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UGANDA’S lost drums

The cultural rebirth of Buganda’s Royal Court music

Can an electronic dance collective label help reverse colonial culture? Despite surviving persecution under a harrowing dictatorship, an East African ceremonial tradition now faces huge challenges to safeguard its future in the modern world – and reaffirm its place in Ugandan society

Since the late-14th century, music has always played a vital role in the kingdom of Buganda. Musicians would travel from far and wide to perform in the royal court; drums, xylophones, flutes and lyres would honour the existence of the kingship. That is, until a violent attack on the palace in 1966 drove the king into exile and led to royal musicians fleeing or being killed.

But all is not lost. Just as the music of the Bantu kingdom within Uganda verges on dying out, some remaining royal musicians from the 60s have come together to sound their instruments once again. Can Nyege Nyege Tapes – the Kampala-based record label putting Africa’s electronic underground on the map – revive this rich tradition of hypnotic, deeply layered and sonically complex music?

Some history: when army forces besieged Lubiri, the Kingdom of Buganda’s Mengo Palace, in 1966, it was left in ruins. Laid to waste first by the violent assault – under orders of Prime Minister Milton Obote and Chief of Army and Air Force Staff, Idi Amin – the battle then gave way to looting and vandalism.

For centuries, the building had been the seat of power in Buganda – the largest of the medieval kingdoms in present-day Uganda, including the capital Kampala. Its obliteration marked the abolition of the kingdom itself, the culmination of a rocky relationship with the wider state, dating back to when the British decided to make both bed partners in 1894. When the colonialists left 68 years later, power in the newly-independent nation of Uganda was soon consolidated. 

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Days after the attack, the former home of Kabaka (King) Mutesa II had been stripped of priceless artefacts. Royal regalia was destroyed, including ceremonial Mujaguzo drums. The diverse and vibrant tradition those instruments belonged to – Buganda Royal Court music – also came to an end, its sole venue for performance lost in a hail of bullets, sowing the seeds of a brutal dictatorship that would last decades.  

The music’s origins date back hundreds of years.

In Buganda, the drum announces joy and sorrow, the birth of twins, and mourning the dead; and it is also through the drum that the people get connected to their ancestors through spiritual worship. Most important, the drum symbolises the kingdom of Buganda as well as the power of kingship.

The Kingdom of Buganda

Arrangements are built around unique ensembles of percussion, flutes, fiddles, trumpets, strings, and mbira (plucked idiophone).

Repetitive loops and subtle progressions create hypnotising, deeply-textured and deceptively-layered tracks.

Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi II

Those chosen to perform for the King were often summoned from great distances. It wasn’t uncommon for them to leave livestock, and livelihoods, behind, and their biggest reward in return was political, not financial. Songs, which veer in theme from offering praise to rulers to stories of everyday life, acted as a voice of the people, giving them a chance to be heard through the rare opportunity to speak freely in the Kabaka’s ear.

Buganda was restored in 1993, albeit with significantly reduced autonomy, and while the ceremonial music has returned to some degree, this culture now hangs by a thread. Albert Bisaso Ssempeke is one of few contemporary entertainers still keeping the tradition alive. Speaking over the phone, he begins by explaining how he came to be involved in what was, for almost three decades, a banned cultural asset born in a kingdom that only existed in memory. 

“My father was a Royal musician, in a flute ensemble in the palace, during Motessa II’s reign, and served from 1940s to when Buganda was abolished, in 1966, during the central government political wrangles,” Ssempeke tells us. “Since that time, a lot has been lost. Musicians themselves were not really present after the abolition of Buganda, many are feared dead. My father and his colleagues, over 50 musicians, lived in the palace. He managed to escape and returned to his village.” 

Albert Bisaso Ssempeke

After the palace attack, musicians risked death or disappearance if found continuing performances, but some – including Ssempeke’s father – took advantage of their geographical remoteness, creating their own ensembles far from prying eyes to play music at weddings and other local functions, while safeguarding instruments they rescued from the conflict. A small number of determined individuals, they kept the proverbial torch lit long enough to see their music decriminalised with the reestablishment of Buganda.

“I grew up with my mother and came to my father in 1990 to continue with my studies. I was introduced to a number of instruments in his house which I fell in love with. So I started playing in 1992, and from that time I was learning from my father a number of instruments, starting with the fiddle,” Ssempeke continues, listing other disciplines he mastered, including drums, the ennanga harp, and xylophone, the latter cited as “the biggest task to learn.” 

Skip forward to today and Ssempeke is one of the most experienced living artists in Buganda Royal Court music, drafted to played events like the opening of parliament, and has even risen to the role of musical advisor to Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi II, the current monarch. Four years ago, he was also tasked with developing plans for a new school, where the next generation can be taught this centuries-old practice. “Progress is slow,” he tells us, and frustrations at bureaucratic red tape have given rise to his own plan of starting individual lessons for children, although even this requires “energy, funds, and lots of instruments.” 

“It gives importance to that particular culture,” Ssempeke replies when we ask why he believes there is a need to revive music of the Royal Court. “When I’m singing, for example, I sing the songs which give the King some knowledge, which perhaps helps him somewhere. That was one of the jobs of the musicians. His ministers or chiefs, they would not tell him his bad side, but a musician can. I give the message through my voice. While he’s enjoying the music he is also listening what is inside the melody, what is inside the music. Most Kabaka listen a lot to what is happening to common people in this way. So, it’s still vital in Buganda culture. And it also shows the significancy of the kingdom,” he continues.

Basile and Jules Louis Koechlin

Small signs of renewed interest in the tradition have been more visible in the past decade. Music scholar and producer Basile Koechlin is a Swiss PhD candidate researching music at the University of Virginia in the US. He works with several academic institutions, such as the British Library (UK), the Africa Museum (Belgium), and the International Library of African Music (South Africa).

While learning about how ethnomusicological archives are compiled, and what purpose they serve, he found an organisation called Singing Wells, which preserves East African cultures, including Buganda Royal Court music. 

Quickly becoming involved in the project, by 2017 Basile’s interest had taken on a life of its own. Teaming up with his brother Jules Louis Koechlin, a cinematographer, together the pair set out to make a documentary on the tradition itself. The resulting film, Buganda Royal Music Revival (2019) celebrates artists and their inimitable sound, but also considers rationale behind preserving and restoring cultural institutions and assets.

“’We are interested by this music, so we wanted to ask the musicians, ‘How about you – what is your relationship with this music?’ Lack of money from the kingdom, lack of social value for playing the music, it’s a burden to perform, economically,” Basile says, explaining some of the questions the film looked to pose. “So we asked them, ‘You like this music, would you like to revive it and play with other musicians?’ I tried not to impose our view on the value of the music. It was more like: ‘We’re from Switzerland, we dig this music and the way it is performed’. But the whole project was about allowing that question – about its contemporary place – to be asked by people in Uganda, and outside.”

When work on the film was all-but-complete, Koechlin met bosses from the renowned Kampala-based electronic music label Nyege Nyege Tapes at an event, by chance. A little later, they randomly overheard him playing Royal Court recordings. Explaining his aim was to develop an album to accompany the documentary, the avant-garde beat ‘outsider’ imprint offered support with production and distribution.

Album cover

The Buganda Royal Music Revival album was released in 2021, comprising 17 sophisticated, complicated and beautiful tracks, some recorded between the late-1940s and the kingdom’s abolition in 1966, others representing new contemporary interpretations of the sound played by surviving musicians, and younger talent like Ssempeke. 

“So right now, from my experience with it, the music is based on a certain repertoire: songs that were composed hundreds of years ago. But in terms of compositions, things are still addressing the contemporary situation in the kingdom. My understanding is that musicians were creating and composing songs to praise the kingdom and the King, but also to talk about their life in the palace. So it’s not just about the mythological past, but daily issues.” 

Buganda Royal Music Revival is a packed dive into a century-old tradition

While this points to the ongoing relevance of Buganda Royal Court music, it’s impossible not to recognise the sound faces significant challenges before it can be considered “safe”, although its chances of survival have significantly improved in tandem with Uganda’s political situation and civil rights.

Nevertheless, like so many cultural assets, its role within the modern country, and society, can never be guaranteed without the infrastructure to train. and nurture young players who can take the tradition forward – via new ensembles and ideas, paying homage to their ancestors in the truest sense – by combining the historic with commentary on what’s happening right now. Beyond the kingdom of Buganda.

A group of the Waganda, or Baganda, people of south-central Uganda playing musical instruments, early 1860s

What’s so good about this?

What value do we put on cultural institutions of the past? Can ancient traditions really play a part in modern society? Buganda Royal Court music is just one example of countless historic practices struggling to find a place in the 21st century, and efforts to continue its legacy are rooted in a universal truth — in order for creativity to flourish, young people must be engaged.  Hear from the musicians at Singing Wells and support the longevity of the music via Nyege Nyege.

Meet the writer

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt has written on music, art, culture, design, environmental, and social issues for 15 years, contributing to titles such as BBC Travel, The Guardian, DJ Mag, The Face, Dazed & Confused, and Metro, with commissions taking him across the world from his Manchester base. Follow him on @martinghewitt.

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