Meet Seby Ntege – singer, multi-instrumentalist, and pioneer of “Ugandan afro-soul dance music”. Seby’s journey has taken him to different places in the world – including SOAS this coming Friday – but his love for music remains rooted to one key place.
Seby hails from Uganda, in the heart of East Africa, and his journey has brought him to London, where he has lived since 2003. They say one should never forget their roots – and Seby has not just remembered his, but has infused them into his life’s work.
“The format of African music is quite similar in some respects, and the music across the continent tends to stand for the same things,” Seby begins. “But what makes Ugandan music distinct within this is the use of the pentatonic scale, the five-note scale.” The five-note scale comes up often in my conversation with Seby – after all, his new album is literally called ‘Five Notes’ – but it’s important to understand why this is significant.
You’ll be familiar with the major scales of music; seven-note octaves within different keys, identifiable by the famous “do-re-mi”. The pentatonic scale is a more stripped back version, using – you guessed it – just the five notes, and forms the basis of a lot of world music, as well as the music created by ancient civilisations. The Ancient Greeks and the Native Americans, among many others, employed the pentatonic scales in their melodies, as did much of ancient east and southeast Asia.
And, of course, Africa.
Africa is also home to a smorgasbord of diverse instruments, an impressive number of which can be found in Seby’s skillset – there’s the akogo thumb piano, the endongo lyre, the adungu harp. You’d imagine this marks our interviewee out as a unique breed of musician; but the man himself feels otherwise. “I’m not sure exactly why, but the region of Uganda I come from, the Busoga region, is constantly producing multi-instrumentalists.”
Of course, you want to know exactly why, so I probe further. Seby laughs – another common occurrence in our chat over the phone. “OK, so the music from that region is full of instruments, especially in the modern day. Traditional music from my home would feature a whole range of instruments anyway – xylophone, flute, drums – but now, we have access to so many more through travel and immigration.”
Seby, for example, plays the kora, a 21-string harp-lute that actually comes from West Africa, and much of Seby’s music features this beautiful instrument, as well as others from Eastern Africa.
“I learned the kora in London, when I was surrounded by Western African friends. I just picked it up and played.” What do you mean ‘just picked up and played’? “This is how it has always been for me. I wasn’t formally trained in music, I didn’t have lessons. I self-taught. I would see an instrument there and just pick it up…” Seby pauses. “Like a toy with which to play.”
Is he really comparing learning the endingidi with my admittedly mad skills with a Lego set? “I just picked it up and played by ear. This is how it was in our musical family. I was always watching and imitating.”
It’s a beautiful, natural process, from the way Seby describes it. After all, music connects with us on a deeper level – how else do you explain the way a new song can give you chills, or how some vocals make your hairs stand up on end? Music can feel so natural – it’s the only way, after all, that different and totally disconnected ancient civilisations were all able to stumble upon that same pentatonic scale.
“So, the five notes complement the variety of musical instruments in Uganda to create a unique sound; one that I want to feel in all of my music, regardless of where I go, and no matter the style of music – even if it’s Ugandan punk or Ugandan bashment! If that exists.”
Seby laughs again. It’s a wonderful vocation, the role of an ambassador, and one that Seby recognises a need for.
“It’s very strange, and a conversation I have very often with my colleagues. Ugandan music is not very well-known in the UK, other than perhaps Michael Kiwanuka; definitely not comparable with music from West Africa in terms of popularity.” Indeed – if you were to take a cursory look at the African music that’s become relatively popular within the UK over the last decade, the biggest names tend to be Nigerian or Ghanaian, a.k.a West Africans.
That brings us to ‘Five Notes’, Seby’s latest album, and one he refers to as “a musical memoir” of his time in the UK. The notes, he says, naturally refer to the pentatonic scale, but also to different facets of his life since he left Uganda, and his family band, Nile Beat Artists, in 2003.
“It’s a very personal album, because it’s about my life experience over the last 16-17 years. The album talks about leaving Uganda, my mother’s death, my hopes for my new life (I wanted to win a jackpot, Seby chuckles), the influences I met in London, and my work here. Each note feels symbolic of something in the past. If you were to compare this album to something I made in 2003, it’s very different.”
London, as we know, is a melting pot of cultural diversity; so the UK-influenced Five Notes offers a few more elements than Seby’s previous work. His multicultural band – vocalist Diana Lwanga, guitarist Ben Avison, drummer Lucas Keen on drums, and fellow multi-instrumentalist Rob Stevens – are the chemists.
“I am proud of my band – these guys are professionals, they have their own genres, and are all very good and very established musicians in their own right. But what is key is to spread the music of Uganda.” Seby explains. “These guys add a lot, add extra flavour to that. The beauty is in how they all come together.”
And of course, the band will all be coming together on Friday 18 October, to play a concert at SOAS as part of the Concert Series. But this isn’t Seby’s first meeting of music and education in the UK; he runs a number of music and dance workshops across the country to introduce his sound to a new generation of musicians. This is really interesting to me – how does a person like Seby, whose connection with music is entirely instinctive, teach his students to feel the same through a formal education?
“I’ve needed to adapt to a more formal structure,” Seby answers. “It’s really hard to replicate the natural absorption of music I enjoyed as a child. Each student of music is different – my bandmates, for example, have a more formal upbringing in music – the names of the notes and the keys – while I play by ear. As a teacher, the outcome of the education is key, and I need to work towards the strengths of the students. In this respect, students prefer a stricter format.”
Let’s talk more about that. Seby is often described as possessing a “musical curiosity”. For him, does that term match up with learning music by syllabus? “For me, learning a new structure of teaching is a positive challenge that enhances my experience. The aim is to ‘teach’, but to leave the student with the tools to make music, to explore and express, to be ready for ‘musical interaction’. Each student interacts with music differently; when we need to change a guitarist, I don’t expect them to play the same as the one they’re replacing.”
I can hear Seby smiling during his next line. “I prefer for them to express themselves naturally.” That’ll be good news for Tobias Sturmer, a SOAS alum that will be stepping in for the band’s guitarist on Friday.
Seby’s gig at SOAS, then, promises to be an exploration of identity, of creativity, of diversity, and of natural musical expression. Of London, of life, and, naturally, of Uganda.
“I’m proud of my roots,” Seby concludes. “I want my journey to be seen around the world, I want to show, ‘Hey, there’s a Ugandan here, doing this, achieving that’, and I want to make Uganda proud and known on the world music scene.”
Tickets for Seby’s show – The Soul of East Africa – can be bought here.