On any given Saturday afternoon, Nairobians can be classified depending on what part of their body aches the most. And it is easy to know, depending on the location of the pain, where they were the night before. If your knees and neck are throbbing, then you must have been at Gondwana, sore throats are from Mercury, headaches are from looking for parking at Bar Next Door, heartbreaks are collected at Milan for a song, if your head feels like it is twice the size, then you were definitely at Mwendas, if your whole body aches then you must’ve been at salsa, if it is your crotch that’s throbbing you were undoubtedly at Bavon, keeping abreast with the higher intimacies that this city has to offer, but if the soreness is at your waist, there is only one explanation: rhumba.
Ask around, or better yet, think back to your last Saturday and then come tell me I am lying. You can’t argue with pain. It is the science of Nairobi nights. I would say check even your last weekend’s Instastories but the patrons of Bavon and rhumba joints are not always that, uhm, liberal with who they invite into their enjoyment.
Typically on rhumba nights, a phone call will come through at around 8pm from Bonita. She will say something along the lines of, Magush it has been one of those weeks at the plantation, si you come we throw butts with rhumba? I will say of course, but give me a couple of hours simply because nobody leaves the house at 8pm to go clubbing. Don’t get me wrong, if 8pm finds you outside, say, after work, then sure. But if you’re the type to step out at 8pm to go clubbing (and you’re not the DJ or bouncer of the one with the key to the club) then you’re also the type to commit murder.
The unwritten ordinance of Nairobi nightlife is that clubbing starts from 10pm onwards. So that’s when I walk into Hera Aqua Lounge in Kileleshwa, scan the scene and spot Bonita and two of her friends perched on tall stools right in front of the stage.
There is a band on stage; men dressed in uniform red tees, black jeans tighter than an old friendship, and sneakers so white they could launch a startup in Kenya. At the center is who seems to be the lead singer, crooning to tunes sang by sinful men, many of whom have long since left this realm. They don’t perform originals, partly because they don’t have any that could keep this house happening, and partly because the crowd that comes to these places comes to relive the joys of their youth. It’s easier for everyone if they cover Tabu Ley, Franco, Ferre Gola, Bissu na Bissu, Sam Mangwana, Madilu, Koffi and Papa Wemba.
Anyone who has ever listened to rhumba knows how music progresses. Starts off slow for about seven minutes before it picks up tempo. This part, eight out of ten times, is about some dude serenading a girl. The lead singer does this by himself, bleeding unrequited love through the microphone. The crowd doesn’t seem to pay much attention; the few who sway in their seats while the rest hold their drinks with one hand and rub consenting thighs with the other. Then at some point, the drums will kick in to welcome the climax. But rhumba doesn’t just rush in as fools do. The climax has to be ushered in. Usually with a segment in which certain names are mentioned.
I am fairly new to this Friday night rhumba landscape, you see. Most Fridays I will be at salsa or Mercury. Or salsa then Mercury. So I had to ask Bonita, the first time we met who these people are; because they have Kenyan names. The lead sings of sijui Papaa Onchari and Papaa Ochi but who the hell are these people? I’d look around looking for those being mentioned and not find them – no acknowledgment whatsoever.
They are important men, she said. Look around. Then she started pointing them out. That one on that table was the first doctor to do sijui what. The one over there is a wakili – the kind you will never see on the news being called a ‘city lawyer’ but pulling the strings in the shadows. This other one has been at immigration for so long – he is the one who helped them (the Congolese band) get visas. Then that one must the owner of this place. The thread that stitches these men together is their importance. They are people who made their names at the dawn of this nation; revered by those who need to know them.
For you to be serenaded you have to be somebody. Not famous. You could be an MCA, an MP, or a verified Instagram content creator and your name will never be sang about; at least not when these other men are around. You have to be somebody to the band.
You can also ask nicely; walk up to the lead singer, squeeze a note into his hand, and whisper your name. If you ask me, though, it is the highest level of self-aggrandizement to pay a musician to sing about you, but nobody is asking me. If you’re a woman, you could also catch the attention of one of the singers, and if you know Bonita then you know that all she ever has to do is walk away and the whole world catches a fever. That’s why it was not that much of a surprise when, just before they closed the name-calling segment, we heard “Aaaah, daktari Bonita! Bolingo na ngai. Aaaah, ma cherie!”
Judge me for this all you want, but when that man said that, I turned to Bonita and asked her, is it true?
Is what true?That you are not wearing underwear?
Magush what the fuck? There was steel in her voice. She did not get the joke. Do you? If she’d slapped me, I’d have deserved it.
I had to explain.
See for longest time I grew up knowing that someone who was walking around bolingo was someone who was walking around without wearing underwear. So in my head, bolingo na ngai meant ‘no underwear, on God’. There is no way it was just me aki. Now you can imagine my shock when I later learned that Bolingo simply means love, and Bolingo na Ngai is basically Lingala for My Love.
There comes a time at rhumba nights when bodies become loose, heads light and pores open up to let the music in. Inhibitions have been washed away by alcohol, and people realize that their limbs can do more than just order drinks. Music ascends to a crescendo, and there is barely any space on the dance floor. On stage, the whole band is present, each singer standing behind their own microphone. Sometimes they sing together. Sometimes only the lead belts out. Save for the guy on the drum, everyone on stage starts dancing in premeditated synchrony. No beat is wasted. Waists move like they have ill intentions – often they do.
On the dance floor, part of the crowd tries to imitate the ones on stage, but we can barely match up. However, those are just the ones whose blood is still hot. We dance to prove to ourselves that we’ve still got it. To prove that our thirties haven’t robbed us of our youth. So we curl up like gorillas and whine our waists, and turn to the rhythm, three steps forward, three steps back. We do that lingala move where you jerk backwards, then launch yourself forward immediately, then do bad manners with the air. You know the move, come on. That one.
Men dance with women. Men dance with men, and women dance with women, and nobody is bothered enough to say no homo.
The more elderly ones – the ones whose names were being thrown about also join us. But old age has a way of slowing people down, so they dance the way Raila does at campaign rallies: fists close, swaying side by side, looking at us sweat up the place, probably telling themselves if these ones knew me back in the day, they wouldn’t measure up. Once in a while, they will come with their babes, hold them by their waists and whisper things that make the girls giggle.
You may or may not see a table of ladies – probably in their late forties and above – sitting by themselves with their ciders, and you may or may not catch one of them exchanging looks with one of the band members. If you do, mind the business that brought you here.
The etiquette on a rhumba dance floor is simple. First, no phones. If you have to record anything, record the band. You can break families with your Insta story, because many of the people here are supposed to either be on an academic trip or working late. The second rule is that you need to be careful how you dance with who. The last thing you want is to piss off one of the senior citizens. Respect your elders.
The climax could go on for another hour or two. The band can keep the fever pitch at red hot for as long as the crowd feeds them. Those guys can go on and on, alternating singers, leading choreographies for hours, as if they run on batteries. Many request songs, but only those who ask nicely get their wish. Their voices don’t turn sore. And when you remember that they probably started their set at 7pm, and it is now well past midnight, you realize that there is no single pop artist who can maintain that level of energy for that long.
At the end, the crowd is hungry for more. They have created a monster here, but they know when to stop. When the audience is sated, but so greedy that they will come back the next Friday. If you’ve ever tried edging, then you know what I mean. The waiters will bring the table’s bill and hand it to me because I am the only guy on the table with three women. I am reminded that here, patriarchy still reigns supreme.
As we step out I look at my watch. It says 1.15am. Ideally the night is still young, but then where else would you go? You can’t go to Mercury after Rhumba surely. It’d be a travesty to contaminate Madillu with Amapiano. Can you imagine moving from singing Fatimata to shouting Haibooooo? That’s worse than chasing a 21yr old whisky with Quencher.
So on my way home, you put something by TPOK Jazz, window down to let in some of the nippy early morning air, and fantasize about the day I will be somebody worth singing about.