Ronald Kabuye: ‘If it wasn’t for music, I’d be nowhere’

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How Ronald Kabuye, a trombonist from a slum in Katwe, Uganda; fell in love with playing music and found his way to a bigger better stage.

When I lost my dad I had to stay with my mum and I was separated from my siblings. So it was not a very very easy start at the time. There was no food that was stable so what would happen is that we would eat, most of the time, once a day. Whenever my mum went out to work, I worked a lot of jobs like being a housemaid  cleaning. I remember at the age of five, I’ll go get my bag and go around the village collecting scraps like plastics and sell them so that I can get some money, buy food and bring home so that we can eat something. 

One thing happened one day when I was in the street collecting my scraps. I heard and saw this band playing in the street in my slum in Katwe, Uganda. And there was this boy standing in front of the band. He was twisting the stick, he was happy and joyed and I was like wow, this is so amazing. So I followed the band to where they were going and I was like ‘I want to join’ and when they told me ‘yes, it’s fine, you can join’ – that became one of the best days of my life.  And with that first spark, it was like love at first sight. 

Actually at that moment, I forgot I’ve got no food at home, I had no sandals, I was just enjoying the music.

The band named M-lisada

The music was amazing and the instruments too. But what mostly caught my eye was that boy in front. The boy was holding a stick and it was a tall stick. And what they do is that they twist it around, throw it around their arms and change up. He was like an entertainer, he was the spark of the M-lisada band, apart from the music.

The reason I joined the band was because I enjoyed it, I wanted to be like that boy. I wanted to forget about all the pain I was going through, all the troubles we were having at home. I wanted to be happy. So really it was all about the joy that I was feeling. 

I was a drum major in the band for more than six years, from the age of five to the age of 13. After some time the band got a home, in 2008, which was built for us. Most of the time I was not actually at my mother’s home, I was with the band. When they built the home, my mum was really struggling to feed me, so I couldn’t stay with her. And she was struggling herself to survive because she was HIV Positive. 

Finding my muse

As I began to grow taller, I think I became a little bit shy of being at the front so I said I’m no longer that small boy so I wanted to pick up an instrument and I picked the trombone. It was a magical instrument because you could slide up, slide down. The sound is like it’s rolling and it’s entertaining. It was hard to learn though. 

We didn’t have enough instruments, we didn’t have enough stands. I remember we were about eight people sharing the same trombone. I also remember, one time with my closest friend Julius, when we were still learning the trombone we would write the notes down on the ground and read from the ground. 

Teachers were expensive and when you got a teacher to learn they’ll come once a day and then they’ll not show up for two weeks. So it wasn’t very very easy learning. 

Living with other children who wanted to learn music however, was a magical thing. One of the things that the home brought to us was having a big family. Like most of us didn’t grow with our families but we had a big family here. We shared the same stories, we shared the same background. We all knew that life was difficult for each other and we were there for each other. 

We would learn and find joy in the band. Then things got better. 

When we were in the home, we met Uncle Jim, Jim Trott who is the founder of Brass For Africa. He used to come to Uganda and he’ll come with a bunch of instruments. So that meant everyone would have an instrument to play, which also meant everybody had the opportunity to learn. But it was more than that – it was the starting of a new journey for us. 

A new kid in a new world

When I turned 16, my life got stuck. When they told me I couldn’t be at home anymore because of my age, my heart broke. I was like two years back I had just lost my mum and now where do I go? Where do I start from? So I first moved to a house called the Dreamhouse where 16 year olds and above stayed. That’s where you learn to wake up yourself, make your own programme and no one was giving you orders: you really had to find your own way. It also wasn’t the best place so I really struggled to settle.

I continued to play music; it’s one of the things I have never stopped doing in my life. One of the opportunities that came with Brass For Africa was to earn money by becoming a teacher. So what happened was that when Uncle Jim came to M-Lisada, we were 12 boys and one girl, and we were all at that stage where we needed to find our own in life. So with the teachers they had brought, we were still learning music and improving everyday. 

There was a group of teachers facilitating lessons at Missions for the Poor so at a point I was one of the teachers they selected for training. So we went through the foundation for teaching. Then we started making our own money and making it on our own in life. It was like a transition and a new chapter of my life that I really treasure. 

I actually realised that my life was being transformed – I was becoming a good leader, I was becoming a good communicator, I was becoming a good problem solver. 

One other sparkling moment in my life was when Alison Balsom and Guy Barker were brought in to teach us in Uganda and we played in the slums. The connection it was having on me was just magical. It was so inspirational. 

It made me believe and be even more ambitious and realise that that was not the end of my dream, that I could have other dreams to succeed like I can go to university, I can go on and believe in myself and be a better version of me. If I didn’t find music, I’d be on the streets, in prison or dead. If I didn’t find music or Brass for Africa I don’t think I’d be able to go through university, I’d be nowhere.

Ronald Kabuye is currently in his final year of law school at the university level. He has also played his trombone at the Royal Albert Hall, in the UK.

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