Interview with Lillian Mbabazi of the Coke Studio Africa

Lillian Mbabazi is one of the artists from Uganda that was chosen to participate in Season One of the Coke Studio Africa show. This is a unique music show that brings together artists from different genres, eras and regions to create a modern and authentic African sound through musical fusion. Read on to see what she thinks of the show, her time there sofar and her music in general.

Who is Lillian Mbabazi?

I am a singer, songwriter and artist from Kampala, Uganda. I used to be in the girl group, Blue 3. I’m really glad to be here because it feels like déjà vu all over again working with Coca-Cola.

How would you describe your sound?

My sound is a fusion of many difference sounds. I like to try different styles like house, R&B and soul. I like to fuse it all. I call it R&B and soul, with a little African twist.

How did you get into music?

Professionally, I started singing in 2004. I went for a competition called Coca-Cola Popstars which I won together with two other girls, Cindy and Jacky. We formed the group Blue 3, and we were together for seven years before I went solo.

How is it performing as a solo artist as opposed to being in a group?

Initially it was terrible because I was used to working with Cindy and Jacky. It’s like your clothes have been stripped and you are naked. You have to stand there and prove yourself to the world and say, “listen I know I used to be in this group, but I can do it on my own too.” So initially it was very scary but I have a good support system. I have a good manager and friends, and even the girls I was with in the group have been very supportive. Eventually I got used to the fact that I was on my own and to make myself more comfortable, I formed a band called Sundowner.

Did you always know you were going to be a singer?

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I couldn’t think of anything else. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in an office and doing a 9-5 job because I felt a passion for music since I was a kid. I used to go and sing in karaoke bars all the time. One time when I was about 12 years old, I escaped from home and I went to a club where my cousins and friends were. They had a live band and I didn’t know they were showing it live on TV. So my parents were sitting at home watching the show on TV and got so confused because they thought I was in the house. Oh my, I just had such a passion for music and knew that I wanted to be a singer from day one. I love music with all my heart. It’s what keeps me going. No matter what situation I am in, music has always been a comfort place for me.

Why is music special for you? What does it do to you?

Somebody can write a song that makes you feel like they are speaking to what you are going through. There is a certain connection, and you feel like you are not the only one in the world going through a certain situation. Most of the time, we have things in our minds but we don’t really know how to express them. So music is like a form of expression for me. It’s a way for me to release whatever is inside of me without having to verbally say it. It also brings people together. I mean, look at Coke Studio. I am working with Temi from Nigeria and Culture Music Club from Zanzibar. It’s just something that unites people from different languages, regions and backgrounds. It’s a really powerful thing.

Do you connect with music lyrically or melodically?

When I initially hear a song I listen to the lyrics, but good beats and sound definitely help. So, I’d start with the lyrics then move to the melody.

What inspires you when you are writing?

I usually write songs when I am home. I write about stories that people have told me, or about things I have gone through. For example, when I had my baby, I felt the need to write a song for my baby because it was the most important thing that ever happened in my life. So situations like that make me write. I basically use life situations around me and put them into songs so that people can understand exactly what I am going through or what’s happening in my life.

Talk to us about African music

I am glad that Africans are coming up with such powerful music lately. Before we had like 80% American music or music from outside Africa but lately, it’s 80% African music and 20% western music because we are getting more creative. I am very happy with the sound and when I listen to different songs from all over Africa, I get impressed. We actually have a big audience for the music in Africa. Our music has become so powerful that it can rival industries across the world. If African musicians come together and push the music, collaborate, and fuse sounds from all over the continent, then we will have such a powerful industry.

Tell us about your song Danger and why you chose it for Coke Studio

Danger is a song which was written for me by Moses Radio. He is such a brilliant song writer. When he wrote the song, I told him I wanted something that can be appreciated by everyone – young and old. Love is something that unites all of us. So Danger is a song about a really shy girl who likes a boy but doesn’t know how to tell him. She decides to write a letter like we did back in the day when we were in high school. In the letter, she writes about how she feels about him saying, “When I see you walking by I feel weak in the knees, I feel dizzy in my mind, am losing my mind, so I wish you could reply to my letter so you can know that am in danger. I’m in danger with all these emotions and if you don’t help me, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” The song was brilliant; it really worked well for me in Uganda. It was one of the biggest songs I’ve had since I started my solo career. So when I got the opportunity to be on Coke Studio, I wanted to see what kind of spin we could put on Danger. I feel like the song cuts across all African countries and that’s why I decided to make it my project song.

How did the song change for Coke Studio?

We made the song a little bit more up tempo than I usually play it back at home. It’s actually very interesting and I like what we’ve done with it. I like the drums, the different breaks and the cords they have changed here and there. It’s really interesting and I’m very excited about it.

What did you think of the backup vocalists?

I was very impressed with them because Ugandan is a language that even I find difficult singing sometimes but they sung it with so much ease. They were also very interested in knowing what the song was about and how they could sing it better. I really enjoyed working with them.

Tell us about the song you did with Temi

When I was contacted to do a song with an African artist I thought wow, I’d really like to do something from East Africa. Looking back over the years, one of the songs that was very popular across Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya was Maria Salome by Saida Karoli. It was such a big hit and I thought it would be nice to see what I can do with it. When I told Temi, she was like, ‘how do you say this.’ She couldn’t pronounce some of the words, but bless her soul, she’s got it. So I was really excited to see what we were going to do. She put her own twist on it by adding some spoken word and little bit of this and that, so it became very interesting.

What was it like working with Temi did you know her beforehand?

I actually had not heard about Temi before but when we met for the first time in Nairobi, we shared music and she played me some of her songs. She’s such an amazing singer. I love what she does. It’s not your ordinary mainstream music but it’s still very interesting and catchy. I really like her ideas and the way she thinks while she’s writing so I was very happy I met her. It’s always nice to learn new things from different artists.

What was it like working with Culture Music Club?

I had never heard of CMC either, but I have heard about the music that they do. I’ve heard about Taarab music before and have listened to it. I’ve also performed a lot in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The music reminds me a lot of Arabic, Ethiopian or Eritrean music. It has that same kind of vibe. So initially when they told me I was going to do a song in Taarab, I was like ‘what am I going to do?’ I felt like doing Taarab music was going to be such a challenge. But when I listened to the track that they did with the band, I was actually really impressed. It kept the Taarab sound but added something more which I could sing to and it worked out really well. I really loved it.

What’s the song called, what is it about?

It’s called Bahati and it talks about luck. We are all given chances or opportunities in life and the question is what we’re going to do with it? If it disappears, what are going to do? So, the song is basically about using opportunities when you have them. That’s the message I got.

How hard was it singing a song in a language that you don’t understand?

Music is music, that’s what I think. If a song is good and speaks to you, no matter which language it’s in, you can learn it. I have heard people sing in French, Portuguese or Spanish and they don’t speak the language. So it’s all about the song. It takes a bit of time to learn how to sing it, but if you listen and are interested, it will all work out. I feel like music is music regardless of the language it is in.

What was it like working with CMC in regards to the language barrier?

CMC is lovely. We didn’t speak that much to each other but I spoke a bit of Swahili to them. They are such lovely people and their instruments were quite unique. Especially the way they combined four different instruments. It was just really interesting and I’m very glad I got the opportunity to meet different kinds of musicians.

We’ve heard that you have an interesting warm up?

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I feel like every artist should have some drills they do before they get onto the stage. I got mine from South Africa when we were doing Coca-Cola Popstars. We used to do vocal exercises right after breakfast for about 15 minutes to prepare our voices.

Did you find it easy working with other artists on Coke Studio?

Well, luckily for me, it has been a bit easy but there are times it can also a bit difficult depending on the kind of artist. On Coke Studio, I’ve been blessed to work with Temi and CMC. They are really friendly and we’ve gotten to know each other a little bit. So it’s not been that difficult to work with them. Though they are some artistes who are quite difficult to work with but eventually you get what you want.

Do you think you are easy to work with? How do you work?

I’m my biggest critic, I always feel like I can do better. If I am uncomfortable with something, I will give my opinion or just my suggestion. So I am not difficult to work with but when it comes to creativity, it’s important that I leave my mark because I know what I want to sound like. Everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses and it’s always good to learn because what you know might not always be the right thing. So you just have to keep an open mind when collaborating with somebody, that’s how I feel.

What was it like working with the Coke Studio house band?

They are so much fun! We’ve been goofing around a lot especially with DJ Space, and the drummer Amani, is so hilarious, he was doing catwalks. They are all really fun and they are also such professionals. They actually know what they are doing and I love what they are doing with all the different songs. I‘m happy I got to meet them.

What do you think of Coke Studio?

Wow! What can I say? I feel very blessed and humbled to be a part of Coke Studio. Everyone has been so loving and caring. It’s been such a nice experience, I never imagined doing something like this. It’s been an opportunity for me to spread my wings and show the rest of the world what I can do and what I’m about. Meeting all those different artistes made it one fantastic trip. I am not going to forget this.

Coke Studio, Thank You.

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Coke Studio,  airs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania & Nigeria and includes eight 45min shows plus a planned 2 hour New Year’s Eve special. Each episode will showcases an unexpected fusion by various groups of artists to create a unique sound. The show also provides viewers with a behind the scenes look into the artist’s interactions and experiences on set.

In addition to the TV show, fans will be able to watch and download various content such as video, MP3 and wallpapers on the new Coke Studio Africa website. Entire episodes of the show will also be available on the official YouTube channel. Viewers across the continent have the opportunity to win various prizes including autographed posters, Coke Studio kits and branded merchandise through the show.

Written by Muwado

Muwado is an arts, lifestyle, entertainment, humour and entrepreneurship and social networking website tailored for Africa.

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