Back in Time – New Life Club Mengo Was the Place to Be [analysis]

The sixties were a magical time for Uganda’s music industry. In this second article of “Back in Time” series, SIMON MUSASIZI looks at the golden days of New Life Club, Mengo, which was one of the Ange Noirs of the sixties and where Congolese music made its inroad into the country.

In mid-1950, a young man from a fairly-wealthy family came up with an idea of establishing an entertainment spot in Mengo. James Mitti, who was the son of Mutaka Kabazi (the head of Kasimba clan), had borrowed the idea from the Budonian club in Kisenyi.

Budonian, which was located where Hash petro station is currently located, was one of the biggest hangouts at the time however, given the nature of Kisenyi, it was unsafe for partygoers to freely move at night.

As it is today, Kisenyi with its slum setting was full of foreigners, among which were the Baziba from Tanganyika (Tanzania), who are reported to have first introduced prostitution in town, at Budonian, before it spread to other nightclubs.

TOP LIFE CLUB

With Mengo considered the safest place at the time, Mitti saw an opportunity and seized it. He started his own club, which he named Top Life. It became a popular hangout with Mitti hyping it with live performances by musicians.

According to Clyde John Luzige Bakaluba Mayanja, a veteran musician who used to perform at White Nile club at the time, there was a new crop of musicians, who had just returned from the Second World War with instruments such as the guitars, accordions, violins and banjos. Mitti organised them under singer Ssebirumbi and they started playing at Top Life.

As the proprietor of Uganda Eyogera newspaper (which was located in Kibuye-Katwe), Mitti had some good money, enough to hire musicians. His newspaper competed well with other Luganda newspapers such as Munno, which was owned by the Catholic Church, Taifa Empya of Aga Khan and Jolly Joe Kiwanuka’s Express, from which Express FC sprung.

Mitti further became more popular when his father died. He succeeded him, taking over the leadership of Kasimba clan as Kabazi Mitti. In 1959, however, Mitti’s financial woes started, forcing him to sell off some of his assets, among which was the Top Life nightclub, which he sold to a Ugandan Indian called Kamulu, who used to speak fluent Luganda and used to live in an estate opposite Mengo hospital.

Kamulu changed the name to New Life club.

“Kamulu was a genius in business he transformed the club to international standards, by equipping it with modern lights and sound system,” Mayanja says.

“He polished the musicians by giving them nice uniforms and bought them modern electrical amplified instruments. The sound became vibrant and would reach far, and the band members were smart. The place became very attractive and entertaining.”

As a result, partygoers abandoned Budonian club where security wasn’t good at night and started flocking New Life club where all the facilities, including seats , were modern.

“The girls who used to flock the club were also smarter than those in Budonian, attracting Indian men and well-to-do black Ugandans,” says Allan Mutebi, who was a regular reveler here.

It is reported that Kamulu used to change the appearance of the club, especially the stage, at least twice a month. This boosted the club and its name became more popular.

“The lights, which were fluorescent tubes, would make anything glitter, including dirty clothes,” Mayanja recalls.

“Men would hook up with women in the club, but in the morning, they would find that they look different. This resulted into the saying: ‘Ebitaala byanimbye’ (the lights misled me).”

CONGOLESE MUSIC

When singer Israel Magembe, who used to play at Ssebalamu’s nightclub in Bwaise, came back from Zaire (Congo) in 1959 with Congolese musicians, there was a paradigm shift people starting liking Congolese music.

For that matter, those who are always after good things started moving to Bwaise to dance to Congolese music, a move that shocked Kamulu. This forced Kamulu to go to Congo and hire Congolese musicians in early 1960s. With Congolese musicians, New Life club started to boom again.

To make it more popular, Kamulu offered a good remuneration that lured Eclaus Kawalya (father to Afrigo band’s Joanita Kawalya) from Ssebalamu’s where he used to perform with Israel Magembe to join his Congolese team as a Luganda singer.

Kamulu also brought in two other popular singers at the time: Fred Kanyike and Bonny K Steven from White Nile Club, Kibuye-Katwe to further beef up the Luganda segment of the band.

“People loved to watch them [Kawalya, Kanyike and Bonny] live – because they used to hear their songs on Radio Uganda,” Mayanja recalls.

“So, the club became popular in the 60s and the name Kamulu was also popular – introducing the saying that ‘olimu bwakamulu’ whenever you saw someone looking good.”

Apart from the Buganda headquarters, New Life club popularized Mengo as the place to be.

VIPERS BAND

In 1966, Kamulu brought in a band called Vipers from Congo lead by Kawumba. The band is said to have come with a unique style of performance – stage-dance demonstration. They introduced what we call dancing queens – with a woman called Mado and a man called Swizzman, who mesmerized revelers with their paka chini dance styles that left people wondering whether they had bones.

People flocked the club to see these Congolese dancers. Vipers also started the teenagers’ daylife dances just like The Cranes were doing at the White Nile club, creating rivalry between the clubs. With Clyde Mayanja’s creative dances that teenagers also loved and wanted to copy, teenagers were divided between the two clubs.

This rivalry turned out to be a healthy one, in terms of promoting each side, bringing in new songs, dance strokes, creativity like the Vipers’ famous “moon dance” where they imitated how America’s Armg, the first man to land on the moon in 1969, walked on the moon.

Early in the 1970s, the Vipers started to have misunderstandings within themselves and disintegrated. By mid-70s, the band was no more – with Kawumba deciding to go back to Congo with all his instruments.

Unfortunately, he died in an accident in Uganda on his way back to Congo. His other Congolese colleagues remained in Uganda, joining other groups. Sizzaman still lives in Uganda he is married to Ugandan women with whom he has children.

But with Kamulu’s business acumen, he kept the club vibrant by bringing in other Congolese musicians until 1972 when Idi Amin expelled the Asians, British and Israelis. Kamulu had to leave the country, leaving behind his club, which fell in the hands of an army officer called Taban (not Amin’s son) – as abandoned Asian property was distributed among Ugandans.

Taban renamed it Economic nightclub – in honour of Amin’s directive of an economic war that would empower Ugandans. After Kamulu’s exit, the new owner wasn’t that innovative. He ran the place as it was and it started deteriorating because he had no knowledge about entertainment.

Congolese musicians on the way to record in Nairobi would make stopovers at the club, which somehow kept it on life-support until 1979 when Amin’s government was overthrown. The place was left abandoned due to war until it was taken over by Sir Apollo Kaggwa primary school.

Source : The Observer

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