By Claude Muhi
Mustapha Ssemugenze begins his Thursdays at UMA Showgrounds, in Lugogo. He is a lighting technician for Alex Muhangi’s weekly Comedy Store shows.
He ends his Thursdays still at UMA.
For the next one month, Ssemugenze’s Thursday schedule— along with the rest of the behind the scenes crew— has come to an abrupt halt.
Last evening, Comedy Store and all other social/ entertainment events scheduled within thirty days in Uganda, were put on hiatus amid growing concern over the rapid spread of the coronavirus, sending stars like Muhangi, musician Eddy Kenzo, Fun Factory among others, into financial meltdown.
Behind the artists who appear onstage, however, is a fragile pool of thousands of workers like Ssemugenze who perform much of the labor that allows concerts and shows to go on — from sound and lighting to transportation, merchandise sales, security, media, beauticians, designers, cleaners, and hospitality. Most are freelancers with few if any employment protections, and they now face a month or even months of uncertainty, and potential economic ruin, if the COVID-19 interruption continues into mid 2020 and beyond.
And this is a big possibility.
“The next one or two months,” Ssemugenze said, “is floating somewhere in limbo.”
Little seen by the public, the crews that work with artists are mostly not formal, and bounce from job to job with often little more than a few months’ notice. For years, as the entertainment business grew and ticket prices for events swelled, there has been plenty of work.
Entertainment events rake in billions of shillings in ticket sales annually. It feeds millions throughout the year.
But the shutdown has exposed the vulnerability of much of the entertainment events labor force, said Muhangi, a sound engineer and proprietor of Comedy Store.
And he must know.
“With such cancellations, it’s a financial hardship for a big crew,” Muhangi said. “In this case, the fear is much deeper, because the entire industry is just grinding to a halt.”
For a big weekly comedy event in Lugogo, Muhangi says he works with up to 500 people behind the scenes.
“A partier will come in when everything is set. They can’t imagine what we go through to organise the shows. It a big pool of service providers. They can even be more than 500 people for a big event,” Muhangi adds.
Behind the scenes, Muhangi or an artist organizing an event works with promoters, police, bouncers, stage provider, stage controllers, security, designers, food vendors, breweries, makeup artists, sound/light sound engineers, band crews for hire – guitarists, drummers, vocalists, equipment lifters,tents, ticketing companies, decorators, choreographers, bloggers, deejays, radio/TV presenters, cleaners, videographers and a host of so many others.
As fashion designer Kleberson, who sells artist Bebe Cool wear, put it, “Events is the original gig economy. They run the arts industry.”
At a Bebe Cool musical concert, Kleberson sells on average 200 T-shirts at Shs30, 000 each and same number of Caps with each selling at Shs40, 000.
“The industry is on its knees. It not only artists paying the COVID-19 price. The behind the scenes people are as well, and they are millions,” Kleberson tells us.
Since last night, as the cancellation was announced by President Museveni, Facebook feeds and WhatsApp groups of service providers have been filling with deflating anecdotes and commiseration.
The people interviewed for this article, most said they had no clue where there next meal will come from.
Most have nothing else to do.
Muhangi tells us that since last evening, he’s received over 50 phone calls of his employees begging for‘lunch’.
“I share the little I earn with them. Its what keeps them going. Now they have nothing. Nothing. It’s that bad,” Muhangi adds.
Kandake’s Renal Ibra Ssebata was organizing the Tugende Mukikade musical event that was slated to take place at The Serena Hotel next month. The concert won’t happen. Atleast for now.
He is counting his losses. And he is not alone.
Ibra says approximately 150 people were to be directly employed by Tugende Mukikade concert.
“Statistically for an event at Serena Hotel, 150 people get jobs behind the scenes. For my event, I use between 30 to 50 for marketing, stage set up needs around 15 people, then there is 20 to 30 casual labourers. I need around 30 security personnel to be sure of no disruptions.
As the promoter, I have my internal staff of around 15 people. All these earn a living off the show, and remember they have families which feed off them,” Ibra says.
However, he adds that it was imperative for government to cancel the events.
“Government did the right thing. As a nation, we need to put in place preventive measures rather than wait for the pandemic to his us. Kudos to government and President Museveni,” Ibra insists.
Celebrated entertainment journalist, Miles Rwamiti, actually believes it’s the people behind artists who stand to lose most.
“Take an example of Eddy Kenzo festival. Kenzo had actually sold it to a promoter, a one Luba.
Luba probably had already paid for a few services including venue.
Yes, the event will probably take place at a later date, but you can’t count out the losses and the jobs lost.
However, no one is to blame for this, its just what it is. Health comes first,” Rwamiti says.
How long the disruption lasts will depend on the Covid-19 outbreak.
But even if the spread is contained soon, it may take months to recalibrate the complex scheduling details that go into planning a concert and the congestion that will likely happen, and workers say they are bracing for a year of vastly reduced income.
Joseph Masembe, the brains behind The Kids Green Festival, said that for most workers, the delays have hit just as the business was set to ramp up for its annual mini peak period with Easter festivals coming, after the lean first months of the year. “This could not have happened at a worse time for this industry,” he said.
Promoter Balaam Barugahara, the organiser of the cancelled French Week, said he was counting his losses, but insisted health comes first.
“The cancellation has led to a big loss for me and my great partners, but because of Humanity, I’m left with limited choice. I have to choose between Money and humanity. Humanity wins!!” Balaam posted.
A pianist in a live band said he was “preparing for the worst.”
“I am debating just going door to door to see if anyone is hiring cleaners at home, just to get through,” she said.
For most concert workers, the shutdown came as no surprise, even if the impact has been sudden.
As the reality of months without work settles there may be few opportunities for gainful employment, however, several service providers said they were concerned that their skills were not easily translatable to other businesses.
“Our industry can’t work from home,” said one.
Muhangi adds he’s most concerned about the mental-health hazards that may come with extended periods of unemployment and isolation — which would exacerbate the stress and depression that many behind the scenes people are already battling.