“I not only believe I can be a big music star renown across the country, I’m working very hard at becoming one,” 47-year-old Margaret Namboga says as she looks me straight in the eye, her eyes fixed and her mouth twitching indicating she fiercely believes what she is telling me.
“I have the talent and all I have always lacked is guidance and support, now with the assistance I’m getting from Slum Echoes, I’m surely going to make it.
“But even if I don’t become a big star, just being able to record my music and send it out is for me a priceless achievement.
“I have a lot of messages that I have always wanted to share with the world to make a difference in the lives of those who hear them, but lack of money has always kept me away from recording.”
Namboga is responding to a question I have just put to her a few seconds ago, inquiring whether she really believes she can become a big music star at her rather aanced age.
I asked her the question because she is the oldest of the 13 trainees I have found receiving singing lessons from renown vocal coach Ian Kagimbo at this large house in the neighbourhood of Nsambya-Gogonya in Makindye Division.
Save for a short burly man who is palpably about 40, the other trainees here are visibly very youthful young men no older than 25 years, all of them spotting the naughty hairstyles and funky attires typical of ‘urban’ musicians.
My mission here was to meet Ian Kagimbo on a private matter, but the curious appearance of the trainees is what has spurred me to ask the vocal coach about the arrangement under which he is training these charges.
After Kagimbo has explained to me that all I’m seeing is the work of the Slum Echoes music project, an initiative that is working to give a hand to desperate singing talents from Kampala’s slums, I have found myself talking to the different musicians themselves.
Many desperate talents in the slums
“Our foundation called Street Angels uses different branches of art to try and positively influence the lives of slum dwellers,” Dan Sentamu, one of the two young men behind the initiative informs me once I have been introduced. “We try to support slum dwellers engaged in all sorts of art, from visual art, to drama, to film, name it, but so far music has been our main focus because when we started out three years ago it is the discipline where we found the biggest number of desperate practitioners in need of a push to shine.”
“Music is the most popular art form in the slums, so it has more practitioners and also more fans,” Andrew Lubega, the co-founder of the initiative says. “We found that the slums have so many people involved in music in some way, many with real talent and many with dreams of becoming successful. Yet also many of them are disillusioned and desperate because they lack the support to grow their talents and succeed –be it moral, financial or technical support. We discovered that many of the disillusioned talents actually resort to things like crime and drugs because they lack support and guidance, and we realised these musicians were the first area we had to get seriously working at. ”
I get to recall that Namboga has just told me a few minutes ago that she might have become a Kadongokamu star fifteen or twenty years ago, but she was caught up in the slum just looking for what to eat to stay alive. I also get recalling the story I have just received from Nash Rhymes (Kiyega Robert), a 20-year-old from Kisenyi who has just told me that before joining Slum Echoes he often resorted to drugs just to calm his nerves off the depression that he couldn’t get a place to practice singing and the money to go to studio.
Combing slums to identifying talents to give a hand
Sentamu and Lubega narrate that after resolving that music was one the areas where they were to first work seriously, early last year they came up with a plan to identify exceptional but very desperate music talents in the slums so they could start helping them out.
“We settled on going around the different slums calling on youth who feel they are musically talented but lacking support to come and audition with us for a chance to be taken on for support and guidance,” Dan Sentamu says. “We put it clear that we weren’t seeking to sign on singers as promoters, rather that we only looked to give a helping hand to those we would find exceptionally talented and once they were up and running they could go on to find promoters or managers.”
Sentamu narrates that last year, they started with Kabalagala’s Kikuba-mutwe slum, hiring a sound system and storming the slum with a music producer and vocal coach to judge the most exceptional talents they could support. They identified three talents and planned to move on to three other slums. But then they realised they didn’t have enough money to go all the way, so they decided to first put the initiative on hold as they saved more and even looked for some sponsorship.
Until mid this year, when with funds from Stitching Doen added to what they had gathered, they resumed and combed six other slums identifying exceptional talents that need and are ready to receive support.
“We were working entirely on our own money,” Lubega says. “You see, we are ourselves professional artists, and at that products of the slums, so all that was driving us was the desire to help out people who were stuck in a position we might easily have been if we hadn’t been lucky to go all the way in school and graduate with qualifications in particular art disciplines.”
Giving the talents music and life skills
The two founders of the initiative narrate that on resumption in June this year, they combed five other Kampala slums (Kisenyi, Naguru, Namuwongo, Kamwokya and Kasubi), adding 20 exceptional but desperate talents they had discovered to the four they identified from Kikuba-mutwe last year. They now had 24 talents to work with.
“Producer Kallywid, vocal coach Ian Kagimbo and singer Cassanova (formerly of Fire Base) were our judges in the search for the talents, and after identifying the talents now they have their judges’s robes off to offer the talents music and life skills,” Andrew Lubega says. “They are now the teachers imparting music and general life skills to the group of 24.”
Apparently, the group undergoes vocal training, instrument-playing and stage performance drills from their three teachers three times every week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
Lubega also reveals that over the last four months, the trainees are being helped to record some music with producer Kallywid, at his Kally records which has churned out hit songs like Bebe Cool’s Sunda Mata, Chameleone’s Tupate, Sheeba and Coco Finger’s Baliwa, among others. Lubega adds that the artistes are also regularly given counselling and guidance on things like financial and life skills such as avoiding or leaving drugs, while they seek their musical breakthroughs.
“Once they have been properly trained and have matured, we plan to have them form a Slum Echoes band and to get them producing joint albums, because at the start it should be easier for them to get performance deals as a band,” Ssentamu says.
”But we don’t plan to keep them for long, because once one gets skills we want them to move on and create space for another person to also come and receive the same kickstart towards a professional career. Our long-term plan is to actually open a fully fledged institution that teaches slum dwellers art skills in the fields of music, visual art, drama, film, name it.”
Men behind the slum echoes project
Andrew Lubega, 28, and Dan Ssentamu, 29, the former born and bred in the slums of Kisugu and the later from Kireka. Andrew is a visual artist and art lecturer at Kampala University, while Dan Sentamu is a social work and writer with a degree in Literature.
Other activities they run under their Street Angels initiative include training slum children in visual art, promoting community theatre among slum dwellers, training groups of Karamojong girls and women in craft-making, and the annual Slum Art Festival held every December, which they say aims to celebrate artistic talent in the slums and to make the general public notice it.