“Making that album was like a cleansing” By: Michiel van Oosterhout
He taught singer Bobby Brown African lullabies and saw Richie Havens perform his anthem ‘Freedom’ at the legendary 1969 Woodstock music festival. Long before Wasswa Birigwa became a household name in Ugandan business and politics, he was a celebrated musician both in his home country and the United States. In the early 1970’s he released an Afro-American folk jazzalbum that should be ‘enjoyed, savored and learned from’ according to All Music Guide.
Humble beginnings, a determined mindset to make it big and great passion for the things you do, are the main ingredients of Birigwa’s success story. Surrounded by three hundred mango trees at his lush Lake Victoria tourist resort on the outskirts of Kampala, 69 year old Birigwa still radiates the boyishness of that young man way back in the 1960’s who wanted to succeed in music and beyond. Music lovers knew him back then under his stage name ‘Rocky’, derived from the Rocky Mountains, as he had his mind set on living the American Dream.
Wasswa Birigwa’s life story is a myriad of achievements in music, business and politics; founder of Celtel Uganda, ambassador to Japan, Ethiopia, and now chairman of the main opposition party Forum for Democratic Change. He says he is the kind of man who, when he puts his teeth into something, wants to excel beyond his own expectations. It has made him a wealthy man both in mind and matter. He talks enthusiastically about his musical past as if it has just happened. How he teamed up with his brother and singer Geoffrey Nsereko and had a string of hits in 1967 and 1968, twice chosen best singers of the year in Uganda.
The few major clubs in Kampala where band music was played, such as White Nile, Suzana and Mengo Life Club, were a steady fixture for Rocky and Nsereko. While treating their audiences with their sweet and soothing Luganda voices, new opportunities soon arose. Birigwa joined the multiracial band The Slingers, where he did his renditions of rock & roll greats like Elvis Presley. Until the number one band music group in the country, The Cranes, eyed and recruited him.
Elly Wamala, one of the pioneers of the Kadongo Kamu style of music, often invited The Cranes to his TV music show, Birigwa remembers. “Wamala was a singer and producer at Uganda Television and had a show called Saturday Night with Elly Wamala. Appearing there made us famous and soon we traveled all over Uganda and became pop stars with teen girls all over us. We were free spirited musicians and the world was at our feet, it was very exciting”. It only increased Birigwa’s desire to go to America. “I wanted bigger things. Uganda became too small for me”.
For half a year, each Monday after he got paid for his work with The Cranes, he deposited half of the money he earned at an Indian owned travel agency where he had booked a flight to England and US. “I didn’t manage to get an American visa”. He laughs: “In my ignorant enthusiasm I had told the embassy that I planned to make a living as a singer in the US. That was clearly the wrong answer”. Good enough he had made some American friends who were volunteering in Uganda. These contacts would later become his starting point in the US.
Flying to England was no problem. But flying without a visa to US was a big gamble. Birigwa: “When my Pan American flight arrived at New York’s JFK airport in January 1969, all I carried were the African clothes I had on, a hat and my guitar. No visa and not a penny in my pocket. Except a dollar note I got from a man in the plane who was intrigued by my story. The custom official flipped through my passport, looked at me with a big question mark on his face“.
He laughs about it now, “I was told to sit and wait. I wondered, will he send me back? Then he winked at me. ‘What are you planning to do here?’ I told him I wanted to be a rock and roll singer like Elvis Presley. The man smiled. ‘I love Presley, you sing for me!’ I sang Love me tender. An even bigger smile appeared on his face: ‘You must promise to do exactly what you said’, and boom I got six months stamped in my passport”.
The dollar got him on a rickety rack New York subway train to Brooklyn’s Rafiki restaurant, owned by the father of Eric, a photographer whom he had befriended in Uganda. The first months in the US Birigwa was taken in by Eric’s family. Birigwa: “I made daily four hour shifts working in Rafiki and spent the remaining time practicing my guitar. I would play until my fingers would swell and bleed, but I improved fast. Six hours a day I would strum and compose songs. My guitar and I had become real brothers”.
But Birigwa didn’t recognize his friend from the Kampala days. “He was using drugs and it was not only marihuana, of which he was so fond when he was in Kampala. Now it was cocaine and other drugs. Eric rambled on talking incoherently and it depressed me. I realized I could not stay any longer with him and his family. I told him: ‘This feels like the end and I have not even begun. This should not be the start of my life here“.
Miss Dorothy Wallace
Birigwa hiked to Boston to meet up with the students he befriended in Kampala. They helped him settle; with friendship, free food at the university canteen and a room to stay in. Soon he was doing small jobs, catering for himself. Musically he realized that he had to change style. There were four hundred thousand students in Boston, so there was a ready market for rock & roll musicians.
Birigwa: “But when I went to the Woodstock festival and saw Richie Havens playing his thumb fretting style, I realized I had to be myself and not a Ugandan Elvis Presley. Havens was the first to come on stage and he stayed on for two hours. The last song he played, Freedom, is one of my favorites. Woodstock was simply an amazing experience. I was probably the only Ugandan in that crowd of four hundred thousand music lovers”.
“I decided from then on to only play my own African inspired songs and started experimenting with my voice. Suddenly audiences started getting excited about my music and calling it unique; African Americans and whites alike”. Birigwa gave up odd jobs, playing in small cafés for fifty dollar a gig and surviving on it. Then one day a man who had been sitting listening said he was impressed by the performance. He was a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the oldest and most prestigious music schools in the US.
Birigwa: “Soon I met him again. He told me the New England Conservatory of Music had gotten a grant from the Ford Foundation to do a music project for disadvantaged African American kids in the Orchard Park Projects, a troubled gang ridden neighborhood in Boston. He thought I was exactly the right person to connect these children with the roots of their ancestors”.
From playing fifty dollar gigs he suddenly had a steady monthly income. “I was teaching these kids drumming and African lullabies. They called me ‘African’. The most famous person I taught there was a three year old Bobby Brown, who later became a Grammy Award winning R&B star in his own right and the husband to Whitney Houston. Many years later, when I was the Ugandan ambassador to Japan I bumped into him again. He called out, ‘Hey African’. He couldn’t believe I had made it to ambassador”.
As the Inner City Orchard Park Project was linked to the New England Conservatory of Music, Birigwa often frequented the place eager to enlist as a music student himself. One day there he had a career defining meeting with the piano wizard Ran Blake, a lecturer there. Blake was a disciple of Third Stream music, a musical synthesis of jazz and classical music in which improvisation is considered a central component.
83 year old Ran Blake, with thirty plus jazz albums to his name, and still professionally active in music remembers Birigwa well, or rather Rocky. Blake: “Rocky’s performances were fabulous. He avoided clichés and had an unpredictable sense of beat and had been singing by ear all of his life”. Blake saw lots of potential in Birigwa and started managing him.
He took him to meet up with executives of CBS Records and Atlantic Records; the latter specialized in Jazz, R&B and soul recordings by African American musicians. Blake: “Although Rocky was becoming popular, he didn’t give his career time to flourish”. Whether Blake influenced the music style of Birigwa, he wonders. “I don’t think my brand of film noir streaming music really was a big influence on him but I would be honored if so. I hope he didn’t give up on his music”.
Birigwa might have been influenced by the daringness of Blake’s music: “Sometimes I was listening to Ran Blake playing piano and I was thinking, what a piano wizard this guy is, playing a style which was so strange to me. He often had me sing and jam with him, as he loved my type of music too. It is unfortunate we never recorded. Then one day he comes to me and says, ‘I have been invited to play for Dorothy Wallace, I want you to come along with me and you play’. Wallace, I soon found out, was from a rich aristocratic family and she was a patron of the arts in Boston”.
Wallace instantly fell in love with the enigmatic musical style of Birigwa. His voice that would go from ‘deep to falsetto, from sweet to wild and headlong, playful and weird, deliberate and passionate’ as mentioned on the back cover of Birigwa’s first and only LP. Birigwa: “She was in her seventies when I met her. An unbelievable woman, we became very good friends. She even had a large portrait painting done of me playing my guitar and started paying my tuition fee for the New England Conservatory of Music”.
He often went to Wallace’s musical functions to perform and socialize. It was there that in 1972 he met producer Mait Edey, a jazz enthusiast and piano player who had recently started a record label called Seeds record with the help of Wallace. It specialized in experimental jazz. He was interested to produce an album for Birigwa. The one and only he ever made.
By the time of the recording Birigwa had already performed at prestigious venues like The Village Gate in New York where he socialized with jazz greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. At one of the major rock & roll temples in the US, Bill Graham’s Fillmore East, he was ‘the warm up guy’ for the Boston based folk rock band The Youngbloods, mostly known for their 1967 US top ten hit Get Together. Although mostly a curtain raiser to bigger acts, Birigwa was earning handsomely between five and ten thousand dollar a show.
Outside the vestiges of white privilege however, America was on fire. Birigwa’s experience at the Inner City Orchard Park Project made him realize that America was still a highly segregated country where racism and discrimination were the order of the day. Birigwa: “It radicalized me too. That is the moment I became political and started reading books on the topic like Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, one of the main ideologues of the Black Panther Party. I could easily sympathize with the cause of African Americans. But regarding the situation in Uganda I had a very different viewpoint”.
“For many of my African American friends – musician or otherwise – Idi Amin was a hero. They saw him as a black man who dared to raise a fist against the West. In those days there were very few black heads of state who would take the white imperialist forces head on. Amin did exactly that and many African Americans loved and admired him for it; while I knew he was killing my fellow Ugandans”.
Birigwa had heated discussions with friends trying to explain that bad things were happening in his home country. “But to no avail. To be honest, I could understand why they romanticized and praised Amin. They saw in him a political father figure just like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Junior.”
On the last song of the album, yelewa, Birigwa yelped his new found political radicalism out on the top of his voice. In the lyrics he symbolically used the mosquito as a Pan African tool against imperialism. The song is praised in a recent All Music Guide review as ‘Devastating in its power, with its repetitive loops that are so utterly organic and groovy that it is intoxicating’. The symbolic song lyrics reflected the sign of the times well; the awakening of black consciousness vis-à-vis white imperialists.
Birigwa: “The lyrics talk about the mosquito as a soldier for Africa against the European invaders. When they first landed on our shores many died of malaria. So I came up with this storyline in which the white man was the mighty lion and the African the small mosquito who fights the giant white man and beats him”. A naughty smile appears on Birigwa’s cheeks: “Whenever I played it live it made some people uneasy because musically it was a mind blowing song. Remember, those were the hippie days of people smoking grass. They would dance like they were possessed”.
For the recording of his album Birigwa asked two members from his band Yelewa; flutist Stan Strickland and percussionist Yusef Crowder to participate. Two members of the Boston based psychedelic acid jazz ensemble The Stark Reality, bassist Phil Morrison and drummer Vinnie Johnson, also joined the recording. Their band is mostly known for their funky jazz interpretations of children songs by Hoagy Carmichael, one of the most celebrated American songwriters of all time. Although a financial flop at the time the album has been circulating in underground hip hop circles for years and was sampled by the Black Eyed Peas and others.
Phil Morrison, who has been a professional jazz musician his whole life and is especially successful in China with his Phil Morrison Trio, recalls that the Birigwa sessions were very relaxed. “There was an atmosphere of positive energy and I was very impressed with Birigwa, not only as a vocalist and a musician but also as a good person; a man of great intellect with concern for the wellbeing of his fellow citizens”.
Although he remembers few details – as he only spent time with Birigwa during the recording sessions and after it they went different ways – he still plays the album occasionally. Morrison: “Birigwa was obviously confident in his ability and that confidence extended to us, his musicians. As a result, we ended up with a great recording. It was something that I’m proud to have been a part of!”
The experimental background of The Stark reality’s music was the perfect match for Birigwa: “All of us were playing weird music. That is what made the combination so unique. Nobody could say, oh you sound like this or that. Even if I listen to that album now, 45 years later, I don’t know anybody who sounds like that. With Yelewa we had performed the songs live to find out what works and doesn’t. I simply felt the brilliance and we did it”.
Although the album, of which only five hundred copies were printed at the time, is not typical Ugandan in style, many traces of Ugandan music are interspersed in the Afro American arrangements. The singing is done in Luganda, the language of the central region of the Baganda tribe to which Birigwa belongs, but the way he sings is rather unfamiliar. Culturally the Baganda are a quiet and reserved people. This is also reflected in the way Baganda artists sing in a calm and sweet tone. Although Birigwa’s album is very melodious like his peers in Uganda, he lets his voice go freely with the tide of the song. Accompanied by experimentally orientated musicians, he swirls of in amazing bouts of expressive yelping which give the album its distinctive one in a kind style.
He takes one specific song as an example. Birigwa: “Especially in the song njabala it felt like something magical came over me. I remember asking the other musicians to give me space. I somehow felt, this is the moment. All my accumulated anger, excitement and emotions, since I started my odyssey from Uganda to US, centered on that one moment. When I started singing and playing it, I was so overcome with emotion that I literally felt like I left my body. I yelled it out. That is how deep it went with that album. It was a catharsis, a cleansing. There and then I reached my top musically”.
Not long after recording his album Birigwa stopped making music. Until today he has never touched his guitar again. “Partly because I got married, had a child and several of my siblings moved to America and I had to take care of them. I reasoned, can I afford doing music and look after my family well? I also thought, if I go back to Uganda, will I be able to make my money with music? I was doubtful, so I did two master’s degrees and landed a very well paid job working in computer technology. While I was making music we were traveling a lot, and life was sometimes really rough. Most musicians were smoking grass and I didn’t like that. Besides I was also successful doing something completely different, which pleased me just as much as being good at music. To be honest, I was happy God showed me a different path”.
Birigwa’s album is available on Porter Records (www.porterrecords.com) who re-released the album in 2007 on CD and mp3.
Also available on I Tunes and Amazon
Check out two of his songs on youtube:
All Music Guide review:
Michiel van Oosterhout is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Uganda
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