Like many Ugandan musicians, Jamal, of the Obawuwo song, had to leave the country first to be appreciated by Ugandan music fans. Jamal Wasswa Rafiki left Kampala in 2006 for the only musical job in Kigali that could sustain him - Karaoke at Nyiira Rock bar.
“I used to go to Sabrina’s Pub a lot and there’s a guy called Alex who met me there when I was still trying to survive. He offered to take me to Rwanda to do karaoke because he had money and a karaoke machine for a couple of months in 2006. I had nothing else I was doing here so I accepted,” Jamal recalls.
It was a difficult choice but it was largely dictated by the personal circumstances beyond this last born of five children –born to a single mother.
“I competed twice before I won the karaoke competition that used to be at Sabrina’s Pub. I had thought that when I won in 2005, it would mean so many things would change in my life. But after I won, still very few people knew me and I had no job.
That’s when I decided to go to Kigali. It was better than Kampala.” It is a little known fact that actually much of Obawuwo was recorded in Kigali by Jamal. Kampala was not so receptive when the rather quiet Jamal returned for a visit in 2007. “I was struggling with studios here. When Alex called me [after four months] to go back and work [and he was] offering more money, I decided to go back [to Kigali] again for another three months.”
Then Jamal drops a surprise: “Man, those guys in Kigali have good producers and studios. There are studios in Kigali where if you go to record, everything is played live. If the song needs a guitar, the studio will bring in a guy with a guitar to play. Drums, you will have a drummer there. There is no crossing of roles there.
A producer sticks to being a producer and a singer is a singer, not those things of a producer-singer. If you give them time, they produce something that is exceptional and so different.”
There is a Ugandan producer Jamal speaks fondly of and there are traces of awe in his voice. He is David Mwesigwa of DV Records who helped Jamal craft Abakyala Bazira; a song Jamal was able to belt out one afternoon in Mwesigwa’s cramped but welcoming DV Records comfortably perched on a stool.
Jamal enthuses, “David is not only after your money. He listens to you and after sometime he will advise on the changes you can make to the song and when you do, that’s when you realise how much you were lacking.”
It is not that Jamal is ever in any sort of rush when it comes to preparing his songs for the studio, which unlike so many Ugandan singers, he writes himself.
If anything Jamal confesses, “I only write out my songs at the last moment when I’m going to the studio. Most times I write in my head first. I try to sing in my free time and if I sing a good chorus, I will remember it.
There is no way you can forget a good chorus.” “I have met singers who tell me they have books with over a hundred songs in them. There are songwriters who claim that they [write] everyday, everyday, everyday.
It makes me wonder when their brains rest and if they are not going to run out of words.” It is a system that works quite well for Jamal who in addition to Obawuwo already has in radio rotation Anavawa and Abakyala Bazira with other tunes like Panadol and Akagambo lined up.
The year 2009 is certainly Jamal’s year; one of the few talents Uganda has today that can truly boast of genuine vocal strength, as opposed to studio-engineered ‘talent’.