While a number of local musicians, even a considerable range of them regularly perform in neighbouring states and abroad, most of them are identifiable as local voices or names, and even when they are invited elsewhere they are simply on a visit. Saida Karoli isn’t one of them as she can melt into any musical environment in Eastern Africa and melt with it, without inciting any introspection that she could be ‘other,’ from some other place. It is not often that a singer becomes an international voice, image, and icon.
That is roughly the picture one gets of Saida Karoli, as a musician whose image cannot be pinned territorially but at any moment she becomes unmistakably regional, carrying a breadth of cultural strands in her voice and movement.
Her birthplace and ‘centre’ of her image is at once a meeting point of cultures, since there are numerous ways in which the culture of Kagera Region melts with that of Buganda Province in neighbouring Uganda. And there are kindred groups in near proximity, the ‘Interlacustrine’ region as a whole.
While Saida Karoli is by all means a superstar in the Eastern Africa region, she is yet to strike international notoriety that links Africa and Europe or the United States, or make inroads into Asia.
That is the stuff that truly great musicians are made of, that hardly any cultures can afford to ignore such person, for instance Miriam Makeba ( even when using a simple song like Malaika, picked somewhere in East Africa). There was unforgettable Michael Jackson, and we have just heard that Osama bin Laden was a fan of Bob Marley.
One internationally recognizable musician that reminds one of Saida Karoli is Senegalese megastar Youssou Ndour, who also plays traditional music out and out, with the same unmistakable high pitched voice that is habitual in ancient praise singing.
Yet the level of the pitch is mostly moderate in Karoli, whose characteristic coolness and beat reminds one of the coastal ‘mdundiko’ beat which the late Ramadhani Ongala carried with him virtually as a trademark. But while Ongala danced heavy beats, Karoli wildly celebrates.
There is a feeling that comes up at times, that like Ongala before her and quite a few others, there is a lack of commentary that disturbs the powers that be a little, mobilizes the ‘facebook’ generation, and there it is.
That isn’t to say Karoli’s singing is short of commentary but on the whole it is focused on social realism rather than criticism, and surely not espousing the sort of despair one hears from ‘Mjomba.’ That is the difference.
Many however shall prefer that Saida Karoli keeps her art as it is, that she enjoys the music and there are many who like the music as it is, without having to politicize it for other ends.
And in an excitable environment as we have, were she to add something like ‘katiba’ instead simply of ‘love,’ one can’t quite map out what sort of impact that would have. Still, it is possible the level of contention on the political scene doesn’t yet warrant a solid type of music to follow it, the way Bob Marley grew out of the Jamaican civil war. His rival, and even a mentor, Jimmy Cliff, avoided the politics, and largely the fame.