08 July 2009

Milégé Afro Jazz Band: Proud to sound Ugandan

Seven young new faces graced the stage at the Bayimba Festival this year under the banner of Milégé Afro Jazz Band. With an energy that pulled the crowd to its feet, the band filled the air with African pulses, jazz chords, and a fusion of Ugandan sounds.

This is what they call “Afro-traditional music with a bias to jazz,” says manager and guitarist Manana Birabi Francis. “It has the basics of jazz music, but you feel the influence of our Africanness, our African cultural sounds.”

The band’s name “Milégé” comes from an ankle rattle from the Luo people. The band centers their sound on this bell-like and airy sound from the north, but adds in jazz elements and other Ugandan sounds.

Humble beginnings
Milégé is a new group still planning the path before them. It all started when Francis caught a “crazy obsession with guitar,” he explains. After performing with only basic chords in a festival, he says, “I got this interest in music, and I started playing every day of my life, up until now.” Friends gave him tips, he watched shows, joined a church band, and practiced obsessively. Little lessons every day culminated to substantial growth each year, and he began playing in various bands.

But the life of a musician is not an easy one, and he found a cold shoulder from professional groups. He spoke with three other friends who had similar experiences, and they decided to form their own ensemble. Together as partners, they found the freedom to play whatever music they like and make their own rules.

“I’ve found a home in the band,” says Francis. “It’s not just a band. It’s family. It’s not just playing music or making money. We believe in cultivating good relationships amongst each other as a band.”

The four partners spent two months talking through the details and laying the groundwork for Milégé Afro Jazz Band. Although the original vision was for an all-girls band, Francis found that women instrumentalists were not easy to find. The four formed a structure that allowed for new members to join and work their way into the band based on their level of commitment and dedication. They talked through the importance of maintaining family relationships and allowing absences due to family functions. They discussed how to minimize discrimination so that everyone has an equal chance.

They all agreed that they wanted Milégé to be one band and one brand. Instead of being centered around a vocalist and pulling in instrumentalists from other bands, guitarist Elaine Alowo Obbo explains that they “came up with a structure to build a brand and a product, to grow as a family.” They are more than individual musicians who happen to play on the same stage; they are a partnership, a band as a single entity.

At the same time, they make sure that members can pursue their own professions in order to support themselves outside of the band. “We have to hold on to our professions so we can determine what kind of music to play,” Elaine says. They did not want the pressure of the market to mold them into a particular genre.

Instead of being a weakness, the band’s side jobs have become a strength. Elaine, a lawyer for Shonubi Musoki & Co., develops the band’s contracts. Dinah Oundo, studying commerce and ACCA, organizes the band’s finance and accounts. Assimwe Paul, studying fine art, develops the band’s media and brand management. Their individual talents work together as a single unit.

The sound
Milégé Afro Jazz Band is after a new, creative sound. They compose their own pieces, slowly working through new combinations—jazz piano solo first, perhaps some vocal improvisation, Muganda drumming next, or maybe a bass solo before that—blending together each member’s unique contributions. Elaine says it’s like baking a cookie. “Everyone has this cookie that they can make,” she says. “And they all have these special ingredients that they bring. Everybody just puts your special ingredient in the pot.” The resulting pieces are infused with jazz, African rhythms, Ugandan languages, and an improvisational feel.

Their musical influences range from Geoffrey Oryeem to Hugh Maseka, Jonathan Butler, Soul Beat, and Erik Clapton. Above all, they want to create a change and show people the pride and beauty of Ugandan sounds.

“We want to create a change,” says Elaine. “For Ugandans to sing and be proud to sound Ugandan. Why aren’t we proud to sell that sound to the world? We need to do that.”

Herman Ssewanyana, the founder of African fusion band Percussion Discussion, says there are challenges for new bands to “do more for the world to understand,” but he says that Ugandans should get to hear jazz and listen to original music. “I support Milégé, and I’d like them to go far,” he says.

Milégé Afro Jazz Band may be just getting their feet wet in the East African musical community, but if the Bayimba Festival is any indicator, they are one band that will rock the music scene and push creative Ugandan fusion music to new heights.


  1. I am a supporter of Milege Afro Jazz band for taking a dream that I could never fulfill and make it a reality. In my time our parents could never hear of their children playing a guitar because music as a career or even hobby was not highly regarded in Uganda. This is despite the fact that our parents danced themselves lame to some popular Ugandan tunes by Elly Wamala ( RIP) Kawalya (RIP) and such other famous local musicians without butting an eyelid that the parents of these musicians had let them be. I do hope that they continue to evolve their unique genre and record albums that can stand the test of time.

  2. this is nice annet
    we miss you dearly
    God Bless

  3. Milege Afro jazz band has a rather unique sound that fuses different cultures in Uganda which is promotion of unity in the country. The concert in 2010 displayed beautiful and unique sounds not heard in Uganda in while. The theme was also very appropriate, "Repainting Uganda".
    If only everyone would side with these young stars and pick up paint brushes of hard work, unity, selflessness and togetherness and repaint Uganda with the colours of Brotherhood, patriotism and fraternity then Uganda would be a better place.