Stella Nanteza (1956 – 2014)

In her 1988 hit Emitima Egirwadde Okwagala, departed Ebonies chanteuse Stella Nanteza paints a grim medical prognosis of her aching heart. She sings about enduring a battery of tests, daylong x-ray exposure and lots of prodding and pricking from her doctor. The doctor then gives it to her straight. “You are lovelorn” to which a distressed Stella then appeals to her listeners desperately where do lovelorn hearts congregateI’ve had enough of this achy achy heart!

The song, seen as a play on Whitney Houston’s Where Do Broken Hearts Go, was an Ebonies anthem at the time probably because most folks connected with its lyrics and narrative.

Ironically Nanteza died on Saturday, June 21 at the same medical facility Mulago Hospital, that provided the setting of her runaway 1988 hit. Equally odd was that she passed on after her own heart gave way following shock from a car accident a couple of days earlier.

Nanteza was part of the singing Ebonies, a highbrow live music outfit that brought Ugandans close to experiencing the theatrical magic of Broadway or West End musicals. The Ebonies employed their vast songbook to weave stage stories that mirrored contemporary life. And while their peers like Afrigo Band and Peterson T. Mutebi amp The Tames stuck to gigging in nightspots, The Ebonies settled for a theatrical set up with their musical productions running for up to six months.

For the most part, The Ebonies formed in 1977, provided a salve to thrill seekers wishing to escape the political turmoil of the day. The early ’80s were mostly synonymous with a civil war launched against the Milton Obote II regime led by the revolutionary Yoweri Museveni out to correct the political wrongs of the day. Those that wanted to forget about panda gari security swoops of the 1980s or talk about Luwero guerrillas escaped to, among others, the Ebonies shows. Their church-harmony-tinged pop songs provided the soundtrack to people’s lives.

Jimmy Katumba was the band front man, boasting a Jim Reeves baritone buoyed by backing vocalists that made great use of the soprano, alto and tenor voice combinations. However, Nanteza, a pioneer member of the singing Ebonies towered over backing vocal status. Her g alto voice was enough for her to command her own repertoire. Her breakout hit was Muyita Malaika (I Call Him Angel) in which she lavishes praise on the beau that stole her heart enough to equate him to a celestial being.

Her other notable songs were Endabirwamu Yange Junior (she acknowledges that her son is the spitting image of her husband, African Woman (affirming that women are no longer the weaker sex), Kondo (in which she acknowledges being a thug for snapping up another woman’s man). She sang a couple of cautionary tales too like on Winnie Onjooze Nnyo on which she cautions against keeping female siblings around lest they become co-wives. As the quintessential diva, Nanteza took on the persona of an economic good. She was as rare as a gem on non-gig days, never to be seen on the streets or shopping in the market. Anyone that wanted to drool or partake of her voice had to buy the premium-priced tickets of The Ebonies shows.

But as the rest of the country was under the hypnosis of the NRMA fundamental change rhetoric in the late ’80s, The Ebonies were going through its own fundamental change. A 1989 UK tour saw the bulk of the band abandon ship for the apparent greener pastures in Great Britain. With a skeletal outfit returning to Uganda and a shift in the entertainment landscape, The Ebonies morphed into a fully-fledged drama outfit. This relegated the singers to session artistes recording soundtracks for stage plays.

And with her husband Jimmy Katumba’s departure in 1992, the writing was on the wall. Nanteza followed him to the US although her gospel career never quite took off in the Diaspora probably because The Ebonies thrived on structure. It was ran like a professional music outfit complete with songwriters, publicists and behind the scenes creative forces like Peter Claver Lwanga, a holder of a prestigious Masters in performing Arts from Leeds University in the UK.

The absence of these group dynamics meant that Ebonies breakaways pursuing solo careers had the uphill task of creating any post-group impact. That Nanteza could only return quietly after almost two decades to settle as a Pentecostal church choir trainer at Grace Church in Ntinda spoke volumes of her post-Ebonies musical struggles.

Fact is the music landscape has since changed from the organic creativity of her heyday to the cotton candy synthesized pop being served up today. Only purists like those weaned on Eschatos Brides choral singing and those that got the odd Ebonies outing as a treat will cherish the memories of this Ugandan pop prima donna brought.

Born in 1956 to the late Josephat Ssembajje Kyeza and schooled at Masoli Primary and Senior Secondary School, Nanteza is survived by two children Olga Katumba and Arnold Katumba from her marriage to Jimmy Katumba (RIP). Maybe in future, we’ll get to immortalise our arts and entertainment icons by way of Madame Tussauds life size wax models and not just framed airbrushed portraits atop their coffins.

Source : The Independent

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