In almost every band, there is a laidback fellow that prefers to stay in the background.
DEO MUKUNGU epitomized that role in the years he was with Afrigo band to the extent that whereas his name resonates well with fans, he remains an enigma in spite of being the brains behind the 1989 blockbuster hit, Afrigo Batuuse II. Hassan Badru Zziwa caught up with him recently.
Afrigo band has been in our faces since 1975 and needs no introduction when it comes to their ageless classics and loyal fan base. Several former members of the group have since passed on, leaving Moses Matovu, the band leader, as the sole surviving pioneer in the current cast.
Deceased members such as Godfrey Mwambala, Tony Sengo, Charles Sekyanzi, Fred Kigozi, Albert Atibu (Amigo Wawawa), Paul Serumaga and many others left indelible marks with classic compositions.
However, there is the curious case of Deo Mukungu, a man whose five years with Afrigo yielded the band’s signature hit, Afrigo Batuuse II. To date, the band only has to play the opening lyrics to that song and the dance floor will be filled within seconds.
Mukungu was recently in town on holiday from the UK and we linked up on Christmas Eve at his family home in Zana, Bunamwaya to reminisce the good old days of Endongo Semadongo.
Little has changed from the person I last met 26 years ago before he left for the UK though he briefly returned home in 2014. Calm and reserved, he is a man of few words. He exudes confidence with the charm of royalty.
His mother, Juliana, a jolly 92-year-old, could not hide her excitement at having Mukungu around. She often interrupted the chat to remind us how Mukungu’s father, Gabriel, passed on the musical talent to his son.
The day before, Matovu had introduced Mukungu to Afrigo fans at Club Obbligato amid wild admiration. Many were seeing him for the first time. And when Mukungu stepped up to lead the band in Afrigo Batuuse II, it was nostalgic as the fans went wild.
Mukungu was astonished at the exuberant appreciation.
“The spirit of Afrigo is still intact and credit to Matovu for keeping the band at the top,” he told me.
Interestingly, whereas Mukungu acknowledges Afrigo Batuuse II turned his life and that of the band around, he credits the collective effort for the success.
“I came up with the lyrics, but Afrigo is a band,” he said. “It was a collective [effort] to put that hit together and that’s what we used to do for every song.”
Surely, Afrigo Batuuse II set the bar so high, but Mukungu was not a one-hit wonder. His other compositions for Afrigo such as Nantalabikalabika, Onimpe Ninkupe and Ntwalako E Ggaba were popular hits too.
“I rate those songs highly but somehow the fans went with Afrigo Batuuse II,” he said.
MAKING OF AFRIGO BATUUSE II
The song was inspired by Matovu’s Afrigo Batuuse I, released in 1978. Both songs have easy-to-sing-along lyrics and start with a danceable mid-tempo rhythm before exploding into a wild instrumental sequence. The theme in both hits showcases Afrigo’s might and endears them to fans.
However, the difference is that in Afrigo Batuuse II, Mukungu also reflects on the challenges he faced as a budding musician.
The lyrical flow of “Taata Nanvuma, Nanvumira Endongo/Maama Nankuba, Lwa Ndongo Y’Afrigo” is a true reflection of the time his parents disapproved of his musical path.
His dad, a trumpeter, endured many frustrations of moving from band to band and did not want his son to join music.
“They saw no future in music but I was determined to take up music as a career,” he said.
Mukungu composed the lyrics in 1988 when the band used to perform at Little Flowers and Ggaba beach. He sought to involve some of the band’s most loyal fans.
If you listen carefully, the names of Sam, Andy, Faridah, Sarah and Kisii feature prominently in the song. Mukungu admits these are Sam Tamale Kapeera, Andy Simon Kaweesa, Faridah Twamulabirawo and Sarah Kizito.
THE MAKING OF MUKUNGU
Born in 1957, Mukungu is the second born of eight children to Gabriel and Juliana Mukungu of Zana, Bunamwaya. His father is best remembered as the trumpeter for the Jumbos band that used to perform in the 1960s and 1970s at International hotel, now Sheraton hotel.
Growing up in the musical family exposed him to music. It was at St Mary’s College Kisubi that Mukungu set out to follow his musical calling.
“We had a school band called Skylacks in which I was the lead vocalist,” he recalled.
After high school in 1975, he joined Afros band as a vocalist, which used to perform on weekends at Bristol bar in Nateete.
“I did it for the fun and passion of music but was not driven to make money,” he told me. It is here that he first got his hands on a bass guitar, which he specialized in when an opening arose. “Our bass guitarist called Sekagya often missed performances and this gave me an opportunity to learn the instrument,” he said.
Within a year, he had mastered the bass guitar so much so that Peterson Tusubira Mutebi, one of the biggest names in music at the time, persuaded Mukungu to join his group, the Thames. Mukungu filled the void left by a one Kayiwa, who had fallen out with Mutebi.
This was Mukungu’s first experience with established instrumentalists such as Bernard Gonza (lead guitar), Tom Babi (rhythm guitar), Peter Kabaale (saxophone), Tony Kalanzi (saxophone), Balaba ‘Oduuto’ Matovu (Congas) and Lawrence Sayiga (drums), among others.
Mukungu was on a Kenyan tour with the band in 1979 when the Idi Amin government was toppled. Due to the unpredictable security situation in Uganda, the group stayed in Nairobi and became a resident band at Small World country club in the suburbs.
When band leader Mutebi returned home in 1980, Mukungu, Kalanzi, Gonza, Kabaale and Sayiga decided to stay there and form Horizon band. Horizon band would later relocate to Mombasa where they linked up with Tony Senkebejje who was performing with Vikings band.
Mukungu returned to Uganda in 1986. “I had become weary and fatigued and simply wanted to reignite my career at home,” he said.
In 1987, Mukungu approached Matovu to join Afrigo, which was not easy given the array of instrumentalists in the band.
“It was quite intimidating to be part of celebrated instrumentalists like Tony Sengo, Herman Sewanyana, Paul Serumaga, Eddie Ganja, Charles Sekyanzi, Godfrey Mwambala, Fred Kigozi, Rashid Musoke and Mansur Bulegeya, among others,” he recalled. “Luckily, Matovu and my dad were friends. So, he gave me the chance.”
It was also a blessing in disguise for Mukungu when Fred Luyomba, the band’s longtime bassist, was relieved of his duties due to a drinking problem. Initially, Mukungu concentrated on his guitar but later he started singing cover songs of Lionel Richie and Phil Collins.
All that changed in 1988 when he penned Afrigo Batuuse II.
“I discussed the idea with Matovu who helped me to improve the song,” he said.
The song’s instant success made Mukungu an overnight star.
“Fans started showering me with money on stage and even in the streets people started stopping me,” he said.
So successful was Afrigo Batuuse II that it became the title song of Afrigo’s immensely successful Volume 8 album of 1989 which had several big hits such as Speed, Mundeke, Twali Twagalana, Emmere Esiridde, and Saawa Yakusanyuka.
After Afrigo’s successful 1991 tour of Europe in which the band performed in Denmark and the UK, Mukungu decided to stay in London, where he has settled to date.
Although he has remained quiet musically, Mukungu rejoins Afrigo whenever the band goes on tour in the UK.
He also occasionally performs with London-based Galaxy band alongside former Afrigo band members Noah Kyeyune and Sam Kadhume. Others in the band include Elly Wamala’s children James Muwanga and Barbara Wamala.
His sons Daniel and Emmanuel are also heavily involved in music as producers, with Daniel working at Warner Brothers.
WHY AFRIGO REMAINS A STANDOUT IN MUSIC
A popular catchphrase by Afrigo band enthusiasts goes thus: ‘Tugenda mu Ndongo Semadongo, which loosely translates as: ‘We’re going to the mightiest in music.’
In fact, Afrigo’s profound might can best be described in the lyrics of Afrigo Batuuse II with the words: ‘Bali bakuba omuziki, n’obusolya bubikuka, n’emizimu gizukuka, ne bajajja bajaganya’. (When Afrigo plays, roofs are ripped off, ghosts come alive and spirits of our ancestors celebrate.)
Since 1975 when Afrigo band was formed, it has withstood the test of time in a way that has surprised even its biggest critics.
Many who have followed the band for years will attest Afrigo is not just a group of entertainers; they are an institution with a set of unwritten rules of etiquette for one to become part of the Afrigo fraternity.
Most importantly, Afrigo dictates what to play and not the other way round like most musicians.
That is why there is a big likelihood of enjoying the same tunes when you go to hang out with Afrigo band at their weekend home of Club Obbligato. A keen person may even spot similar faces among revellers.
From the outside, one may wonder how someone can be glued to the same band week in, week out, listening to the same music.
Is it the band’s high level of music that has no match in Uganda? Is it revellers’ lack of options for live music entertainers? Or could Afrigo just have a charm that attracts and keeps fans?
These are questions I often encounter from bewildered friends who cannot understand my Afrigo craze. My explanations are never satisfactory until the inquirer tags along to Club Obbligato or Guvnor, where the band performs every last Friday of the month. Soon, the inquirer is the one fielding the questions.
I have also noted on several forums how people struggle to understand why Afrigo remains a force playing the same music.
Well, Afrigo and its music are a unique brand. There is nothing like them in Uganda in performance and style. It is almost like a cult. When one falls in love with them, chances are high s/he will not look back.
And contrary to the stereotype that Afrigo mainly appeals to the older generation (eky’abakadde), my observation is that the band’s biggest fan base is actually between the ages of 25 and 40.
In fact, it is not rare to find three generations of the same family at the same Afrigo concert, something no other entertainer in Uganda can boast of.
Another widespread falsehood about the band is their lack of new music.
While Afrigo does not play to the hype surrounding new hits, it churns out hits on a regular basis.
Songs such as Ngenze N’ono, Katonda Tumusinzenga, Tukiggale, Yantamiza, Ekisaakate, Wacha Waseme, Njagala Olulimi Lwange, Wendi, Twakowa, Akabina and Nkooye, among others, are played regularly; but it goes without saying, fans mostly warm up to their eighties and nineties classics such as Nantongo.
Then again, there is never a dull moment at an Afrigo performance. The ambiance often resembles a reunion of sorts for many in the crowd.
If it is not a family gathering, you will find former schoolmates or workmates converging to enjoy Afrigo. Of course, all this comes down to Afrigo’s ability to stoke nostalgia.
One has to go to an Afrigo performance to get all the answers one needs.