Art and Politics in Uganda
In 2018, when politics and art were at crossroads, Sserukenya became a go-to person for many that were seeking opinions about the co-existence of the two. Yet, he was not always available! For almost 11 months of 2018, Sserukenya was in and out of hospital. On Saturday 29, 2018 evening, news trickled in that he had died aged 81. Before he was weak, Sserukenya was a constant figure at different celebrations at National Theatre, it must have been because it was at the premise that he got to perform for the first time in a school competition and thus the attachment.
If there is one thing that book makers will write about Uganda in 2019, it will be a fact that it was a year that art and politics crossed paths. From music, theatre, poetry, comedy and fashion, politics and issues surrounding were a big part of the content created. A trend that was not new to Ugandans, since, time immemorial, politics and art have been co-existing. From the times Baganda passionately sang about the 1900 agreement even without understanding what it was about, non-recorded material about economic and political struggles to the alleged assassination of artistes whose works had become critical of both Idi Amin and Milton Obote’s regimes.
Such art and political tensions were something Eng Henry Wassanyi Sserukenya was conversant with. A composer of songs such as Kulabako, Omumbejja, Empuuta and the hymn Simumanyi, but above all, Sserukenya was a backbone of the music that appeared in most of playwright Byron Kawadwa’s plays. Much as mystery still surrounds Kawadwa’s death, at least a number of others such as the cold blood murder of Simon Kate Nsubuga are said to have been politically motivated. Nsubuga had composed Yeyeka Obote, a song that praised Obote’s regime.
Writing for theatre
Little is known of how two theatre legends Kawadwa and Sserukenya met, but many actors and theatre producers at the time at least claim to have met the engineer and composer through the latter. For instance, Robert Kawadwa, son of playwright Byron Kawadwa says he was told, the first time actor turned playwright Christopher Mukiibi met Sserukenya was at a car workshop. “Dad was trying to show Mukiibi the man who was going to be in charge of music for their next production,” Robert says. That day, Sserukenya was found under a lorry that had stalled and when called upon, he came out covered in engine oil that Mukiibi almost doubted he was up for the job. “Apparently Mukiibi asked dad, “Are you sure there is music in that head?” At that time, theatre was in a transition to exhibiting art by Ugandans after domination by the colonial masters. Wycliffe Kiyingi, a pioneer of many theatre genres, had been one of the first Ugandans to have a local production in a local dialect staged at the piano-shaped building in 1953.
But Kiyingi’s plays were mostly dialogue driven which gave Kawadwa and Sserukenya a chance to create something different – plays driven both by dialogue and music.
Amakula Ga Kulabako is a political allegory that brings to fore differences between commoners and royals – the story though kicks off when a marriage is organised between Kulabako and one old Semavubi. But she prefers someone else, Nyonyintono a charming young man who unfortunately is a commoner. Amakula Ga Kulabako has been described by different art colossal as Uganda’s first attempt on opera.
Fortunately, Sserukenya worked with a cast that was not only good at acting but had their singing on point. During the first showcases of Amakula Ga Kulabako, Eclas Kawalya, who had not acted before, portrayed the charming Nyonyintono and his two song performances Omumbejja and Kulabako became audience favourites. It was the second time Sserukenya was working with Kawalya who in 1962 had performed Kasolomujje at the UTV Music Festival where the song was a victor.
It is a family thing
But Kawalya and Sserukenya were not coincidental collaborators, the two had met at Kampala Technical School where they were studying engineering in motor vehicle technology. Kawalya at the time had been backing Elly Wamala who had spotted him when he was a student at Makerere College School. It was not thus surprising that later in life, the family of Kawalya became an inspiration of Wamala’s single, Akana ka Kawalya. Besides inspiring a song, Kawalya is also the father of Afrigo Band’s vocalist Joanita Kawalya.
In the same way Sserukenya inspired his three boys to take on his profession as engineers and four girls doing social work and all being active in music. Kenneth, Paul, and Isaac Sserukenya have been involved in different musical journeys that have involved world tours, multiple musical albums and bands. Isaac is a renowned worship pastor at Rubaga Miracle Centre whose songs, I Want to Know You More, You’re Holy and I Surrender, off his debut Faithful to Me album have been well received. Kenneth on the other hand is said to be one of the people behind the early 2000s gospel outfit First Love with the late Paul Kim and filmmaker Sharpe Ssewali. He is also one of the founders of Black Sisters another gospel music band with his sister Sarah, while Paul is one of the legendary Limit X’s founding members.
The family shares a passion for music even when Sserukenya’s daughters have ventured into other things. For instance, Rita is into philanthropy and Irene is an immigration lawyer, Diana, the last born, is into schools administration.
Born on May 6, 1937 in Bugoye, in Kyaggwe County, in present day Mukono District to Temusewo Lugwama Ssabwe Sserukenya and Elunayida Nambi Namakula. Sserukenya loved music so much that when he was composing songs such as Kasolomujje while at Kampala Technical School, he shut himself in a wardrobe to avoid destructions. “At one time, we were coming to the theatre to see a production and when he heard the national anthem being sang poorly, he changed his mind about attending the show,” noted a mourner during his memorial at the National Theatre.
It was in such imperfect moments that Sserukenya met the voice of Edith Zavuga his wife; he was in London and would exchange music tapes with a friend in Uganda. “He would send me the trending songs in Uganda and I would send him the top ten in UK,” he said. Once, he received a tape with a choir that had poorly sang his Kasolomujje; “because they had poorly done the song, I hated the tape.” But among other songs on the tape, was one where the soloist had done an amazing job as she introduced a song with a greeting, khodeyo. “I later told the friend that much as I hated the tape, the soloist that sang on the song was really good,” he said.
Years later, he would learn that the girl on tape was Zavuga, the woman that would later mother his seven children. Zavuga is the proprietor of Mother Care Preparatory School in Bunamwaya; the school is one of those that have covered Sserukenya’s music.
The National Theatre woes
As his body lay on the stage in the National Theatre auditorium, the woes that have been with institute for years still crept in when artiste Julie Ssesanga noted that despite his legendary status, Sserukenya had stopped frequenting the premises. “When they closed down the musician’s club, we were forced to the fences, we would rehearse on stairs and at times in the grass,” she said noting, such things made Sserukenya feel betrayed by the place they worked hard for.
According to Zavuga, he had told her about his disappointments with the theatre yet at the same time he always believed in making peace. “Regardless of what happened, he always knew that artistes were bigger than this (National Theatre) place,” she noted though adding that the death should not be used as an avenue to point fingers but a beginning of a new chapter; “things need to change.”
Before his death on Saturday 29, Sserukenya had released a book that documented the notation of his music, this was a follow up of the first edition he released at his 80th birthday last year. “We published a few copies and had sent them to Nairobi, unfortunately, they were done and he pestered me to do others because he claimed that he was out of time,” Daina said. It was not the first time the music was leaving the Ugandan confines, last year, after the first book came out, the music was celebrated by a music school in London. “When dad learnt that his music was going to be played in London, he packed local instruments and shipped them for us,” said Kenneth.
Coincidentally, on the Saturday of his death, Kenneth reveals that equipment to start a music school in their father’s honor arrived in Uganda; “he wanted a music school started and plans were already under way. Thus, as we cry today, we do not do that without hope, we are going to keep the legacy alive.”
This article was first published in the Daily Monitor on the Sunday January 6 2019 under the same title.
By Andrew Kaggwa
Andrew is an Arts and Culture reporter, a trained theater, music and film critic. In the past, he has served as a jury member for various film festivals and is one of the co-founders of African Movie Night Kampala and founder of the annual Nteredde Documentary Showcase.