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An African diva and the telecom smoothies

October 11, 2008 - 12:00am -- Nick Young

Friday night rush-hour, which in fact lasts several hours, finds us inching through outlying districts where the twilight is thick with bicycles and pedestrians picking their way between the potholes. We are bound for the Munyonyo Commonwealth Resort where 76-year-old South African diva, Miriam Makeba, is the lead act in the first ever Kampala International Jazz Festival.

It requires a rather loose definition of ‘jazz’ to encompass Makeba but no-one cares about that. Her voice may not be what it was but still has remarkable power, matching the remarkable dignity of her presence. She pauses between songs to recover, introducing the band—highly accomplished musicians all—as her ‘sons and daughters;’ tells a few stories from the days of anti-apartheid struggle; exhorts the audience to ‘strengthen the bridges between the peoples of Africa so that our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren can walk across them with confidence.’

The festival is sponsored by Warid, one of the telecom networks competing in the booming Ugandan market. Logical enough for them to reach out this way to a young and trendy audience interested in buying music downloads to their cellphones.

In between sets, a ‘message from our sponsors’ is played on the video screens flanking the stage. Beautifully shot sequences of African family, community, aspiration, success: a family gathered round a newborn child; a young professional throwing off his jacket to join a group of happy ragamuffin lads playing football (and passing the ball to the smallest in the team to score the goal); a graduation ceremony; a wedding. Overlaid, scene by scene, are the captions: “We celebrate. We encourage. We excel. We love. We belong to a family of 28 million.” (Actually, Uganda’a population is now well over 30 million.) And finally, with gravelly voiceover: “Warid. We Care.” It’s an awesome work of propaganda. Anyone watching might reasonably conclude that Warid is a charity, an NGO, even a political party—anything except what it actually is: an Abu Dhabi investment group (in which Singapore Telecom holds a 30% stake) whose main duty is to maximize profits for its shareholders.

Still, this is just the way the world now is and one can hardly blame Warid for being good at the game. And does it matter anyway if the company stumps up the cash to bring world class performers to Kampala—not just Makeba but, on Saturday night, the prodigiously talented Zimbabwean, Oliver Mtukudzi (hardly a ‘jazz’ musician either,) and numerous fine supporting acts?

Well, yes, there is a small problem here. A line up like this would have no trouble drawing a crowd of 10,000 in Paris or New York. But here in the gracious grounds of a five star hotel and conference centre, on the shores of Lake Victoria and under a canopy of stars, there are by my count no more than a thousand well-heeled punters who have paid the USD 20 ticket price (giving admission for two nights), and a couple of hundred more who have paid seven times as much for the privilege of sitting on plastic chairs under canvas in the VIP enclosure. The lawns rise empty behind us, space for at least a couple of thousand more, but there aren’t enough people with money in this city of 1.5 million, the market is not ‘developed’ enough.

So why did Warid not just give tickets away? The entire gate money would scarcely have covered the air fares for Makeba’s band; the total corporate subsidy must have been huge; so why not let more people benefit from it? Why not simply sell 500 heavily discounted student tickets on each of three or four university campuses? (For, after all, student mites spent on text messages also prop up the Warid edifice.) Did they not want to take the elite shine off the event by letting in too many of the 28 million family members? Or was it just lack of imagination?

Perhaps the answer is that the catering services would have been overwhelmed. On the commoners’ side of the fence, food and beverages are supplied, with huge profit margins, by Resort staff: a dozen nervous Indians (who seem like recent arrivals, able to catch neither middle class Ugandan nor middle class British accents, and unwilling to look at or speak directly to customers) and half a dozen sulky Ugandans who are not allowed to handle the cash. You buy a food ticket in one queue from the Indians who cannot communicate, a drink ticket in another queue, and then join the queues to redeem the tickets. Most of the time there are fewer customers than staff, yet you still end up standing in line thinking, as so often, how would they cope if they were actually busy?

Best gaffe of the night comes from Avishai Cohen, the gifted trumpeter of Israeli (definitely jazz) band, Third World Love. ‘Here is a song from another African country,’ he announces. ‘Yemen.’ Poor chap. I guess it’s unfair, but it seems shocking that an Israeli, as opposed to a French or Welshman, should make a mistake like that. He must really be absorbed in his music.

Nick Young
October 11, 2008, Kampala