Maurice Kirya, bridging cultures
Portrait of a winner
There are just a few days until his performance in N'Djamena, Chad, on 6 November as part of RFI’s special operation, but Maurice Kirya, recent winner of the Prix Découvertes 2010, already has a long career behind him. Today, the Ugandan singer acts as a bridge between Western and African cultures. And entertains us all in the process. Portrait.
His hair is tousled and his youthful face lightly shaven – Maurice Kirya cultivates his image. His compositions, between jazz and pop, have earned him a mainly urban following that is often close to cultural centres in Uganda like the Alliance Française and the German cultural centre.
Unlike most Ugandan singers, Maurice Kirya keeps close tabs on Western culture. He took part in the Fête de la Musique, where, among other things, he sang children’s nursery rhymes. He was there to celebrate Women’s Day. Little known to the general Ugandan public, his intimate music goes down well at the low-key parties that gather expatriates in embassies and big hotels.
He is only 25, but the inventor of “Mwooyo” – Ugandan soul music – has already trodden a long musical path. At 16, he remembers, he used to accompany his brothers, also musicians – rapper Alex Kirya, alias Crazy Native, and Elvis Kirya, alias Vamposs – to pep up wedding and diploma ceremonies in the capital, Kampala. It was a good way for the teenagers to pay their high school studies.
Each of the three brothers cultivated his own distinct style and went on to pursue a separate career. They get back together when they can, on Sundays at their mother’s to recharge their batteries.
The family taste for music comes from their grandfather, who played piano, guitar and accordion. Their father used to take them to listen to concerts at the Equatoria Hotel, a venue in the centre of town. Their mother listened to Elvis Presley and country music. “While other children of our age were playing football, we were having fun playing music as a family,” reminisces Maurice Kirya.
He made his first guitar from bits of wood. It didn’t last long and a few months later, Kirya came across a real, slightly burned, guitar at a carpenter’s. He had it mended and started taking it everywhere with him, without knowing how to play it. Then one day, he met a legendary Ugandan musician, old Jackson Kimera.
“He was drunk and dirty,” he remembers. “I like talking with drunkards because they speak the truth. He told me that he was the greatest living guitarist, so I handed him my guitar. When he played it, my life changed. I would never have imagined that music like that could come out of that guitar. He accepted to teach me to play if I gave him food, clothes and alcohol in exchange.” From that meeting, Maurice Kirya has retained some particularly high musical standards.
“Most musicians in Uganda sing against a sound track using drum machines, but Maurice has always used the best musicians. He isn’t motivated by gain, but by glory,” remarks one of his producers, Nicolas Mayanja. “I want to drive a generation, I want to open up the voice of top-quality music. I want to become a legend,” adds Maurice Kirya.
This eclectic musician represents a new generation of city-born Africans who are imbued with Western culture, yet attached to a cocktail of African culture that he himself has trouble defining.
The first recording studios emerged in Uganda in the 1990s. Before then, musicians performed in concerts, but for the most part their music has been forgotten. Kirya’s musical references are therefore mostly from abroad. His references are as diverse as Michael Jackson, with whom he likes to identify, and the talented Esperanza Spalding.
“Maurice is one of the only Ugandan singers who has managed to get hold of good musicians, has a good stage presence and is exportable,” remarks Jean-Jacques Bernabé, the director of Kampala’s Alliance Française.
To encourage the renaissance of the Ugandan music scene, for several years Maurice Kirya has been organising weekly artists’ meetings in Rouge, a Kampala night club.
On stage, the young musician mainly plays guitar, but also sometimes piano, percussion and harmonica. He is learning the trumpet. “I’m trying to understand what musicians think, so my goal is to learn to play as many instruments as I can,” he explains.
At night, to get to sleep, he puts on classical music, “So that my dreams stick to musical tracks,” he says with a laugh.
Maurice Kirya Misubbaawa (Mkirya) 2010