Memoirs of a UTAKE fan

My local radio station has a themed program, the presenter is even synonymous with the brand although sometimes, one is led to believe that he has just smoked some dried green leaves, and is therefore imitating Jamaican patios, but he is not. He is just animated by UTAKE.

My local radio station has a themed program, the presenter is even synonymous with the brand although sometimes, one is led to believe that he has just smoked some dried green leaves, and is therefore imitating Jamaican patios, but he is not. He is just animated by UTAKE.

East Africa is undergoing a reinvention. It started with one person and now the regional music industry is abuzz with it. Even Baganda, are now composing music lyrics in Swahili, a language they have long considered to be a medium for thieves.

UTAKE is the new ‘cool’ of East Africa and for all the right reasons as it enhances regional integration, private sector growth as well as encouraging locally bred role models.

The genre, brings together music compositions from the three older members of the East African Community (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania-music promoters and stakeholders are yet to take up my suggested acronym of RnB’UTAKE thus incorporating Rwanda and Burundi in the fray seeing that we are now regular features.

But now that Alpha Rwirangira won that Tusker Project Fame thing, music producers will possibly bring us on board officially.)

Before UTAKE, East Africa’s music industry was for long, single genre duplicity of African folklore that musician after musician exploited to stardom.

With a possible exception of DR Congo-and only because a few of us understood Lingala-musical creativity was inspired by men crying foul of our famous gold digger women, and many simple things which defined the African rural scope of life.

The explanation, could be due to the fact that the largest part of the audience for the artistes and their work, was mainly the rural folk, the ones involved in local farming and produce, tea and coffee cooperatives, as well as conservative generations who detested many modern or foreign trends.

This, according to entertainment experts was because only this demographic group could afford radio sets, especially the kind that came in Mekosonik and Soundsoro.

The battery cells these simple radios used and the cassette tapes on which the music was dubbed and sold, were quite expensive for the youth while the fact that FM radio stations were not yet here, ensured there was a limited scope for the youth to be involved in the music and entertainment industry.

In fact it was considered ‘bad behavior’ for younger people to love music, to dance and to be updated with entertainment trends.

For East Africa in particular, the most memorable artistes and bands were mainly Congolese stars like Franco’s TPOK jazz, Sam Mangwana, Arlus Mabele and his Loketo Band as well as the queen of Mtuashi Tshala Muana.

The entry of FM radio stations changed all this, and in the mid 90s the face of East Africa’s music scene changed drastically and dramatically beyond recognition.

East African musicians were faced with a challenge as most of the music that was played on the new 24 hour radio stations, was mostly American.

This music, it is argued helped promote and implant permissiveness in Africa. Many of the youth in the region at the time, relied on American value systems as the musical lyrics promoted them.

It was not helped with the fact that this period, also saw the widespread transmission of HIV/Aids in urban centres, and greatly so among the youthful generation of the time.

To curb this problem there was need to develop authentic African creativity in the entertainment industry, and reduce the airtime that western influences were getting on local airwaves.

Among the first acts that led this creativity was Jose Chameleon, a Ugandan artist who made his career breakthrough after moving to Kenya and recording his timeless mega hit; “Maama Mia” in 1999.

With this move, the spirit and dynamism of UTAKE was formed and in a few years time from then, East African leaders were to meet and recreate the EAC which had been on a death bed since 1967.

Chameleon was himself inspired by Jamaica’s dancehall icon Shabba Ranks as one person that is closely related to him narrates; “.... I remember there was one particular incident in our teenage years, when we had a talent show and one guy was performing a Shabba Ranks song and Jose asked us to let him sing because he said he was better than the other guy.

But the organiser of the show refused, Jose sneaked onto the stage during the interval and gave the audience a freestyle, and with the screams from the crowd he never turned back, this was in the mid 1990s at  Mengo Secondary School, that is where Chameleon started his musical journey and he has never turned back.”

Starting out in his teenage years earlier in the smaller pubs of Kampala, Chameleon was faced with the huge challenge of breaking the afore mentioned cultural bind which ensured that it was mostly folklore stars, or bands that succeeded in the industry.

And many of these were far older than he was, yet they were still very popular. He did not have any real contemporaries.

As a result, Chameleon moved to Nairobi to pursue a dream of becoming a top notch African musician.

This move inadvertently started the transformation of East Africa’s music industry with Joseph Mayanja alias Chameleon at its pivot. His eccentricity notwithstanding, he personified the gradual transition of East Africa’s entertainment industry that today; it is not considered exaggerating to mention him in the same breath as Zaire’s great Franco and Sam Mangwana in leading the way for other musicians.

Chameleon not only got the youth interested in local music, he also ensured that this music appealed to the ‘normal’ African folks.

The new and much younger produce sellers in the market, the public taxi drivers and touts, the charcoal traders, receptionists and secretaries, the luggage carriers in commercial streets as well as you reading this article.

While it is open for argument whether he is the greatest artiste East Africa has had, it is highly likely that many East Africans have one of his classics as a favourite tune. One East African music expert calls him the Michael Jackson of the region’s entertainment industry.

So, how did Chameleon manage to change the music scene?

And who can answer this question better than his elder brother Henry Kasozi who to a large extent guided Chameleon through his delicate formative teenage years.

Kasozi says that he did not groom Chameleon in the superstar he is today, but says that he did all the normal things that an elder brother needs to do to help his junior achieve their dreams.

“Before he left for Kenya in search of his dream, I gave him my lovely rucksack (a small and trendy carry on luggage bag) and I always believed in his dream.

The greatest gift I ever gave him though was opening the gates for him every night when he sneaked home from his late night dee jaying. This is because the parents were very strict on staying out late at night and never approved of any excuse.”

As if to pay homage to the Africa’s icons of yester years, Kasozi says; “If I could take you back to the times when we where growing up, we listened to foreign music like Lingala from Zaire and South African music, but Jose came up with his own style that knocked all foreign music out of Uganda leading to the rise of many Ugandan artists.”

Unlike many of his predecessors whose creative web was based on the socio-politico issues of post independent Africa-as is evidenced in most of the songs between the 50s and 80s on the continent-Chameleon, was faced with a new generation that was slowly and easily being soaked by American cultural invasion in the aftermath of the cold war.

He, like so many at the time, started out singing in English, rapping in styles and rhythms that were very much copycats of Jamaican ragga styles.

His audience was the teenagers and urban yuppies- the aficionados of the new American cultural invasion. Chameleon instead began mocking the African chauvinistic customs in songs like Mama Rhoda, Effuga Bbi
Chameleon’s changing musical inspiration is similar to the ability of the animal after which he is named and therefore begs the question as to how he chose that name; Kasozi says; “He did not choose this name but it was coined by our mother who used to be surprised of how Joseph changed moods and that he would fit into different surroundings.”

On his recent reinvention as Dr. Jose Chameleon; Kasozi says; “ His music heals hearts due to the fact that he sings life experiences and people relate to his music in good and bad times, so he treats them with his music, that is why he decided to have the new title of Doctor on his name.”