Ugandan Musicians: Meet Beatrice Byakika aka Beatrix
Uganda's music scene is definitely growing.
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First published: June 26, 2006
In theory I landed here by chance... I have always had a love for music and believe strongly that songs are an expression of our innermost being. So true to form I sang my life away...
As Uganda's generation X and Y are maturing in adulthood, Uganda's music scene is definitely growing, and musicians in the Diaspora are making their mark too. Their styles are as variegated as their experiences, with sprinklings of local dialects including Luganda, Lusoga, Acholi and Swahili; as well as dashes of ragga, reggae, disco-funk, techno-pop, acoustics, neo-soul, R&B, hip hop, kidandali, salsa and mambo. It's clear that many Ugandan musicians are fashioning a national musical identity internationally, by broadening the spectre of what is traditionally known as Ugandan music. Ugandan music is taking on a wider definition and people all over the world are starting to listen to it. Latinos mixed reggae, salsa and merengue, creating the catchy beats of reggeton, and Ugandans have Luga Flow, AfroBeat, Bongo Flavour and so many other innovated styles which may not necessarily have any designations yet.
One such musician is London-based and Brighton UK-born Beatrice Byakika aka Beatrix. The young Ugandan musician, who began as a songwriter-turned singer belts out an exquisite blend of R&B, jazz, soul and pop music. It is difficult to box her into a musical style per se, as her musical sound, with its classical edge, is quite pleasantly unique. Her new debut album which includes the tracks to Goodbye to You, Answers in the Sky, Nilizaliwa (Swahili for I was Born), Can't Get Enough, I Miss You, Broken Piece and In My Blood display her vocal abilities. There is a sweet, syrupy, sensual, pure innocence to her voice, which has one pressing the repeat buttons. Whether she engages her deep sexy throaty voice or girly voice, Byakika is definitely the kind of singer, and there are few of them, who can sing without musical accompaniment and still dazzle a crowd. With a little more experience and exposure, she will be a force to reckon with on the Ugandan music scene.
Beatrice Byakika aka Beatrix.
Jane: Who is Beatrice Byakika? Where were you born? What is your heritage? Tell us a little about your childhood and how you were raised.
Beatrice: I was born in Brighton a few years ago. Not many, I shall insist. My parents moved to Brighton as my dad was studying to be a structural engineer there. They then moved to Nairobi, where I did most of my growing up and thus can speak English and Swahili. As my mother spent her time insulting us in Lusoga, I picked up a few cruel tit bits but have since improved, so if you ignore the grammar and made up words I believe I am relatively good at it.
How long have you lived in the UK?
It's been 5 long, cold beautiful years. I live in London and love the weather because it is cold cold cold.
Did you ever go to any schools in UG?
Yes, I did. I went to Mbale Progressive for a couple of months then Nabumali for a year then Iganga SS for 2 years. I found the experience difficult as I tried to adjust to the changes. But the up side was I made a great set of friends who have been with me through the many years...
Let's talk about your music career. When did you start singing?
I have always had a love for music and enjoyed it immensely. I spent a lot of time singing and a friend suggested I try my hand at songwriting. After a couple of hits and misses I finally got a hang of it and spent a year with my keyboard playing around with songs. I finally met Ivan Anchant through his ad in the Loot magazine. I sent him a demo of my songs and he was willing to produce my music. Tried to find a singer within my production budget for the demos but it was quite expensive so Ivan decided I sing them myself... Surprise, surprise... It did not sound that bad so I decided to give singing a try. I recorded my first demo album in 2002 and passed it round via many companies and through that met Stephen Burns who is my other producer in America. Together we decided to take the music onto another plane and experiment with different music styles to find what suited me best as a singer. As a songwriter you can write anything but as a recording artist it is vital to have a recognizable style.
One of the highlights though came when I got the great opportunity in 2003/2004 to perform as a back up singer for Rachel Magoola on her performances for the Royal Festival Hall. It was a great opportunity to improve my technique and grow in confidence. It was a great experience and it introduced me to the beauty of singing in the various African Languages as she sings in so many languages like Lusoga, Swahili, Samia, and Teso. It was quite hilarious in the beginning with the words then singing them with the right intonations but I truly enjoyed the experience especially as Rachel is a class act and I learnt a great deal from her. I have received a lot of encouragement from her to use African influences in my work.
That's me doing the show with Rachel Magoola in the Royal Festival Hall. I was wearing red.
What do your parents think of the fact that you are following your dream?
When I was younger I remember my mother asking me to go sing in the banana plantations because no one was interested in listening to me and receiving my brand of constant earache. However now that I am older and finished school, she is very supportive of my work and continues to contribute her two pence ideas. As for my dad I think he just worries about how much nonsense is contained inside my brain and prays most of it does not spill out. Hint hint... (Laughs)
Your voice sounds classically trained? Do you go for vocal lessons?
No, but I got my own brand of training from 91.8 capital fm at home when I was younger.
I used to have old tapes at home and record all the songs I loved for example Broken by Madonna; I'm Leaving Tomorrow by Brandy etc and also used to make selections at the music shop. I would sit with them for hours writing the lyrics then practice singing them. When I was satisfied with the quality I would record them on another tape till I got them right. My mother still has a set of them hopefully she has not lost them. I would love to go for vocal lessons, as I believe it makes a great difference in the quality of your recording and expression and especially because you do not damage your vocal cords but that is a future project that I will take on. At the moment I content myself with DVDs and CDs on vocal techniques for dummies.
What I like about you is the fact that you do not sound like anyone else. Your voice and your music are very unique. How would you classify your music?
There are a variety of influences in the music and it makes it hard to distinguish what style or genre it is so I need to come up with a new classification for myself, any suggestions are welcome. For the moment though I will leave it to the listeners to capture the music through their own eyes.
After I heard your song Broken Pieces, I was singing it everywhere I went. What inspired it?
I had the line "broke pieces" in my mind a while before. I don't remember why but on the day I got the melody going, I got the phone out and sang like a looney in the middle so the street. I admit song writing is the most embarrassing experience.
Why is that?
In my experience great ideas usually strike in the most inappropriate places and most times they are the link you have been waiting for for months. Then you have to fiddle through your bags in the middle of the high street, on a packed underground train, on the bus etc... mumbling the idea so many times so that you do not loose it, and then get to the media section of your phone and open you mouth to sing this idea over and over to get it right. By this time you are a total spectacle I believe, as people pass you by wondering what the hell?
Yes, inspiration is a strange thing. Sometimes it wakes me up at 4:00am in the morning.
I like the harmonizing in Nilizaliwa, who's the male voice in the background?
Ivan Anchant. My partner in crime. He is a real sport especially considering the fact that he is always trying out languages he has never heard of in his life.
What is the story behind the song?
Nilizaliwa is an expression of insecurity and inner conflict. You believe you have figured the path to happiness, you have understood the joy in living then somewhere along the line this feeling of certainty begins to falter. The plans you make do not work, your life is a mess and you begin to wonder about your self worth. You look around and others seem encased in constant bliss. You begin to have negative feelings towards the life that is yours and wish for another's. What is left unsaid in the song though is we all look at each other thinking the other is better off, wishing to be the other but in reality each one has their own inner turmoil to endure.
Who is the male singer behind Answers in the Sky? He has amazing voice, as I am sure you already know. How did you meet and start collaborating?
(Laughs) Ivan again... this ends now, because I think you have taken a shine to him... he is taken...
Yes, I will admit that I have taken a shine to his voice.
I find your acoustics tracks very deeply haunting, touching and inspirational. There are very few musicians who create music that haunts and touches you deeply to your core. You are one of those few musicians who could sing with only a guitar in the background. How did you develop your style?
Criticism is a strong tool, listeners' opinions help drive you along in the right direction. I went for an audition a year after I began and they liked the sound of the music then asked: Where is your passion? Can I feel you in the music you sing? What are you telling me? It made me think harder about my work. The secret I found is looking deeper into emotions others can relate to and expressing my opinion on them. Good songs come from expressing different emotions... it's just how you represent them. Being honest in thought translates into your work as you are giving part of you in your work. You are giving access to someone to have a glimpse into your world and experience it with you. There are songs I listen to and it takes me back to a moment in time: some I would rather forget, others are cherished memories. It takes effort and inspiration and determination to create a song that is truly unique.
What's your process for creating music? Do you listen to the music first and create the lyrics, or do you create the lyrics first or is it a bit of both?
The writing process is varied depending on the song. Certain pieces fall together automatically like Goodbye to You. You feel the emotion, the melody and the lyrics just fall together like silk. Others require a bit of work and you start with the hook line and start playing about for months on end looking for the rest of the song. Sometimes you write a whole list of lyric lines and for every 6 horrible lines you find a good one. The beauty about this process is that the song grows and you begin to go where the song takes you. The most important thing though is that inspiration usually strikes at the most inappropriate times so it's always essential to possess a notepad, pen and if possible a tape recorder because melodies do sometimes come with the lyrics and it is extremely difficult to capture on paper unless you have a strong music background.
Is it difficult for you to come up for the lyrics?
The driving forces in writing are observation, listening and thinking. Lyrics come easy when you invest time in thinking, reading and listening to people's play on words. Songs either tell a story or express an emotion thus they are different ways of dealing with writing the lyrics. Sometimes I write as though I am talking to someone and I really want him or her to listen to me, not just hear but also listen. I once read a Tracey Chapman interview and she said the most important thing is be clear when writing, let the person understand your story or your feelings on a subject. So I usually use simple lyrics and melody lines that are easy to listen to.
In most cases though especially when the lyrics grow wings with a melody and are just dying to be made into a full song, I let it all out then do a bit of tweaking at the end inserting rhymes, alliteration, assonance etc to improve the lyrical content. Another secret tool is the thesaurus I don't usually use it but in hard times it provides helpful hints in varying the way you express your thoughts.
Some lyrics are derived from thought and personal reflection like Nilizaliwa- a mishmash of confusion, but it feels right being that way. Think I am going on a bit here...
Not at all. It's great to hear about the process.
Well the summary is this: however much hard work you put in, the end result is what is important. Make sure you do not lose the listener's interest. Pour your heart out but make sure it makes sense!
Your music is very clean and pure. It's not cluttered with too many digital musical instruments and distractions. I especially love the piano accompaniments, who plays the piano in the background and who produces your music?
Ivan Anchant. His love of song writing compelled him to a career in music. He has a BTEC in Performing Arts and a BA (Hons) in Commercial Music. He has been producing professionally for a while now and still regularly performs at venues across the country and also writes and produces music for television and radio.
What's your general message to the world as a musician?
Beatrice Byakika aka Beatrix.
It is important to appreciate the beauty in your life. Even though you do not make it to the finishing line of your journey, the experiences along the way are worth it.
I definitely agree. That is a powerful sentence. Sometimes as humans we are so caught up with the final stages of 'making it' that we fail to appreciate the small steps and successes along the way. We focus on getting there and fail to experience the actual journey there.
That is very true.
If people want to come and listen to you live, where would they do they find you?
At the moment we are spending time in the studio working on the music. We can perform on request but we are rehearsing for a live set to promote next year. At the moment after an hour and a bit singing instead of supposedly singing I sound like a broken record so a lot of work to do.
Any plans to perform in UG soon? When are your tours starting?
I plan to visit and force my friends to listen to my brand of nonsense etc but when it comes to touring I believe it will depend on how the music is received. You can only go where you are invited...
I am sure you have heard about the controversy of Oprah versus Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube. What's your take on the matter?
I had not heard about it till now and so checked it out and I decided to hang on the fence... they are all allowed choice and opinion.
What do you think of the state of hip hop today?
I love the music, not sure about the culture... because I am more into slippers, a hot cup of cocoa and a good DVD - but everyone to their own.
Who are your role models?
Babyface, Tracey Chapman, Dianne Warren, Richard Marx, Linda Perry, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Daudi Kabaka, James Blunt, Brian McKnight, Brenda Fassi, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis: my list is endless. It's a wide variety of singer-songwriters who have developed their craft. It takes real talent to draw hits out of the same brain for decades.
Yes it does. What music do you listen to?
At the moment I have on my stereo Toni Braxton- Libra, Sean Paul- Trinity, David Lynden Hall and last but not least Jose Gonzalez, The man is magic. I listen to all sorts of music. My basis is what it says to me.
Beatrice Byakika aka Beatrix.
Which books are you reading?
I would spin you a great line and tell you some big name but unfortunately I have not moved on from the classic happy ever after Mills and Boon roller coaster so I usually have about 10 of them at the beginning of each week but I love them cause it's got all the high drama and then the classic macho image that sweep you off... Its always worth the experience my favourite writers are Miranda Lee, Cathy William and Helen Bianchin.
The guys will want to know. Are you single?
Mnnnh... not sure... got my eye on someone...
What is next for you? What kind of legacy do you see yourself leaving behind?
I still got a long way to go especially perfecting my craft so more endless hours in the studio looking for perfection then spend another couple of months carting demos around till the music gains recognition. I am having a great time writing music at the moment and there is so much craziness to explore. Legacy? Not sure yet. But I just hope that somewhere down the line, a song that I write is part of someone's memories. That would be the ultimate.
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First published: June 26, 2006
Jane won the Miss Africanada beauty pageant 2000 in Toronto where she was also named one of the new voices of Africa after reciting one of her poems. In 2004, she was published in T-Dot Griots-An Anthology of Toronto's Black storytellers and in February 2005, her art piece Namyenya was featured as the poster piece for the Human Rights through Art-Black History Month Exhibit.
She is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry, art and playwriting and is becoming a household name in Toronto circles. Please visit her website at www.nteyafas.com.