By Jerome Atugonza
African musical instruments for so long have been rejected by the Western world and deemed ‘a threat to human life’ because most of the raw materials used are fastened by sharp instruments like nails among others; the reason they are denied entrance into international airports.
James Ssewakiryanga, a folk music artist and founder of the Janzi Band who goes by the stage name “Ssewa Ssewa” can never forget the frustrating scenario at the airport when his adungu; a traditional Ugandan arched harp, was denied access yet he had a gig to perform.
Thanks to Ssewa, today some traditional instruments are accepted abroad on condition that they follow a blueprint of the invention that he introduced and that which he has leveraged to expand his exposure and the African culture to the outside world.
Inventing the Janzi
James Ssewakiryanga, born from a musical family background, woke up one early morning with an urge to fix his broken adungu. The adungu has been part of the Ugandan music culture for generations.
The carpenter he ran to, wandered off to pick “something” to fix the adungu. Ssewa, having been left alone, in a quiet moment, got an idea, “but why don’t I create something of my own,” he wondered.
“I picked a piece of paper, as the universe guided me; drew a rough sketch of what the janzi instrument exactly looks like today. When the carpenter came back, I told him I had changed my mind. I presented him with the drawing and asked him to build the instrument,” Ssewa explained.
Confused by the intricate design, the carpenter was faced with a new challenge to use his talent and expertise to bring the picture to reality. The carpenter had to design it in a fashion that could allow it easy access like any other luggage through International airports.
Trial upon trial and bringing on other experts in the fields of sound engineering, visual artists and music producers, the Janzi music instrument was finally birthed.
Capable of fusing ancient and contemporary sounds to produce quality music notes, the Janzi is a wooden box mounted with 22 strings with a plug and play slot application that connects to electrical appliances.
The Janzi is made out of convoluted features that are not found within other traditional music instruments, with two scales; diatonic scale on the left and the pentatonic scale on the right, making the tone different.
It is considered the latest African music instrument that has joined the family of the string instruments. It’s no doubt a certain ‘DNA’ of it comes from the adungu that originates from the Northern part of Uganda.
About Ssewa Ssewa
Ssewa’s passion for music can be seen right away from how he handles the instruments while on stage. His feet moving up, down and sideways, the movement is sorely guided by the music he plays.
His passion also comes from his knowledge about other instruments that hail from other parts of the African continent and culture like the Madinada from Busoga among others.
According to Ssewa, the instrument has not only furthered his music career but also facilitated him to reach out to people with pressing needs like the disabled children. He gets invites to play for them as they dance to his soul searching music notes.
This, he says, adds joy to his accomplishments in life.
He hopes to continue developing and making more sophisticated instruments that defy the rules and limitations of music, just like the Janzi has.
Designing instruments from scratch in Uganda has proved difficult with the modern music tools pushing traditional ones out of the limelight and lessening the market scale too as observed by Ssewa, who started this project way back in 2015.
Ssewa has managed to create a brand name for both his music band and the instrument. He has also built a robust online presence where he shares his music and earns money.
In 2017, he was awarded a Utility Model Certificate for the creation of this string instrument with two scales. He was inaugurated as a member of the American Music Investment Society.
Ssewa’s Janzi band has been around for 10 years, performing both locally and internationally.