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Profile: Joel Sebunjo, taking Uganda places with his Kora  

by Editorial Team
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By Hussein Kiganda

Uganda is spoken of for its outstanding talent wealth and great physical features that are widely known to the whole world. 

True to the world’s perception, the country is home to a number of performers and artists that have made their marks in the global space. 

Well, musician Joel Sebunjo is one of those talented assets Uganda prides itself in. Following the religious allusion that “prophets are not accepted in their hometowns,” many Ugandans cannot recognize him, but West Africa treats him as a god.

A soldier with a gun is not equipped enough like Sebunjo is with his Kora and “entongooli”. With these, he captures his audience and feeds them with a mixture of Ugandan and West African traditional sounds. He calls it contemporary Afro-fusion.

Born in 1985, to the late Paul Mulwana and Grace Muwanga as his father and mother respectively, the music genes were passed to him from his father, who used to listen to music a lot.

Joel Sebunjo performs at the Coca-Cola Pop Stars years ago. File Photo.

As a small child, Sebunjo was that shy and humble boy in front of his parents, but behind the curtains, he was as stubborn as none can imagine. He laughs at an incident when he spoilt one Christmas day for his family.

“It was one day on Christmas when I was playing football with my friends and accidentally it hit the saucepan in which chicken was being cooked. It was around noon and everybody was gearing up for that long-awaited time, to enjoy the chicken. All the sauce poured down and I went for a teary treat,” he narrates and laughs.

He hails Makerere College school for having irrigated his interest in music. He recalls that he was not a music person in primary school because he was shy and tiny, so he felt it was for the strong and bold. 

At Makerere College, Sebunjo was inspired by the young students of his age, who played different instruments and how they enjoyed it. He was forced to join their clique but had to first write his name on the drama radar in the school. He recalls that his outstanding performance in drama, during the Makerere Performing Arts Festival, pulled him to the forefront of the school’s entertainment spot.

Joel Sebunjo playing his favourite instrument, the Kora. File Photo

“I remember I took on a role of a son of a rich man in a play and I performed so well. The whole school talked about me and I got the chance to join the music group of the school,” he recalls.

He credits the school for having had two well-facilitated rooms dedicated to music and great music teachers such as Stefan Busuulwa and Arthur Kayizzi, who groomed them for the best.

At the same school, the musician attended classes with Micheal Ouma, Herbert Kinobe, Damascus Kafumbe, Micheal Ross Kakooza and several more.

“As much as the three (Ouma, Kinobe, and Kafumbe) were good in contemporary music, Micheal Ross was too much into RnB and dancing. He was a very big star in school,” he recalls.

He reminisces the glory days when his school took part in the National Secondary School Festival at the National Theatre in 2002 when they tied up in the first position with Bweranyangi Girls, a school from Western Uganda. Like many Ugandans would think, he still believes that his school won but was cheated to make it share the spoils with Bweranyangi.

Sebunjo majored in music throughout his school life. He did it at Ordinary and Advanced levels and passed it. He together with Ouma, Kinobe and Kafumbe decided to uplift Ugandan contemporary music.

While a student, he joined a band called The Boys Brigade, at Namirembe Cathedral, where he was a trumpeter.  He started having a taste of what it felt like to be a musician.

He joined Makerere University and pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Musicology. On campus, he joined another band called Baksimba Waves, which was formerly Big Five and his journey into the real music business started.

“The band was headed by Godfrey Lubuulwa, a brilliant guitarist and we used to have four gigs weekly. We were always paid handsomely and I used to save some good money,” he says.

Sebunjo used to admire great musicians in Western Africa. He dreamt of sharing the stage with big names such as Youssou N’Dour and Ishmael Lo from Senegal, five-time Grammy award winner Angelique Kidjo from Benin, Salif Keita, Wes Madiko from Cameroon several more.

For his dream, the instrument specialist left Uganda in 2007 for Senegal, to learn more about music. He lived with and learned from singers Didier Awadi and Baba Maal in Dakar. Being a Francophone country, he failed to make it due to the language barrier so he crossed to Gambia where he could speak and hear English very well.

 In Gambia, he stayed with a legendary folk artist and Kora player, the late Alagi MBye, who passed on during Covid-19.

Having mastered the Kora, he returned to Uganda in 2008 and formed his band called Joel Sebunjo and Sundiata.

“Sundiata was a name of an ancient King in Mali. I used it to represent West Africa. Literally, I was trying to tell Ugandans that my band is fused with sounds from East and Western Africa,” he explains.

He held a grand concert dubbed “New Ancient Strings” in 2009 at Alliance Francaise in Kampala, a show that became the buzz in town. His band was only compared to Soul Beat which had been put up by his old colleagues Ouma and Kinobe.

In 2019, the “Kabaka Yekka” singer was invited for a European tour by the European Center of Culture, where he performed in all the cities in Estonia and Finland.

“At that time, Estonia had just joined the European Union, so to introduce the Estonians to Africans, I was invited to perform on a cultural tour. They wanted to show them how Africans are and which music they play,” he says.

In the same year, Sebunjo headlined the Warid Jazz Festival with Isaiah Katumwa, Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe, and Miriam Makeba from South Africa.

He was among the pioneers of Coke Studio in 2013. He happened to share the stage with; King Sanny from Nigeria, Salif Keita from Mali, Frank Biyong from Cameroon, and Double HP from South Africa.

Since then, he has been moving around the world, at different festivals. He still remembers the two times he has been at Femua Festival in Ivory Coast. He also performed at the prestigious Masa festival in Abidjan, Ethnosoi festival in Finland, Amani festival in Kivu, DR Congo, Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar, and several more.

He gets hiccups whenever he recalls that Eddy Kenzo claimed he is the only Ugandan that has performed on such big festivals.

“Sometime back, I heard Eddy Kenzo claiming no other Ugandan has performed at the Masa festival in Abidjan and I laughed. He does not know that I already performed on every big stage he can think of,” he boosts.

Sebunjo is the perfect meaning of “East West, Home is the Best”. He is now in Uganda and is tipped to hold a concert called “Ganda Mandingo Syndicate” at The National Theater on September 30, 2022.

He will be featured by legendary musicians; Aly Keita from Ivory Coast and Habib Koite from Mali. Aly Keita is known for his great touch in the Balaphone and Habib Koite is known for his outstanding guitar strings.

“At the concert, we shall only be five people and we shall give out the best of African sound. People should expect an upgraded contemporary African fusion,” he promises.

He has recorded songs such as  Kabaka yekka, Mulamu with Micheal Ouma, Kabaka kuntikko, leero tombawala with Moses Matovu, owino, nalingiyo with Bebe Cool, independence, and several more.

Joel Sebunjo does not have many music videos, he claims that music is not for the eyes but the ears, so the audience should concentrate more on the sound. To him, if music shifts from the ears to the eyes, it simply becomes a creative venture, not music.

He advises Ugandan artists to stop copying foreign beats and sounds but rather use Ugandan traditional sounds to create the county’s identity beats. He also urges the media and the audience to embrace Ugandan tradition and culture to promote homemade products.

Despite being a prominent music scholar, he believes that even those that did not study music can make it because creativity is limitless. He maintains that all artists should do something unique to capture their own audience.

“If I want to sing rap, I can do it, but I will have ruined a reputation I have built for about 15 years. Being unique is better because people cannot compare you with others. That’s why my genre is unique,” he says.

He is sure that in time to come, he will bring the Grammys home and his music will be used in Hollywood movies all around the world.

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