good feeling for the funky grooves which define the genre.

On the second tune in the set, whose name was said to be untitled — as most of the songs were — Abraham played an introduction on bass without the drums that accentuated the two-beat funk style. Roy Kasika came in full swing joining the bass player, carrying a heavyweight’s punch.

But the real gist was an exchange between the DJ Twonjex and Ssewakiryanga where comedy transpired.

When the band had settled into a steady rhythm, the DJ started to scratch, making sounds which were otherworldly. He got everyone so amused by his approach that James started to play hip-hop on the congas.

Scratching is a “DJ technique used to produce distinct sounds by moving a vinyl record back and forth on a turntable”. It also involves the slowing down of voice tracks and using alternative means to reproduce vocal sounds with varying pitches. These sounds have been incorporated into the art of beatboxing.

After playing a few tunes, Roy Kasika, sub-MC and drummer, called out the beatboxers, Felix Lutakome and Moze (Moses Mukalazi) to the stage. Unlike the well-known musicians on stage, these were relatively underground personalities who this particular audience knew little or nothing about. Like Qreas-Emmy they had broken through with this crowd, almost by chance.

Both beatboxers produced a dazzling array of sounds, some recognizable and others incognito. Felix made himself a human robot of some kind, producing both the solo and accompaniment for his performance. Both vocalized an uninterrupted series of scratch sounds and throaty growls.

From the Percussion Experience at the Lions Bar Sheraton Hotel, Kampala

Spiritual ceremonies

When I asked about the relationship between the human voice and the art of beatboxing, Moze told the story of a doctor who came up to him after a show and told him, “Your lungs work very well.” For the medical doctor, Moze was a representative of a biological system of perfect respiratory health.

Felix mentioned that beatboxing is something old, and in East Africa it has often been used during spiritual ceremonies.

However, as soon as their solo performance came to an end — and as Moze signaled to the bass player with a steady R&B pulse — it was much to our chagrin that Abraham failed to pick up the beat.

Later, when I asked Moze, he said that the bass player had done it impeccably in rehearsal. But, what was all this stage fright? Were these not the very virtuosic musicians that were regarded Uganda’s finest band? How difficult was it to play jazz with hip-hop musicians? The funk band was unable to play hip-hop, even when the beatboxers had given them a steady beat.

And yet some of the finest hip-hop has been produced by jazz musicians, like master arranger Quincy Jones, trumpeter and composer Donald Byrd, bassist and producer Marcus Miller, and lately jazz trumpet prodigy Roy Hargrove on music produced by the late hip-hop producer J Dilla.

What was it with this band set up that failed to work?

From the Percussion Experience at the Lions Bar Sheraton Hotel, Kampala

The invincible hero

The show had started with a brilliant composition by James Ssewakiryanga, titled Anamwengaana anaavaawa, a story of a very powerful man in the village who is so strong that no one has managed to beat him in a fight. The song asks, where will the man who will defeat him come from?

As he explained this, James stood arms held firmly in his waist, throwing his dreadlocks back with a swipe every once in a while. His physic seemed much like the man in the story, but to my surprise, the invincible character was inspired by his father. He narrated that as a child, he “believed that no one will beat my father.” When I asked him if this was still true today, he nodded his head.

In the first song that the band played, James had introduced an accented rhythm on the congas that was pleasant to hear even before the keyboard, bass, guitar and drums came in. After the introduction, the funk band tried very hard to sway James into a different direction, but they ultimately failed. He had indeed become the invincible hero from his story.

There’s something about how people come off the stage with cold hands, and with regrets. These are things that the audience is never privy to. The audience never finds out if some band members are going to be yelled at for leading the band in another direction; if the keyboard player secretly wishes he could be heard better by them; if the bass player played too long and made the stage his dressing room; if the rappers and beatboxers felt that the band did not play with them, but rather played against them. This remains hidden.

Serubiri Moses has been published in The New Vision reviewing live music. As a poet, he is featured on the pan African website, Badilisha Poetry Exchange.

All photos by courtesy of Facebook-page of Tha Rawfam except where stated.