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Ayub Ogada: The Passing of a Nyatiti Evangelist

13 min read. Ayub Ogada remained largely unrecognised and unacknowledged at home – but he will be remembered globally for being a nyatiti prophet.

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Ayub Ogada: The Passing of a Nyatiti Evangelist
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The underlying tone of several online comments in response to the magnificence of Ayub Ogada’s music ruefully note that the man was a proverbial prophet who failed to gain acceptance at home. Home here stretches beyond his birthplace Kenya into the vast African continent. The various comments suggested that he did not receive the level of respect and star recognition and treatment accorded him in Europe where he spent a large part of his creative life.

When he passed away on 1st Feb 2019, messages of condolence, as well as newspaper articles, generally reiterated that Ayub, the nyatiti icon, had been neglected locally. Commentators lamented that his music did not receive sufficient airplay and that he was not featured regularly in the media. Some even suggested that the album he recently released, Kodhi, was all but successful. The narrative from another stream of commiseration minimised his musical genius and production to a single song, Koth Biro. The hauntingly melodious opening, “Aaaayehaye aye aye…aye hayee aye aye” is easily recognised even by those who draw a blank when asked, “Do you know Ayub Ogada?”

Granted, Koth Biro is Ayub Ogada’s most renowned song and signature tune, and has been rendered and re-rendered in countless versions by hundreds of artists all over the globe. However, to reduce him to the Koth Biro one-song wonder, displays a minimalist appreciation that obscures Ayub Ogada’s real contribution to world music and his success in putting Kenya and his adopted instrument – the nyatiti – on the global pedestal. This re-framing of Ayub Ogada’s quest, his narrative, his sojourn in Europe and eventual return to Kenya after almost two decades to settle in his rural home in Nyahera, Kisumu West, and his passion to work with the next generation of musicians paints a fuller picture of the man and his legacy.

***

I first met Job Ouko Seda in the early seventies. He was a teenager with a thick American drawl and along with his brothers, David and Eric, joined Our Lady of Mercy Primary School in Nairobi. Eric, the youngest of the three Seda siblings, was my classmate and later became a good friend. They had just returned to Kenya from Chicago in America where their father had been pursuing his clinical medicine studies. While there, he was accompanied by his wife and the young Job as they gave performances of Luo music to Kenyan and American audiences in college campuses.

Job, who was 6-years-old when they relocated to America, was part of the travelling troupe and ended up getting exposed to multiple performance traditions early. He got immersed in the African American cultural and civil rights scene and recounts meeting and shaking the hand of Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) and experiencing the aftermath of American segregation. Job has described how going to America from Mombasa, where he was born, was a big culture shock comparable only to the counter-shock that hit him upon his return to Kenya.

Upon completing his primary schooling at Our Lady of Mercy Primary School, Job joined Lenana High School where he played various musical instruments. He has said in interviews that the legendary Fadhili Williams of Malaika fame taught him how to play the guitar. While still in school he played for a band, Awengele, made up mainly of school mates. They experimented with rock and soul music that was playing on radio then. When he graduated from high school he teamed up with the likes of Gordon Ominde, Jack Otieno (Jack Odongo) and Ali Nassir to form Black Savage Band.   The band drew their influence from psych and folk rock, funk and R&B. They recorded their debut album, Something for Someone. The album is described as having all songs in English with politically and socially aware lyrics.

The band went on to release three more singles, Do you really care/Save the savage and Grassland/Kothbiro and Fire/Rita – a reggae sound. The eclecticism of the music genre they produced points to young men struggling to find a musical identity.   This was the time that the famous Koth Biro was composed. There has been controversy in some circles about the composer of the song. In an interview with John Lawrence published in 2015, Ayub Ogada said:

“There was one afternoon when Mbarak Achieng’ and I were hungry, coming from rehearsals to buy some French fries in town. So, while walking along Waiyaki Way, the melody came, and we wrote Koth Biro.”

The song is a Luo folk song imploring a certain Auma to be cautious because a major downpour is imminent and to hurry home with the herd of cattle. Black Savages went ahead and recorded it, but it was Ayub Ogada who remade the nyatiti version that has assumed iconic status.

When Black Savages fell apart, Job was tasked to form a band by Alan Donovan of African Heritage fame. The band was to accompany Kenya’s African Heritage Festival, which showcased Afrocentric fashion and design pieces. Alan Donovan’s brief to the band was to compose and produce original music, not the inauthentic tunes that were in vogue in Nairobi. This was to mark a turning point in Job Seda’s transformation as a musician, a transition to which he credits Alan Donavan. He has been quoted expressing gratitude saying, “I would be nothing without this man.”

The song is a Luo folk song imploring a certain Auma to be cautious because a major downpour is imminent and to hurry home with the herd of cattle. Black Savages went ahead and recorded it, but it was Ayub Ogada who remade the nyatiti version that has assumed iconic status.

That was 1979. Job rounded up some of his former colleagues, Mbarak Achieng’, Francis Njoroge Noel Sanyanafwa (Drury – an old school mate at Our Lady of Mercy and Lenena School) and Goro Kunii, and a unique musical journey began. Their repertoire included original compositions fusing traditional music with sounds of rock and soul. The band was later joined by Jack Odongo, Ali Mogobeni, Shabaan Onyango, Walter Amalemba, Sammy Eshikaty, Gido Kibukosya and Samite Mulondo from Uganda. They recorded Niko Saikini and Handas. Job’s search for a real identity was still relentless. In between playing music, he was involved in film and is credited for work in The Color Purple and with acting roles in Out of Africa and The Kitchen Toto.

In an interview with Rupi Mangat, Job describes his epiphany, and conversion to the nyatiti. He recounts coming face to face with the musical instrument on display at the African Heritage showroom.

It was an instrument from my rural home, but nobody was playing it there any longer. So I bought it for a sum of Kshs 3,000 paying for it in instalments of Kshs 100. Then I found a teacher at the Bomas of Kenya to teach me how to play it. One lesson cost Kshs100. After six lessons, I could not afford the lessons anymore and taught myself. Since nobody played the instrument in Nairobi, I had to connect with the old people in Nyahera to learn more”.

Had Job Seda discovered the nyatiti, or had the nyatiti found him? Here he was, gravitating away from the mix of African Heritage’s afro rock and soul, and returning to learn at the feet of the elders. It was a truly remarkable rediscovery of his Nilotic roots.

In an interview, Job recalls the beginning of his relationship with the nyatiti:

It was love at first sight for the nyatiti and Ogada. I often saw the instrument used by traditional groups or folk musicians. When I strummed the Kamba nane strings, I instantly felt so strongly reconnected with my cultural roots.

There was a metamorphosis happening and Job was giving way to Ayub Ogada. The juogi (spirits) that had been bottled up in him were slowly welling up and consuming Job and giving birth to Ayub Ogada.

In his own words:

Job Seda had done a certain type of music that wasn’t African and I was involved in film industry. So I thought deeply about my life in 1986 and decided that I wanted to turn over a new leaf. When I discovered nyatiti, I went fully African.”

***

The origin of the eight-stringed nyatiti or lyre is shrouded in mysticism. It is noted that communities along the Nile river valley play versions of the instrument all the way from Egypt to the East African lacustrine region. It is more common among the Nilotic Luo and Kalenjin ethnic groups. Among the Bantu-speaking people, only the Abagusii and Bukusu have equivalents: the obokano and litungu, respectively.

Had Job Seda discovered the nyatiti, or had the nyatiti found him? Here he was, gravitating away from the mix of African Heritage’s afro rock and soul, and returning to learn at the feet of the elders. It was a truly remarkable rediscovery of his Nilotic roots.

Speculation that the instrument originated in ancient Egypt, ancient Greece or Babylon is supported by images of the instrument on hieroglyphics in Egypt. The music scholars who have traced the nyatiti along the Nile valley assert that it is only found along the migration route of the Nilotic people. In Uganda, the Acoli – a Luo-speaking people – also have the enanga or adungu that is played by the Jo-Padhola and Ateso. According to Nyamungu Odindo, who was Ayub Ogada’s nyatiti teacher, the nyatiti came from Israel and passed through Libya, which is where Ramogi, the mystical progenitor of the Luo people, got the instrument.

The number of strings of the lyre in every community has symbolic significance. The nyatiti has eight and it is said that this number represents the four days of seclusion observed upon the birth of a male child before he is brought out. (A female child is brought out after three days.) The last four strings represent the four days of vigil observed upon the demise of a man. (It is three days for a woman.) The strings therefore represent the entire life of man, from birth to death.

In this patriarchal worldview, the nyatiti player strums the entire continuum of life and death, in a sense acting as a mediator between the present and the past. In a recent interview, Ayub Ogada paraphrased this philosophy. He said:

Every time I play a song, I give you part of myself. So eventually, I must die because I have given you everything!”

There is more to the strings of the nyatiti. When it is tuned, the fourth and fifth chord from either up or down have the same tune. There is a Dholuo tongue-twister that says, “Nyatiti madiere móchodo chuny Jathum chutho.” This could roughly translate to, ‘The middle cord of the nyatiti that completely breaks the heart of the lyre player.” It suggests that the middle strings are the most important and if they break the musician and his music are as good as dead. It also suggests the spiritual bond or relationship between the musician and his instrument.

In this patriarchal worldview, the nyatiti player strums the entire continuum of life and death, in a sense acting as a mediator between the present and the past.

The nyatiti, unlike other string instruments, is very personal, and the tuning is dependent on the vocal range of and individual player. Researchers who have studied nyatiti players have noted that some players duplicate the tone of the voice while others produce a harmonic structure within which the vocal melody progresses. Nyatiti melodies are distributed to both hands and are played in an interlocking fashion using seven out of the ten fingers. The instrument is sacred in many respects, and it is believed that those who play it are not just musicians, but are possessed by the spirit of the thum nyatiti. The instrument is considered feminine, the prefix nya suggesting daughter of titi, which is onomatopoetic of the sound the middle cords. Nya is also the diminutive and so combined with titi it means “a small titi”. This feminisation of the instrument could be the reason that the nyatiti was traditionally only played by males.

An ethnomusicologist researcher tells us that women were discouraged from playing the nyatiti and that there was a social rule that stated that if a woman as much as touched the instrument she would be compelled to marry the owner. This has recently changed and there are accomplished female players.

The nyatiti was also handed down from father to son and so not everyone could learn and play it; it had to be in your blood. Some studies have shown that the predecessor of the nyatiti – the thum – was slightly bigger, and the beat was maintained by a different player. The nyatiti was made smaller to accommodate the single player who had to combine all the accompaniments in competition with the one-man guitar.

Traditionally, the nyatiti was played while seated. The player would sit on a small stool (orindi) while wearing on his right big toe a wrought iron ring (onduongó) and a couple of small metallic bells. As he plucked his nyatiti, he kept time striking the neck of the nyatiti with the onduongó causing the bells to jingle as he did so. Thus the single nyatiti player was an entire ensemble, producing the percussive beat, the harmony through the singing, the melody through the nyatiti and the accompanying rattles.

***

It is fascinating and illustrative of the transformation that in interviews detailing how he took up the nyatiti, Job Seda begins to refer to Ogada in the third person.   The new identity associated with the instrument was taking him over. He said:

When you start to play the instrument, you practically get married. She won’t like you to play another instrument. You play and you enter a contract, and you have to be serious. Suits me fine; I’m happily married.

From his experience at the African Heritage, he was completely sold to the idea of developing traditional music made from traditional instruments. His frustration is felt in in this 1993 quote: “I lived a lot in the city and found it very difficult to have access to traditional music.”

The Kenyan music scene during this period was under the siege of Congolese rhumba, soul and R&B, jazz, Latin pop and even country and western. For groups like African Heritage that were trying to be original, there was a shortage of role models. Further afield, it was the period when African artistes like Fela Kuti released global hits such as Lady and Shakara. Osibisa, a British Afro-pop band, was releasing hit after hit – Woyaya, We are Going, Happy Children. Artistes like Manu Dibango had released Soul Makosa. There is no doubt that these musicians influenced Ayub Ogada’s thinking and creative direction. Many parallels can be drawn to Ayub Ogada’s transformation to artists like Fela Kuti who abandoned his birth name, Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, and the high life type of music and adopted Afro-beat. Ayub Ogada however, never became as overtly political as Fela was, though he was a social commentator.

Job’s restlessness persisted, and after a highly creative stint with African Heritage, he parted ways with the other members, including Gido Kibukosya, Wally Amalemba, Sam Eshikaty, and Jack Odongo, due to aesthetic and ideological differences. He decided to take the band in a different direction. He is quoted saying:

They wanted to get into more Afro-fusion (read Westernised) sounds while I wanted to stick with strengthening the indigenous African sounds of my music, so we had to go our separate ways.

He was conflicted because he felt that he was not growing musically. So in 1986 he set off to the UK in search of kindred spirits. He stated in an interview that he needed to meet and interact with musicians making similar music away from the copy-cat scene in Nairobi and Kenya. He was by then an accomplished nyatiti player. At this point, it would be apt to paraphrase the famous quote by Neil Armstrong when he walked on the moon and state that this was one small step for the man Ayub Ogada and one giant leap for the nyatiti.

Ayub Ogada’s sojourn in Europe is only comparable to what Lamine Konte of Senegal and Foday Musa Suso of Gambia did for the kora. These artistes brought the kora to Europe to dialogue with musical trends alien to the Mandinka tradition that had produced it. Lamine Konte mixed the kora with Casamance traditional melodies and harmonised it with Afro Cuban rhythms while Foday Musa Suso crossed the kora with jazz instruments. Artist like Toumane Diabete improvised and infused the kora with other types of music and gave birth to a revival of the griot tradition and the contemporisation of the instrument and its performance.

No one before Ayub Ogada had done this for the nyatiti. His was a deliberate decision and sacrifice. In a 2016 interview after his Koth Biro was played in his absence at the opening of the Summer Olympics, he reminisced about the visa-obtaining shenanigans that had made it impossible for him to travel to Rio. He poignantly stated:

I know most probably our traditional instruments such as nyatiti are not taken with the seriousness like others. I am sure if it were some people carrying pianos, guitars, and other contemporary instruments, the treatment would have been different.

The story of Ayub Ogada, roughing it out in the London Underground while playing his nyatiti, has been told and retold hundreds of times, but the point that is missing is the realisation of the nature of the sacrifice that led to the global recognition of the nyatiti and its distinct sound. Ayub Ogada and the nyatiti strode onto the global stage when he was invited to play at WOMAD in 1988. He was scheduled to play for ten minutes, but at the last minute a Mozambican band failed to turn up and he was asked if he could play. He describes that serendipitous moment in an interview with Francis Gooding in 2016:

I said, no problem. I went into this great, big concert hall. The place was empty. I set myself up, plugged myself in, and did my concert. Normally, I close my eyes when I perform, and when I finished, the concert hall was packed, over capacity, and the applause just nearly blew me over. I nearly fell off my stool. As I came off stage, Peter Gabriel came and escorted me and that’s really how I began with WOMAD and Real World.”

As the saying goes, the rest is history. Peter Gabriel invited him to take part in one of the recording weeks and the rise of Ayub Ogada and nyatiti had begun. He went on to record En Mana Kuoyo (It is Just Sand). 

Ayub Ogada’s sojourn in Europe is only comparable to what Lamine Konte of Senegal and Foday Musa Suso of Gambia did for the kora. These artistes brought the kora to Europe to dialogue with musical trends alien to the Mandinka tradition that had produced it. 

Ayub Ogada and his nyatiti have shared the stage with various types of musicians and choirs. Koth Biro, in particular, has been rendered in uncountable forms with different instrumentation and even vocalisation of the nyatiti riff. The Luo lyrics of Koth Biro have been sung by hundreds of artists, with some renditions sounding totally ridiculous to the Luo ear. I am prepared to lay a bet that there is no other Kenyan song that has been as globally rendered as Koth Biro has. When I watched a perfect cello remaking of the nyatiti, it spoke of the length that Ayub Ogada’s sojourn had taken the nyatiti.

The nyatiti is not only inspiring new creations, but is getting incorporated into global beats, thanks to Ayub Ogada. He was by no means a traditional nyatiti player; he improvised and changed the playing position of the lyre. He cradled the nyatiti on his lap – a style that has now become more acceptable and probably allows the players more face-time with the audience. This playing position is also easier for female players of nyatiti to adopt. Working with varied instrumentalists, he created space for more and more instruments to accompany his nyatiti and he used the gara and onduon’go less and less. He incorporated djembe drums, thus adding a more powerful pulsating beat to his tunes, and welcomed the West African drums into the nyatiti’s space.

Ayub Ogada might as well be credited with the upright nyatiti playing position that democratised the instrument by making it gender neutral.

In 2007 Ayub Ogada, the pilgrim and his nyatiti, returned home. He said:

Many people have forgotten traditional music. I feel a responsibility to re-introduce it. I learnt from here and I want to give back.”

Like an evangelist, Ayub Ogada had converted the world to appreciate this unique instrument that has a history of over 5,000 years. He had put Kenya on the map with Koth Biro, the tune that had featured in sound tracks of international films, and more recently in Kanye West’s music. The remaining task for the nyatiti proselyte was to re-ground traditional music and instruments back to the source.

Ayub Ogada returned home to set up a studio where he could work with younger artists and provide the direction that he felt he lacked as a young man. Returning to one’s roots – dala – is an imploring message in Koth Biro: Auma keluru dhok e dala (Auma, bring the cattle back home). The family’s wealth, the cattle, finally returned to the homestead.

Upon his death, there were many, like the singer Suzanne Owiyo, who eulogised him as the inspiration that led them to taking up the nyatiti. Ayub Ogada’s prodigy, Martin Murimi, who goes by the name Papillion, is taking the nyatiti to the next level. He has designed an instrument called Anywal-Abel, a combination of a harp, percussion and thumb piano. Papillion attributes his success to his mentor, for whom he composed a song, Ayubu. In the song he praises Ayub Ogada as the quintessential teacher and mentor in whose debt he will forever be. He met Ayub Ogada in 2013 at a workshop and Ayub went ahead and invited him to the African Heritage and mentored him. He has since grown as an artist performer and designer of his own instruments. He is hailed as the only one in Africa. He said, “I felt the need to thank Ayub for the impact he has put in me and so I did it with my first song.”

Ayub Ogada returned home to set up a studio where he could work with younger artists and provide the direction that he felt he lacked as a young man. Returning to one’s roots – dala – is an imploring message in Koth Biro: Auma keluru dhok e dala (Auma, bring the cattle back home). The family’s wealth, the cattle, finally returned to the homestead.

Unfortunately, Ayub Ogada remained largely unrecognised and unacknowledged at home – but he will be remembered globally for being a nyatiti prophet.

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Oby Obyerodhyambo is a strategic communications scholar and cultural activist. He is also an award winning playwright and social commentator. He has been involved in various struggles for social and political reform.

Culture

The Boy from Tandale: The Rise of Diamond and his Wasafi Record Label

9 min read. An in-depth look at Bongo Flava’s most well-known artist, and the talents and business acumen that led to the astronomical success of his record company.

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The Boy from Tandale: The Rise of Diamond and his Wasafi Record Label
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Tandale estate is a solid flood-prone flat pan stacked amidst patterned limestone shacks at the heart of Dar es Salaam, just north of Kwa Mtogole and south of Kijitonyama and 7 kilometres from Dar’s famous Coco Beach. It’s also home to a former clothes vendor, Naseeb Abdul Juma and Raheem Rummy Nanji from Iringa.

Raheem, a budding musician, would alongside Tanzanian youthful celebrity Hakeem 5 earn the Nyamwezi-sounding moniker Vijana Sharobaro from the versatile all-time hit-maker Dully Sykes, who then worked under Dhahabu Records. In christening them Sharobaro in the 2000s, Sykes, then a popular bongo musician, seemed to have infused their budding careers with long-sought street cred just as the industry panned out to new sounds and styles.

The clothes vendor Naseeb was meanwhile stuck in blue-collar trade, first in freelance photography, then as a filling attendant, and also had a stint in gambling, while pursuing the ever-elusive money for studio fees. Meanwhile Raheem, now famously known as Bob Junior, would go on to establish Sharobaro Records, a hole-in-the-wall recording studio built for its time, and weirdly successful for its stature.

Back in Tandale, Naseeb’s dalliance with talent manager Chizo Mapene didn’t yield much professional or economic outcomes despite lots of initial prospects after which Naseeb hooked up with producer Msafiri Peter, aka Papaa Misifa, in 2009. Naseeb linked up again with Raheem of Sharobaro Records from where he recorded his first major hit, Nenda Kamwambie. The year 2010 looked promising, and with this debut album, the young Naseeb was introduced to Tanzanians and the East African region.

The album is mushy, existential, soulful, with heart-tugging reflections. It is borderline whiny, yet relatable and includes songs like Kamwambie, a dedication to his unrequited love, and Nitarejea sung alongside the ailing star Hawa. The latter is about a love that his foray into the city for work won’t quench despite the distance.

With the three hits – Kamwambie, Mbagala and Nitarejea – Naseeb, now known by his stage name Diamond Platnumz, harnessed the supple fluency of the local Kiswahili dialect and the poetic idioms of street slang to hog the limelight and introduce himself to the world.

In a region where the wider creative economy largely apes – and where possible solicits – the stature, money and alliances with global (and mostly American hip hop) for traction, Diamond Platnumz’s success has defied the odds both in style, sound, reach and influence. It’s in his 2017 interview with Forbes magazine where he would credit the traction that enabled him to consistently cash in on his musical talent as the mark that transitioned his music from a passion to a career.

No doubt his ability to craft a cultural Bongo Flava moment owes credence to legends like the 1990s Radio DJ Mike Mhagama. Mhagama coined the term Bongo Flava as a distinctive buzzword for the yet-to-be-defined musical genre that arose after the advent of private radio stations in Tanzania in the mid-1990s. Bongo Flava originated in Dar and is derived from a variety of musical genres, including American hip hop, reggae, R&B, afrobeat, and traditional Swahili musical styles, such as Taraab. The phrase, which was meant to delineate Tanzanian hip hop from American hip hop, anchored itself in the country’s showbiz lexicon as a tell-apart and defining tag for Tanzanian pop.

With the three hits – Kamwambie, Mbagala and Nitarejea – Naseeb, now known by his stage name Diamond Platnumz, harnessed the supple fluency of the local Kiswahili dialect and the poetic idioms of street slang to hog the limelight and introduce himself to the world.

Naseeb’s best contribution to the East African artistic scene is through his WCB Wasafi Records platform, for which the wider public has rewarded the company monetarily and brand-wise due to its astute combination of edgy production, track-for-track hits, balanced quality music, and commercial success. These, coupled with entrepreneurial vision, and unyielding versatility, reminiscent of Bigg’s Roc-a-fella or Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc inevitably centred Wasafi as an East African cultural project.  

The 2012 Lala Salama album shifted the recording company from soulful and heart-felt tunes to a flashier Afropop that saw the label pan its wings and doggedly pursue partnerships with Africa-wide celebrities and global brands such as Ishmael ‘Omarion’, and American hip hop star Rick Ross.

Back in Bongo, the musical fan base and their gladiatorial instincts fuelled supremacy wars akin to the imagined rivalry between Ronaldo-Messi in football, or Dar musicians’ Dudu Baya-Mr. Nice’s tiff. The online infractions saw the Wasafi Records founder Naseeb aka Diamond unwittingly pitted against his fellow star and erstwhile rival Ali Kiba. None seemed too pleased by the fan base warfare, which they’ve repeatedly admitted they are unable to quell or contain.

Lizzer Era

Diamond’s 2013 performance in Burundi not only linked the Wasafi founder to Burundian star Lolilo, but also led to a chance encounter with the then Burundi-based influential producer, Kigoma, born Siraj Khamees and stage-named Lizzer Classic.

When Diamond started Wasafi around 2014 – the origins of which came in the midst of a fast-rising career – the Tanzanian music scene had hit a lull after the heydays of Matonya, Mr. Nice and Ray C. His creative and business acumen seems to have chanced upon the realisation that the market yearned for a new sound and style.

From the get-go, reservations arose regarding Lizzer’s sampling of Burundian sounds into Tanzania’s Bongo Flava music. Lizzer, who had fled the 2010 state-sponsored electoral clashes in Bujumbura to Kigoma, was unrelenting and convinced there was place in the Tanzanian market for an updated version of Bongo Flava. He would take his first shot with Rayvanny’s Kwetu, a mushy-tinged serenade whose popularity gave legitimacy to Lizzer’s cross-border musical style.

In the working partnership between Lizzer and Diamond, a rising star met international experience; a mercurial duo akin to the then young Shawn Carter’s co-directorship with the steely Kareem “Biggs” Burke, and the colourful Damon Dash back in 1995.

Wasafi’s rise, like any other cultural moment, exists at the confluence of historical accidents, chance encounters, demand for new sounds, and huge individual effort just at the point where Dar’s audio-visual culture boomed, primarily on YouTube and Vimeo. As Odipodev clarified, the combination of local relatable content, proliferation of smartphones, and YouTube algorithms often helps generate a self-perpetuating model of proliferation and popularity onto what the viewers have already deemed to be superior content.

Lizzer, in his interviews with Bernard Mpangala at the WCB Wasafi offices, modestly remarked that their outsized commercial and cultural success wasn’t anywhere near monopoly, given that lots of their musical stars still work with other producers besides them in producing their albums.

Even then, he’d opine that at least 50 per cent of the album would be produced by Wasafi. Lizzer attributes his updating of Bongo Flava music from its widely varied days in the 2000s to the influence of Korean and Chinese music, of which he is an ardent fan.

The Korean influence on the updated Bongo Flava sounds can no doubt be gleaned from the storylines, the colourful Oriental dressing, and the unsynchronised dance moves of the Korean pop crew BTS in their hit song DNA. The same can be seen in the Chinese pop hits in the strain of NGirl’s Goddess choo choo choo and the Chinese songstress Feng Timo’s sleek improvisations and animated dramatisations, with their parallels in Salome, Zigo, or Mwanza Nyegezi.

Wasafi’s rise, like any other cultural moment, exists at the confluence of historical accidents, chance encounters, demand for new sounds, and huge individual effort just at the point where Dar’s audio-visual culture boomed, primarily on YouTube and Vimeo.

Lizzers’ signature tune Ayo Lizzer is a drop by Diamond edited to obscure his easily recognisable voice. Lizzer claims the tune allows the production team to dissuade artistes from mentioning him in the lyrics while still acknowledging his creative contribution.

Lizzer’s career’s steep ascend in late 2000s in Burundi drove him up the ranks and roped in big regional artistes like Sat B, Big Fizzo, Lolilo, Rally Joe and Emery Sun. Even then, it’s Rayvanny’s Kwetu that earned Lizzer acceptance in Tanzania, and the updated rendition of Saida Karoli’s Salome that set him up as a new sound in East African production.

Let’s make money

The Wasafi ecosystem hit its golden age from 2015, with Rajab ‘Harmonize’ Kahali, their newest signee chugging hit after hit with dizzying commercial success. Then came Mwanajuma ‘Queen Darleen’ and Raymond Shaban ‘Rayvanny’ in 2016, and Richard Martin ‘Rich Mavoko’, Juma Idd ‘Lava lava’ and Yusuph Kilungi ‘Mbosso’’s hits in 2017. Wasafi became a Foxconn of music in which insane work schedules blended with keen and demanding producers, and ever inventive back stage casts.

Director Diamond, as well as managers Babu Tale, Sallam SK, Said Fella, Joseph King, and producers Lizzer and Tuddy Thomas capitalised on the new sounds to feed a frenzied and ever-expanding fan base, while revitalising production wherever their music was heard. The rising popularity, combined with commercial astuteness and a growing band of talented artistes, saw the label dabble in top-selling ringtones, pricey and sold-out concerts, Wasafi Festival tours, royalties, product lines, club and TV appearances, and brand deals.

The Tanzanian record label pursued a multimedia model with the music streaming service wasafi.com launched first, while Wasafi TV and Wasafi FM further widened their reach and offering. This Wasafi ecosystem’s unprecedented savviness also earned them brand endorsements from Vodacom, Red Gold, DSTV, and Coca Cola.

The litany of commercial streams rewarded their work ethic and ingenuity. And while Wasafi’s market capitalisation is fuzzy and its transactional records remain inaccessible, Diamond’s estimated $4.5 million net worth is astronomical by any measure.

Curiously, the Wasafi ecosystem’s numerous rags to riches stories within its ranks is easily traceable to a policy of working with talents from poor backgrounds, something the directors admit to be true and deliberate. The ecosystem’s big acts, Konde boy Harmonize, Chibu Dangote Diamond, and Vannyboy have morphed from bootstrapping a half a decade ago to commanding fees in excess of $10,000 to $70,000 per show and earning upwards of $25,000 from streaming apps monthly.

This outsized influence has come with its own fair share of challenges. For instance, Baraza la Sanaa Tanzania (BASATA) took a moralisng stance against the artistes’ song Mwanza over what it dubbed explicit content. In 2018 BASATA put a leash on two of the label’s defiant big stars, RayVanny and Diamond, who in the end called for a truce owing to the risk of commercial losses that came with the ban.

Mr Kayanda, the agency’s interim executive secretary, brought down the full force of regulatory coercion, which elicited the age-old question of who deems what is explicit and triggered a moral debate in artistic expression. BASATA’s move amounted to predictable flexing, given President Magufuli’s wider crackdown on dissent, including clamping down on media personalities and political dissidents.

The litany of commercial streams rewarded their work ethic and ingenuity. And while Wasafi’s market capitalisation is fuzzy and its transactional records remain inaccessible, Diamond’s estimated $4.5 million net worth is astronomical by any measure.

Despite lacking a clear social cause, the Wasafi ecosystem has latched onto Dar es Salaam’s goal of providing 100,000 additional desks in its primary school classes as part of plugging the 1.4 million desks deficit. Their overall social cause and focus has, however, not been noteworthy outside of scouting for talent among the lowest socio-economic strata. The politically-conscious musician Roma Mkatoliki of the Rostam crew, who is a former teacher, and a dozen other artistes have also jumped onto the donation bandwagon.

The waning years

WCB Wasafi’s ecosystem has managed to inspire a cultural moment, and an ardent fan base, and has surpassed the mere tag of a label or a brand. However, for this ecosystem, achieving collective success has been the easy part while handling individual flaws, infighting, substantial talents, and an ever-growing team and fame has proved to be a challenge.

Rommy Jones, the founder’s kin, who is also Wasafi’s DJ, reckons that the artistes’ love lives and their relations with the female fan base are the main source of trouble for the organisation. In recent months, Diamond publicly fell out with his partner Zari Hassan and hooked up with video vixen Hamisa Mobetto, and then moved on to Tanasha Donna, while Rayvanny has a long talked-about dalliance with a Kenyan socialite.

Meanwhile, Harmonize dumped his lover after an alleged romp with a Caucasian female acquaintance. Rommy faced sexual assault allegations during Diamond’s April 2016 tour of Sweden, which led to Diamond cutting short his performances.

Besides trouble with the national arts council (BASATA), artistes’ exit from the recording firm could either be viewed as them having grown too big for one platform, or as the road to the demise of what’s still the most popular and competitive recording company in the region.

The record company first sign-up, Harmonize, has exited the label while the prodigious Richard Rayvanny is allegedly also on his way back to his former Tip Top Records, citing dissatisfaction with his contract. Mbosso’s manager, Ms. Sandra Brown, checked out, and so did Mr. Joel Vicent Joseph, who complained of poor pay and workplace harassment from one of the big name singers.

In a move reminiscent to Roc A Fella’s 2002 fallout in which Shawn ‘Jay Z’ Carter and co-director Damon Dash, while enjoying huge creative success, were grappling with behind-the-scenes squabbles, Rayvanny felt relegated to third place as Harmonize took second spot.

Mtwara-born Harmonize, it is said, was unhappy with Chibu’s public revelations of his personal matters. He was also displeased with regards to his contractual obligations, which eventually led him to exit and form the Konde Gang label.

WCB Wasafi’s ecosystem has managed to inspire a cultural moment and an ardent fan base, and has surpassed the mere tag of a label or a brand. However, for this ecosystem, achieving collective success has been the easy part while handling individual flaws, infighting, substantial talents, and an ever-growing team and fame has proved to be a challenge.

Because it is still patronised by great talent managers Babu Tale and Tudd Thomas, and producer Lizzer’s innovative knack, as well as a huge financial chest, and street smarts, the Wasafi ecosystem may survive much longer than the naysayers imagine. Through this ecosystem, Naseeb, the boy from Tandale, has managed to morph local music into likable and popular music, earning it both regional appeal and international stature.

The record label’s rise though has put it at crosshairs with Clouds Entertainment, who though coming in later into the Tanzanian arts scene after DJ Mhagama had launched Bongo Flava, views itself as the bona fide curator of Tanzania’s youthful cultural revolution. The late Ruge Muhataba and Joe Kusaga seemed unamused by the rise of a new media ecosystem outside of their patronage and capacity. This worsened after the altercation between a Wasafi staffer and two journalists from Clouds Media in February 2018 after which Cloud banned all Wasafi music and arts from their platforms.

The ultimate test for the five-year-old Wasafi platform will be managing Harmonize’s transition from the ecosystem since he co-owned Zoom Production Inc with Diamond. Zoom is one of the biggest cogs in the ecosystem and in charge of most of its video productions.

As they straddle between sizeable successes, an insatiable fan base and internal fallouts, the Wasafi ecosystem, ironically, risks getting cannibalised by a cultural moment that it was instrumental in creating.

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The ‘Waswahili’ and Their Hold on East Africa’s Popular Musical Culture

11 min read. Taarab is one of the oldest music forms in the East African region and amongst the earliest to be recorded commercially and exported. From its cradle at the East African coast arose new genres of music and a cast of iconic musicians whose influential contribution to world music continues to receive scant attention in popular literature.

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The ‘Waswahili’ and Their Hold on East Africa’s Popular Musical Culture
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Port cities are melting pots of culture world over. They spur the evolution of new cultures, languages and act as gateways to the world. It is within this context therefore that taarab, a distinct music form that defines East Africa internationally, found fertile ground along the vast coastal strip that was previously the domain of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The East African Coast has had a profound effect on the hinterland in terms of trade and cultural development and is home of the Swahili civilisation that came into strength during the Daybuli period between AD 900 and AD 1200. It is the Swahili who controlled the region’s trade from AD 1200 and bequeathed modern East Africa its lingua franca, the Swahili language and left their mark on the musical cultures of the inland indigenous peoples.

A sensuous melodic music deriving from diverse cultures that impacted the coastal culture over the years, taarab easily takes centre-stage in Swahili culture. While it is not necessarily amongst the oldest music forms in the region, given that ethnic groups in the hinterland had been creating music on reed flutes and thumb pianos for generations, taarab is amongst the earliest to be recorded commercially and exported from the region. Performed and recorded for nearly a century now, taarab, which has its origins in the Arab court music of nineteenth-century Zanzibar, owes its development to the political class of Zanzibar.

Sultan Said Barghash, who ruled Zanzibar between 1870 and 1888, is credited with introducing taarab to the East African coast and shepherding its growth into the cross-cultural mélange it has become today. Barghash, who loved music, and recognised its power as a social tool, looked to Egypt to develop his own court music, bringing in an Egyptian band to teach local musicians and sending a Zanzibari musician, Ibrahim Muhammed, to study music in Cairo.

On his return, Muhammed formed the Zanzibar Taarab Orchestra to entertain at the palace. The success of Muhammed’s group inspired the formation of other groups, notably Ikhwani Safaa, which continues to be active and popular in the present day Zanzibari music scene.

But the one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.

Siti was a woman of many firsts. She introduced Swahili lyrics to the then predominantly Arab music. She also broke the glass ceiling for female musicians in a conservative Islamic culture and started a revolution. Her Swahili lyrics helped spread taarab to the mainland, as far as Rwanda and Kismayo. Gradually female singers started taking up the lead role, with men playing instruments as backing performers.

In the early 1930s while recording in India for Columbia Music Recording Company, Siti teamed up with Egyptian musician Umm Kulthum in a collaboration that introduced the full Egyptian cello, violin and bass strings section, playing alongside the familiar accordion, oud, qanun zither and ney flute. The result was a string of crossover recordings that attained huge commercial success, turning Siti into a veritable star at home and in India until her death in 1950.

The one musician who took the music out of the palace to the mainland and beyond is Siti binti Saad, a Zanzibari woman who Swahili-nized and popularized the genre beyond Zanzibar in its formative years.

Siti’s success paved way for another iconic and controversial Zanzibari female musician, Fatuma binti Baraka, better known as Bi Kidude, who would go on to popularise her “unyago” brand of taarab worldwide, borrowing from her own radical past and characterized by its feminist politics in a conservative Islamic Sultanate. Although she started singing in the 1920s, Bi Kidude’s career remained in limbo for close to 50 years until the mid-70s when she rose to international prominence. In 2005, the cigarette-smoking grandma of taarab was awarded by World Music Expo (WOMEX) in recognition for her contribution to world music as a composer and performer, and is immortalized in Andy Jones’ 2006 documentary, As Old As My Tongue: The Myth and Life of Bi Kidude. Although her date of birth is unknown, she was allegedly over 100 years when she passed away in 2013.

Traditional taarab has gone on to spawn more pop-oriented styles such as beni, kidumbak and ‘modern taarab’ that do not necessary adhere to the traditional set structures of composition and arrangement, but lean more towards the dance styles popular on the streets at the time, and whose compositions are often spontaneous and whimsical, oft-times medleys of popular songs by other non-taarab musicians, and which are geared towards making the audience sing and dance along as they have a good time. These new styles often accompany the popular street parades at festivals in modern Zanzibar such as the annual Festival of the Dhow countries and Sauti za Busara.

While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.

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As taarab was continuing its dalliance with the Middle East and the Orient in its development, on mainland Tanzania the musicians were being encouraged to look inwards to their roots for inspiration. The phenomenal growth of ‘dansi’ or ‘ngoma’ music on mainland Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s is also attributed to politicians; and like taarab, its umbilical cord is attached to Dar es Salaam along the coast, despite drawing inspiration and musicians from the myriad indigenous cultures of Tanzania. When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth. Nyerere actively set up cultural centres in towns all over Tanzania and encouraged musicians to mine their rich cultural heritage even as they embraced foreign concepts.

It is his steerage that led to the establishment of vibrant performance spaces in Dar es Salaam such as the DDC Social Hall in Kariakoo and the Vijana Social Hall, and the memorable resident bands that played in those venues during events mostly sponsored by government parastatals and corporations. Bands sponsored by individuals also received support from the State, notably mega hit maker Mbaraka Mwinshehe and his Morogoro Jazz whose highlights included representing Tanzania at a World Fair the Osaka 1970 Exposition ( Expo 70) in Japan. Radio Tanzania inundated Tanzanian living rooms with hits from notable bands nurtured by Nyerere’s hand such as the ruling party TANU-sponsored Vijana Jazz Dar es Salaam Development Corporation’s DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra, the National Union of Tanzanian Workers’ NUTA Jazz; among others, spurring a veritable sense of patriotism among ordinary Tanzanians.

By the late 1970s Dares Salaam, the country’s musical epicenter, was at its most vibrant, with up to 30 active bands performing in different venues almost every day of the week. A good percentage of these bands were made up of itinerant Congolese musicians who had settled in the city, bringing with them a rich musical experience from Kinshasa via Paris and Brussels, and which further enriched the dansi oeuvre.

While taarab has achieved international stature as authentic East African music, it has never ruled the dancehalls of the region unlike Tanzanian dansi music, benga music from Western Kenya, Congolese rumba, and modern derivatives of dansi such as ‘bongo flava’.

Most multi-national record companies active in the 1970s and early 80s like Polygram and CBS had their regional headquarters in Nairobi. Tanzanian and Congolese bands crossed over to Nairobi to record at the superior studios, influencing the Kenyan bands they interacted with in the process. Nairobi pirates made a kill too, snapping up the hits and inundating the streets with bootleg tapes. The growth of dansi was phenomenal spreading its tentacles from the pleasure halls of cosmopolitan Dar es Salaam to other outback towns all over Tanzania and beyond, spilling Tanzanian bands like Wanyika and its various off-shoots, among them Simba Wanyika, Super Wanyika and Les Wanyika, across the border into Kenya, where they went on to dominate the scene in Nairobi in the late 1970s and 1980s. A notable scion of the Wanyika stable was Issa Juma Singano, who sat in as studio drummer on a number of benga hits recorded at Chandarana Studios in Kericho town in the mid-70s. A drummer dictates the pace of any piece of dance music.

The growth however came to an abrupt end when Nyerere stepped down in 1985, paving way for a new youthful sound, ‘bongo flava’, which drew influences from zouk, reggae, hip-hop and a slew of other foreign musical styles, the lyrics, increasingly abandoning the classic Kiswahili for street slang and the producers maximising digital technology.

But even as the coastal strip continued to exert its influence and dictate the direction the music and popular culture of the modernising East African states, the hinterland remained suspicious of the coast, silently resisting the influence of their culture. It is an old suspicion of the world-wise and mixed-blood ‘Waswahili’ that dates back to the slave-trading days when the kanzu-clad coastals were often at the head of the slave-raiding parties wielding their fire-spitting muskets.

In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini, often seedy tin-roofed rectangular blocks with wattle walls and a thin veneer of plaster built around a central courtyard, and which cluster around a mosque. Often there will be a palm tree or two in the village square that never comes to fruit in the inland climate, a reminder of the residents’ heritage. It is here that you might chance to hear strains of taarab wafting from an open doorway as the khanga-clad housewife busies herself at the jiko preparing kaimati or muhogo wa nazi for sale.

Outside these quasi-urban settlements, the Swahili are still perceived as sly and cunning. It could be the reason why taarab, unlike the rumba-flavoured dansi, has never had a profound effect beyond the coastal strip. Moreso the music’s sensual rhythms appear best suited to the unhurried lifestyle associated with the coast, the lyrics – oftentimes co-wives and mistresses bickering and bad-mouthing over a lover or a shared husband — more at home in a perfumed coastal harem than a sun-baked thatched village inland. The interior, it would seem, pulsates to its own rhythms, which better find expression in the more vigorous and malleable dansi.

When Julius Nyerere took over leadership of the newly independent Tanzania in 1964, he created the Ministry of Culture and Youth, whose main mandate was to marshal and revive Tanzania’s cultural wealth.

Which may explain, why the few times taarab has been embraced by the people of the interior it has had to adapt to their rhythms’. There was a revolution on Zanzibar Island in 1964 when the Swahili populace decided they had finally had enough of the Arab overlords. The bulk of these Swahili people, were freed slaves brought in from the hinterland called ‘wangwana’, who served the Arab traders as carriers, soldiers, gun-bearers and interpreters on the slave and ivory-raiding forays that had penetrated as far inland as Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika by 1830. They were also instrumental in the success of David Livingstone’s 1856 expedition and those by Henry Morton Stanley into the Congo in 1876. The majority ‘wangwana’ wanted to have a say not just in the politics of the island, but its culture as well. It is this revolution that ushered the more eclectic beats of the hinterland into the island’s music, and which would later bear off-shoots of taarab like kidumbak and beni that were more danceable.

In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid 1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success. Vidonge was a massive hit that was redone by Nairobi-based Congolese band Virunga. But there was something unique about ‘Vidonge’, and which may have been its selling point, especially in the hinterland; it wasn’t pure taarab in the traditional sense. Instead it was heavily laced with chakacha rhythms from the Bantu-speaking Mijikenda people who live along the Kenyan coast.

Likewise, when Malkia Rukia attained pop stardom with her taarab hit ‘Penzi Kwetu’ her producer, the fabled Andrew Burchell, better known as Rais Madebe of Mombasa’s Jikoni Records had to do the unthinkable, adapting the music to a hip-hop beat and inviting rapper Buda Boaz to rap over her smooth taarab lyrics in order for it to find favour with the mainstream club DJs. It proved to be scandalous in the staid Muslim culture that could not accommodate crude slang expressions like Buda Boaz’s ‘shusha dada’ (literally ‘let slip, sister’) and their euphemisms in a taarab song, causing Malkia marital problems; but it worked, going on to feature on Charlie Gillett’s popular ‘World of Music’ on BBC World Service.

Other Mombasa taarab artistes would later follow suit, including Nyota Ndogo and Prince Adio, who both found success with a mainstream listenership doing sassy street-savvy taarab music to a hip-hop beat, as opposed to the way it was traditionally done.

In most Kenyan trading towns that the ancient traders established along the old slave routes there’s always a Swahili settlement variously called Majengo or Mjini.

Beyond taarab and dansi, the coast has had a profound impact on other genres of Kenya’s popular music as well, with Mombasa artists often occupying the centre-stage of new developments on the urban music scene. In the experimental funky 1970s when young urbanites were trying to come up with a fashionable and youthful musical sound that they could not only dance to in the disco halls but also claim, it is the musicians from the coast in Mombasa who led the way. Names like Slim Ali, Kelly Brown, Faisal Brown, Ishmael Jingo, Steele Beauttah and Sal Davies set the capital’s disco floors on fire, with Sal Davies and Kelly Brown venturing further abroad, both finding success in the UK and Germany respectively.

In the hip-hop era of the 1990s and it is Mombasa street emcees Buda Boaz and Fundi Frank who again pioneered, hawking out home-made mix-tapes in which they experimented laying Swahili lyrics over electric grooves lifted from the tapes they had sourced from US marines who had docked over in Mombasa. Nairobi’s latter-day bad boy of rap, Poxi Presha, was a Mombasa product. All these talented musicians had to shift base to Nairobi to earn fame because that is where all the studios, record labels and media houses were.

One of the most recognisable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band. Composed of the Harrison siblings hailing from Kaloleni in Mombasa, and the brainchild of the eldest, Teddy Kalanda Harrison, Them Mushrooms had everything in place to propel them to their place in history as Kenya’s first successful musical export internationally.

In Kenya, when musician Asha Abdo Suleiman, better known as Malika, exploded on the national music scene in the mid-1990s with her smash hit ‘Vidonge’, it was the first time that a taarab song had achieved remarkable cross-over pop success

Hailing from a middle-class family in Tudor, Mombasa, the Harrison siblings were bitten by the musical bug early in life, cutting their teeth doing covers of the dansi and Congolese classics that dominated VOK (Voice of Kenya) radio. With a loan from their supportive mother in 1976 they bought their first drum-set and turned professional, joining the lucrative Mombasa beach hotel circuit where they landed their first contract with the Eden Roc Hotel. It is at the beach hotels that Them Mushrooms gradually started defining their individual style, settling for a cross of reggae, zouk and high-life laid over benga, rumba or the chakacha and nzele rhythms of their native village in Kaloleni., They called this sound ‘mushroom soup’. It is this style that they would later popularize at The Carnivore restaurant when they moved to Nairobi, where they were the resident band from 1986 till 1989.

The chart-topping and decorated band exhibited unmatched discipline and versatility during their prime and took their social responsibilities seriously. In 1988 they released a song about AIDS at a time when the condition was still very much a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health went on to use their song ‘Ukimwi ni Hatari’ extensively in their public-awareness campaigns. Sadly, the band never received a cent from the government in royalties, nor did they receive official recognition for their role.

Of all Kenyan bands, it is Them Mushrooms that has made the most forays abroad. In 1990 they were officially invited by the Ethiopian government to play at a conference in Addis Ababa. This would later sire a month-long tour that took them to diverse regions of the country, and which earned them a solid fan-base in Ethiopia. They would later follow up with successful sojourns in the Middle East in the mid 90s, touring Djibouti, Sharjah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and many other Emirate states before deciding they were ripe enough to try and conquer Europe, thanks in large to their smash hit ‘Jambo Bwana’ that had not only grown to become the unofficial anthem for promoting Kenya abroad as a tourist destination, but had also made it to the silver screen, with the slogan “Hakuna Matata” from Jambo Bwana featuring in the Walt Disney movie ‘Lion King’, catapulting the band to international stardom.

So successful was ‘Jambo Bwana’ internationally it was redone by the European pop band Boney M. This, and the response from their European fans who frequented The Carnivore, convinced the band that they were ready for Europe. They first toured Italy before winding up in Germany on the invite of a friend.

One of the most recognizable bands to rise out of the Mombasa beach circuit of the 1970s, and which went on to become a Kenyan export of repute abroad is Them Mushrooms band.

Bristling with youthful energy, they tried to find gigs, crossing the border to Switzerland, where another friend, cabaret singer Joe Mwenda, had landed them a temporary gig. Frustrated, they moved to London, where they attempted to find work with the assistance of Osibisa band’s Teddy Osei. But their attempt to find a foothold in the competitive European showbiz circuit was to prove disastrous in Germany, thanks in part to unscrupulous dealers who took advantage of their naivety and the fact that they were foreigners.

Fortune may have evaded the band in Europe, just like it has their compatriots at home, but musicians from the coast continue to play a crucial role in the direction popular music in Kenya takes today, their rich heritage cemented in the country’s national anthem, which borrows from a Miji Kenda folk tune.

Them Mushrooms three-month sojourn in Europe is winding and heart-breaking, but the short of it is that this was one band that was well-placed to make a success, had they received just a fraction of support – mostly logistical — from their own government, like the Tanzanian dansi bands did.

By denying Them Mushrooms support, the intransigent interior, had once again scored a hit at the ‘Waswahili’, putting paid to the Swahili saying that a prophet is never appreciated in their hometown.

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Culture

Finding the Zone: Billy Kahora Takes Charge

11 min read. Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence.

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There is a driven, will-to poignance in the posturing of the friends Chiri and Juli, which captures a trenchant motif threading the writing of Kenyan writer, Billy Kahora, as seen in the recently released The Cape Cod Bicycle War, bringing works published over 15 years in one book.

A bathetic self-dramatisation whose more pathetic disposition conceals a desperate desire for a steadfast life, Chiri and Juli are that seeming paradox of African middle – why the self-inflicted misery when you really have everything?

The motif is immediate, and everlasting, and defines Chiri and Juli as it does the other characters created by Billy Kahora, who was a longtime editor of the literary collective, Kwani?. Take the statement by Juli:

“Even in Bibilia, Old Testament, wheat was God’s crop”.

Is the seeming grandness of this statement egged on by the place he says it in, the expansive, majestic landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, just gone past a laga where they had a glancing, violent run-in with a young, uncircumcised Maasai herdsboy? The Rift Valley can seem, and has been said to be, where God lives. Except Chiri (Eddie Muchiri Kambo) and Juli (Julius Rotiken Sayianka) are impressively, but irredeemably, given over to the profane. Their invocation of the Almighty must not be seen as anything other than a manner of speaking.

So is it money, the knowledge that this crop of heaven, and the Narok variety no less, when well-tended, can give two harvests in a year? If so, why would they go on a drinking binge which may well scuttle the entire enterprise? Not by any stretch of terminology are these characters saints. But they are not sinners either, at least, not for heavily indictable sins.

Even if all of the above were true, we the readers aren’t going to judge these characters that extremely. It is that kind of life then, pushing things too far because the worst isn’t going to come for them, after all, and even if it did, mummy and all the network of class and tribe will catch them when they fall. It is the summation of upper middle class cloud cuckoo land.

Chiri and Juli are after all, full of life, which in the long history of literature (and literature’s affinity for zestful sinners is well-established) is the closest you can come to saintliness. We follow in either direction (saintliness and devilry) only so far as metaphor allows. It is imperative we take it as given: A crop of the gods it is, two young men going out to sow it and this means we must start off by thinking their’s an ecumenical quest. And if there is a pile of dosh at the end of this, then is it any the less an evangelical affair to grow rich?

These questions and the twists therein serve a higher purpose; they may not make Juli and Chiri better humans, but they make them thoroughly enjoyable literary characters. Literature, with its sometimes contrary-wise moral alignment to everyday life, ought to come with the caveat to not try this at home.

Which is a tortuous way of saying that we have in our hands here, a book at the heart of which is satire. It is there in the life of Jemimah Kariuki; cynicism – satire’s evil twin – at full stretch is what holds together the life of Kandle Kabogo Karoki (arguably one of the more impressive literary creatures to come out of Kenya) in the story about Nairobi as the fallen city, Zoning; in the life of Khalid Ibrahim Hussein, in The Unconverted, an examination of religion and ethnicity, it darkens considerably; in the life of Alan Muigai, strutter extraordinaire in Shiko, the cynicism masticates, getting too edgy. And in the coming of age, campus fiction story, Motherless, it is the cynicism of others that presses into and threatens to scupper the life of Maish Boi.

Is this thread, the satire and the baked-in cynicism running through this compendium, what is possible in the public and private life of Kenya as Billy Kahora sees it? His writing, as we have seen it in Kwani? and in other places – and the stories here have also variously come from other publications – has surveyed these psychological realms. In his writing, things press at people. From youth, they are forced to navigate a world extensively sullied by bad faith and bad form; growing up, they are acquiring various degrees of deformity. At the fullness of life, there they are, bonkers already, or going bonkers, ex-ministers, retired professors. Their children are running away from the family name (‘Maish Boi’ is actually Joseph Mungai, son of disgraced ex-Moi minister), drinking themselves to bits, talking politics “through jiggling chins and stomachs,” the old men “with heaving man tits from goat meat and forty years of independence”.

Even for an uncompromising vision of a country, this is bare-knuckled stuff. What else, this vision has seemed to say, can emerge of such a history but lives lived in cynical disregard for decorum?

If there was decorum, no one here seems to know what it was. So keen are they on the business of taking and avoiding being taken advantage of, that you give up hoping for some good in anyone and marvel at the nerve of it.

The etymology of such a world view, when you have mined the writing of Billy Kahora, is that a shit-storm of some magnitude happened at some point just as the characters were being born. Hence, this supposed turbulence, which cleared the land of whatever moral rectitude had been standing, and which broke the embankments of propriety that had kept the life above board, happened to their fathers’ generation. It is in Billy Kahora’s writing, inherited infraction.

Whether or not this mining unearths an accurate account, the conclusion is not news to the characters that his work. To varying degrees, they are people who have already accepted that the best you can expect from the world is a messed up life that at least should not leave you too finished to not like your favourite whisky.

With the exception of a Maimouna Munyakei (who is not fictional and an aberration in this collection), Fr. Kamau and Komora Kijana Wito, Billy Kahora’s characters are hustlers because they must avoid being hustled. In literary terms, this would be something like incurable realism.

In the fifteen years he has been published short story writer, the code has been there, holding on steadily: accept that yours is a corrupt nation, that promises will be broken; they will come to take from you; your best friends, including your own family, will take from you. Fathers can’t be relied on, they are impotent. If your mother is a strong woman, you are lucky. Only mothers can really love you, although even they have a habit of turning up drowned and bloated down river. 

Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing. Combined with the writing chops, the knowledge of the language by which the sense of contemporary Kenya is passed along, the Kiswahili predilection for wisdom peppering his writing, there arises a vital sense of groundedness. There is the vocabulary of the drinkscape (booze flows through the writing in quantity enough his prose could be designated a distillery). There is the near-casual psychological violence committed on almost every page. It is a tough place, Nairobi. There is the practiced awareness of how far to push things, and none excels at this more than Kandle Karoki in Zoning, who has become a master at working a few weeks in a year and not getting sacked for it.

Billy Kahora brings technical nous and organisation to his prose. That, in alliance with his grasp of the ins and outs of a certain Kenya, which I will dare call middle-Kenya, is what works for his writing.

Billy Kahora’s technical approach to writing works at several levels. His stories show consistency in this regard. First, he posits a big picture, like a painter priming a canvas to decide whether to work from light to darkness, or darkness to light, before making tentative, thematic daubs. He starts to work at sketching out the elements that will later receive fuller treatment.

Take The Red Door, the story where Chiri and Juli appear (shortlisted for and published in the 2013 Caine Prize collection). It is a complex story told as character study. But it is also plot-heavy, bucolically-trained to the cultural nuances outside of Nairobi. It gets its Sheng working. It is the story of inter-ethnic, Kenyan settlement, in the crowded, fought-over Rift Valley. There Is the sheer magnitude of detail, like a Richard Onyango painting, an ambitious piece of work.

So how to hold it all together? One way, effectively, is symbolism. Wheat and a combine harvester get collared as the effective glue. We clue in on this early on. At some point, it reads less like a short story than long-prose with the late-stage introduction of Eastleigh and a wily Somali trader-kind, and a peerless satirical treatment of money-worship.

The Mirrors in Treadmill Love, a subtly heartbreaking story, introduce spine to the story as narrative aid and mental unguent to Kung’u who needs soft, mental cushioning. Buruburu, aka the country, got to him, in that Francis Imbuga obiter dictum, “when the madness of an entire nation disturbs a solitary mind, it is not enough to call the man mad”.

In We are Here Because We are Here, the war between the Indian Ocean and the Tsana River, by which the Indian ocean tsunami threatens to wash away African hinterland, only for the Tsana (Tana) river to push back, this application of symbol as plot device is transparently on show, at the expense of the consummate complexity that drives other stories. But as a symbol, the struggle between the ocean and the river is tantalising. Are we talking here about African history, of the colonialising, mercantile, force, the trade winds blow onto its coast, and the seemingly weak, yet resilient force with which the continent has always pushed back?

The bicycles in the title story are the more overt symbols offering us a ride through the story.

And the lived-in knowledge of middle-Kenya? This is the fraught element in Billy Kahora’s writing. Given the depth of ethnic feeling in Kenya, a Kenyan writer can never escape the charge of ethnicity. The divide et impera mechanism built into the nation’s DNA to make British exploitation of the country more effective might never go away. The country in Billy Kahora’s writing is only Kenyan by extension. He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”. The challenge of writing, is to find out how there not, rather than looking for how, there are differences. We therefore squirm through the presentation of otherness in We are Here Because we Are Here and in Commission. Really? You cannot help but ask. Is there such a thing as difference, and should we assume others speaking in childish voices because they are from another ethnic background, and hence less “normal” “us”? If I were the editor, I would have left out the two stories for further development. And more than that, I can see how this fact might make some uncomfortable accountability on the part of Mr. Kahora as a Kenyan writer.

But where it is concentrated, in middle class Kikuyu life, Billy Kahora is in his true element. The prose where he is not looking for the others’ voice goes with few glitches. Perhaps the most ambitious story Billy Kahora has thus far written is The Gorilla’s Apprentice. There is something of The Tin Drum about The Gorilla’s Apprentice. A heartbreaking rendering of dystopia, without the sentimentality that often mars such attempts, it may well be one of the most effective stories written of the post election violence of 2001/08. The narrative, prima facie, is of a dying gorilla, and of a boy’s (Jimmy) desire to speak to him, which brings him close to the darkly mysterious Professor Charles Semambo. But we become aware that the shouts, fires and smoke through which the story strives to move forward, but which our narrator does not pull to the foreground, is of the most serious Kenyan crisis since the Mau Mau uprising. Like with Gunther Grass’ book, the innocence and curiosity masks unhinging darkness, amplifying it.

There is the author’s cold distance from his subjects. Bright-eyed hopes are best taken with caution. In the tight universe of his writing, there exists a place, not quite a sin bin, not really a hell, in which characters with too much hope in life are sent to fester in. Kandle Karoki has found that place, the Zone. He got over it. Now he prowls through Nairobi like he owns the place. In literature, there are characters you will be eternally grateful meeting. Think May Kasahara in Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Count Kaburagi in Yukio Mishima’s Forbidden Colours. Anti-heroes brighten up literature. Kandle aspires to that status. He leads a fallen life. He is not trying to get up. Why should he when fallen looks so good on him? He wears this status with such suave, commanding steadiness you must do a second take to be reassured the author is not pulling our legs and this is an actual, handsome devil. Literature can never have enough of handsome devils. Kandle lied to his manager at the bank. He has not shown up for work in forever. He took out a loan to service his time in the Zone. They know he has lied. He knows they know. They have cornered him. But Kandle was born a human corner. He knows his Nairobi too well to believe that anyone can be upright.

Billy Kahora is a writer of the impact of an age in Kenyan history. In his writings, you piece together the etymology and see that at soul, the stories begin in the first decade of Kenya’s independence. This is when the underlying psycho-social background of the characters and their stories stir. There was a promise made, however implicitly, that independence would bring a better world. Young men and women – the fathers and mothers of the characters Billy Kahora writes about – threw their lot at this promise; the awakening moment of black self-determination, the scholarship to Makerere, the elevation to a British university, that degree, that coveted job back home and then, the beginning of mortgages and property. The beginning, also, of a very rapid unraveling. It is against this national-domestic backdrop that our characters are born.

He could more accurately be described as chronicler of middle class Kikuyu life. On the one hand, a writer needs to at least be grounded in a particular cultural context if only for locus. But on the other hand, it is also perilous to assume there exist elemental differences between “tribes”.

Billy Kahora condenses this history into the founding of an estate. Buruburu as synecdoche set to represent the country, as the Promised Land in which mortgages and social security would flow like milk and honey. (In a way you feel, that if that is what they thought independence amounted to, then they really deserved the whacking after all. But that is another matter). Buruburu, ground zero for the characters created by Billy Kahora. The lives in these stories start in the sprawling Nairobi estate sold, post-independence, as a glorious opening to the good life. Buruburu more than fell. It decayed, translating, once putrefaction was underway, into the ashen dystopia it become, a refuse heap for ill-conceived dreams.

The independence generation that bought into the promise of Buruburu quickly reached the conclusion that with Moi in power, the best option was to send their children away. The well-off send their progeny to British and American universities. The non-winners – but by no means poor Kenyan families – send theirs to South Africa, to Rhodes, to Cape Town. It is where we start to meet them in Billy Kahora’s writing.

As to why there are mostly no fathers in his work, or if present, then barely alive, the grasping Professor Mundia in Motherless, a story set in the university town of the Eastern Cape, Grahamstown South Africa, offers some explanation: “Because of what Moi did to the country,” he says. “Moi destroyed the possibilities that were open to my generation”. But was it that straightforward? Or was the idea of independence grossly oversimplified? Did they expect that the exploitative structures of colonialism would painless stretch into independence? There were other players beside Moi, for it takes many hands to ruin a nation. He may be a victim of a regime, but Professor Mundia is not altogether a pleasant figure. As a professor, he wields his office with unbecoming power, a corruptor of young souls.

While the trajectory of Billy Kahora’s writing is a forensic aperçu into middle Kenya, it is also a continuation of a long-running African narrative, the encounter with empire, coming back to the continent uneasy, dislocated, falling to corruption. As with the 1960s generation of literary characters, here, return is the moment of disillusionment. As well-told in the story Shiko, and glancingly in The Red Door, the second generation knows they are going to have to learn to game the system in order to survive. Those who fail at it envy those that succeed at it. A trusting man is a dead man walking. World Pawa presents the fallen life as a semi-comical, tragic entreaty, in Zoning as macabre vitality.

The Cape Cod Bicycle War is published by Huza Press

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