All That Kampala Jazz

Saxophonist Kirk Whalum and '90s R&B diva Karyn White at the 2015 Jazz Safari (OBSERVER PHOTO)

Saxophonist Kirk Whalum and ’90s R&B diva Karyn White at the 2015 Jazz Safari (OBSERVER PHOTO)

Jazz appreciation in Uganda straddles two audience divides; the purists and pretenders. The former are the kind that can tell Miles Davis from Earl Klugh while the latter are the kind that will tag along to a jazz event for the snob value that brings. The purists are most likely the lot that grew up with playing LPs as a family ritual complete with removing a giant black disc from its sleeve, delicately placing it on a circular revolving platform and placing a needle onto it to elicit the crackle of Davis’ trumpet. The pretenders are mostly the come-latelys for whom any saxophonist is by default a jazz artiste even when that musician is simply a fine instrumentalist. Their regular jazz fix is the measly hour-long weekly radio show installment where the purist would binge on at least a jazz CD a day.

Both audiences find common ground at the annual Nile Gold Jazz Safari in October to indulge in the handpicked double-artiste offering each year. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum and 90s diva Karyn White were the stars at the 2015 edition. Kirk mostly enchanted with familiar songs like Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” and Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You”, a song he played at the departed songbird’s funeral as her coffin was being wheeled out of the chapel. Karyn, on the other hand was out to prove that after almost two decades of being absent from the mainstream pop scene, she still had enough musical spunk to evoke sweet memories courtesy of her up-tempo tracks like “Hungah” and “Secret Rendezvous” and ballads like “Can I Stay With You” and her monster female emancipation hit “Super Woman”. Most times jazz enthusiasts have had to make do with the hand-picked choices by Jazz Safari founders Elijah Kitaka, host of Radio One’s Sunday night Jazz Evenings show and Tshaka Mayanja, a music promoter-cum-artiste of repute.

Elijah Kitaka, host of Radio One FM 90's weekly "Jazz Evenings" show

Elijah Kitaka, host of Radio One FM 90’s weekly “Jazz Evenings” show

The bigger question though is the impact of jazz on the entertainment industry. Lately there has been a proliferation of mostly solo instrumental acts, usually the basis of a budding jazz scene in the forms of largely saxophonists like Michael Kitanda, Brian Mugenyi and Maurine “MoRoots” Rutabingwa. The Jazz Safari, now in its eighth year also brags about boosting Ugandan artistes’ self-esteem by offering them complimentary passes, has a chunk of its proceeds going to alleviating cancer and also a vital contributor to the creative economy (by way of a sizeable tax remittance off its pricey tickets). However, moving forward, the Jazz Safari may want to position itself as less of an American cultural imperialism conduit. The bulk of its line-up over its eight editions has been US stars and rightly so! After all Uncle Sam is the de facto leading producer of jazz acts. But as the collaboration between Ugandan ethno-guitarist Mpambara and Kirk Whalum on the Ganda folksong “Nawuliranga” on October 2nd proved, jazz enthusiasts would also love to see wiggling Bakisimba dancers and maybe continental jazz acts of renown like bassist Richard Bona or guitarist Jimmy Dludlu on the Jazz Safari stage in the near future.

Text: MOSES SERUGO (, WhatsApp: +256712291973)


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