Last week I had the pleasure of playing guitar in a Congolese church in Katwe, Kampala, as part of the “Shepherd Voice Band”, started by one of my good friends from DR Congo. When he came to Uganda about ten years ago, fleeing the war, he was completely alone and didn’t know if any of his family was still alive, let alone where they might have ended up. By the grace of God, he found some of his brothers and other relatives three years ago here in Uganda, and they’ve been living together ever since.
Though Uganda is a peaceful and friendly country for refugees, life has not been easy for them. For one thing, none of them came with any knowledge of English (French is the international language of DRC) so finding work was a challenge. But whenever they were in times of trouble, or didn’t have food to eat, they would just sit together and sing, praising God for the gift of life. These singing sessions turned into something more structured as my friend acquired a guitar and began writing songs for them. Thus, the “Shepherd Voice Band” was born.
Katwe is home to the largest of 8 slums in Kampala, and a significant number of refugees and asylum-seekers, mainly from DRC and South Sudan. Walking to the church through the maze of dirt tracks and open sewers, two things struck me about the place: Firstly, I couldn’t help but notice the volume of rubbish and waste on the floor, which was far more than any other part of Kampala I’ve seen so far, but secondly how full and buzzing the streets were, with adults, children and animals all wondering round, chatting and joking with each other.
The church itself was quite big, held up by wooden beams and an iron roof, with a raised platform for the preachers and worship band. I was impressed by the quality of the instruments (drum kit, guitars, keyboard), but even more so by the skills of the musicians – the Congolese are famous for their guitar playing, and most of the professional bands in Uganda feature at least one Congolese guitarist in their line-up. I loved listening to their songs, which were full of passion, energy and very cool African beats! Here’s a very small sample below…
The dancing was also something to behold, at one point it got so carried away that a cable snapped and caught fire! Luckily the musicians noticed and put it out before it could spread.
The songs by the Shepherd Voice Band were mellower and more contemplative in comparison, with rich vocal harmonies, though I didn’t join in with the singing as I hadn’t quite got to grips with the Lingala or Swahili words. DRC has four official languages (in addition to French) and all of these were used during the service, either in the songs, sermon or prayers, so a translator was needed for some people (I had my own personal translator sitting next to me!)
Here’s the chorus of one of the Shepherd Voice Band’s songs, in Lingala:
Jesu, Jesu yozali nzambe Jesus, Jesus you are God
Jesu eh Jesu, Jesu yozali zimba Jesus you are the source of life
Yabomoye netolama Be praised
I didn’t manage to get a video of the Shepherd Voice Band in action but there is a possibility of recording some songs in a studio, so watch this space…!