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The Life and Mind of Ali Zaidi

13 min read. Ali Zaidi was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. He was also an incredibly warm and genuine person who was happiest when surrounded by large groups of people.

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The last time I heard from Ali Zaidi was May 22nd this year in a message that blipped out from a long stretch of silence.

I sent an email in reply, I texted, I called. There was no response.

I had spent nearly a week in northern Kenya, and the poor connections prevented me from checking my mail. The events of 21st May had passed me by. A source I was due to interview in Turkana had abruptly travelled to Uganda and so in a hurry, I had caught a plane from Lodwar and flown to Eldoret to cut the 6 to 7 hour journey down to 30 minutes so that I could arrive overland in Soroti in Uganda, where he was, before nightfall. Right on the tarmac of Eldoret airport, with reliable connection back on, the news jolted me.

I went numb. I tried calling several people. The messages kept rushing in. The drive from the airport to Eldoret town itself seemed surreal.

An email sent the day before popped up. It read:

“David, sorry to have missed you. Listen, we want to put together a tribute next week. Care to do something?

He was so much fun.”

The emailer was Ali Zaidi. And that email was the first communication we had had in ages. It was also the last time I heard from him. His “sorry to have missed you” was from the fact that the week before, I had passed by the Nation Centre, where Ali worked, and been told that he had stepped out briefly. The “tribute” that Ali was referring to was what he was putting together for The EastAfrican following the untimely death of Kenyan writer BinyavangaWainaina, with whom he had a long and close connection.

Circumstances play a sadistic hand. The next email I got from Nairobi was nearly four months later. It was a request to write about my memories of Ali Zaidi, who had passed away a few days earlier. Two obituaries in a year of people I knew left me crushed.

I had written for The EastAfrican newspaper since 1999 but I only got to know Ali Zaidi in 2008. I had spent that decade in Kampala, so the occasional walk-ins into the Nation Centre were hurried, impersonal, encounters. But in 2008, my life had changed. Constant conflict with the Ugandan government over my writing made my career at the paper untenable. So I became a full-time writer, something I had always wanted. And in 2008, Nairobi was where actual writing was taking place. After I met Binyavanga and Billy Kahora in Kampala in March of that year, I moved to Nairobi in August.

Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to. This time, the formality of him being my boss was gone, and we could talk openly.

The 18th birthday of his son Hassan provided the occasion at which I formally met Ali Zaidi’s circle. It was a Saturday, a day that also coincided with the opening of the KwaniLitfest of that year. New and a guest of Kwani, I spent that weekend driving around Nairobi in cabs with Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of the literary journal.

Kwani had organised a discussion on writing for magazines, which was being held at the Karen Blixen Museum in Karen, with Binyavanga and Yvonne Owuor sharing the stage. It was an interesting, writerly talk, but Ali had personally called and invited me to his house and I was getting anxious to leave.

Quite incredibly, having quit The EastAfrican where he was an editor, here I was, landing in a circle at the centre of which Ali Zaidi played a critical role. There was no escaping the man – not that you really wanted to.

We arrived at Ali’s well after 2 o’clock that afternoon. New in Nairobi, I could not believe how cold it was at that hour, right on the equator! But that had been my experience during my early days in Nairobi; cold all the time, and because of cold, also constantly hungry. My hosts did not seem too keen on food themselves, and I wondered about their lives, and just what it was I had stepped into.

Ali’s house in Loresho was not what I had expected it to be. It was also unsurprising that it was what it was. Informal, comfortably disarrayed, welcoming, unintimidating. Loresho was a gated estate far from the centre of the city, nestled in a thickly wooded “leafy” suburb.

It seemed that everybody was there. I recognised Lynn MuthoniWanyeki from her mugshot in The EastAfrican. A young, energetically bouncing writer (he wore his credentials too well) introduced himself as Parselelo Ole Kantai. Ali emerged from his house, and amidst the crowd (for it was a packed compound, very wide, with wood and stone sculptures all over), he spotted me and Binyavanga coming in. He stood waiting for us to approach. “David,” he said, smiling, warmly. He took my hand and led me indoors. “Let me feed you.” At last. Someone in Nairobi understood that people needed to eat.

But it was the sheer number of people in Ali Zaidi’s house that occupied my mind. From the sound of them (all eloquent), and the look of them (the tasteful but crumpled look of arty sorts) you could tell who the writer was, the filmmaker, the musician, the activist. Had he taken each one of them by the hand and said “let me feed you”?

Ali’s warmth spoke volumes about who he was. Firstly, his was a house full of children. And then books, and artwork enough to qualify as a museum. We went past the living room, and inside the kitchen, he introduced his children. There, where I was to often find him, was Hassan, marinating piles of meat. We went past him to more introductions – Franco, Emma, Tara (Ali’s children) to the backyard so I could see his wife Irene’s big marble sculpture, a work in progress.

Back to the front garden, which was enormous and punctuated with Irene’s sculptures, there were more introductions, hands to grip, names to exchange: Betty Muragori (soon to be Sitawa Namwalie who invited me to the opening of her poetry show, CutoffMyTongue), Wanyeki, Rasna Warah, Shalini Gidoomal. I forget the rest. The talk was a high, theory-studded tenor. You turned here and caught a whiff of postmodernist extrapolations that side someone in deconstructionist pique, and over there, postcolonial postulation. People held court, drew a circle, talked, then dispersed, sat by the fire, re-congregated around another forth-holder, filled glasses, opened another bottle.

As I was quickly learning, in that circle, you did not simply say things. There had to be an intellectual filter, an optic, a politics via which you saw the world. It was like living inside the pages of The New Yorker, or the Times Literary Supplement, or the London Review of Books. Books, titles, verses, quotes and much else flew about to emphasise a point, a name invoked to shore up a position, wedge in a definition.

And there was Ali Zaidi, walking in, resting on an elbow, listening, gathering a line, looking over shoulders, recharging an empty glass, then pulling over someone who might inject a new idea, an anecdote, drawing the embers out of an overcharged guest, keeping the fires burning. I thought of Anna Scherer in the opening scenes of War and Peace. Had the Tolstoyan character been less pushy and read Marx (a century before her time, admittedly but it might have saved the characters in that book!), her name would have been Ali Zaidi.

What he might have meant when he took my hand, might as well have been “let me seed you”.

As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani? went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.

I don’t remember at what point Binyavanga left the party (he forgot his jacket there that evening, I recollect), so I caught a ride back to where I was staying with Parselelo well after 1 on Sunday morning.

To start life in Nairobi, I had to get pragmatic. I had shut down my workshop in Kampala, so I was not making anything to sell to pay the rent. During the week, I rung Ali up. He suggested lunch at Riviera Bar and Restaurant, a short walk from the Nation Centre. As I was to find out, Ali’s haunts were a circle of restaurants minutes from the Nation Centre, which allowed him to nip out briefly and then return to his desk.

I needed to write more regularly, I told him. Nairobi is expensive, I said. That year, I had also strayed into literary infamy and needed to explain myself.

As I was to learn over the next few years, this was Ali’s element. It was what he lived for. It was how, five years before that day, Kwani?, the literary magazine, had been born in that very garden. From Ali’s garden, the writers who created Kwani?went out with valuable tools to examine the society they wrote about and did it without asking permission from established hegemonies.

He chuckled. He may have intuited that already. It was lunch but all he had was a Spanish omelette. I told him I had some ideas about art and literary criticism. “Send in some stuff and let’s see,” he said, instantly looking worried. Perennial bet-hedgers, editors, I always found, reacted to writing proposals with alarm where writers expect gushing enthusiasm.

The closing months of 2008 were fascinating. What started as a weekly comment on this and that literary tradition and heritage turned into a ping-pong exchange of comments and counter-arguments with other literary commentators in Nairobi. We had a lovely debate about literature and history in the pages of The East African. It was the most engrossing bout of newspapering I can recollect.

Over the next few years, I was to see Ali in a way that had not been possible from a distance.

There was his personal/intellectual background and also the context in which it fit. For decades, to be an editor in Nairobi was to have occupied a serious position via which power and public life were mediated. From descriptions, one could hazard that the template may have been set as far back as 1902 when A.M. Jeevanjee hired the British editor W.H Tiller to man the African Standard (later bought by British interest and renamed East African Standard) as founding editor.

By many accounts a grasping man, W.H. Tiller was said to have run the place in the pugnacious mould that was to characterise the job thereafter. Post-independence Kenya was enlivened by a procession of print media editors whose reputations remain in the same ring as generals, CEOs and politicians: John Bierman, Hillary Ng’weno, Boaz Omari, George Githii, John McHaffie, Philip Ochieng, Joe Rodriguez, Gerry Loughran, Joseph Odindo, Peter Mwaura, George Mbugguss, Joe Kadhi. Dramas and epochs attach to each with the swing of Kenyan and East African politics.

Ali Zaidi brought his intellect and social gift to the role. He ran a newspaper whose reputation was without equal in East Africa and beyond. By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.

***

Ali Zaidi was born Aligarh in India and came to Kenya in the early years of President Daniel arap Moi’s rule. He did some teaching before finding his calling as an editor. He told me he could no longer live in India after witnessing the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. He had read economics at Master’s degree level at Delhi University.

I first heard the name Ali Zaidi when I joined The EastAfrican newspaper in 1999, still only 23 and not yet graduated from university. Ali likes this. Ali does not like that. He was not the managing editor. That was Joseph Odindo. But he was that éminence grise that all newspapers must have – that one in-house intellectual and grammarian commanding a battery of section editors. I saw him once in those early years, when I visited Nairobi in 2002, and not again till 2008.

Given its structure, and as a weekly, TheEastAfrican’s reporters were required to do hard news. What I really paid attention to was art and literature. It was how I came to the attention of Ali Zaidi.

By convening and hosting a circle of writers who would have an impact on the arts and culture on the continent, Ali Zaidi was also outdoing his predecessors. As with all editors of note, you wrote primarily for Ali Zaidi, and only secondarily for the paper.

He was not too enthusiastic about what I had to say about art and books. He must have thought me a novice all over the place with ideas. Whatever reviews I wrote were whittled down to reporterial bare bones. He also thought I wrote with too much flourish. “Just go down to town,” was his way of saying write simply. I was not too enamoured by him either. I had called him a philistine – not directly, but in words that amounted to the same. It took me a while to understand that the arts section mattered a lot to Ali.

Once settled in Nairobi, the bulk of my meetings with Ali consisted of the lunches at restaurants within walking distance of the Nation Centre. These provided a chance to talk. 2008 was the year of financial collapse. Capitalism, as we had come to know it, had ended. People were starting to talk about Marx again.

“You have not read Marx,” he stated.

I protested.

“You have read of Marx,” he modulated the charge.

I detailed to him what I had read of Marx. When I mentioned that I planned to tackle the Grundrisse, he scowled.

“Stop telling lies. Read Marx.”

His vehemence gave me pause to reflect. It was not like Ali to insist so harshly. But it was then that I began to sense where his intellectual locus sat. I understood that when he said “you have not read Marx,” he meant I was not hewing to the Marxist school he was beholden to, the very typically Marxist internecine conflict to have. But what might that be? The answer was not a difficult one. He was a Walter Benjamin Marxist. (To boot, he was even a spitting image of the great German philosopher-martyr.)

I was hence starting from the beginning, fleshing out what it was that propelled the man. To begin with, the thorough-going, intellectual coherence of historical materialism always provided penetrative insight. It provided a structure of not only thought but also action that could have tremendous impact. Because it was critical, being as it were, on the offensive against an exploitative class, Marxism did not have to play hide-and-seek with history. Coming up with dodgy arguments to support personal wealth was the territory of liberal and neoliberal apologists, such as Maynard Keynes and his successors, Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek.

I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.

But what was it about Walter Benjamin that appealed to Ali and how might it have shaped how he saw the world?

The Jewish philosopher, whose death on the Spanish border when he was fleeing Nazis in 1939 remains a mystery and continues to divide Spain, had gone longer distances than most Marxists of his times in postulating a critical theory. Walter Benjamin’s idea of history, his “angel of history” (after buying the painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus) is his most powerful idea. The eponymous angel in the painting, Walter Benjamin wrote, “would like to say, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed”.

This insight into history was, to say the least, ultra-revolutionary. What it said, and how it has variously been interpreted, is that the past (lost causes) is not dead (defeated) as long as there are people still willing to fight for it. It is the closest one can come to resurrecting the dead, this idea of picking up the cause they died for and then refighting it. The catchy formulation being that the fate of the past lies in the hands of the present. In other words, the past is not dead as long as the living continue to believe in its ideas.

I got it that Ali understood the world in certain ways. Marxism provided him not only with a view into politics and economics, but also a view of society that was basically humane. For him, people were not for sale. The wealthy in Kenya, he insisted to their face, had profited from a fundamentally unjust system.

There was also his critical art theory: Walter Benjamin’s was a fundamental questioning of the concept of art, stripping it down to a matter of aesthetic, from which point open-ended questions become possible: as “Art”, it is an absolute in itself; but as “aesthetic”, it is the territory of the subjective, a thing you can negotiate with. An immensely liberating direction to take, for then, totalities, or what Ali liked to term “absolutes”, rapidly came unstuck. For the work of art, as Walter Benjamin argued, is tied to the question of tradition, what a people think of the object. What had been pure creativity in one epoch had in another age been an object of veneration, of spiritual significance; what had for one people been just a utilitarian, functional object becomes for another a work of art. Created objects are armed and disarmed as art, depending on the politics of a time. For instance, graffiti would in the 1990s be a nuisance scarring cityscapes. In a period of insurrection against the “one percent”, Banksy would be viewed as a great artist.

The work of art becomes tied to other larger aspects external to the object of art, making the metamorphosis from the spiritual stage to the political and the economic. Art in the industrial age hence takes on a new, urgent significance. It becomes the keeper of the forces of a spiritualism exiled from human relationships by the forces of production.

The work of art becomes the only safe place in which freedom, equality, community, and kindness will not jeopardise the profit motive of capitalism. For if these ideas are left within human society, they will inspire resistance against the exploiting class. The work of art begins to command vast sums of money because they are indeed storing the very lifeblood of human society. It might seem as though the capitalist patrons of art are missing the warmth of community they have destroyed. It is telling that global corporations give so much money to museums, not so much as a back-handed apology as ensuring that what is imprisoned in art stays there, to be viewed rather than lived.

According to this line of argument, the work of art is then slightly off-centre to the objet d’art. A sculpted stone is a stone with a shape. It will only become art when we will it to be art. That “will” comes from our political positioning, for it is the belief of our society, as well as the class we belong to, that tells us how to feel. Hence, art is not an intrinsic property of the object. All value is external to the object.

Ali Zaidi spoke often of Walter Benjamin’s examination of the work of art at the dawn of the modern era, the “mechanical reproduction of the work of art”, stating that a photograph of a famous work of art was no less valuable than the original itself. This was Walter Benjamin’s argument. An argument dangerous to a rising age of fascist nativism for which value must be intrinsic and inseparably innate to the volk. (Ali, who moved to Africa and married an African, an act that was anathema within the migrant Asian community, did not see race or tribe or class. His Marxism was a lived idea.) If all interpretations art, history, culture are political, then is it not hogwash to claim any one culture as supreme?

Ali would say things like “the destruction of the material cultures of African societies was central to the colonial enterprise”, a typically Marxist statement to make. But it swept away rhetorical verbiage and overheated, superficialities about identity. It went to the gist of history itself, that the struggle was not of “civilization” but of baser intent, for control of material resources, to put it crudely.

As I saw it, that was the point at which Ali operated his politics, as it were. It also made him a stranger to an age in which identity politics characterised everything. As far as I can remember, he had little to say about post-war philosophical politics and I tried unsuccessfully to get him to discuss Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.

The irony was that the intellectual set that gathered around Ali was deeply steeped in the postmodern identity politics spawned by their ideas. Most spouted it second-hand without knowledge of where it emanated from, the free-for-all, anything-goes “deconstruction” tool of reading that Derrida inflicted upon intellect.

I never came to know Ali’s views on postmodernism. Perhaps others did. But it was not a topic he encouraged whenever I brought it up. At any rate, extend the ideas of Walter Benjamin two or three decades into the 21st century and they likely end up there.

He did not set out to influence anyone. That would have been not only crude but disingenuous. They would all have dropped him for that. It is not that he was too clever for that. Rather, Ali was genuine.

He was addicted to people. I could see that. He could not get through an evening without the company of at least half a dozen people. People were his element. He was happiest in large groups.

I’d like to think he found a home in East Africa. He believed in things, and he went out of his way to make it possible for creative, earnest and driven intellectuals to have a say. We appreciated that deeply.

He seemed happy. He often said: “In Africa, people accept you as long as they sense that you are genuine. Elsewhere, they see your face, your religion, and shoo you away.”

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A.K. Kaiza is a Ugandan writer and journalist.

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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