The last time I was in Kisumu I went to our place in Ukweli. There is nobody there these days. Everyone moved to Nairobi. Now it is like a ghost house. A film of dust coats the dining table that nobody uses. A lot of the stuff in that house was stolen, after two burglaries, and after the second theft, we just decided not to furnish it. The only functional electrical appliance is the LG fridge and an alarm clock that, surprisingly, still ticks to date. A caretaker lives there now. To be honest, I never quite liked that place. We moved there when I was in Form One and after Form Four, I came to Nairobi for university just like everybody else before me.
Last month when I visited, I knew I had no attachment to it whatsoever. But I had not gone there to rekindle a fire. I had gone there to collect something very precious to me; our family albums. I like to imagine that there is no family that does not have a family album. Those are booklets of memories that have pictures from back in the day when taking a photo was an event in itself. There was always a a photographer called by no name other than Japicha. It was always a man (I have no recollection of female photographers) and this man always had a bicycle that he would ride around neighbourhoods on, ringing his bell, calling on to people to allow him freeze their moments in time. A photo would take a week to develop and it used to cost 40 bob. No filters. No retakes. If you looked like an ogalmira during the shoot, then that is what you got. Lies and cover ups were a province of the Moi regime. Not the Japicha.
There is a photo in one of the torn sleeves of the oldest family album (we have five of them. What can I say? We are a vain family). In it is photo of my mother when she was still a manyanga. There is a date stamp at the top left corner of the snap (that’s what she still calls them. Snaps.) in which Mother Karua is holding a record plate, standing in front of our old Akai music system from Japan. The speakers and Sanyo TV next to the system are covered in blue and white vitambaas that she used to crotchet herself. She is wearing a plaited red skirt and white blouse and in that picture, she is not smiling. Neither is she posing. The date says February 24 1987. The photo next to it shows a house decorated with those coloured Christmas papers that fold into a zigzag pattern – mostly hung on the wall during special occasions. The record in her hand is a Franco album – a big, black, round plate. It is one of the records that she had for the longest time until we moved from Migosi to Ukweli in 2006, after which they disappeared like farts in the wind. You know the way, when moving houses, some things that were lost appear and others disappear, right?
Well, that is the same thing that happened to our music system and records. Records of Mbilia Bell, Franco, Masekela and other musicians..most of whom are dust at the moment, and the remaining ones are so ancient, their birth certificates must have expired by now. Sadly, I never lived during a time when the Akai was functional. My earliest recollection of it is very vague. I remember when it played the cassette area, it turned blue. Then it broke and we got a Sony 3CD Changer.
If it was not for Hugh Masekela being in town last week, I would not have gone back to look at this image. I will not lie and claim that I have always been a Hugh Masekela fan, or that I can even remember what his music used to sound like back in the day. I mean, come on, I was born in 91. I just have this thing where certain names and things instantly transport me back in time to certain objects. Hugh being in town last week reminded me of the Akai, and till now, I have been thinking about it a lot. Did it get lost when we moved? Did my mother give it away? That is highly unlikely because my mother is a hoarder. The bed she sleeps in in Kisumu is the same one my dad bought her in sijui nineteen pat opuk. There is a metal shell in our kitchen in Kisumu that used to be an oven. That thing is older than my elder brother. There is a frying pan that she uses till now that her mother gave her the day my dad made her his wife. It was a wedding present. And dare you leave that pan dirty in the sink. She will hit you so hard, your unborn children will feel the pain. So there is no way she gave away that music system and her records. My guess is that it is either in ocha, or (God forbid) it was stolen during the move.
The thing is, regardless of where that system is right now, our house has never been devoid of music. It was as much a part of our lives as dinner, school, visits from relatives whose bloodlines I could not explain, and frequent flogging. I had this classification in my head of music according to my family members. Akina Masekela, Franco, Tabu Ley, Madillu System, Les wa Nyika and the likes: old people music. Listened to and enjoyed by old man and old lady. Blues and RnB : for my bro, Deo and sister, Regina. Ragga and Kapuka : my other bro, Nimrod. I did not have a type of my own. When you are a last born, you do not really get to choose the music that people listen to in the house, so you are exposed to all of them. Everyone else could play whatever it is they wanted, so long as from 8am you leave me alone with my cartoons.
On Thursday last week, there was a lunch at Michael Joseph Center. Next to me was Ian Mbugua, who eats very silently and does not take grammar mistakes lightly. Meaning, when I referred to him as ‘Mr. Ian’ he quickly responded by saying rather emphatically, “Do not call me Mr. Ian, please. You only use Mr. when using the surname. So Mr. Mbugua or simply Ian.” I did not say much to him after that, because now I was too self aware.
That lunch was a meet and greet with Hugh Masekela. He falls under the Old Man & Old Lady category of music. Dude was here for the annual Safaricom Jazz Festival as the chief guest. Safaricom does this festival every year, proceeds of which go to funding the Ghetto Classics programs – a band of children from Korogocho who grew up with not even two coins to rub together, but have now have taken up instruments to help them cope. Music is their ticket out of the slum. Most lovers of the Jazz festival have no idea of the extent their love for music goes.
Even though it was a meet and greet session with Hugh, I did not get to meet the man, or even greet him. There were too many reporters milling around him, asking him all sorts of questions, taking notes in little notebooks. However when I posted on Facebook that I was in the same room as Masekela, some of my older followers sent me inboxes saying “HOLY SHIT! Do you know who you are meeting? Aki you born 90s will never know greatness even if it sat next to you.” She was right. I had no idea whose presence I was in until I googled the man shortly afterwards and read his resume. Dude has had an illustrious career spanning sixty three years, during which time he has been a trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, singer, the father of American television host Sal Masekela, featured in Hollywood films, produced over 40 platinum selling albums, nominated for 10 Grammy Awards and won three. And all that does not even come close to the kind of man Masekela is.
I was in a room with this dude and all that he could remind me of is our vanished Akai, covered in expressions of my mother’s needles.
The thing about reading about musicians is that words do not capture the true essence of music. Reading about their accolades does not give you a true representation of what they really are. You have to listen to them play, or sing. Or, like in the case of Hugh Masekela, both. The following day I was at Uhuru Gardens, where his concert was supposed to be. I was there early because I was curious about this man. This highly decorated heartbeat of Africa’s music scene. I wanted to judge for myself if this man is what they say he is. Before him came Mwai and the Truth band with their smooth, calming jazz. Then the Nairobi Horns Project who brought the crowd to its feet with one of the funkiest instrumental covers of Sauti Sol’s Shake Ya Bam Bam. Their covers are so out of this world, even God may not recognise it.
But if Nairobi Horns Project brought the crowd to its feet, then Hugh Masekela is the one who kept them standing. If you are a stranger to Masekela, then you might look at him now and think to yourself, “This short old man with a wrinkling face and a head the colour of a wedding dress cannot hold so much promise.” But that is simply because you have no idea that big things come in small packages. By the time Masekela came on stage, I had had a couple of beers, and so I was standing in line to use one of those Excloosive portable toilets, clenching my buttocks, trying to stop my bladder from leaking. And then I heard a voice rent the air. We all did. A voice so biblical it could ignite a burning bush. That voice came from the gut, hoarse and unavoidable, called from the bottom of the stomach. And that is when it hit me, that when Safaricom said that this year’s Jazz Festival will be about music that moves, this is what they meant. That voice moved my pee back to my kidney.
I left the queue and rushed back to the main tent and watched. And for close to an hour, for the first time, I did not think about anything else. Not even our long lost Akai. I just stood there, looking at greatness, recognising it. When he licked his lips and brought the golden trumpet to his mouth and then blew, I knew right then that I had lived.
Sometime in between, we danced like they did in 1968.