Juliana blushes when I call her the people’s pop princess. “That’s too much pressure if people are looking at you like that,” she responds. Yet it’s a compliment she should take in her stride if anything because it is high praise that is well deserved. Those that have seen her rise from being a karaoke upstart belting out Mariah Carey songs to the chart-topping chanteuse she is today will attest to talent that has been baked in a crucible for the past 15 years. Which is what she wants revellers at her Up close & Personal concert at the Serena Kampala Hotel come Friday October 18, 2013 to take away; Juliana the woman, the mother, the human being. “This will be about more than just singing songs. There will be chatting in between songs so that my fans know more about me when the show is over,” she says. Not that she’s been doing a Sade on her fans akin to the British-Nigerian diva’s rare appearances that only occur when she is promoting a new album. Juliana has been planning this particular concert for some time now. “It’s just that things have been happening year-in year-out and I end up not performing,” she adds.
Juliana’s musical pips go further than her mid-noughties chart-topper Nabikoowa probably her most definitive record. At its release in 2005, Juliana had been on the scene mostly as an R&B English crooning chanteuse before flipping the coin to dabble into vernacular singing a la two Bobi Wine collaborations on Mama w’Abaana and Mama Mbire. It’s a career-changing decision that endeared her to a new legion of downtown fans without alienating her toffee-nosed ones, the ones whose heads would bop to Say It and Seven Days, two of her standout R&B hits. Up close & Personal will also be about taking post-Nabikoowa hits like the gospel-tinged Kanyimbe, the green-eyed-monster-inspired Kibaluma and the runaway success that was the Philly Lutaaya rendition of Diana out of the CD/mp3 listening experience onto the live stage consumption. It is also probably at the concert that fans will get to learn that Juliana had initially chosen to do Lutaaya’s Nkoye Okegomba “because I loved that particular song artistically and its [chord] progressions but Chameleone beat me to that lottery.”
The other definitive thing about Juliana on a probably not-so-personal level was spreading her clout in the region by way of a couple of clever Swahili collaborations that have enabled her to enjoy the trappings of the much-touted East African Cooperation. The songbird is now a household name across a combined music market of 130 million people courtesy of her Usiende Mbali duet with Tanzanian crooner Bushoke, Hatarudi with Burundian zouk maestro Kidum and more recently with budding chanteuse Alicious from DR Congo on Mpita Njia. Tusker Project Fame, that reality show that seems to be more about the beer than the music also partly explains Juliana’s scarcity. The quantifiable benefit for her is that as the only singing judge on the show (her colleagues Kenya’s Ian Mbugua and Tanzania’s Hermes Bariki are a performing artiste and record producer respectively), she is able to give her post-performance two cents as someone that stands on that stage and actually sings. It is hard to tell if the tabloid rumours about her getting hitched to Ian will feature during the chatty moments of her Up close & Personal concert although it is something she brushes off as the media just being the media. “I was offended, not that he [Ian] is a bad guy but because he is my workmate and a happily married man”.
Motherhood is the other thing that has come to define Juliana who is the dotting mother to an 11-year-old. “Ah he is too forward and it worries me that he is not little any more. He is getting into his teens and they become so inquisitive at that age asking lots of questions which is good because you get to have a normal conversation. He has no issues telling me; “mum, that outfit doesn’t look good on you”, she speaks of Keron, the offspring from her ex, Amon Lukwago. For now, the only men she will talk about are the ones that have added value to her musical career. Fenon Records Producer Steve Jean and former Namasagali College Head Teacher Father Grimes spring to her mind instantly. “I haven’t seen Steve in a while mostly because he is busy with his events company. The two of us enjoy such great chemistry in studio and I hope we can do more stuff together”. Father Grimes on the other hand takes plaudits for introducing Juliana and her former I-Jay mate Iryn Namubiru to the world of the performing arts. “Dance class, the drama drills and elocution at Namasagali College were preparing us for this life that we now live,” she says. And for those that think that “beef” is what continues to define Juliana and her alleged musical nemesis, the fact that they schedule tea dates on Twitter ought to erase any unfinished I-Jay business the public thinks these two harbour. “Iryn and I had fun looking at all those dropped jaws and popping eyes when we showed at Myko Ouma’s [Kati Kati] concert to sing Afrigo’s Sirina. They gave us something to WhatsApp about. And on a personal note, Juliana intimates that she and Iryn can’t wait to work on a project together.
Text: MOSES SERUGO