Ssewa Ssewa, 36, real name James Ssewakiryanga Junior, is a professional musician, multi-instrumentalist, Janzi instrument inventor, instructor and founder/CEO of Janzi band. He spoke to Nathan Atiluk about music and drive.
Where did your love for music come from?
I come from a musical family and was raised in a traditional musical environment, which inspired my music journey. My late father Ssewakiryanga James Senior was a well-recognized master drummer and teacher, and my late mother Betty Namata Ssewakiryanga was a dancer, instructor and actress.
Who are your inspirations?
My parents, whom I grew up watching representing Ugandan traditional music both locally and internationally.
How would you describe the music that you create?
I describe my music as fusion (Fusing Uganda/African instruments with Western instruments), Afro music, and Afro soul.
Please explain your creative process...
My creative process depends on situations or moments. Could be happy or sad moments but especially when I am sad or annoyed and when I play the Janzi, I calm down.
What inspired the formation of the Janzi instrument?
In 2009, I walked into a music store and a gentleman asked me what I was doing in Germany. I told him I am a musician on tour and he asked what instrument I played. I told him I play the adungu (a Ugandan hatched harp) and he said he only knew the Kora from West Africa.
When I returned to Uganda, I formed Janzi band with the idea of fusing Ugandan instruments with Western instruments to try and promote our traditional instruments globally. Janzi comes from a Luganda word ejjanzi (grasshopper).
In 2014, while on a European tour, at Copenhagen airport, we were denied to carry an adungu on the flight because it had nails, which were considered a security threat. When I returned to Uganda, I successfully modified the adungu and later I was inspired to invent the janzi, a 22-string music instrument tuned on two different scales, [for which Uganda Registration Services Bureau] granted me a Utility Model Certificate in 2017.
How special is the janzi?
I believe the janzi’s modern look, like the kora from West Africa, can spearhead the development, and modernization of Ugandan instruments from all regions like the enanga, adungu, akogo, endongo, engoma, endere, etc to meet international standards for export.
How different is the janzi from enanga?
The janzi tunes in two different scales, the enanga is tuned in one scale. The janzi has 22 strings, the enanga has six – seven strings. And the sound is different.
Does your instrument influence your music in any way?
The janzi influences my music; I actually speak to audiences using my instrument if you listen to me playing it and I express so many emotions while playing it.
What plans do you have for the instrument?
My dream is to promote the janzi, find partners, investors to establish music instruments-manufacturing factories, workshops and a market for the janzi.
Are you working on any collaboration?
Yes, I am working on a project called “the Janzi connection”, collaborating, composing and recording different sets of music with musicians/artistes connecting the janzi instrument to different cultures, instrumentalists, singers and audiences. I will soon stage shows in different venues to showcase it.
Is janzi the instrument related to the Janzi awards?
Yes, Janzi instrument is the accolade that was awarded to different creatives in 2021 at Kololo ceremonial grounds sponsored by the government of Uganda; 2022 Janzi corporate awards which were sponsored by Ssewa Ssewa acknowledging companies like MTN Uganda, Stanbic Bank Uganda, Centenary Bank Uganda, NBS After 5 program and Jose Chameleone for their contribution to the Ugandan music industry.
My plan is to have the Janzi awards happening every year, and I hope to find partners, investors and sponsors for financial support. Starting with 2024, Janzi awards will this time cross borders (East Africa) to acknowledge and award creatives in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Congo and Burundi.
Is there hidden messages in any of your music?
Music is universal; so, I create music from all subjects depending on what comes to my mind and how I feel.
What’s an average day like for you?
I spend most of my time in my home studio creating, if not at Ssewa Ssewa gigs or Janzi band gigs. As creatives, we come up with the melody and agree on responsibilities according to the instruments, like, song intro, melody lines, and body of the song.
It is a team effort creating music whether playing with a band or as a solo because you still work with the producer who also contributes to the music ideas.
How do you interact with and respond to fans?
I am a shy person, but I am more free and open, interacting with my fans via social media platforms, but I also speak to my fans when I meet them in person.
What’s your favourite part about this line of work?
I love to entertain audiences and I enjoy watching people smile and giving them hope through music.
Do you also get performance anxiety?
I think all creatives experience anxiety before going on stage but after the first two songs, normally, I calm down especially if well-executed.
Tell me about your favourite performance venues?
I enjoy performing in hotels and some restaurants where people sit quietly and listen to what I have to tell them through my music instruments and song lyrics.
What next for you?
I am planning on manufacturing more janzi instruments and also adding value to other Ugandan instruments, promoting them locally and globally and also bringing back the Janzi awards to acknowledge and appreciate creatives and companies that support the music.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
For someone who wants to follow in my footsteps, good things take time; on your way to the top, you will surely lose some people and keep some people with you, but believe in yourself and keep going until you win. Failing is okay if you can pick yourself up and keep trying, but quitting is not an option.