Blog: Music of Uganda

Music of Uganda

Ugandan music is as diverse as the ethnicity of its people. The country is home to over 30 different ethnic groups and tribes and they form the basis of all indigenous music. The Baganda, being the most prominent tribe in the country, have dominated the culture and music of Uganda over the last two centuries. However, the other tribes all have their own music styles passed down from generations dating back to the 18th century. These variations all make for good diversity in music and culture. The first form of popular music to arise out of traditional music was the Kadongo Kamu  style of music, which rose out of traditional Ganda music. Later music genres drew from Kadongo Kamu, making it one of the most influential music styles in Uganda. Currently, because of the effects of globalization, Uganda, like most African countries, has seen a growth in modern audio production. This has led to the adoption of western music styles like Dancehall and Hip Hop. Current Ugandan popular music is part of the larger Afropop music genre.

Traditional Music
Uganda has well over 30 different ethnic groups referred to as tribes. These tribes are diverse and are spread evenly throughout the country. Although the divide between the Nilots and the Bantu is evident, with most nilotic tribes like the Acholi and the Langi found in the northern part of the country while the Bantu tribes like the Baganda are found mostly in the south of the country. Tribal music in Uganda, like in most African regions, is mainly functional. This means that most music and music activities usually have specific functions related to specific festivities like marriage, initiation, royal festivals, harvests and the like. The music is performed by skilled tribesmen who are good at various instruments and well versed with the stylistic elements of the music of their tribe. Most music is geared for dancing in the community, hence most tribes have specific dances associated with their music. Call and response style of singing is common and is the many ways vital information is passed on to the listeners.


The Baganda are found in the central region of Uganda and are the largest and most influential ethnic group in the country. The Kingdom of Buganda is the longest existing monarchy in the country. The kingdom is ruled by a king, known as a "Kabaka". The kabaka has traditionally been the main patron of the music of Buganda. Musical instruments include various forms of drums, making percussion an integral part of the music. The massive and sacred royal drums are just one of the many drum types. The "ngalabi" is another common drum. It is a long round shaped drum with a high pitched sound used in synchronization of both instruments and dances. The drums are used in unison with various other melodic musical instruments ranging from chordophones like the "ennanga" harp and the "entongoli" lyre, lamellophones, aerophones and idiophones and the locally made fiddle called "kadingidi". The locally made xylophone, called "amadinda", is one of the largest in sub saharan Africa. The Baganda have a variety of vibrant dances that go along with the elaborate instrumentation. The "bakisimba" dance is the most common and most performed. There are others like "nankasa" and the "amaggunju". The amaggunju is an exclusive dance developed in the palace for the Kabaka. The traditional music to-date is still held dear by many people within the region and is promoted and protected by the monarchy and tribal loyalists.

 Other tribes

The Basoga are a tribe found in the eastern part of the country and bear many similarities with the Baganda. Their culture, language and music is similar to the baganda. They also have a similar xylophone, called "embaire", that plays a vital role and is principally used in the busoga court. The compository principles of embaire music are similar to those of the amadinda music of buganda. The basoga employ procession style elements in their dances, with females taking a lead role. Vigorous gyrating of the hips and waist is the most common way of dancing.

The Bagisu are also found in the eastern part of the country and their music, called "kadodi", is one of the most common traditional music styles and is constantly used in festivities around the country even by peoples of different tribes. This is mostly because of its dance oriented nature. It employs very enjoyable percussion styles that encourage "wild" dancing. The music is mainly used in circumcision ceremonies, where young boys are initiated into manhood. Circumcision is called "imbalu". Other dances of the bagisu include a dance called "mabega" which involves vigorous shaking of the shoulders.

In the west of the country, the Banyankore are the largest tribe. Their music is more graceful when compared to other tribes and involves slow and simplistic percussion. The dancing style involves jumping and gesturing of the arms and is timed to perfection so as to coincide with the drumming. In the west also are the Banyoro and Batoro who employ a music style called "runyege" that involves clangers attached to the feet of male dancers who dance alongside female compatriots in a particular manner so as to create music with their legs.

In the northern part of the country, various tribes like the Acholi and the Langi have their own styles of music. The "okeme", which is a thumb piano, is popular in this region since having been brought in the early 20th century by Congolese porters. Locally made papyrus flutes are also common. Vocals are delivered in a group by various singers, most times male. Constant stomping and jumping, alongside shaking of the head and neck, are common features of dance from this part of the country.

The above are just some examples of the various tribes and ethnic groups in Uganda with their associated styles of music and dance. There are many more tribes although their music has not been well studied and documented.

Popular Music

Due to Uganda's turbulent political past, there was never enough time for there to be a thriving pop music industry until relative peace was restored in the late 80's. By then, musicians like Philly Lutaaya, Afrigo Band and Elly Wamala were the few Ugandan acts to have had mainstream music success. Jimmy Katumba and his music group the Ebonies were also popular at this time, especially towards the 90's. The 90's saw Uganda's love affair with Jamaican music begin when artists like Shanks Vivi Dee, Ragga Dee and others were influenced by Jamaican superstars like Shabba Ranks. They imported the Ragga music culture into Uganda and although they faced stiff competition from other African music styles and musicians at the time, in particular Soukous from Congo and Kwaito from South Africa, they managed to form the foundation of the pop music industry. But it was not until the 21st century when musicians like Chameleone emerged that a pop music scene really began to emerge. By around 2007, there were already a number of musicians practicing varied styles of music and the role of western and congolese/south african music had greatly diminished. Today, musicians like Iryn Namubiru and Jamal are just a few of the many pop musicians in a thriving and vibrant pop music scene. The pop music duo of Radio & Weasel, the Goodlyfe Crew, is well known around Africa, being nominated in the continental MTV Base awards as recently as 2010.


Kadongo Kamu

Kadongo Kamu was the first style of popular music to emerge out of traditional music in Uganda. The word "kadongo kamu" is a term in the Luganda language that means "one guitar". The music is given this name because of the role played by the bass guitar, which most times is the solo instrument used in creation of the music. Perhaps the first well known artist of the genre was Fred Masagazi in the 60's. Masagazi is considered by many the God father of kadongo kamu. His brand of educative singing won him many fans and he is one of the few musicians who was involved with Uganda's independence in 1962. Elly Wamala was another of the founders. They were followed by a number of musicians who kept true to the style and sound of the music. Herman Basudde was a very popular kadongo kamu musician in the 80's and 90's. So was Bernard Kabanda. Dan Mugula is one of the few surviving pioneers of the genre. Fred Sebatta and Paul Kafeero made their mark in the 90's. Today, the genre is marginalized in favor of more recent styles of music. But because the music is loved by cultural loyalists in the buganda region, it is certain that there will always be an audience for kadongo kamu.




Kidandali is a music genre that currently is arguably the most popular genre of music in Uganda. It must be noted though that the term "kidandali" is not universally agreed on as the name of this genre with some sources preferring the term "Band Music". The roots of this genre can be traced back to the bands that sprung up after Uganda got independence in 1962. The Cranes Band, which later gave birth to Afrigo Band, can be regarded as the first group in the evolution process of this genre. At the very outset, their music was heavily influenced by Soukous and congolese artists like Franco were notable influences at the time. Jazz was also a notable influence. Along the way there were other bands like Rwenzori Band, Big Five Band and Simba Ngoma Band. But Afrigo Band was the most prominent and most enduring, especially throughout the political unrest of the 70's to 90's. By the mid 90's Afrigo Band was still heavily influenced by Soukous music, which by then was dominant all over the African continent. Artists like Joanita Kawalya and Rachael Magoola were part of Afrigo Band and helped lay the foundation for modern day Kidandali, alongside other bands like Kaads Band. The turning point, however, came with the formation of the record label Eagles Production which was responsible for producing artists like Mesach Semakula, Geoffrey Lutaaya, Ronald Mayinja and Haruna Mubiru. These artists took the mantle from Afrigo Band and further developed the genre after the turn of the century. In the 2000's, the genre became identified with the Eagles Production label. The label continued to produce more talent, especially female artists like Cathy Kusasira, Irene Namatovu and Stecia Mayanja. Another turning point was around 2007 when David Lutalo broke through with the hit song Kapapala creating the way for the genre to move beyond the Eagles Production label and for other solo artists to join the fray. About the same time, technology in audio production had enabled the genre to be reproduced digitally using Audio Workstations and the "band" element had all but disappeared. Recording studios like Kann, Dream Studios, Mozart and Paddyman took center stage. Many other independent solo artists started to practice the genre. Artists like Dr Tee, Martin Angume and even Chameleone achieved success with this genre. The genre is currently at the peak of its evolution with newer artists like Papa Cidy and Chris Evans helping create a dominant force that, alongside Dancehall, is the most popular stylistic genre in Uganda.


Dancehall music in Uganda is modeled after Jamaican Dancehall. It has been the most influential style of music in the Ugandan pop music industry for the better part of the last 2 decades. The style of music is very similar to the Jamaican style and so like all imported genres, the only major difference is in language used. Although most dancehall artists will perform in their local language, in this case Luganda, many of them will every now and then try to mimic Jamaican patois. During the early to mid 90's when Uganda's pop industry was just beginning to be formed, the first international music to make an impression on Ugandan artists was the Ragamuffin music in Jamaica at the time. Artists like Shabba Ranks and Buju Banton became the inspiration for Ugandan artists like Shanks Vivi D, Ragga Dee, Menton Krono and Rasta Rob. The predominant beat that was used by these artists was the Dem Bow beat which was created by Shabba Ranks. Locally, this beat is sometimes referred to as "Kadu Kadu", which is a verbal imitation of the kind of sound it produces. This beat became the foundation on which all of Ugandan dancehall was to be built on later, just like it did with Reggaeton. In the late 90's new artists like Mega Dee and Emperor Orlando joined the fray. By the turn of the century, dancehall, or ragga as its was/is commonly called, was already the most popular music genre. New artists like Chameleone, Bebe Cool and Bobi Wine joined the scene and consolidated it. But they didn't create any marked improvement in the quality and sound of the music they found, as it remained pretty simplistic and heavily based on Dem Bow. From then on, the quality of music became commensurate to the quality of production available. Chameleone was the first dancehall artist to try and fuse this ragga sound with other genres like Soukous and Kadongo Kamu. By around 2006, there were a variety of musicians practicing the genre but also without much advancement in style or sound. It should be noted that by this time, Jamaican dancehall had already taken a sharp turn away from the harsh "ragga" sound based on chatting over simplistic riddims and there was a new wave of dancehall deejays like Vybz Kartel and Busy Signal who were deejaying over more advanced riddims. This change was not reflected in Uganda though. Its not until very recently that we have begun to also see new Ugandan artists like Rabadaba, Sizza and Fidempa create a more modern version of dancehall.

Hip Hop/R&B

Hip Hop music in Uganda is modeled after American Hip Hop. There is really not much difference stylistically between Ugandan hip hop and the American version. Because of the digital revolution, there is access to modern production technologies in Uganda hence the "beats" that current local producers are creating are astonishingly of high quality and not so far behind the American ones. The fundamental difference between the two genres is that in Uganda, as in most African countries, most artists will rap in their local language. In Uganda's case, the language is Luganda. This has created the synonym "Lugaflow" to further define Ugandan rap music. Hip hop is one of the newer genres to be widely practiced in Uganda. The two music groups, Klear Kut and Bataka Squad were the first musical acts to do hip hop back in the late 90's. Mainstream acceptance for the music genre was almost non existent by then. However, a number of the members of the afore mentioned groups persisted with the genre, especially Navio and Babaluku. Others like Sylvester & Abramz also kept creating rap music, focusing on socially conscious themes and topics. Around the middle of the previous decade, more acts started joining the fray, with Rocky Giant being one of the first rappers to be embraced in the mainstream. But it was not until GNL broke through circa 2008 that the genre really gained steam. GNL made hip hop more acceptable and accessible and many "lugaflow" rappers began to emerge. Since then there has been a flurry of activity on the scene with a sizable number of rappers enjoying relative success in the music industry and on the radio circuit.

Like with Hip Hop, R&B in Uganda is modeled after American R&B. There is not much history in Ugandan R&B, with Steve Jean being the first artist to practice the genre around the turn of the century. But it was Michael Ross who really begun the trend circa 2002 with songs like How Do You Love and Sinorita. It was not until circa 2008 that a number of musicians started to embrace the style, with Myco Chris and Baby Joe among those in Diaspora that must be credited. Blu 3 and Aziz Azion are notable practitioners. Recently, artists like Richy, Pallaso, Woodz and Yoyo have spread the appeal of the genre further.

[edit] Gospel

Early Gospel music in Uganda was modeled mainly after praise and worship music practiced by church choirs and bands, particularly the Pentecostal/Born Again movement, locally referred to as "Balokole". Artists like Fiona Mukasa in the mid 90's were responsible for taking praise and worship music out of the churches and onto the streets. Because of the influence of Soukous music at the time, this early gospel had a Soukous sound. Limit X were another gospel group that gained popularity during the 90's. Just after the turn of the century, the styles in gospel became more diverse, with various groups like First Love and Sauti adding to the urban sound created by Limit X. Others like George Okudi and Father Musaala had surprising hits on the radio circuit and internationally. However, it was with the break through of Judith Babirye circa 2007 that gospel started to have a notable impact on the music industry. Babirye, whose music was similar to Fiona Mukasa, was an instant hit and her song "Beera Nange" was among the songs of the year in its year of release. She was followed by Wilson Bugembe, another musician who was readily embraced by the listening public with his songs becoming national hits, cutting across all demographics. Recently, they have been joined by various new artists spanning various genres.

Music Industry

Today, Uganda has a vibrant music industry that plays a fundamental role in the social and economic lives of many. Musicians are the main celebrities in Uganda and all entertainment content from the mainstream media will most times be about music or musicians. The private lives of musicians are closely followed by many Ugandans. Music concerts, most times called "album launches", are very popular. Many companies spend huge amounts of money on sponsoring these music concerts and advertisements for the concerts are very common on radio and television. The emphasis on music concerts comes from the fact that very few music artists make a worthwhile income from sales of their music on physical media. The lack of any distribution structure means that there is little to no incentive for capital investment in artist development or music sales. There are no genuine record labels, with most of the companies that are refereed to as labels being merely artist management companies. Because of these inadequacies, there is a severe strain placed upon musicians to find profitability and sustainability in making music. However, this somehow does not seem to deter new musicians from developing, as there is a very healthy production rate of young and talented musicians. There have also been efforts at organizing the music industry, with the Uganda Publishing Rights Society (UPRS) and Uganda Musicians Association being prime examples alongside a number of music awards organizations like PAM Awards and Uganda Music Awards. Attempts by some of these organizations to make use of an under-utilized and largely ignored copyright law to generate revenue from music distribution have proved fruitless. These are some of the challenges facing the music industry in the country and indeed are very similar to the ones facing most music industries around the world.

John Doe
John Doe

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