Eng Henry Wassanyi Serukenya, one of the legendary figures in Uganda's arts industry, recently celebrated 80 years with a special show at Theatre La Bonita.
Serukenya found fame as a playwright and his stroke of genius extended to musical composition. ANDREW KAGGWA looks back at his career.
Eng Wassanyi Serukenya is naturally laidback and rarely appears in the limelight. But beyond that demeanor, his name is one of the most distinguished in Uganda’s music, theatre and literature.
It is in music that he is best known as a classical, secular and church music composer whose works provided the much-needed rhythms to theatre in the 1970s.
On July 29, his family and friends organized a tribute concert to honor the legacy of their father and friend. The brilliant production brought back memories and allowed a number of reunions; but the whole concept had started in a place of strong Christian values in Bunamwaya.
Since many of the members of the Serukenya family had missed his 80th birthday on May 6, they thought it wise to simply flip the way it would be celebrated by instead celebrating his musical works with the public.
It was an idea that was easily bought by many that before they knew, they were up in arms curating a mini festival to play their dad’s music and of course help him start what he defines as his next chapter: documenting his music for the future generations of musicians. Serukenya!
That one is a great keeper of memories, and it is visible the very first time you talk to him or even visit his house in Bunamwaya in Wakiso district.
The home setup is a hybrid of a traditional setting and a modern one, different portraits of family members that take you on a journey of their milestones like graduations and weddings while others are group photos. At 80 years, Serukenya is still actively involved with his music passion.
Even when you enter his house, the lush taste of his music will optically sweep you off the feet; at a corner of the room, there sits an piano, just as your eyes move towards the portraits, a sculpture ‘The Serukenyas’ will catch your eyes just next to an art carving of Jimi Hendrix and his guitar and in the other room, you will be met with a portrait of a music piece.
Your eyes in that living room will not meet with a TV, but a small compartment in another corner with a library, chair and table; it is an extension of Serukenya’s home office, with everything digitalized now, he sits here with a laptop and writes music which he later refers to his music secretary for review.
The love for what he does is vivid even in the way he talks about it; he will say that he started his musical journey while looking after his smaller brothers and sisters who he would sing children lullabies and before you know, he has burst into a tune of “Mwana wa Nyabo, Wesirikire...”
Being part of a family of 18 people, during holidays, all of them would come together and perform songs that they had picked from the different schools they went to as well as teaching one another.
“That is when I realized that I loved music and whistling,” he says, adding that once in a while, he was threatened not to whistle because it would attract snakes.
But before fully dedicating his life to music, Serukenya used to double as an engineer. Born on May 6, 1937 in Bugoye, Kyaggwe to Temusewo Lugwama Ssabwe and Elunayida Nambi Namakula, he used to do lots of mechanical things; as a child, he had picked interest in lorries that carried timber and one time, he tried building his own using twigs, banana fibers and rubber.
The mechanic in him would later see him attend school at Kampala Technical Institute (Kyambogo University) where he attained qualifications in motor vehicle technology – as an engineer; he would later work with Uganda Transport Company as an assistant chief engineer, Bruce Uganda Limited, Roko Construction Company and later Kampala City Council, among other places.
Then engineering was what he did most and music was a hobby; he says that often, he would concentrate on music though the kept going out of retirement to serve in different institutions.
It was at Kampala Technical Institute that he penned his Kasolomujje, a song about squirrels that used to traumatize farmers at the time. The song would later win Best Original Composition at the then famous Namirembe Music festival.
During the legacy concert at La Bonita, Kasolomujje was performed by Mother Care Preparatory School, a Bunamwaya-based institution.
The choice of Mother Care Preparatory School was as thrilling just as it was exciting, the school was started by Serukenya’s wife Edith Zavuga, and the song Kasolomujje is one he is so proud of.
Meeting through a tape In 1962, when Serukenya had just made an exit to go for higher education in the UK, he had very little know of what was happening in Uganda besides his family.
But through a friend, he would keep up with the music; the two would exchange cassette tapes with the one in Uganda sending the Ugandan top ten and Serukenya sending the UK top ten hits in return.
“One day, I got a tape from Uganda, I played it and there were young children that were singing Kasolomujje; they sang it badly that I hated the tape altogether,” he says.
But even when he hated what children had done to his song, he somehow soldiered on and listened to more tracks on the cassette, where was a song; “it was a Lusoga song called Khodeyo that had an amazing soloist…”
He would later tell a friend that much he had hated the tape for a poor rendition of Kasolomujje, the song Khodeyo and its soloist had caught his attention.
“That little girl had a good choir and a voice I loved.” The soloist turned out to be Zavuga, the wife and mother of Serukenya’s seven children. He kept the tape with him and one day when the two where courting, she played the tape and revealed it was her on the solo.
Writing for Theatre Serukenya would later write folk songs some for Nyoza Singers, one of the famous choirs, like Akwana Akira Ayomba, which at the concert was executed by the Mengo SS choir that had started with Omuntu Muntu.
Omuntu Muntu is mostly remembered as one of the songs that were used in Bryon Kawadwa’s controversial production Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko that was staged at the National Theatre in the 1970s. It was the second production by Kawadwa that Serukenya was writing music for after Amakula Ga Kulabako where songs like Ofumbye Empuuta, Omumbejja and Kulabako were used.
Much as the story is that Kawadwa was brutally murdered because of the contents of Oluyimba Lwa Wankoko, Serukenya having worked closely with him challenges this; “The play was first staged at the National theatre way before Amin became president and it was his government that selected the production to represent Uganda in Nigeria where it was last staged.”
He, though, says some people may have used the play to settle their scores with Kawadwa; “Someone wanted him dead and the play was an excuse.”
While honoring his legacy, Kulabako and Omumbejja were performed by Afrigo band’s Joanita Kawalya; coincidentally, the two songs were originally performed by Eclas Kawalya, Joanita’s father in Kawadwa’s Amakula Ga Kulabako.
In fact, the entire legacy concert had subtle historical moments; the unprecedented reunion of the legendary Nyonza Singers; even Serukenya himself didn’t imagine many of them were present since, for years he has tried to put the group together again in vain.
It has been said, that during their glory days, many aspiring singers wanted to join Nyonza, but on knowing that the group performed written music, they would back out. The choir is mostly known for performing the national anthem in kanzus and gomesis whenever the then UTV was closing transmission at midnight.
Many of the former Nyonza Singers were meeting at La Bonita for the very first time in years, yet even without a prior rehearsal, the group put up a descent performance of Akwana Akira Ayomba joined by another choir from Bunamwaya Church of Uganda.
It is a family thing But the biggest moment at the Serukenya legacy concert was his family – parents of seven, the Serukenyas are inspirational parents that have miraculously tattooed their passions onto their children and their grand kids’ generation.
For instance, all their three sons Paul, Ken and Isaac Serukenya are all engineers like their father while the entire family including the four girls is into music. Serukenya says this was a natural progression for his children since he didn’t want to force things on them.
“Apart from studying them and giving them a chance because of the talents we recognized when they were kids, I didn’t teach them,” he says, adding that because he has never stepped in a classroom of music, there’s no way he would teach them.
Today, Isaac Serukenya is the worship pastor at Miracle Center and has previously recorded songs like I Want to Know You More, You’re Holy and I Surrender, all on his debut Faithful to Me album.
Ken Serukenya is one of the founders of Black Sisters, a gospel music outfit while Paul is too one of the legendary Limit X’s founding members.
Much as they all have a shared passion that is music, others like Rita Nkemba Serukenya have ventured into charity with Dwelling Places, an organization that puts emphasis on taking children off the streets.
During the concert, the seven of them took to the stage to perform and later introduce their dad. But before that, they would invite the grandchildren to perform Winds of Shame, a song that Serukenya wrote but has never been performed; initially, it was meant to be performed by Nyonza Singers when it was new, but moments before the show, it was abandoned since it was hard.
Even for this particular concert, the assigned band abandoned it only to be nailed by the grandchildren who he later joined to perform, Simply Say.
Serukenya’s dream is to leave something that people can read and it wasn’t surprising that at the end of the night, his music was available both on CD as well as a booklet that can be passed on to a future generation of musicians.
The rest of the evening had the Serukenyas split as different patrons wanted to have a piece of them in their different capacities – as Nkemba would indeed say it, this is truly a great time for the family.
Who is who in the Serukenya musical family?
Ken Sabwe Serukenya is the first born in this family of seven. He’s one of the founding members of gospel outfits The Black Sisters with Julie Kiwanuka Njuba, Susan Nsibirwa and his sister Sarah Serukenya.
He’s also one of the founding members of First Love alongside Sharpe Ssewali and the late Paul Kim among others.
A professional electrical engineer that specialized in power systems design, Isaac is a worship leader, music director and a pastor at Miracle Centre Cathedral Rubaga.
He has in the past released albums like Best Days, Audience of One and Faithful to Me.
During their reunion show of Limit X earlier in Kampala, Paul revealed that he loves challenges, for instance, even when he’s a qualified engineer, he went on to challenge himself and study Pharmacy. He’s one of the founding members of the legendary gospel outfit Limit X.
Rita Nkemba Serukenya
A humanitarian, Nkemba is one of the founders of Dwelling Places Uganda, an organization that strives to get children off the city streets.
In fact, straight after the dad’s tribute show, she flagged off a team that was set to walk from Kampala to Karamoja creating awareness on dangers of child trafficking.
Alongside Ken, Julie Kiwanuka Njuba and Susan Nsibirwa, she’s one of the founding members of The Black Sisters.
Administrator of MotherCare Schools business. Irene Serukenya Is an Immigration lawyer based in UK