How a Musical Trailblazer Realised He Had Ambitions

Hello everyone! My name is Joe Kahiri, I am a musician and you first saw me on the Gorilla Highlands Experts platform when I was performing at the second Online Picnic. I am the founder of the Afro-Fusion band Qwela and I organise Qwela Junction, where I host different artists who would otherwise not have the opportunity to share a stage. There is something really special about bringing artists and audiences together and mingling different approaches to music. It always leads to something magical. But before I get into that, I want to introduce myself and explain how I got to where I am today.

I have been passionate about music as long as I can remember. As a little kid, whenever we had guests, I would entertain them by dancing or singing. Also, whenever there was a play or a performance at school, you could be sure I would play a key role. Born in Uganda’s Kabale, I started out playing with traditional instruments at a young age. When I saw my cousin playing enanga, a traditional Rukiga instrument, I would try to copy him.

My dad always supported me. I remember I had this turning point when we had a career guidance day at school, and they asked me what my ambition was. I was thinking “what the hell is an ambition?” I had never given it much thought, but they took this seriously and started naming different professions for me to do. Doctor, lawyer, accountant. I thought all of those things were boring, but the teacher said I should have an ambition otherwise I would have a problem. So, I went home to my dad and I said “Dad, we have a problem, I don’t have an ambition.” Then my dad brought up music. Before that it had never occurred to me that that was something you can do for a living. I thought it was a thing that guys did on TV, but not in real life. That’s when I decided I wanted to be an artist. 

When I was 10, my mom would sing in the church choir. I would go and watch her and that was the first time I saw someone playing a guitar. I immediately wanted one and couldn’t’t stop talking about having one. A Canadian family was renting a house from my father and they had a guitar. I used to go there and just stare at it. When they left, the lady gave it to me. Elijah, the oldest music teacher in Kabale, offered to teach me how to play it.

I became a choir leader, teaching singing and arranging the music. This was when I wrote my first song. My dad had just died, and I felt defeated and filled with grief. The tune just came to me. It’s a very personal song and I never recorded it. It contained a lot of stuff that I never discussed with anyone.

At 17, I put together a little band. I had just come to Kampala and we started doing small performances here and there, mostly in churches and schools. I came across a friend, Kiracho, who I still work with. He plays several instruments and makes soundtracks. He asked me to record a song with him and that culminated in my first album — Yelele, it’s a yell. 

There was a radio DJ, Jakana, at one of the shows I played. I gave him my tape and he liked it and said he wanted to play it on his show. I didn’t really take it seriously and so I wasn’t listening in, but my mom was. I was in the bathroom at the time, and she started pouncing on the door yelling “you’re on the radio!” First, I thought she was just playing my record but then it dawned on me that I was actually on the radio.  

A man working with New Vision newspaper called me and said, “I like your sound. It’s different from what we usually hear.” I was interviewed by a music reviewer and there was a huge picture of me in the paper. That was so crazy, I felt really good about myself. At that time, I played at people’s homes and parties. I didn’t even ask for payment, as long as someone gave me a microphone, I was happy. 

When I was 18, I did a concert with some friends and met a lady who was a news anchor. I sent her my tape and she asked me to come by the television station to talk about my music. At that point people started recognising me. It was cool, very exciting. That’s when I went to South Africa for three years to study graphic design. My mom wanted me to get some sort of university degree, but I just wanted to make music. I did manage to make my second album there.

When I was in Uganda on holidays, I did my second concert. Everyone thought I was a South African artist who had come to visit. It gave me an exotic look. I finished university in 2003 and had to start earning some money because my music wasn’t supporting me. I started a graphic design company in Kampala while singing on the side. I spent all my money on studio fees. My family called it “my expensive hobby”. 

My big break came in 2005. My mom was turning 60, so I put together a band to play for her. One of my mom’s friends was very enthusiastic and said he’d be willing to invest in my music career if I wanted to do it full time. I drew up a business plan and talked to him. He loaned me the money but told me I had to pay it back. 

That’s when I set up the first concert with my band. I put so much work in that concert, I wanted it to be perfect. I paid a lot of attention to the production, because I thought that was important. Then at the time of the concert, three people showed up, of which two I had given free tickets. I had totally forgotten to make publicity for the show. After that, I was depressed for about two months. Eventually my girlfriend at the time sent some feelers out behind my back and got some offers for some shows. The second show became more of a success and we started getting gigs, I got my motivation back. 

Music wasn’t very profitable those days, so I used my graphics company to support the band. When the band became more popular and profitable, I closed my company and just started performing music.

In 2010, I had my first concert at Kampala’s Serena Hotel. It was a huge show. There was a line of people coming into the hall, a full house. After that show, we were booked out for the whole year. In 2012, we recorded our second album which was very successful. One of our songs was played all over East Africa, “Mama Tokaba” (Mama Don’t Cry). A big festival in Zanzibar flew us out of the country and paid for us to perform. In 2013, both the New Vision and Monitor dailies had a weekend article about us. Every building in town was dressed in Qwela, all the Coca-Cola billboards had our picture.

I think I can say I’m a trailblazer. Most of my music is new. I very deliberately picked up the sounds of folk and African music when most people at the time were copying Jamaican sounds. I always wanted to represent where I’m from. We also blended African instruments with contemporary instruments, and it was a success. 

I think this is enough about me for this post, but from now on I will update you guys on my life as a musician in Uganda and the music industry in general. And in the meantime, put on some Afro-fusion music and relax! 

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