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Thursday, January 10, 2008

From timeless to tasteless

Geoffrey Latham called it 'the vernacular of the human soul'; Red Auerbach said 'music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life!' And it is because of music that the likes of Jose Chameleone, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur are household names. From blues, pop, country, rock, gospel, reggae, rap, techno, opera, jazz, contemporary African and instrumentals, music is more than a concept.

The web generally defines music as 'organised sound' while music books put it as both 'an art and a craft, based on acoustic principles, yet subject to various interpretations, hence its artistic merit.'

In secondary school, we used to define music as "nothing but a psychological cantata made up of three dimensions X, Y and Z".

Ms Kate Kabagenyi, a music student at Makerere University, says music is the use of voice, instruments and body motion expressed harmoniously to educate or entertain people. She however, says that the advance in technology has changed the face of music so much that music critics and lovers are getting worried.

Save for old school, which lives on, many people would be averse to today's music. Studios are churning out stuff, leaving parents worried because the message, the videos, and the vocal skills seem to rotate on what has been termed 'dirty', as compared to old school music.

Ziggy Dee comes up with the steamy Eno Mic and becomes an instant star. Mr Wilfred Bangirana (Bangi) of Sanyu FM and presenter of WBS TV's Golden Oldies show attributes the prevailing situation to the changing trends.

"We've come a long way from waltz beats, kiri kiri, twist, bump, rock, disco, break-dancing, and whatever they call dancing these days...we have had country, disco, pop, rhythm and blues, reggae, Latino, funk, ragga, rap. People have had it all and today when they listen to music, they are looking for a good beat, maybe the message; the music flow and the instruments come later," he says.

Bangi reiterates that old school music remains far better because it revives the special memories: "The music these days is more high-tech than in the old days. This, however, is in no way meant to imply that it is richer. They use computers to mix the sounds and you don't need a whole band or orchestra like Barry White used to use or Donna Summer and the 70s singers. Where are the good old fashioned bands with drummers?" he wonders.

Bangi attributes this to production costs, which have soared: "It's expensive hiring a whole band to perform and to pay all the individual musicians, so musicians make is easier these days. Just use the computer to do everything and forget the band. It's much cheaper."

As to the musicians that are hired to perform at big events, Bangi is disappointed: "One feels cheated to see "stars" these days tell the deejay to play 'CD song number 4...' and people jump up and down to music from a CD. You could do that at home you know...give me my old-fashioned bands back any day," he says.

Good old days
Bangi attributes the power of old school music to hard work, talent and the ability to perform on stage.

And then came ABBA's 1979 Chiquitita video. Those Jesus look-alike dudes, one strumming away at the guitar and the other lost in the passionate play of the piano will certainly 'lift' you off your seat.

Then Michael Jackson performing Billie Jean in 1983 in honour of Motown's 25th anniversary - the undisputed "King of Pop" left everyone open-mouthed when he unveiled the memorable 'moonwalk' dance. Two decades later, his music still rules.

The world also knows the theatrics of Brenda Fassie (RIP). In Too Late for Mama, Fassie, commonly known as the 'wild girl of South Africa' assembles a string of background dancers led by her magical voice. Whoever called her the "Madonna of the Townships" was spot-on. With a career spanning from early 1980s till her death, it is amazing that few can resist the power of her best-selling wedding song Vulindlela. Unlike today's artistes, the award-winning Fassie didn't need technology to go to the top.

There are other timeless singers and performers such as Diana Ross, Bob Marley, Gladys Night, Pati la Belle, Marvin Gaye and Elly Wamala, whom Bangi calls the "Frank Sinatra of Uganda" and, of course, the Bee Gees. When they employ their tonal ranges while performing Too much heaven and they chorus, '...loving is such a beautiful thing...' you know these can only be the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees who have been in business for over 40 years, rank among the top five of the most successful recording artistes of all time!

Most of these artistes sung for the love of it; the industry was not looked at as a way of climbing the celebrity ladders. With unbridled originality, people got to appreciate music and identify with a particular kind.

The popular rock n' roll defined the rock and roll revolution because of the loud drums, the exuberance of the likes of Elvis Presley on stage, not forgetting the mind-boggling instrumentation. The music was contagious, when an artiste sung; the audience started singing too and bopped on the dance floor enthusiastically.

"Music will never be the same. Today's hi-tech will never be the same old quality such as the good old-fashioned music of the 70s and 80s had," Bangi says. He cites Alicia Keys' If I Aren't Got You as one of those great songs that sounds very rich and refreshing in terms of vocal quality.

"It adapts the 70s old style with its beautiful feel and reminds you of classics from the Commodores' songs like Sail On or Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly ...those good old songs...the real good rhythms are getting rarer," Bangi laments.

It is out of the passion of the 60s that music fans were called 'cheesburgers' (the girls) and 'hamburgers' (men). So a singer would perform and ask the charged fans, "Who da man," and the crowd's reply would be, "You da man!" Such is how infectious the music and dance of early times was.

Manufactured music
Mr Alex Ndawula of Capital FM agrees that most modern singers have no wild musical imagination when it comes to writing lyrics, shooting videos, singing and, actually performing live.

Back in the days, singers knew how to play keyboards, drums, pianos, and also how to work the crowds. In Uganda, the new sensation, Morris Kirya can play and stroke the audience with his rich voice while Ragga Dee is famous for his showmanship on stage - at least his fans end up boogying especially when he breaks into Digida.

Songstress Julian Kanyomozi too can melt her fans but it all ends there. Dancehall music has taken over East Africa. Most musicians these days sing about nice bums, sex, and drugs. On EATV and WBS, especially Jam Agenda you get to watch the likes of Sean Paul surrounded by half-naked women.
Ndawula blames the scenario on the different musical tastes of different people.

On whether modern music thrives on studio work, Ndawula points out that the digital age is busy changing music both for the best and the worst.

"Music companies are at fault. So many things are done on the songs... today music videos are made just to win the hearts of the adolescents who are the majority. Also, musicians come from the ghetto; they grow up smoking weed, fighting and trying to survive. They sing about that. You cannot blame them..." says Ndawula.

Accordingly, Ugandans - just like Jamaicans, listen to a tune and worry about the lyrics later. Ndawula is worried by the inability by today's artists to produce an all-winning album. Luther Vandross (RIP) and Boyz 11 Men, says Ndawula, would release a 12-track album - all entirely good. Not today, where you will find only one track worth listening to.

"In Uganda, artistes cut one song and struggle to go from show to show. Quality has really reduced. I wish all music was like jazz because although jazz has been modernised, it has not been changed," he says.

Ndawula played a clip from African American award-winning comedian Steve Harvey, trashing modern music. In the clip, Harvey says that you can't understand what artistes sing about these days.

He also swipes at modern rock concerts where rock singers ask everybody to scream and they scream: "I pay my due and you tell me to scream...if you don't listen to old school music, you missed it," he says.

Mr Richard Tumukunde, a rap artiste and a music, dance and drama graduate says old school shames new school hip-hop: "In terms of message content, old school was more society focused. Today's 50 Cents are more into 'ma money; ma bitches' and making front-page news. For me the truest emcee dead or alive is Tupac Shakur. He rapped about his experience in a cruel world. His lyrics were intelligent, his rhymes captivating and he lived what he preached."

The multi-platinum Shakur, who has been dubbed the 'black Jesus' by his fans, was killed at the age of 25 by unknown gunmen in September 1996. He is in the Guinness World Book of Records as the most successful gangster rapper.

Bubble gum music
Singer Bobi Wine classifies Ugandan music as bubble gum and sandwich music. As to the changing trends that are making it tasteless, he says, "Artistes have become so many and must fight to survive. So they mix talent and marketing to make it."

He is unhappy that musicians are producing 'bubble gum music' which you put in the mouth, chew and spit not wanting to look at it again because it's outright tasteless.

"Sandwich music is what the likes of Elly Wamala and Maddox Ssematimba produced. You take a bite and you want to take another. It builds you," says Bobi Wine who is a graduate of music, dance and drama from Makerere University. He says music embodies voice, lyrics, style and the passion.

"Music is a feeling; the voice is simply an expression. You have to let it flow; bring the feeling straight from the heart," he says, adding that all good music comes from God. He talks of Chameleone's Kipepewo as one song you will enjoy but not feel, unlike Jamila which he says can be felt.

The Fire Base Crew boss argues that you must give people what they want: "Today, people listen to the beat, not the sound. Back in the days, people enjoyed instruments, live music. But the world has changed. That's why people enjoy songs such as kwata wakati (Ziggy Dee) or those suggestive ones from Abdu Mulasi," he says.

While the music in the United States is more appalling in terms of lyrical content and steamy videos, it is promising as far as sound quality is concerned. Record labels in developed countries hire talented producers who in turn shop for voice trainers to nurture talents. This is why Usher Raymond was spotted at a local talent show before he landed a deal with La Face Records. At 14, he was already working on his premier album - today Usher is arguably the best R&B singer.

As for Uganda, with modern studios such as Dream Studios in Kamwokya, Bava, AVI Recording Studio in Kololo, No End Recording Studio in Kamwokya and Fishnet among others, there is hope. Producers and promoters should as well do their best to promote the talented musicians. Juliana, Michael Ross, and Morris Kirya are natural thoroughbreds that, if promoted, can take the world by storm.

Mr John Musinguzi of Kampala Music School, says we can develop musically if we keep it local and stop being copycats obsessed with American music.

"You can't put feeling in an electronic instrument the way you do while playing the drum or the flute. The timbre (quality of music) of string instruments is better than that of electronic music," he observes. "Our music industry is young - these are just growing pains; 20 years ahead, we shall make judgment."

As such, American rap artistes have been able to make it despite the obscene lyrics because they keep it local. Rappers such as Dr Dre, Nelly, Nas, Fabulous, P. Diddy, Eve, Missy Elliot etc are ghetto sensitive and sing rough because it is the way they have been brought up. Trying to copy them will not work in Uganda.

We have to get grounded in traditional music; rich textured songs and impressively mature lyrics the way it is done in Tanzania with the Bongo Flava or the Jamaican dancehall. It is a matter of projecting the strength and confidence of the African performer and we shall stand proud in defiance of the American music culture that's fast eroding our own style and creativity.

When Mr Paddy Kaiwa, a producer attached to Dream Studios talks of people coming to him well knowing they cannot sing but nevertheless insisting that they want to be turned into stars the way Juliana and Bobi Wine have been, you learn that our music industry remains sorry because most singers don't know what they want.

Thomas Carlyle once said: “music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.”

The sound of angels is good. Clean videos, the voice, the songs and the arrangements must be made perfect. Mariah Carey's advice sums it up: "A lot of people are singing about how screwed up the world is, and I don't think that everybody wants to hear about that all the time!"

Published in Sunday Monitor, October 2, 2005