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Double-faced. With one leg in the murky waters of politics and the other in the holy gospel, just how does this choir juggle the two unlike subjects? Well, they shared the answer with Brian Mutebi.
There is a choir that in 2012, as Uganda commemorated 50 years of independence, did a musical about the event that literally swept the entire country off her feet. It was a critic of Uganda’s golden jubilee. Yes, the country was jubilating, but for what? architects of the project dared to ask, when the 1962 Uganda was debt-free but 50 years later, the country lies in debt and lamentable social vices such as corruption and homosexuality? That a country World War II British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill described as the Pearl of Africa, a land that bubbled with “exuberance of vegetation” today grapples with deforestation and effects of climate change.
But the musical dubbed Azania remained largely unknown. It never graced the country’s TV screens or newspaper pages. The probable meaning of this ancient word in relation to this choir’s project is one suggested by Arab geographers, referring to the dark-skinned inhabitants of Africa or the Bantu.
Azania therefore sought to remind citizens that their history did not start in 1962, the year the British declared Uganda “Independent”; maybe did the word “Uganda” but surely the cultures and peoples who inhabit this land long existed before.
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That in fact those people were independent before 1894 when the white man usurped theirs powers and 68 years later said they were finally independent.
Azania made a political statement. But there is little, if anything, to suggest this choir could do a somewhat political project, not even its name - Omega Missions Choir, could.
In the Christian circles, “missions”, as embedded in the choir’s name, is synonymous with preaching the gospel, not politics. “Omega” on the other hand, refers to the Biblical description of God, “the alpha and omega” or “the beginning and the end”.
It could also have been used to identify the choir with its local church, the Zana-based Omega Healing Centre Church. But even then, this church’s senior pastor Michael Kyazze, is perhaps more known for spiritual matters than making political statements.
Pastor Derek Hudson Wamala, the music pastor at Omega Healing Centre Church is the brains behind Azania. Mentored by renowned music director Alex Mukulu, Wamala has been in the field of music and art since 1998.
He stresses nothing was fictious about Azania. “We took trouble to research about what we were going to do. This is what Mukulu taught me; never come up with a production that is fictious but one that carries truth based on ground research. Even humour must be truthful,” he explains.
Singing gospel music
Putting aside the political undertones Azania carried; the musical had images of Uganda’s beautiful cultures, mainly people’s dances and way of life. And it is this that soothes the soul as one watches the one and half hour production.
And soothing souls is perhaps the calling for Omega Missions Choir, at least as depicted from the choir’s music album recorded in December 2013 and launched late last year, in October. The album has 14 praise and worship songs with Ayinunu as the title track.
Ayinunu is a Kinyankole word for the indescribable praises accorded to God. Wamala says God inspired him into composing the song. “I do not come from Ankole and do not understand Kinyankole but one day, I was playing my guitar and then these Kinyankole rhythms that I did not understand cropped up.
I told my team and everyone laughed. It seemed complicated and confusing. But this was inspired by God and today, we have the song.”
The other songs on Ayinunu album include My Lord, Lord Of The Earth and Hakuna Fanana Naye.
Meeting the team
David Tenywa Musasizi trains the team on voices. One cannot help but worship God as he or she listens to Tenywa lead the choir with his colourful tenor voice.
Talent, of course, is enhanced by intensive practice. Tenywa and his colleagues, about 40 of them meet three times a week, in the evenings, for practice. I meet them one of the evenings.
On arrival at around 5pm, I am ushered into a small room, the choir’s “recording room”, to watch some of the choir’s past productions, three in total – One Voice, One Nation recorded in 2009, Azania in 2012, and the latest, Ayinunu in 2013.
Packed with heavy speakers, keyboard, guitars, two desktop computers and a laptop, the room can accommodate utmost two persons at a time. “It is a humble way we started but we trust God for big things,” Daniel John Wasswa, an instrumentalist tells me.
Meanwhile, one by one other choir members arrive for the evening rehearsals. Many come with ear phones tagged into their ears. I guess listening to music and or picking bits from other musicians. “Hi and Praise the Lord,” they greet each other.
It is catch-up time. Not long after, last minute telephone calls are made, instruments are set, singers line up according to their respective voice categories, and by 7pm, they are good to go. “Ti, ti… go….stop. Ok, go…stop…go…,” Wamala, the “choirmaster” instructs. The rhythms are not as fine, maybe later, but who said they should be? The team is here to do rehearsals anyway.
The choir’s aspirations
“Our team is not made up of superstars but men and women committed to serving God using their voices,” says Moesha Nassimbwa, who sings soprano and does the choir’s calligraphy and costume designing.
Nassimbwa says calligraphy, which basically means inscribing music letters, is a crucial part of music as every song must have its lyrics inscribed for effective production. Her costume designing work is made easy by the choir’s choice to keep it African, mostly Bitengi.
The choir aims at creating identity for Uganda’s praise and worship music. “Some music is played and everyone will know it is Congolese or South African music but what is it that identifies music as Ugandan?” wonders Wamala. “God has given us the mandate to tell this nation to appreciate its praise and worship songs. See, we have got 56 tribes or more.
That translates into 56 rhythms but how many have we utilised? Most churches, especially in urban areas, are westernised in their praise and worship to God.
We sing I am Trading My Soul instead of Tukutendereza. But did you know Tukutendera, a song that brought revival in Uganda; a spirit-filled song that God gave this nation is sung in America, Germany, the UK and other places in Luganda? We need to appreciate what we have.”
Tenywa says mobilisation and balancing family life, work and ministry is not as easy, especially for a choir comprised of students, married men and women and professionals with fulltime jobs.
The activities of the choir are also largely funded by the members themselves. It is perhaps because of this limited source of funding that the choir does not do high-tech recording of their music but records it live on stage.
They may be financially constrained, but Wamala says neither Azania nor Ayinunu is their last project. “We are called to sing. We want to be a hub of praise and worship songs in Uganda,” says Wamala. And is Wamala aware of the time factor in realising that dream? Yes, it seems. “It may not be today. Certainly it is not but once we start on the journey as we have, one day we shall realise it.”
Choir members share their experience
‘I had never watched myself perform but when we recorded our album, oh, yes I did. I listen to my voice and evaluate myself. That helps me improve,’
David Tenywa Musasizi, voice trainer
‘I wanted to develop my talent and with it serve God but I was not confident enough to even lead a song yet I had a good voice. The choir has lifted my talent,’
‘What defines us is originality. We do music our way. When a team member composes a song, we fine tune it to fit the local tunes. We try to make our music rich,’
Daniel John Wasswa, instrumentalist
‘We are not just a choir but a family. We share life stories together, both successes and trials. Each member is there for the other,’