World Music pioneer with Zambula

Tuesday 09 December 2003 01:00

Titus Muwanga Sembatya (Tito), percussionist, singer and songwriter: born Kampala 9 February 1951; (one son); died Penzance, Cornwall 10 November 2003.

A refugee in the 1970s from Idi Amin's Uganda, the singer, percussionist and songwriter Tito came to the UK in his twenties, living first in London and then from 1981 until his death in west Cornwall.

Soon after his arrival, Tito gathered around him a group of musicians and began to create songs, chants and music based on his childhood experiences in Africa - with vocals in Swahili, Lugandan and English. When the Israeli singer and songwriter Wendy Herman joined the band, an extremely potent "front line" was created, the stage interaction between the two producing fireworks at gigs and festivals all over Britain for two decades.

Years before the fad for "World Music", the partygoers and music fans of the South-west were dancing to the African rhythms of Tito's dangerous band Zambula as it careered from one venue to another - sometimes facing a folk audience, sometimes rock, and now and then a jazz club or two. A feature of their set in the early days was a spectacular elongated, improvised "drum solo", which in fact featured both Tito and Demelza Val Baker on conga drums. Dozens of musicians passed through Zambula during its long career, different styles and instruments would be introduced and each new influence would create a different tinge - Zambula were never dull.

Tito's great skill was as a live performer - his voice was one of those that did not take kindly to the recording studio and consequently there were not the series of best-selling CDs that the band's live performances merited. Off-stage Tito was a shy and reserved man. In order to get the courage to become a stage performer and in order to deal with a difficult life, he took copious amounts of alcohol, which eventually severely damaged him - although for the six months before his death he had been drink-free.

He was born Titus Muwanga Sembatya in 1951 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Tito's father was a chaplain at the cathedral there and later a bishop in West Buganda. In 1973 Tito came to England to study food technology in London. He had intended to go back to Uganda, but the political situation under Idi Amin deteriorated to the point where it became too dangerous and he claimed political asylum. After four years of college and then a spell working first for Coca-Cola and then as a microbiologist, Tito met up with a Cornish girl, Sue Pascoe, and in 1981 moved to Cornwall, living at first at Ding Dong and later Penzance.

Formed in west Cornwall as a 10-piece in 1982, Zambula, featuring a front line of Tito and Wendy Herman on vocals, and Demelza Val Baker on congas, were for many years one of the West Country's most popular draws with regular appearances at Glastonbury, Womad, St Ives Festival, Hood and Elephant Fayres and other regional gatherings.

In 2003 the band was still performing around the UK, although by now featuring only Tito and Demelza from the original line-up. In recent years Tito was delighted to represent Uganda at the Albert Hall, in London, and other venues as one of the Master Drummers of Africa.

Martin Val Baker

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