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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Playing traditional instruments on the international scene

By Dennis D. Muhumuza

At the age of six, Joel Sebunjo used to play a small drum given to him by his grand father, a village court musician. His love of playing impelled him to pile dry sticks to make a xylophone. By 13, he had been noticed by respected palace musicians, who then initiated him into the authentic world of traditional folk music and performance and later allowed him to perform at several royal functions to entertain kingdom dignitaries.

Although he holds a musicology degree from Makerere University with a concentration in ethnomusicology (the study of world cultures and their music), Sebunjo insists going into apprenticeship under celebrated Ganda royal court musicians like Busuulwa Katambula, Dr. Albert Sempeke and Ludoviko Serwanga made him what he is today.

His dynamic and interchangeable playing of instruments such as the great west African Kora, endongo (bow lyre), endere (4-hole bamboo flute), amadinda (xylophone), engoma (conical drums), mbira (thumb piano), endingidi (tube fiddle) among others, has endeared him to innumerable folk music lovers.

Born in the mudfish clan, Sebunjo has played in some of the biggest afro-jazz outfits like Bakisimba Waves (Uganda) and Groovy Eldorado Ensemble (Finland).

At the 2006 Lola Kenya Screen film festival, Sebunjo was tasked by Finnish film director, Antonia Ringbom, to make the soundtrack to the film, Les terroristes de la terre (Terrorists of the Earth) by Finland Film Centre. The soundtrack, Akavela (polythene bag), sung in French, English, Wolof and Maninka, calls for the banning of plastic bags.

While on a West African tour in 2006, Sebunjo conducted inter-cultural music fusion projects with Senegalese musicians before embarking on an apprenticeship trip to Gambia, Mali, and Guinea to do an advanced course in Kora/ Manding music. It's in Gambia that he met his long time music mentor, Alagi Mbye, whom he considers one of the best Kora players in the world.

"He taught me to be a master Kora player, an instrument with which I best express the feeling of my music," Sebunjo purrs on about how he's an adopted Jali. "Jalis are the divine of the land in West Africa. To become a Jali you have to be accepted by the Jali families because they are responsible for keeping the tradition; they are storytellers and perform at important ceremonies. When you're an outsider they adopt you and give you a name. They named me Sundiata."

He claims to be "the youngest Ugandan Kora player known today on the international stage and one of the few Ugandan musicians with a broad knowledge of African music because over the years" he has "been in link with the rest of Africa trying to study their music and instruments."

Sebunjo, 23, has met and shared music with world music greats such as Yossou N'Dour, Didier Awadi (Senegal), Toumani Diabate (Mali), Ba Cissoko (Guinea), Oliver Mtukudzi (Zimbabwe), Jalibah Kouyateh (Gambia) and well-known Swedish musician Alle Moller.

Sebunjo who has performed, recorded and conducted workshops in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Kenya, Rwanda, Estonia and Senegal has since changed his style from folk music to world music to "suit my dream and the market today. World music is simple in terms of fusion which helps me to use African instruments and blend them with modern instruments to make it sound better."

He sings in his native language but his music has a rare feel to it that fires one's passions.

"My music covers a range of subjects from nationalism and neo-colonialism to poverty," he says. "I also try to bring the legends from the cross-cultural diversity in Uganda and sing about things like Wakadala – an old car that existed way before we were born."

His songs Mulilanwa, Kaira and Serukera are popular on Internet radios that promote world music.

Asked why it has taken him long to record an album, Sebunjo says world music is quite expensive to do: "Every instrument must be played live and the studios here can't produce that music to world standards, so one must do the recording and mastering in Europe. However, I hope to sign to a record label next summer through my agents in Sweden and Denmark. My target is to hit the world charts and follow in the footsteps of my heroes Yossour N'Dour, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate and Samite, Uganda's leading world musician."

Sebunjo also wants to become a good will ambassador for the United Nations.

--Sunday Monitor, January 6, 2008