On many hot weekend afternoons in dusty Kitengela, 1994, daddy would plonk me onto our old brown living room table when his favourite song came on the radio, prodding me to dance for his pleasure. Pepe Kalle’s “Roger Milla” reverberated through my ears as my father’s penetrating stare unsheltered my shyness. Aurlus Mabele and Yondo Sister would be my best friends whose tunes gingered up the people around us. In a way this was my baptism into what would steer me into being the man I am today. Music.
One and two, a step to the moon, my pint-sized seven year old body charmed its way into the rhythm of the soukous trance, charging to the rising cheer of my one man audience. We were closer friends back then. He’d take me for walks in the evenings, buy me Taifa Leo newspapers and take me to his bar rendezvous with his drinking friends. We watched Football Made In Germany on the black and white Panasonic television. The set he bought to bury the embarrassment of mama having to watch No One But You from a neighbour’s house at night.
At a time when the youthful Fred Obachi Machoka was a favourite face on Kenyan TV, my family religiously converged for those precious Music Time African videos on KBC. We were grounded by music.
Daddy sung a lot of Franco. I didn’t like it then. Yet, as I grew up, these sounds felt like a brother whose face I never really knew but he was always at home. The mysterious spirit. The fan whose cooling we opened our shirts to if only to bear the heat of life. Music was ventilation in our home.
I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but this was my introduction to music that moves. A sweet and sultry fusion of saxophones that sound like humans ad-libbing; the soulful pulsing of a solid bass guitar felt through even the smallest of speakers; energetic drummers feeding off each others energy, exchanging competition and fluid beats; and a wild man on a piano, banging on keys like he has insurance for five more keyboards. Then at the centre of all this sauce is the maestro with his unmistakable voice, chasing after all those notes laid before him, begging his friend Mario to pull himself together and quit chasing after any skirt that passes by.
At the Noonkopir Catholic Church, where daddy was a catechist, I looked forward to the flourishing Sunday sermons. The padre, uptight in his sparkling white robe and screaming green scarf, greeted the congregation,
“Bwana awe nanyiiiiiiiiiiiiii…”
And the faithfuls would go, “Awe pia naweeeeeeeeee!”
I found it fascinating. How song was used for conversation. That does something to you as a child trying to make sense of the world. A world where nobody tells you anything about what things mean. Many times you choose to create meaning with what you see. The comfort of the call and response of good old religion reminded me of the music I now know so well.
And that was just with my dad.
What I received from my mama – my sweet mama, shifting through two jobs; a secretary at a famous mining company by day and a mama mboga by evening, would take me with her to choir competitions in Athi River. The SDA choirs almost always won. I marvelled at how people conjoined their voices in such melody. Such lucid unison. And even managed to choreograph a marching pattern yet not run out of breath. She and her mother sung a spirited soprano. Their vocal cords were bird-friendly, rich with conviction, femininity and zen. I felt like they healed themselves each time they broke into song. Mama sung in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on her way to the market, in her laughter, her storytelling, even in her wrath.
My musical education broadened further when I watched my uncles break their bodies to the fast Ohangla beats when I visited grandpa in Ramunde, Ugenya. There were live performances in the village. Grandpa had married three wives, getting plenty of children. So, we, the grandkids, were innumerable. The holidays that found us there were filled with feasts and endless dance. I don’t know where the musicians came from. Their faces were not familiar. But their identity was not as important as how the music made us feel. How the vibe engulfed us. When positive energy connected each of us to everyone else for fun’s sake, and sometimes, got us through the death of a loved one. For some reason, people in the village died a lot. There was a funeral after another. It has never stopped. Somewhere along time I learned death is food. We can’t do without it. And maybe people die to create space for others – as the cycle of life goes; a freshwater lake is fresh because there’s an inlet and an outlet. Music was an outlet for our pain. You could say it kept us…fresh.
By 1997, father’s tradition of setting me on tables to dance was deeply rooted. I was the nine year old who twirled to Koffi Olomide’s Ultimatum, Papa Wemba’s Kaokokokorobo and virtually all the songs in Awilo Longomba’s first album Moto Pamba on the same stage he watched me from – the old brown living room table. Then there were rumours all computers would crash at the onset of the new millennium. Others said the world would end. For the little twelve year old that I was, I just wanted to gain courage to face my crush, Evelyne Thuo. The girl with fair skin who lived opposite our apartments in Riruta. By then Western music had started dominating TV and radio. KISS 100 FM was new and R. Kelly was singing he’s a bad man. Maybe it’s true if you’ve been following the news.
Metro TV still aired a lot of African music, though, and it is there that I encountered Oliver N’Goma, Miriam Makeba, Oliver Mtukudzi, Achieng’ Abura, and the likes of M’bilia Bel. That song Muzina by Tabu Ley Rochereau is still stuck with me. And, 25 years after he released his monster hit, I met Manu Dibango and Soul Makossa. The beautiful irony here is that in his native Cameroonian tongue, ‘makossa’ means ‘I dance’ – which is exactly where this story begins.
You think that you don’t know who Emmanuel N’Djoké Dibango is or that you have never heard any of his songs but I can bet my bottom dollar that you have. Perhaps not from the maestro himself, but definitely from your pop darlings. Soul Makossa is a blessing of genius that has been borrowed in bits and pieces by your faves. Remember Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’? Where, at the end, he sings, ‘mamasemamasa mamakossa’ and all Kenyan children sing ‘anasema anataka samosa’? That’s Manu. Rihanna, at the end of Don’t Stop the Music? Manu again. The Fugees, in Cowboy? Ok, that might be a little advanced, but – surprise. Manu again.
The thought that I would ever see any of those people on a stage in my country had never even crossed my mind, much less the hope that it could ever actually happen. Thankfully, Safaricom Jazz has been putting my doubts to shame every year for the past five years. It started with Oliver Mutukudzi, then with Hugh Masekela and now it will happen again this coming Tuesday – 1st May 2018 – when Manu Dibango jets in to headline the International Jazz Day festivities at Carnivore Grounds.
When they (I do not know who exactly) said that we should never meet our heroes, I do not think they meant Manu Dibango as well.
I wrote my first song in 2003. It was titled Mamanzi. I was a Form 1 student at St. Joseph Rapogi High School. At 15, into full blown adolescence, I started noticing my body. Apart from being an excellent footballer, art was the new thing developing in me. I had a lot to express and the football pitch just wasn’t enough to get all that energy out. Words needed to be spoken. So I started by writing, and imagined, that what I noted down was a form of freeing my heart from its hurts. I began to understand that music meant freedom. Freedom of expression. One song after another. Music was at the heart and soul of my evolution.
I am 30 years old now. A man whose own life is a pattern of musical notes chasing one another in a spasm. We begin life untoned, and then just like guitars, life shapes us to create meaningful melody, tweaking us into our purpose. The guitarist is the universe. Or God. Or whatever that thing between your humanness and transcendence is. There are sounds all around us. In the matatu, at the market, in the streets, at the mosque, in tweets and Facebook notifications, on the road and in bars, at the temple, the church, in your steps walking home, and inside you. There are sounds.
It is up to you to pause, listen, and dance.