The harder I work, the luckier I get. Last week I was blessed to have been invited out to Uganda, East Africa, where I was one of 4 judges for the Club Video Music Awards, (the country’s premier annual music awards ceremony), which takes place in Kampala, in September later this year. I was invited by my one time MTV International colleague Jandre Louw, who is doing extremely well out in Africa with his own company and is now a player and leader on their music scene. Uganda is called the Pearl of Africa and it certainly lived up to its precious name.
There were two reasons for my fascination for the trip. One; in the past 5 years, the exodus of British people to Africa for business has been huge. The continent is an untapped industry that’s ready to blow up in media, arts, culture and business, and many are getting on the bandwagon early, to make the most of an opportunity much of the western globe seems to be oblivious to. Even Chinese business out there,are taking over, in droves. The second reason is of course, my late fathers East African connection. He was born and bred in neighboring Kenya, (which I am still to explore), and often-mentioned Uganda in his memories of back home. So to have the opportunity to get so near to my fatherland and experience their rich heritage and culture was a blessing.
KLM- THE WORST CHOICE TO FLY TO AFRICA.
Every cloud has a silver lining. And every silver lining has a cloud. Our cloud on this trip was flying Dutch airline KLM. The European leg of the trip is akin to many an airline carrier, but once on the African leg it’s a whole different story. The aircraft are old planes in dire need of updating. The staff and air stewardess are in urgent need of a grooming expert. All our crew looked like they had been dragged through a hedge backwards. Perhaps a hairbrush brand like Mason Pearson can lend them a helping hand. Their gate protocol was also unnecessarily unorganized. Huge queues for no apparent reason. Security for baggage at the gate meant that even water bottles bought from departure shops had to be confiscated, and left you parched and thirsty for 2 hours at the gate. A fellow African passenger shared ‘’yes its always this way, they have no respect for African journeys, we are always treated this way, we are used to it’’. Next time I would fly direct via BA!
JASMINE AT THE CLUB VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS PRESS CONFERENCE WITH FELLOW JUDGES AND MAIN SPONSOR- SAM.
However, that was the only cloud to an otherwise glorious experience. On landing at Entebbe airport, we were greeted on arrival by a protocol agent ,and hurried to our waiting car, which whisked us off to our hotel- the Kampala Protea. A very efficient hotel, in the heart of Kampala’s business district, where the rooms are absolutely huge, and decorated in a unique minimally stylish manner. The staff couldn’t do enough to help in their very welcoming, friendly manner, and it’s the first place we noted, just how softly spoken the Ugandan people are. It’s also the first hint of the influence of the Asian community ,once upon a time in Uganda (before Idi Amin took offense to their presence). Their teas are ‘chai spiced’, and their hotel room service menu’s sport many an Indian nod, from samosa’s to chicken tikka’s.
JASMINE WITH HER FELLOW JUDGES AT THE 2ND PRESS CONFERENCE FOR THE CLUB VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS ,UGANDA.
3 days of work were followed by two days of pleasure. For three long days, my fellow judges and I were to narrow down hundreds of submitted music videos to just four in each of the 13 categories. Categories included the usual big ones like best male, best female, best video, best newcomer and so on. More technical categories included best cinematography, best special effects, best choreography and more. My fellow judges were manger of Channel O (most widely distributed channel across African households), Leslie ‘’Lee’’ Kasumba, talent and music manager for Trace TV (the no.1 pan African music TV channel) Phillip Nwankwo, and South African film maker and very highly regarded video director Matthew Stonier. The thinking behind having judges that were not connected deeply to the Ugandan music scene was so that there were no bias or unfairness in the initial voting process. Not knowing who was already big in Uganda, meant that we could judge the videos purely on the art of their visuals, as opposed to being swayed by the artist’s personal brand. I was the only international judge, so came with no pre conceptions at all.
A TYPICAL UGANDAN VIEW-THIS ONE FROM THE AMIN PASHA HOTEL.
Daytimes were spent viewing hundreds of videos; evenings were spent seeing live music at venues like Cayenne, a Maurice Kirya gig and more. My favourite evening was at The Emin Pasha Hotel, which is Set in Two Acres of Peaceful Park-Like Tropical Gardens. Big Mature Trees, Flowering Shrubs and Scented Vines. We ate a delicious dinner and took over the outdoor poolside house band as they sang, with the men in our group showing off with a bit of karaoke!
As with any judging process, the debating was intense and at times heated. We laughed, acknowledged talent, froze at videos that made us sit up for a multitude of reasons, debated authenticity, accents, quality of filming, originality and more. I noted that most of the videos were in need of Ofcom style compliance rules advise, so that product placement, dangerous and imitable behaviour, smoking, drinking and soft porn during daytime playlists could be avoided. One thing that intrigued me was that it seemed that 99% of all music videos submitted, seemed to come straight from Jamaica, such is the passion of Ugandans brought up on dancehall music. With full patois accents and dancehall dance moves, it was like judging a Caribbean set of acts, as opposed to African. It reminded me of the early UK urban music scene when we imitated American hip-hop videos and accents before finding our own voices. Leslie informed me that in fact, dancehall is deeply entrenched in Ugandan culture. (This means that if you love reggae and dancehall culture then Uganda is the perfect spot for your next vacation as the music and food is very akin to Caribbean).
Another observation was that like many new acts around the world, their videos highlight sexy, scantily dressed girls gyrating wildly and rappers surrounded by their version of material wealth. All understandable, as this is what success looks like from many viewers points of view, I was eager to point out that this isn’t always what playlist managers are looking for though. After all, is it still sexy after your 1000th booty shot? Do we care about rappers that continue to tell us about their material wealth purchases? It was good to note that UK acts played in Uganda included Chip, Tinie, Estelle, Rita Ora, Skepta and L Marshall. #TeamUK!
Considering how young the Ugandan music industry is, I can see that the passion and D.I.Y attitude of the artists and filmmaker’s means that this is a market that will grow rapidly with increased reach of their acts the same way west African artists from Nigeria have broken into international music playlists recently.
The work being done in Uganda to give these acts a platform via the CVMA team is sure to develop, nurture and grow the local music industry to build a lasting legacy. Right now it may seem that only West African music and culture have infiltrated our shores, but after this trip I can confidently state East Africa and Uganda are getting ready for their take over!
AT THE START OF THE RIVER NILE CRUISE!
My final two days were spent exploring. The range of adventure in Uganda is wide and hair-raising. Activities include game viewing, fishing trips, water fall cruises, silverback gorilla safari treks, white water rafting, African rainforest camping, chimp trekking and swamp walking. So of course I ,chose the sedate activity of cruising down the Nile, with our new Ugandan friend Ambrose, a guide and my friend Jodie.
Day one was spent travelling 2 hours outside of Kampala to the River Nile. The car journey showed the poorer side of the country. Ramshackle corrugated iron huts, wooden roadside stalls, dusty dry hot roads, the toil of the land by both men and women, churches, mosques, kingdom halls, produce and groceries sold at roundabouts, all juxtaposed to make a buzzing, thriving, happy roadside community.
We arrived at the Jinja Nile Resort late afternoon, and enjoyed a drink and pizza in the treetop wooden bar house, overlooking the cross-section of the Nile and Lake Victoria. I felt disappointed by the menu of English breakfast, pizza and beer options mingled with really loud European dance music and Rihanna hits. At a sight this majestic I think tourists would prefer a wider variety of food options- at least a healthy salad to be at one with nature. Music could be authentic to Africa or classical, but European chart remixes really spoilt the nature and wildlife’s ambience. We instead focused to our left, from where we could hear regular screams of jubilation as bungee jumpers threw themselves off the sky-high platform overlooking one of the greatest sights in the world. There were also small cabins and tents scattered around where more hippy style tourists were getting their ‘at one with nature’ groove on. (I had a hilarious moment in the ladies washroom as I struggled to zip up my pants and run out with toilet paper flying around, as a giant flying insect of some sort resembling a huge bumble bee, kept noisily buzzing and circling my head. I managed to keep it together and not sprint outside screaming like a Carry On movie-I didn’t want the locals to laugh at me thinking ‘’mazunga’’-the local name for white/foreign people!)
The sunset Nile cruise was like being in paradise. An experience where you could practically hear David Attenborough describe the fascinating range of squawking, multi coloured birds that inhabited all the trees lining the river. Mini mangroves acted as giant speakers as we sailed past their choir of crickets chirping and wildlife anthems. A variety of exotic water birds like skinny meerkats dipped their necks in and out of the river, surrounding our boat as if giving us nature’s most beautiful escort along the Nile. Randomly scattered troupes of monkeys scurried around in the trees as we filmed them.
A SHOP. SLAP BANG IN THE CENTRE OF THE NILE. SURROUNDED BY WATER!
Suddenly ,we spotted, slap bang in the centre of the river Nile- a store. Not bankside but dead in the centre!. A craft store that sold tourist knick-knacks. I had to jump out of our boat and explore. Proof that you can shop anywhere these days!.
I had just watched the Joanna Lumley TV series ‘’Joanna Lumley on the Nile’’ before heading out to Uganda, and had noted that at the end of her series,she had bought a wooden boat with a man rowing and released it at the source of the Nile and watched it float gently along. I bought a small wooden boat with 3 African men rowing. (one upmanship on the Nile Lol!) Anything Joanna Lumley can do, I can do three times better I reasoned. Our guide suggested releasing it at the crossroads of the Nile and Lake Victoria, near a bird island where the current was much calmer. I agreed with glee. We set off as I prayed and blessed the wooden boat, thanking an unnamed higher spirit for allowing me this amazing adventure. I placed the boat ceremoniously into the river, with all watching, and it immediately flopped onto its side. It floated though. Not the way I had romantically envisioned it may one day reach Egypt ,but it floated. Oh how we laughed! (Never take on Joanna Lumley!).
MY LITTLE BOAT COULDN’T QUITE STAY UPRIGHT LOL!
En route back home to Kampala, Ambrose suggested we stop off at the Mabira Rainforest Lodge off the main highway between Kampala and Jinja. He had described it as a dwelling like a village in the forest. Not expecting much ,we peered with trepidation into the dark night ,as our van took us deeper into a dark, quiet, wild forest. Suddenly, once again, we were surprised to find a majestic surprise!. A huge, colonial style tree house hotel -restaurant -bar, which was quiet, tranquil and akin to an oasis in the centre of wilderness. The formal waitress served us from an adventurous menu. We stayed safe Brits and tried the cream of beetroot soup and pots of spiced tea as we talked into the night. As the whole venue is open air it’s very easy to watch the endless parade of butterflies, birds, monkeys, etc., pass by. The forest itself is gorgeous: lush and dense and packed with all of the creatures you’d want to see. A magical end to a magical day.
AT NIGHT IN THE RAINFOREST HOTEL.
The next day we had been invited to the very opulent Serena Kampala Hotel to sample their spa and Sunday brunch. After a tour that showed us just why this hotel is said to be the best in the city (with its bar that stays open until the last guest is ready to leave, U shaped bedroom suites, a pool that’s straight out of a tropical holiday brochure and the biggest and best gym/dance studio I’ve ever seen in any hotel globally), I enjoyed a deep tissue massage. The spa is a lush Moroccan themed oasis that’s tranquil and up to date with the latest treatments, which are sold, at extremely reasonable rates. Each spa room is named after a flower like lavender, lilac, mimosa, rose. I was led to my private room aptly named jasmine. My masseuse Hanifa, really had the strongest most inquisitive hands I’d ever experienced. The heated pillow was out of this world too. Every single muscle in my body was given its due and proper attention leaving me a blissful, jellylike splodge on the heated massage table at the end.
JASMINE WITH HER FRIEND JODIE, POOLSIDE AT THE SERENA KAMPALA HOTEL.
The brunch was as decadent as its surroundings with fresh cuts of lamb, fish, beef, a turkey roast and the most delicately, tender spiced minute steak. Brunch was accompanied by a band, which performed soothing African covers and made the whole experience just perfect. Guests seemed a mix of high-end families, movers and shakers as well as businessmen and loved up couples. The classic location for a vacation or business!. For now, Uganda remains a best kept secret for western vacationers. But I predict, not for much longer!