Growing up, Giovanni Kremer Kiyingi was not as strong as his neighbors in Kampala, Uganda. Instead of playing outside with other children, he curiously picked through his father’s records and studied the instruments he heard at church. While he might have lacked a physical strength, Giovanni’s inquisitiveness and gift for instrumentation far exceeded that of his peers.
Today Giovani Kiyingi is a gifted multi-instrumentalist and songwriter whose music bursts with the regional textures of Uganda, Africa and beyond. Giovanni plays a variety of Indigenous instruments including the akogo (thumb piano), djembe, endingidi (tube fiddle), endere (a traditional flute) and the adungu (African harp) – many of which he first learned by ear, creating a unique sound and rhythmic ability. “I'm always looking at new instruments and once I learn something about it, the rest is history. I might not play it the 'real' way, but I can introduce something from my side, from my feel, my knowledge of music,” Giovanni says. “If so many people are playing it traditionally, I ask how are we taking this particular instrument to another level?”
As a lyricist, Giovanni is dedicated to sharing his stories and those of his community, fusing campfire tales and personal experiences into a poetic blend of East African folk and world beats. Giovanni’s first album, Joy Of An African (Essanyu ly’omufilika) was released in 2010 and followed six years later by Amakondeere and Chenge. In the interim, the musician grew his already expansive musical palate as the lead singer of Zivu Band, through the peer educational music program Ethno and Santuri Safari, a collective of artists experimenting with Indigenous and cutting edge sounds. Giovanni has taken his innovative style and compelling voice to festival stages around the world, performing with legendary players such as Ethio-jazz father Mulatu Astake, South African rapper Spoek Mathambo and for Pope Francis in 2015.
Among his more recent collaborators is Ssewa Ssewa, a fellow Ugandan multi-instrumentalist with whom Giovanni had previously recorded an album, Tuwaye (Lugandan for conversations). “We come from the same region, but Sswea is a Griot, his family used to play for the king. None of my parents are musicians; my influences are just out of the world. Yet we play and match each other,” Giovanni notes.
Recorded in Uganda and at Flying Carpet Records’ Los Angeles studio, Giovanni and Ssewa were joined by key maestro Kibrom Bihrane and other legendary session players to create a tapestry of multinational melodies for their label debut. “Ssewa and I can play almost play 12 traditional instruments from Uganda and we wanted to do something called 32 strings – Uganda has so many instruments with strings,” Giovanni continues. “The session had the influences of home and also the contributions from other musicians, but the body of the music is from Uganda.”
As a musician and in life, Giovanni remains a student. Now living in Phoenix, Arizona, Giovanni is continuing his lifelong fascination with music by studying regional and national American genres. From rock to hip-hop and afrobeat, “I’m studying different influences here and looking for a way to marry them in my traditional music. Musicians here are playing rock, I’m introducing them to rhythms from home – I can't wait to hear what their interpretation sounds like.” He currently creates original rhythms for Abelton’s East African sound bank.