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Here is how the show may go on amidst a global pandemic

Updated: Apr 30, 2020

A belly dancer conducting lessons via the ZOOM video-communications app in Vietnam. A violinist playing off his balcony in a housing estate in Egypt to an audience of locked-down neighbours watching off their own balconies. A comedy club in Scotland that has encouraged its comics to record their monologues for upload on its social media platforms with the ultimate goal of monetising the said content.

These are truly disruptive times for the global arts industry as have been brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the face of adversity have come other opportunities in showcasing the arts. Shakespeare’s Globe in London is streaming The Bard’s plays and seemingly asking: to stream or not to stream, that is the question. The National Theatre, still in the UK, has gone one better. It raised $23,453 (about UGX100m) from donations of theatre lovers that watched the stage version of Jane Eyre uploaded on YouTube for free viewing.

COVID-19 has, however, thrown a curve ball to Ugandan artistes most of whom thrive on the gig economy which literally reduces them to a dignified hand-to-mouth existence. So while their lifestyle is a notch higher in affluence than the non-saving man on the street, times like these where there are virtually no public gatherings mean that bands can’t play, no stage plays can be put on at the theatre, dance classes are on hold, book markets have no one coming to their stalls and art gallery doors are shut.

Mr Y.P. Kajoba, a music agent who books bands to play to guests in Kampala’s A-list hotels, decries the current pandemic and its attendant lockdown of cities. “It has affected me and the musicians I book 100%,” he says. “Even before the president announced the lockdown, our business was already down completely because hotels were in an early lockdown two weeks prior for lack of guests. I’m badly affected,” he adds.

Mr Kajoba also blames artistes for being naïve about the arts business because it is rare for them to save for rainy days like this lockdown. “I hope my peers are holding up otherwise it’s a dire situation,” the former member of the now defunct Appegio Afro-pop band says.

Artiste Manager Dorothy Nabunjo, who has Shifa Musisi and Sandra Suubi under her management wing, attests to this. “There is no work at the moment, which translates into financial loss. This plus the uncertainty about how people will respond to events and entertainment after all this is over. Never mind that most projects are postponed,” she says.

Ms Nabunjo adds that it is tough for an independent artiste to make financial gains from her online presence, which is mostly seen as a secondary audience. “An artiste has to hit the 4,000 subscriber mark before he or she can monetise on YouTube.”

Rising ethno-pop chanteuse Lily Kadima, who has been enchanting audiences with her Lusoga-lyric-laced songs, wants to look at the silver lining on the COVID-19 dark cloud. “It’s time to think outside the box when it comes to the way we package and promote/market our products,” she says. “It’s a real wakeup call for we creatives to look beyond the home market. Right now, artistes that are established online are still getting something. With people stuck at home, they will have no choice but look out for their work. Otherwise a life with no concerts or social gatherings is tough to imagine for most recording artistes. How shall we survive?”

Ms Kadima adds that it’s time for artistes to consider gigs that are done online to a paying audience. “I think that’s the future. It’s also time to exercise and improve our musicianship and any other natural gifts or opportunities, putting music aside, that can support our lives or family during tough times like now.”

That making-lemonade-out-of-the-lockdown-lemons approach is what Jonnie Bakimi — a fulltime musician, singer, songwriter, live performer, guitarist and music teacher — has decided to pursue. Together with Joseph Kahirimbanyi aka Kahiri, band manager of top city live music outfit Qwela, the duo has created KNN — Kalantin News Network. Kalantin is a play on the pronunciation of “quarantine” in most Ugandan local languages.

“This shutdown made me realise I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands; time that could be used to try out all the things I’ve been pushing off for lack of time,” says Mr Bakimi. “Sitting in Kahiri’s living room, Kahiri and I decided we had to come out of this lockdown different from the way we went in. This is a time to grow talent-wise, creative-wise, so I guess the lockdown inspired the birth of something good after all.”

KNN uses a single camera for its visibly arduous shoots and long hours in front of the computer fiddling with Adobe video editing software that yield pranks, rib-cracking monologues, funny-bone-flexing parody sessions and an acoustic music performance with Mr Bakimi on acoustic guitar and Mr Kahiri on a djembe drum all packaged in under three minutes.

Speaking on matters audio-visual, two Ugandan short films took advantage of the lockdown situation and premiered on Easter Sunday via YouTube.YALA! , about young man that barely earns any money runs into a challenge of returning misplaced valuable property is a Hakim Zziwa film. Sitting in the Director’s chair and taking the editing credit on the film as well, Zziwa, a former dancer with Tabu Flo Dance Company, recruited the help of his dancer friends. He probably wanted to show that in these times of lockdown adversity, it helps to push the envelope by way of a multiplicity of talents and taking on new skills while making the most of exhibition spaces beyond the four walls of the traditional cinema space.

Rolex is the other film and it posted the impressive statistic of 10,000 views in just 24 hours following its April 12th , 2020 release. In the 14- minute film, four men, associates, are up for a life-changing deal, but they must each overcome one common deadly obstacle, or lose everything. The micro-cinema crime thriller is music label Swangz Avenue’s foray into the cinematic realm. Not bad for a Ugandan entertainment brand that is synonymous with imaginative TVCs (television commercials) if their signature MTN “Bosco” ad is anything to go by. It’s unlikely that those 10,000 views would have been garnered by way of the traditional festival or cinema release route.

By Moses Serugo

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