As far back as I can remember we had two radios, or as Luos call those gadgets, systems. Both bought by my dad. One system was meant for us, the mere mortals. The watus. Those who did not pay rent or buy any food, but slept on beds we did not make and ate food we did not work for. Those charged by the universe to deplete the resources of their parents and embarrass the family name in academics. Those who thought money grew on trees, and everything in our mouths was ‘Dad can you buy me…’
That first radio though, a Sony Double Cassette Player, was by default, belonged to our firstborn brother, Rading’ Junior, or as he preferred, RJ. Not ati because it had been brought with RJ’s name, but because he hijacked the thing. He ruled over it by fiat; you’d be forgiven to think it was his birthright. This was our first introduction to corruption and grabbing of public property. Impunity, just like charity, begins at home. See, someone lied to these firstborns you see hanging out here that the world revolves around them, and that they wield the same power and authority as our parents. As if they are Deputy Parents. One day and I am not lying, the world will revolt against firstborns, and then we will look for somewhere to put their faces, and that place will not exist. When that time comes, they will beg us to help and will have to think about it.
Imagine, we could be listening to our African-American musician heartthrobs, and from nowhere, RJ would just come and interrupt the smooth music session. He’d say, ‘Huyo mwimbaji ameimba sana, wacha apumue.’ And swoof, the radio is switched off. And small me, I was as helpless as Chelsea’s defence. In the face of Aguero’s onslaught. Most times I thought of puncturing his pancreas or pull out his bile using a nail cutter, but I could at best only reach his stomach. In height, that is. So I prayed that my strength would be preserved, and when I grow up, next year, I would show him things.
The other system, though… yoooo. Now that was something else. The special one. It was specifically custom-made for my dad. It was a Telefunken radio with speakers my height at, three years old. I found it there the day I was born. In the middle of our house, squarely in my father’s heart of hearts. It’s one of those kinds of systems that Luos of his time feared and appreciated, in equal measure. People whispered its name. Telefunken. He brought it with him all the way from Germany where he had gone to cover the 1974 World Cup on behalf of the Daily Nation, where he worked. That radio flew into Kenya. The radio that climbed an aeroplane. And then you want to play with it? That was milruok that my old man had never searched for and found. That radio was so precious, it found its way in his eulogy at his burial. Right there, next to the things he owned and accomplished. It was like his favorite child.
There were two rules to that system. Rule number 1. Do not touch Telefunken. Rule number 2. There is no other rule.
Man, if that radio system was falling, just let it fall. Let it hit the ground so hard that it disintegrated into 1 million pieces. Whatever the case, DO. NOT. TOUCH. TELEFUNKEN. Also, what a coincidence that is falling while you are near it? If you ever touched that radio without permission (which was never granted), just pack your bags and move to Kismayu or Gaborone. Because automatically you became an outcast. You relinquished your family name on the door as you left. There was no recompense there.
It had two cassette player decks, and they could record cassettes by merely pressing record. It had an analog dial tuner. At the top, it had a classic 3-speed vintage vinyl record player. It had a treated wood bottom, almost the color of the lipstick of a girl who is about to leave you. It had a removable clear Perspex case cover. There was a reason. That cover what to deter young uninitiated boys from trying to be a Dj on that thing.
My dad had an enviable collection of vinyl and chrome cassettes from years before. Telefunken played select his music, and his music only. Most of it ‘Jazz’ as I knew it. He played Joseph Tshamala Kabaselleh and his ‘Le Grand Kalle et l’African Jazz. He also played Franco and the TPOK Jazz. From that radio, I listened to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and, I first met Aretha Franklin and Miles Davies. Off the vinyls. The cassettes had an array of local greats like DO Misiani, Daudi Kabaka, Fundi Konde and Okatch Biggy.
But also, it is from this Telefunken I listened to Luther Vandross, the first time I ever did.
That Luther Vandross listening party was technically a forbidden fruit, of sorts.
One Saturday, our assistant father, RJ, blew up our radio while trying to connect a major speaker, akia ni sub-woofer, to an already woofed enough system. He had made it from a wood casing and was trying to fix another speaker so that it could pinch properly or something. He had called his high school boys to see how masterful he was at these speakers and electronic things. I suspected he wanted to show them what he can do so that they can hire him as a consultant to do the same for him. He wanted to prove that we could all listen to music that sounded as good as of music that came from that Telefunken.
So he connected this wire and that wire, and the radio said something, and then it fainted. It went into a comma and refused resuscitation. We watched with amazement because we knew, my dad was going to paint a masterpiece on my RJ’s diab. We couldn’t wait.
But that didn’t deter him. These firstborns have an unbwogable strain in their DNA, aki. Something in his head knocked and told him to try out his music exhibition using my father’s radio. We watched in awe.
Now, that radio never left my father’s bedroom. Also, guests were prohibited from entering that room. RJ tells them to wait in the sitting room. And then he disassembled the system, and brought out the pieces, carefully, one by one. Shouting all the time, ‘Do not touch the radio.’
He put everything down, and then assembled it masterfully, evidence that he had done it before. And then one of his friends brought out a tape. On the top of the inlay card was a guy, looking sophisticated and feeling himself ma. He looks like he trying to rip off his leather jacket; like Superman would tear off his shirt. He has a tie, and a shirt on, and wearing a smirk smile.
That guy was Luther Vandross.
One of the guys tried to insert the tape, but RJ grabbed it from him. “DO. NOT. TOUCH. THE. RADIO.” RJ said, then he slid the tape into deck A, pressed play and the music began spilling out. The smoothest male voice I have ever heard followed immediately after. A voice that sounded the way the soil smells like when it begins to rain. The boys loved the sound, and RJ kept increasing volume at their request, smiling at their approval of his engineering.
And then this song came on. Never Too Much. It had such a groovy hook — the instrumentation, distinct. And the bass player is killing it, right off the hook. “Just listen to the guy on the bass, just listen,” the boys were saying. And me, because I also wanted to be a yoyo so bad, even me I nodded my head in agreement with the high schoolers. They enjoyed the music the way people enjoy Tequila- closing their eyes as if in pain and making lemon faces, and when they did, even me I copied without knowing why. I could not keep up with them, though. They sang along, snapping their fingers and said things like “Eish! Hebu just listen to that bass guitar, bana.” It sounded intelligent, you know, that they could even hear the bass.
When RJ bragged ati “We have Michael Jackson’s album Thriller, the LP,” they rubbished his claims.
“Wait I show you,” he said and went back to my father’s room to fetch it,
In the evening my dad comes. Everything is cool. He is playing his Jazz repertoire. We are listening and grooving to it, coz that’s been our music. That is almost all we know. Shortly we hear Mario na
Pin drop silence. Dad storms out of his room fuming.
“Who touch my radio?”
“Who touched my radio?”
A longer silence.
He looks at our radio and that red light signifying off is not on, and the radio is also not on. He says, ‘switch on that radio, pointing to the Sony. My bro pretends to switch it on, and then he says “It is not going on?”
“What is going on? What happened to that radio?”
“It just stopped working.” Of course, as if
My bro is out there explaining the current situation; me I forget and start singing, “Never Too Much Never Too Much Never To Muuuuuch.”
My dad points at me and says, “You. Come here.” Of course, I was not going to carry that cross. I follow him into the bedroom like we are age mates. Like I am the Dondada. I am like, “‘Sup son? What can I do you for?”
“Why did you touch my radio?” Dad asks.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I am not playing. Someone touched my radio, and I know it is you because of the song you were singing.”
He says he will punish me. In fear I shout, ‘If you punish me I will not tell you it is RJ and his friends from St. Mary’s who blew up the other radio, and then they listened to ‘Never Too Much Never Too Much Never Too Muuuch‘ on your radio and almost played your Michael Jackson Thriller, too!”
If your father is African, and your mother is African, and their parents before them were Africans, then you know how this story ends for my brother. The discipline RJ is given is enough to make sure he can only sit one cheek of his diab at a time for weeks; but I am sure if you wake my father from his sleep right now and ask him, he will tell you that the kiboko he gave RJ was, well, never too much. My mother, on the other hand, gives a different kind of punishment. She goes ahead and tells our uncles and aunties that RJ wants to intentionally and deliberately kill my father with high blood pressure.
I will never forget the groovy intro and that bass line hook to the song Never Too Much. That song made me love Luther Vandross so much that one of his songs So Amazing had to be sung by Silayio Ntalel and Valerie Kimani at my wedding.
Never Too Much, I later came to learn, was partly written and arranged, and the bass intro and hook played by a then young music prodigy called William Henry Marcus Miller Jr. He is globally known as Marcus Miller. As a budding artist, Marcus Miller was an integral part of some of the most amazing albums.
Many times when we listen to songs, the only artist we recognize is the singer. And maybe the producer, if you care enough. The truth is, much of the music we enjoy are products that have passed through many hands. Hands belonging to people we will never know unless we go looking for the fine prints.
Marcus Miller has one of those hands. If you dust the music by your
However, his hands are not only good for making other people’s music too. He plays the bass guitar as well – always has. But If you want to know what a Grammy Award Winning artists trophy cabinet looks like, Google his name and make sure you have enough bundles.