By James “Ssewa Ssewa” Ssewakiryanga Junior
In 2014, I was traveling with a friend and we were stopped at the airport. One of my traditional instruments, an adungu (traditional Ugandan arched harp) had been questioned by a security officer. Because of the appearance of large nails, used to secure and tune the strings, it would not be allowed on the plane.
While this was an embarrassing moment, it also made me begin to think about the many traditional instruments that I use in my career and travels as a professional musician. I realized that this instrument not only had large nails, but there were other materials, most especially the skin hide stretched across the resonator that could prove problematic as I traveled across Africa and elsewhere with my band to perform. I happen to play quite a number of traditional Ugandan stringed instruments, and I realized that most of them used similar materials and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to bring these instruments and introduce them to new audiences.
I happened to have another adungu that I had put aside for quite some time because it had a broken neck. About a year later, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about this broken adungu, wanting to fix the instrument in order to play it again. In the morning, I called a carpenter and asked if he could help me find a nice piece of strong wood for the adungu neck. As he went to find a tape measure, I imagined trying to build a complete new adungu and improve the instrument’s appearance, intonation, and make it easier to amplify for public performance. These were all issues I had previously thought about trying to improve, and that I hoped might also allow me to travel more easily with the instrument. By the time the carpenter had returned moments later with his tape measure, I had changed my mind. I no longer wanted to fix the adungu with a new neck. I wanted to build a completely new instrument based on the traditional ideas of the adungu.
This was the beginning of the creation of an instrument that I call the Janzi. The instrument, which I have named after my band, is different in several ways from the traditional adungu. While it has an arched neck, instead of a resonator covered with hide, the Janzi has a wooden box with an integrated pickup. For my own use, I wanted to have two sets of strings, one tuned to a diatonic scale and the other to a pentatonic scale. I play the twenty-two strings in two parallel alignments with one hand each—the appearance often confuses viewers who associate the instrument with the West African kora. We also built the instrument using modern machine tuners, allowing me to fine tune the strings, and also (hopefully) passing the inspection of airport security officers! In 2017, I was awarded a Utility Model Certificate in Uganda for the creation of this stringed instrument with two scales.
I have been working with the same carpenter, Steven Kibombo, to build not only the janzi, but a three-neck version (with diatonic, pentatonic, and chromatic strings). I also have ideas for other innovations and improvements that I hope to see constructed for me to use in my performances and to share with audiences, collectors, and scholars around the world. I hope to share them with members of the American Musical Instrument Society in the future.
Building instruments in Uganda is a difficult endeavor. The popularity of western instruments has meant the decline of a market for instruments based on traditional Ugandan models. There is no international market for the instruments and a shrinking local market, while players and potential students disappear. This has resulted in the loss of skilled instrument makers, especially those who can build traditional style stringed instruments. The only traditional makers who continue in Uganda are those that build drums, which use largely different set of skills.
Some of the other challenges in beginning to build instruments in Uganda include:
Finding good quality dry wood (especially during the lengthy rainy season) that can be used to construct the instruments: Locating ample workshop space and storage of wood and other materials along with storing finished instruments awaiting sale
Access to the quality machinery that is necessary for cutting, curving, and finishing the instruments according to my specifications is difficult and costly It is also difficult to find western supplies that I have used in my design including accessories like light weight tuning pegs, pickups, equalizers, and sharping levers which are necessary to produce professional quality instruments that can play in modern musical ensembles and in a larger variety of musical contexts.
James Ssewakiryanga Junior “Ssewa Ssewa” was born into a musical family in Kampala Uganda and has been an active performing musician for most of his life. In 2009, he co-founded the band Janzi alongside some of Uganda’s most celebrated instrumental musicians. His performances feature a variety of traditional instruments like the Endoongo, Akogo, Amadinda, Engoma, and others. He is also an innovator and instrument builder. www.ssewassewa.com