Rachel Magoola: Songstress of the Nile

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Rachael Magoola

When all the chips have fallen in place after the current shake-up in the music world, Ugandans will want to know who of their popular acts will be standing still. In an era of forcible transformation where artists must either conform to the current regime of doing things or move on to what the world stage demands, choices are few, especially when the East African community is closing in with all sorts of talent and innovation; only those musicians with a good sense of what Ugandans need to market will survive.

As one of the leading lights of a whole decade in Ugandan music, Rachel Magoola’s word is not to be taken lightly. But who would take lightly the word of a woman who sees injustice or poverty or ignorance and actually muddies the waters just to make society wake up? Today’s modern society is made up of many who would rather type away at their laptops and wish someone else would do the hard work.

But Magoola has done her share of hard work transforming society: she has transformed a band and made it more accessible to listeners, she has taken the culture of her country to the world and taught young and old people in far-off climes what it means to be Ugandan and how refreshing the music of her people sounds.

During her four-year stint in the United Kingdom, after she had done 11 years with Afrigo Band, she worked with the organisation Joyful Noise. ôThey promote African music and they have a band called African Jazz All-Stars. It is made up of artists from various countries, each a big name in their own right,ö she explains.

She believes Afrigo Band is morphing into something like Joyful Noise because it is made up of specialists who all come together from their different actsùsome are drummers, like Herman Ssewanyana of Percussion Discussion Africa, and others from different solo projects to create great music.

Since she came into public consciousness with her monster hit Obangaina (Where Have You Been?), a lot of water has definitely gone under the bridge. So what has changed about her since? An artist works with what they can present and who they are. When I write a song, I write what I am thinking. What has changed is that many artists are playing commercial music. I would like to keep my individuality, Magoola explains. Basically, in a long way, she is saying she has not really changed from the days when Obangaina was all the rage.

She does not hold commercial music, the kind that proliferates nowadays, in very high regard and it shows. She believes in African rhythms and sounds, and as such has stuck in her mold as a world musician.

Commercial music is not bad; one can decide to play it because it sells. That is them. I, however, would like to keep my individuality, she explains. I play a fusion of cultural music and modern instrumentation. That is what I do and many people like what I do. Commercial music comes and goes but my kind of music stays. If I play “Obangaina” anywhere, 15 years after it was done, people stand up and dance. We released Eya on Emaali in 1990 but it still gets people on their feet. That is the difference between cultural music and commercial music.

The spirit of a young, carefree woman contributed to the playfulness in “Obangaina” and probably also made the song that much different in the ears of a listening public used to a different sound altogether. When we were recording the song in studio, it was just another song, she says. When we presented it to the public, the reaction was phenomenal. We used to play it 10 times in a night because patrons would come in and request for it, not caring that those who came before them had probably heard it.

And she acknowledges the sheer bigness of the song, which made her the Artist of the Millennium when such a poll was done just before 2000. You just thank God that you were able to do that for people, Magoola rationalizes. You cannot be that lucky more than once.

The song still moves fans. She says she met a lady who, on seeing her, burst out crying. The woman’s mother had died recently and the one thing that stuck in her mind was that she loved “Obangaina” to bits. But that is what good music does for listeners, Magoola believes.

Like Miriam Makeba, late South African icon, who was famous for the hit “Pata Pata”, Magoola says she would probably say, after decades of doing “Obangaina” at concerts due to public demand, she has sung that song for 60 years, I am bloody well tired!

Rachel Magoola left it all at some point. After 11 years with Afrigo Band and the success that came with it, she dropped everything and moved to the United Kingdom. There, she did African music workshops with different age groups or was booked to do concerts at different themes.

The one thing I learnt was that we are not even third on the way to perfection, she laments. There, every musician drummer, a guitarist is a professional who gets booked to do gigs. Musicians do not have to carry big groups when they go to perform because everything they need is right there at the venue.

She refers to the disabling costs of running a band and how in Uganda musicians have not appreciated that they need to cut down on the big bands and fly solo. Why can’t we have many specialists who can play anywhere instead of one person controlling the only talent in town? she asks rhetorically.

The problems of inefficient management are seen even in the general output, she believes. If you want to know the history of a country, look at their music. The copyright law is only taking off here yet it started hundreds of years ago in other countries. Pirating music is like walking in to my shop and picking something and walking out, she charges.

Piracy and dishonesty are all part of the rampant corruption, another of the evils Magoola fights on a daily basis either in her music or in her advocacy work. She believes the shoddy work being done by musicians is a reflection of people who want to get a quick climb.

Her philosophy of discouraging the chasing after empty rewards goes back to when she was a practicing teacher at Bishop Willis Core Primary Teachers College in Iganga District. I met many young people, who, on seeing me, would tell me they wanted to become celebs, She laughs derisively. I used to ask them, You think music is about being a celebrity?

For Magoola, the celebrity status comes to someone, not the other way around. She would advise young artists with lights in their eyes to write good music and perform it well. You might become a celebrity but you might also not become one.

According to the musician, there are many people who deserve celebrity status in Uganda who are not getting the light of day. She mentions the Education Standards Agency, who, in her view, does donkeywork trying to fix the education standards yet they will never appear on the front pages of newspapers with a celebrity status. Celebrating people should be because of their good works, Magoola asserts.

Musicians do half-baked records and get them played on radio by greasing some dishonest radio person’s hands, she says. Unfortunately, such music does not stand the test of time because it has not gone through a furnace. This, to her, is the disease that will affect even future artists unless a solution is found fast.

She is about the real meaning of development and how many in society do not realize that what we have is a counterfeit. What kind of development forces a woman to sell her few wares, maybe a crop of maize that she would normally sell piecemeal and recoup her profits, but now, instead uses the money to buy a mobile phone?ö she wonders. The connection, for her, is not clear.

Magoola believes there are many people who are being pushed farther into poverty because multinational corporations are hell-bent on making profits. The companies do not care what the impact will be years after they have left.

In the past, men would sit around a pot of malwa (millet brew) and talk. They would spend a little and it would not greatly affect their budgets. Nowadays, men spend a lot of money on beers sold in the trading centres and they are changing the economics of their whole villages, she argues. These companies are luring rural people using culture, convincing them that they have them at heart.

For Magoola, she doesn’t leave things to waste. At the moment, she is back at school trying to complete a degree she left to follow her heart. She explains: it was not a fleeting fancy of a young girl who just wanted to have fun, as the principal of the university thought. Afrigo needed me and they were going on tour. I told my supervisors to hold the exam for me while I toured. I would have come back and completed, she recalls.

It could also have been part of the hot-headedness that is so well shrouded in a disarming smile and an infectious laugh. When the university authorities refused to budge, she quit and went on tour with the band.

The veteran musician has come a long way from a culturally shocked belle who rudely found out that Kampala did not think songs in Lusoga, her mother tongue, were all that.

When she was new in Afrigo, she came with the verve and faith of a new convert. Unfortunately for her, she discovered that the audiences did not fully appreciate the language she thought was the most beautiful. She wrote many songs in the language and was partly responsible for bringing it into the mainstream.

And she has been active in social awareness too as she was for the Sickle Cell Association of Uganda. Members of my family have the sickle cell trait and I have siblings who have the sickle cell disease. This was personal, she told an online publication three years ago. For that campaign, she wrote “Take Me as I Am”,which portrayed the problem in its detail.

The smiling face and easy laugh are part of Magoola, part of a whole. She does care for the social well being of her compatriots and she will probably continue to come up with songs that speak to the powers that be to change the way things are. But she is also one to take time off to play and enjoy life. As she says, when asked if she sees herself as a social critic, I am just a person making music.

MAGOOLA TRIVIA

  • Rachel spent most of her early years in a rural setting in Kamuli District and had a childhood of play and dancing
  • She was rewarded by parents with dance for doing a good job. She would be treated just for dancing with abandon when the radio was switched on while the sounds of the great artistes of the day wafted out.
  • She joined Afrigo right after school. After leaving Kyambogo University, Afrigo was the natural choice given her interest in traditional music and dance, which the band did not shy away from
  • She greatly admired Aretha Franklin as a child
  • Afrigo Band and dancing in Namasagali College were her biggest musical influences. Father Damian Grimes, former head master at the school, was particularly interested in nurturing talent. For the likes of Magoola, dance was what Fr Grimes encouraged.
  • Rachel has release a total of six albums in all; Inhaife (1997), Tyenda Wundi (1998), Tonyiiga (2000), Atubembe (2001), Songs from the Source of the Nile (2005), Eisadha (2008).
  • In 2001 the musician formed and launched a 9-piece group and they recorded three albums together; Inhaife, Tyenda Wundi and Tonyiiga.

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