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To many people, WASSWA BIRIGGWA is a businessman-turned-politician.
Not many have a slight idea that the 67-year-old was once a musician, and that it is actually the music that propelled him to all the heights he has reached. SIMON MUSASIZI looks back to Biriggwa’s musical life; how it helped him rise from the ghettos of Katwe to conquer America and return as a successful man.
You know him as one of the founding brains of Uganda’s first mobile telecommunication network Celtel Uganda. Of recent, he is best known as the national chairman of Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and finance secretary of the inter-party coalition, The Democratic Alliance (TDA).
Twice he contested for the Kampala mayoral seat – before becoming Uganda’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Djibouti and later Japan. What, however, many may not know is that before all, Biriggwa was a musician who went by the stage name Rocky.
Rocky burst onto the Ugandan stage in the early 60’s as a member of The Cranes band. He was a good vocalist and dancer, and the quality of his voice and dancing gymnastics pulled crowds to the young band. Many people of his generation remember the song, Joy Tonyiiga. The song he did with his half brother Geoffrey Nsereko topped the charts for weeks in the 60’s, and is still played today on some radio stations.
Biriggwa was inspired by the musicians of the time: Fred Masagazi, Frida Ssonko, Fred Kanyike, Eclas Kawalya and Elly Wamala. However, his greatest inspiration came from Elvis Presley. He used to imitate him, dance and sing like him.
Out of that, his love for America started. In fact when he first heard of Rocky Mountains in the United States, he decided to call himself Rocky and composed his first song, Rocky Tonnenya Nze Samanya.
In addition to Elvis Presley, he also loved The Beatles and The Rolling Stones but also soul musicians such as The Temptations. He would look for their movies and try to imitate them.
Before he knew it, he had positioned himself as the dependable vocalist for doing English renditions in the band. One of his uncles had a gramophone from which he would listen to music and write the lyrics because those days, without internet, you would hardly find the lyrics.
“When you are still young, you easily observe and memorize and write the lyrics. I would listen over and over and keep writing and that how I learnt all these English songs. To this day, I am still pretty good at karaoke,” he told The Observer at an interview at Acacia mall where he turned out wearing an unbuttoned shirt over a purple t-shirt.
He used to play at La Quinta club at Norman cinema, together with Ely Wamala, who had taken his music to UTV. He also played at the clubs such as the White Nile, Suzanna and Top Life, which were mainly for black Africans.
Born in 1948 in a humble family of six children in Katwe, Biriggwa’s music and stage charisma made inroads for him in the circles of wealthy Ugandan kids, who wanted to hang-out with him. He recalls that every Saturday, they would kickoff partying at 11am at Crystal’s restaurant on Kampala road, where teenagers would come for coffee.
From Crystal, they would move to Grand Imperial for the live band before winding up at Speke hotel for the teenager dance. And his dance partner then was Maggie Kigozi. But despite all this, Biriggwa knew the only way to make it in music was to go to America. And doors opened for him when the British government in the late 60’s recalled all its passports because people were abusing them.
“Most of the people who had them were Indians. At the time when an Indian was arrested, they would say: ‘I am British’, yet they weren’t fully British citizen,” Biriggwa recalls.
“A good friend of mine called Thobane Salini told me Indians were chartering flights to England. So, I started saving to be on one of those flights.”
He went to an Indian tour operator and started paying towards his ticket. Whenever The Cranes paid him on Monday during the rehearsals after the weekend performances, he would get half of it and pay the tour company. This left him always broke and his colleagues would wonder where he put his money; but he never disclosed to them his ambitions.
To go to America, he needed a visa. So, one day, he approached the American embassy. There was some Ugandan who screened who would qualify for the next flight.
“I went to him and told him I want to go to America. And he said ‘where in America?’ I said New York,” Biriggwa recalls while chuckling.
He was then asked what he was going to do in America and he replied ‘to do music.’
“Common, no one goes to America to sing. People who come here are looking for scholarships to go study, not to go sing,” Biriggwa recalls the embassy official telling him before denying him the visa.
So, there he was, saving his money but without the visa. Fortunately, two things happened in his life. One day, while strolling around his home village in Katwe, he came across young volunteers from Harvard University, who had come to build a bridge. They started chatting and became friends. Excited, he told them about his ambitions.
They encouraged him that it was possible to go to America and sing at coffee houses and restaurants. But, of course, they couldn’t give him a visa. They only gave him their address, convinced that one day he will make it to America.
Then, while performing at a club one day, he met an African-American called Eric Fordhan. Fordhan had a restaurant and handcraft shop in America, for which he had come to look for hand crafts from Africa. Fordhan, who became a close friend of Biriggwa, told him that if he ever makes it to the States, he would stay with him. He had paid almost 90 per cent of the ticket. One day, Fordhan said he had to leave.
“I told him, I am going to go with you,” Biriggwa says.
But when he went to the tour operator, he couldn’t get the ticket without clearing the balance. So, Fordhan left him. Two weeks later, he decided that visa or no visa, he was going. He actually went and said bye to his parents to which his father said: “You have lied to me so many times but this is the biggest lie you have ever told me.”
Armed with his ticket, he went to catch the flight. That time, Entebbe didn’t demand for visas. They were only asked for at the destination point.
“We went through Benghazi, Libya, for refueling. That time, Benghazi was a dusty town. We then connected to England where I was asked for the visa,” Biriggwa recalls.
But he told them he doesn’t need a British visa because he was headed to America, and he was allowed into transit area. Here, he realized that he didn’t have even a dollar on him to buy a drink. It was such a risk he had taken because like he says “life is full of risks. If you want something good, you have got to take a risk.”
He got on the New York flight and nobody asked him for the visa. He arrived in New York very early in the morning and it was very cold. It was winter season yet he didn’t have clothes for such weather.
Shivering, he went to immigration counter where they demanded to see his visa. Because of his long explanations, he was sent aside because there was a long queue.
For an hour, he was there shaking in the cold. But perhaps this worked in his favour because every time the immigration guy looked at him, the more he dramatized it by shivering more.
Later, the immigration guy came to him and asked him if he knew where he was going in case he let in. He gave him Fordhan’s address. Eventually, he was let in.
“He said you remind me of somebody and because of that, I will let you in, but do well,” Biriggwa recalls.
While on flight, Biriggwa had shared his story with his neighbour who offered him one dollar. This, he got change, and called Fordhan’s number but no one picked it.
Stranded, Biriggwa began asking for directions of the address on his paper. Incidentally, Fordhan had given him the address of his restaurant, which was near a railway station.
He, however, found the place closed, but there was a group of black people at a fire place outside. He quickly joined in, but he couldn’t easily express himself given their accent and English. This scared him that he moved back to the restaurant. While here, a guy came in driving a jaguar. It was Fordhan’s dad. Fortunately, Fordhan had told him about Biriggwa.
He allowed him into the restaurant. Fordhan had traveled to the west coast. He took him to his office where there was a couch with a blanket. This was to be his bed for the night. He made him a sandwich and coke cola, and locked him in until the following day, Monday when he took him to stay with Fordhan’s mother. Fordhan’s parents divorced.
Here, life became better. Biriggwa would practice on the guitar every day. Later, Biriggwa moved to Harvard University to meet his friends where one of them took him in. All the others gave him their meal coupons, which he would use to get free food. He would go in and pretend like he is a student and get food. He survived on this for close to three months.
Soon, he started getting gigs. Eventually, he got a scholarship to study music at New England Conservatory of Music where a musicologist was interested in someone who knew African folk music.
He knew the Kiganda folk songs and would explain it to students. At the end of the course, he was also able to release a folk-songs album, Biriggwa, which you can find on Amazon.
The album did well and he started getting gigs around America. He made money that he was able to sponsor his sister and two brothers to America for studies. They are: Beatrice Damalie Biriggwa Langa, who is married to Steven Langa; David Biriggwa, who lives in the States, and Kamya Biriggwa, who passed away three months ago.
After the scholarship programme, he said music isn’t enough; he wanted to be qualified in other things. He decided to enroll at Emerson College in Boston where he got a BA in communications. Later, he enrolled at Boston University for a master’s degree in Public Relations and Marketing. He did all this while still doing music. After that, he was doing less of music.
He joined Digital Equipment Corporation, which was one of the largest mini computer companies at the time. That is how he got involved in technology. He was lucky to get involved in the first research for internet, Arpanet at Stanford University.
After four years here, he joined Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy for a master’s degree in law and diplomacy. On completion, he was recruited by Citi bank, and worked in New York and Kenya. By this time, music wasn’t at the forefront fulfilling his father’s demand: “Why don’t you go out and get a real job.”