Tim Kabali, A silent player in Ugandan popular music

By Joel Isabirye
Jayvee20@email.com, Tel: 077 949437

Tim Kabali is an unusually domineering talent. I do not want to reflect on him in the past tense, for he’s bounced back from his local hiatus to stay in the industry. He is one of Uganda’s foremost talented musicians in a contemporary context. His mastery of bass and in depth knowledge of the music and its business is pure. A high value target for the music industry in Uganda.
Tim Kabali registers the name Tim as all music. Tim Kabali, Timothy Kalyegira, Timothy Balamaze Lwanga, Timothy Christian Riley (Tony! Tony! Tone!), Timothy ‘Timbaland’ Mosely all play the music in their own ways.
Kabali Tim was a core member (and leader) of the 1980s and very early 1990s group Outbreak. Along with Francis Okoboi, Christine Bwango, Melody Corry, and occasionally joined by L.L.Cool J sound alike rapper Alvin Nzaro the group Outbreak began in 1985.
In 1988-89, Outbreak recruited Joy Sessanga and Barbara Majoro. Overtime, the line up stabilised as keyboardists Paul Serukenya (doubling as vocalist), Francis Okoboi, Steven Mukasa, Albert Kitamirike; drummers Sam Mugoya, David Rucci and vocalists Ken Serukenya, Melody Corry, Christine Bwango, Joy Sessanga, Mayanja (Bana), Apollo Lumu, Isaac Rucci.
John ‘John Miles Coco Banton’ Kizito a cousin to Tim was a vocalist with the group prior to membership of Fine Image, in the 1990s, gradually evolving into a bass player of note by Tim Kabali’s tutelage.
Tim Kabali’s sister, Vikki, currently a singer with Christian Centre Worship team, East London South Africa belonged to the 1980s Jimmy Katumba back up band the Ebonies; she is presently a host of a gospel programme on a South African local radio station. With her current group, she has completed a live recording currently being mastered in the United Kingdom.
Tim Kabali nurtured a number of Uganda’s leading musicians of present time including the immensely successful Steve Jean that could have shaped perspectives for Uganda’s premier music producer.
Reggae production guru Shaka Tutankhamen aka Winston Mayanja holds a very high opinion of the maestro Kabali.
‘Tim is di article don. Without Timo, my generation would probably not be in muzik at all. He gave me my very first experience of performing with a band in 1989.TWICE!! A very encouraging, extremely talented artist. In Uganda, I can only compare him to Tony Ssengo and only a handful of others'. He's one of my most important mentors'.
(Note: Heartical don, which TShaka mentions is a Jamaican patois term for an expert in his art, craft or field).
Tim, born on 14th April 1968, left for the republic of South Africa in 1989 in pursuit of studies after which he stayed on. After a Bachelor of Commerce in Business Management degree he got employed as a Cost Accountant with Nampak Cartons and Labels in East London South Africa.
He also branched to Lesotho on his way and formed a band named Spice in 1990.In South Africa he taught selected friends the essence of music and its instruments. Those with the natural flair picked up quickly. In quick time, they had a variety of songs they could play, perfected and so conjured a group, with time qualifying to do curtain raise gigs for established big bands. Their ascending popularity, landed for them an artist management deal, which Tim’s university work unfortunately brushed aside. He later formed the band Solid which he still occasionally plays with.
Tim’s marriage to the music was not accidental, but in the discipleship of his father Mr Kabali Kagwa Frob, an erstwhile tap dancer in his prime. With Tim’s famous uncle Wassanyi Serukenya (father to Paul and Ken Serukenya) they belonged to a strong choral ensemble of the 1970s and 1980s named Nyonza singers, a group that symbolised Ugandan culture, globally at the time. The group toured all over Uganda and went on to Europe and the United States in their hey days.

Nyonza singers also produced a series of tape recordings that were very popular. Tim’s brother Victor Kabali, who is now a doctor, based in Cape Town, South Africa was a Soukouss/Lingala fan besides taking up a musician slot in the Kings College Buddo band and later on with "the Elements", another popular band back in the 80's.
Tim Kabali was more importantly a member of the accomplished King’s College Buddo band, where he juggled with music as he paid attention to class. The band following the school schedule, rehearsed on weekends and after school hours. For expedience, the band had each individual coming to practice having learned what he or she were meant to rehearse as a group so that practice was quick.
The Buddo band had a pop repertoire of cover versions of music that already existed. Their activities as a band started to draw Tim away from sport, which was another extra-curricular past time at Buddo, as both needed time and since the band was an official extra curricular activity, they were not in trouble with school rules.
The teacher in charge then, Mr Bonnie Nkalubo used to organize for the band to showcase at other outside school band concerts where Tim and his band mates started meeting with growing local musicians such as the legendary Philly Lutaaya. Back then; Philly had established himself as a drummer and vocalist for groups such as the Cranes band, the Mascots and Vox Nationale.

The trend was musicians played criss-crossed recording and stage performance sessions for other groups so one could bump into artists on different shows. For instance, Moses Matovu from whom Outbreak used to hire equipment would join the group and play sax on a few Outbreak songs. On Philly Lutaaya, Tim recalls a very nice guy who encouraged him in spite of his tender age. In Tim’s words
‘I was the height of a bass guitar when stood up straight and here I was banging the heaviest sounding instrument. A Kadogo who would dance & get the crowds excited.’
(A kadogo is a child soldier especially in the ranks of the NRA [National Resistance Army](now UPDF) when it was still a rebel force. It is used figuratively to show Tim in infancy)
Within the Buddo band and with the group Outbreak, Tim used to gig at Buddo and in neighbouring schools aside their own shows at venues some of which were the guild canteen in Makerere, club Chez Joseph and other halls around Kampala.
Tim Kabali at the time did not engage in recording. The routine was miming and actual singings of covers at live shows. The most he learned back then was to imitate an artist and their music and do it better than anyone else. These experiences of imitating the sound and voices of other people shaped his musical ear considering that he till this day does not read music but plays by ear, like most Ugandan musicians.
Amazing ability, which still amazes musicians Tim, has met. Tim is known to listen to a song and immediately play it. He is gifted with a mental picture of the chords and notes and timing. He spent time listening to an English band called Level 42 (formed in 1981) and their bass player, Mark King from who he gained inspiration. Imitating the versatile King and having the skill to play like him made other artists and their works quite easy for Tim to copy.
He also found the bass player of the group Brothers Johnson the perfect man for bass. Others Like Marcus Miller (who worked on a large body of Luther Vandross’s material) also shaped his technique in bass. Tim concedes at the time him and colleagues excelled because they grew up listening to technique and the finesse of it, which is contrasted to contemporary music, where people listen to electronic effects and phat beats which, cover everything else.
The imitation of accomplished foreign musicians strikes a revelation from Tim who believes him and his peers of the time would have been famous now, if they had thrived on long-lived goals of playing their own as opposed to other people’s music (gaining satisfaction to be popular on other people's ticket).
Tim reflects on this predicament and feels he has got the cure in his dream to produce and be distinct from anybody else, incorporating all his experiences to make a unique sound that does not have to be the latest trend, but a mark of his existence.

Through his equally musical brother Victor, Tim met the late Philly Lutaaya, Moses Matovu, Hope Mukasa and a lot of other prominent musicians. At Buddo, he had his brother's large size shoes to fill in the band so he took up interest trying to be like him. Tim Kabali started with the late Arthur Kasirye who introduced him to bass and laid the seed of funk in him, Arthur was one of his greatest influences. In after years, Arthur’s brother Andrew Kasirye (Advocate) encouraged and fine-tuned Tim.
He eventually became bandleader of Buddo college band in 1984 and recruited and converted his cousin Paul Serukenya (later of Limit X) who was into classical music. Tim Kabali was further assisted by drummer Sam Mugoya (now of Shell Uganda), who lent him videos, from which he gathered inspiration. After the solid foundation of the Buddo band, Outbreak was the next chapter which got folks noticing their musical presence.
Tim also laid plans with Isaac Ruccibigango (of Limit X) with whom he was supposed to have gone together to the United Kingdom in 1989(where Isaac and his colleagues founded Limit X after they left Miracle Centres New Wave Band in Kampala).
Tim Kabali’s parents wanted his focus placed on studies instead of the whirly music world. Faced with the options of choosing what he wanted and wanting to please them, he went for the latter.
Tim also worked with Apollo Lumu, now based in England who he recruited to Outbreak.
He is in love with bass and describes himself as a session bassist. Tim still finds time for music, by playing with a band on a regular basis during weekends and doing studio sessions. He also run his own studio between 1999 and 2002 but abandoned it to avoid the stress of a full day job (outside music) combined with running a studio.

‘I would finish my normal working day at the office & have to be in the studio with clients straight after for hours & was stressful’.

The interesting bit is Tim is willing to stick to his first love music by remaining a producer. He intimated to the writer that he has been writing material over the years but never releasing it to this end, he has embarked on a project of handpicking some young talented singers and getting them to sing and co-write on his material and releasing it.

He struck a deal with a local studio owned by a Briton who found his (Tim’s) work desirable, in due course, giving him free access to use his studio and complete his embarked projects. The product is then mixed in the U.K. with the Briton doing the marketing and the two would break even with the costs when all was complete.

I was curious about Tim’s bird eye comparative impressions of the South African and Ugandan music industries for he has been subject to both in his long-standing career. Tim elaborately had this to say,

‘The one thing about South Africa is that they had fans for their home-grown music and had infrastructure to promote it as well. They already had charts for music sales and it was a different ball game. Equipment was not a problem and so gigs took place all over. Having come from a background of imitating songs and being good at it, it was easy for me to make an impression on the guys in South Africa.

The Ugandan music industry that I left back in 1989 was still dominated by the few big names like Afrigo who recorded their own stuff. There was no one who really had any pop that sounded international. After guys started going overseas, things started to change and recordings started to come up. The Limit X take off was the biggest thing that triggered others to follow.

Uganda has the talent; it was just a matter of resources. One other thing to note was South African musicians earned royalties from having their music played on radio and did not only depend on live shows. This was non-existent in Uganda, I don’t know if it is now. This left a track record of an artist and their advancement.’
On his preferred role in Uganda’s music industry as it currently is, Tim reveals
‘I think my strength is in producing, having been around since the 80's when one needed to know how to actually play an instrument unlike today where we have samplers and sequencers which can make amateurs sound semi professional. I like to be distinct in my sound and not sound like anybody else. I am not going for just a popular beat but rather a true reflection of what I created in the expression based on my musical flair and style.’
He also admits if he was still in Uganda he would prefer his own well-defined path.
‘I would have definitely concentrated on recording compositions with a view to world consumption as opposed to aiming for only the Ugandan market. Uganda is very small in terms of marketing and as a musician I would want my stuff to be enjoyed by people all over the world. One thing I have learnt is that there is a market for every one in whatever you have to offer.

If I did a CD and it was not well received in one place, if properly exposed, you could find a market in the place you least expected for example in Russia!!! My dream would have been to produce and distribute our own brand of music to whoever was willing to listen. Also to do collaborations between various styles and musical background and create new things. That would have been my area of focus had I still been in Uganda.’

Living in South Africa has been a tremendous experience for Tim Kabali, bearing in mind that her music industry is one of the most dynamic in Africa. I was curious about the South African industry, its racial politics and how it unfolded to be what it is in spite of the apartheid excesses the black masses (including the musicians) were subjected to. The actual fact that the white minority controlled the financial muscle in that music industry. I was further interested in how possible it is for African artists from outside South Africa to penetrate that industry.

Tim said,

‘South Africa has developed its own artists and brands of music which people relate to so an outsider has to have an understanding of this to break into the market and obviously be extremely exposed so that the people get to hear the music which means being on the charts internationally so that the TV stations can air the products. Most of us do not have the resources. One must also realize that there is a monopoly in this business that the record companies want to be in control so they control who gets in. This resulted in many small self-made companies in S.A but they still lack the capital.

On black South African Music during Apartheid, and its resistance against Marginalisation, Tim revealed,

‘S.A is made of 80% black people and it is such a big market that they could not be ignored if one wanted to make money. Black musicians did get airplay but the record companies ripped them a lot and things have changed quite a bit now because the cheap music “Kwaito” has developed into a big thing now and has evolved to actually sound like international sounds. It has something to do with creating a signature and sticking to it.

The whites bought their own stuff but the black majority rule the market, although they didn’t have as much resources to spend on buying cd’s. All this is changing now as the government is really encouraging black empowerment with funds being given through the department of arts & culture where previously disadvantaged people can now afford studios.’

My gaze is then focused on Lucky Dube who according to music received in Uganda was essentially a resistance musician, singing songs with anti-apartheid lyrics. His survival in spite of this approach. In Tim Kabali’s analysis,

‘Lucky Dube is a multi millionaire who stood the test of time because he believed in his music. Also he marketed outside S.A a lot which allowed him to grow his sales even outside the country. We have to learn from people like these that music is not just a tool to make bread but also requires genuine passion and commitment. It is like planting a seed in the ground and watering it, a flower will grow eventually; it is a law of nature. ‘

 Tim Kabali

Regardless of the recent publicity for Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji and their South African incursions, Tim has not heard about them. He implies it is not easy for a group from outside Africa to break into their industry unless that group is on the international charts.

To keep up with his unconditional love for bass and the music industry, Tim keeps an Ibanez Ergodyne 4 string bass, 6 string and 5 string basses .He also listens to Luther Vandross, Level 42, Jonathan Butler, Tamia, Puff Johnson, Pieces Of a dream, John Bash from Kampala Pentecostal Church and lots of South African Bands.

Away from music, it is work and a four-year old daughter that he attends to.
Retrospectively and for the future, Tim had this to say,
‘At least when I look at my track record so far, many success stories have been groomed by me at some point in time. My first project is in progress. I know there are talented youth in Uganda who I would like to produce and give opportunity. With technology, we can now work over distance so that is not a problem.
Long-standing Ugandan popular musicians ponder the whereabouts of Tim Kabali, his name is a memorable one among their echelons. We may tentatively declare his return. He is ready and good to go. After excelling musically for years, he is set for some kind of return to the roots, the Ugandan music scene with long distance collaborations with Ugandan musicians from his South African base. He may turn out as one of the links to revamping our congested digital recording studio manoeuvres in Uganda that have drawn wide spread criticism.. His contacts remain,

KabaliTi@nampak.co.za