There is an old treasure chest in my head. It carries tons of golden events that I had recorded a long time ago with my eyes and locked away with my poor memory. Very often these events find themselves in the present. Sometimes it is by invitation; like when you are sitting in an examination room and you try to remember facts and dates and happenings. Many times this treasure chest has failed to open when I need it to. And many times also it has been a good sport.
But there are times when memories leak from this mind; times when I did not mean to summon them, but something triggers a cerebral response. A ghost sneaks into my head, opens my coffers, and I begin to recall things. This ghost, I came to realize a while back, is music. Music makes me remember, even when I would rather forget. There are soundtracks to my life. Every time something happens, the world is singing a song. And many times I do not even know what this song is until later on, two months or two years later, when that song plays and an event flashes before my eyes.
Is that crazy? Does this happen to any of you? I am not even a huge music aficionado. I love music just like the next guy. Remember my new place I told you about? The one that is on the fifth floor with a caretaker who speaks as if he is whispering gossip into the ear of his imaginary friend? Well, what I did not tell you about my new place is that it is also next to a bar. Nothing uncommon when you live in an inner city neighbourhood of Nairobi. It is relatively peaceful throughout the week until the weekends when not-so-old-men, probably in their mid-forties, drive in with their imposing Range Rovers, throats like pipelines and an appetite for alcohol that can have enough to drink. With that kind of clientele, you know that the music played is not the kind that has blaring horns and vain DJs that remind everyone their name every other chorus.
The Club plays a lot of Rhumba and Benga. When Franco’s voice pours out of the club’s speakers, I am transported back to our house in Migosi. Circa 2002-3. It is a Saturday morning and the air is tastes like frying eggs and sausages. Mother Karua is stirring a sufuria of brown uji, sweetened with lemon and sugar for her husband who is in the sitting room, listening to Mamou. I am probably slightly pissed because I would rather be watching Cartoon Network that morning, but that anger is assuaged by the fact that the absent taxman is around – he only used to visit only once in a while. I am not a fan of Franco for the same reason I am not a fan of hiphop; I cannot understand what the hell he is saying. Also, his songs play for far too long.
Later that morning, he is going to stand up and dance. He is going to ask me to join him and I am going to pretend to refuse, but that is just because I am waiting for a bribe.
“Abro fufi mia achiel kimiel koda,” and I am sold for one hundred bob. A hundred shillings in the hands of a twelve year old at that time felt like the Eurobond. We dance. It is not the rigorous dancing, not the gymnastic of jumping up and down, doing backflips and all that madness that Sakata acrobats insist on calling dancing. No. It is a slow sway of the feet. Muziki bila jasho. You sway from side to side, like a choir in a Catholic church, but with more rhythm. More swagger. You do not just move. You let the music seep into your bones. You feel it in your soul. The movement is just but a manifestation of what you feel inside. Ja raha nyuolo tek.
From time to time it is Franco. Sometimes it is Musa Juma crying for his Maselina. Other times it is Okatch Biggy serenading his lady love from Nyakach. And the rest of the time it is Ochieng Kabaselleh going on and on about a certain Zainabu. These are musicians who remind you that world has always lacked for honourable men, but never the hopeless romantic.
These reminisces make me smile. They remind me of my old man. I remember him well, as a funky man who had fun whenever he had the opportunity. But then whenever I am in a matatu and then Classic 105 decides that it is time to play Dance with my Father by Luther Vandross, I melt. Luther’s lyrics in that song are sharper than wits; they cut to the quick like a hot knife through butter. You know how God plays His games sometimes.
Honestly, I do not know why music keeps reminding me of moments in the past. Perhaps it is because music flows through my veins. I mean, there was that one time, a time that has now become oral tradition, when my father quit his job at KRA and ran off to Voi to play the guitar for Simba wa Nyika. If you know Les Wanyika, then you also know there was a time the band split up into two factions. Simba wa Nyika was one half. My dad, still a young man with hot blood and dreams of stardom, thought he would be a musician. Until his mother – the no nonsense woman my sister is named after- went and brought him back to his senses in true African motherly fashion; with slaps and warnings of murder. If the tales that old wives tell to entertain themselves are true, then perhaps the musical fire that burned in him burns in me.
Perhaps that is why whenever Flying Without Wings plays I am taken back to 2006. It was a time of changes. Political landscape was changing, power was shifting, we had just moved houses from Migosi to Ukweli and Nation FM had changed to Easy FM – an all Blues and RnB music station that had a Top 10 at 10 count-down every night. The picture in my mind is* me with a paper in my hand. It is a letter, one that I had sat down and written over and over, trying to win back a girl who, technically, was never mine in the first place. I had written that letter at night, with only a flickering lamp to cheer me on. Her name was Irene. My first heart break. Just like many childhood romances, she had been mine without really being mine. Long story short, some other charming dude had swept her off her feeble feet with better words. That letter was never delivered. It still lies somewhere under a stack of things, shielded away from the coat of gathering dust of forgotten items.
Every time Westlife visits, I think of that letter. It reminds me of a ship that sailed a long time ago. Last I heard, the winds had taken that ship to Germany.
This sounds melancholic, I know. But it was not meant to be. Do not be mistaken. Those are just the heavier memories. There are sunnier ones. Ones that embarrass me. Even in mind as the scenes play out, I do not want to think about it. Take for instance whenever any ndombolo song plays. Be it by Kofi, Awillo Longomba or my all-time favorite, General Defao. I am taken to a year I cannot remember*. We are at the Kisumu Annual Show at the Kenya Pipeline stand where they are having a dance competition.
Here is the thing, I had the crown of the best ndombolo dancer in my hood – a status I had earned at birthday parties. As if by some unwritten ordinance, it was mandatory to have dance competitions at birthday parties. It was the highlight of the bashes. So when the Kenya Pipeline MC called, I knew I was going to kick ass, and expand my territory. Music played. And we began dancing Lingala. I had mastered the moves from General Defao videos where you bend your legs at your knees, hunch your back slightly like a baboon and then whine your waist.
What started as a competition with eight children, boiled down through eliminations to two: me and some girl from Mamboleo. I had never met her, but she was good. Right now I can admit it, she was way better than me. While I danced to please the crowd, she danced for herself. While I was mechanical, replicating moves from videos, she was carefree. But then in a gladiator match, it is the crowd that chooses the winner. And when the crowd was asked, they shouted “Blackie! Blackie! Huyo blackiee!” That blackie was me.
You know what those guys gave me for winning? A packet of Glucose, soda for me and my brother and a packet of Elastoplasts. Elastoplasts! Those lackwits! Why would anyone give Elastoplasts to a winner, when there were other seven losers licking their wounds? Little wonder Museveni decided to ditch those prancing fools for Magufuli for that oil pipeline deal. Malipo ni hapa hapa duniani, my friend.
Admittedly, these are pretty distant memories. Memories from a decade ago and beyond. Quite frankly, music does not always take me that far. Because music is made every single day. There is so much music in this world, nobody can listen to it all. Some songs transport me back to recent occasions. Take for instance the opening sequence of Game of Thrones. I first started watching it with James Mbugua in my second year during long holidays. We were living in tiny room illegally, sharing a bed. Those were also the days when I thought I could follow Jesus – before I realized what a grip the pleasures of this world had on me. I was like James’ wife. He would leave for work and come back and find I had cooked eggs and ugali and sukuma wiki. That is when bonds of our friendship were strengthened. In that tiny room, living in fear of being caught by the hostel caretakers, watching Game of Thrones and Spartacus and wishing life would move faster.
Even now, every time HBO makes that that static Ssssssssshhhhh sound just before Game of Thrones begins, I remember how I was technically married for a while. I am reminded of the debt in dowry that Jamo owes my mother.
Then there is reggae music. The time machine that takes me back to campus life. Caribbean music pouring from cheap Ampex speakers every Friday night. Bumaye comes alive and I am teleported to a dark campus room. There is smoke and there are girls. Some of them are being carried at the waist, others bending over and the rest are sitting on those rickety bug-infested beds, legs crossed, laughing at jokes from dudes trying to stroke their thighs. The dudes know the giggles may be fake, but whoever refused a smile you can take to bed? I see other guys, rowdy, shirtless, looking for a fight, mouths reeking of cheap vodkas that nearly did me in.
I heard a song yesterday. It was an easy song. I crammed it and then forgot it as soon as they stopped singing. I know I am going to be reminded of that song one day. I know I will be taken back to that room where women wore white saris and men wore black suits. In that room, no shoes were allowed. Men sat on one side and women on the other. The immediate family members sat on the floor, legs crossed like yogis. Between them was an old woman who loved poetry by Rumi and Shakespeare. She lay silently, unmoving, covered allover in beautifully inscripted Indian sari that she wore for her youngest sons wedding. Someone I cannot see leads the tune. It is a slow, sombre song followed by prayers that smell of incense to Allah the Beneficient. The people in the room makes gestures that look almost like Catholic signs. They also have beads on their hands.
One day this song will come back to me and I will remember my friend weeping without tears. It was the first time I ever saw her this sad. And even when the business in that room was over, when people were saying goodbye, I wanted to leave her in peace, but she saw me and whispered Thank You across the noisy room. And since in situations like those I never know what to say, I will remember being unable to offer nothing but a silent nod in response.
Other things will come to mind too. Things I should have noticed. For instance,It is not until I had left that room that I noticed my folly; I had walked into that prayer room with a shirt decorated with a weed motif. I swear I had had no idea. That shirt was a gift from Aunt Jenny and I had planned on wearing it to the 2016 BAKE Awards Announcement Gala the previous night, only that the gala had been postponed by a week. So I figured, I would wear it to this event, which was just as important. You see, you never expect your aunt to gift you a weed shirt. And to be fair, the shirt was black and the pointy leaves of weed kind of look like stars, so even Aunt Jenny might thought she was gifting me a starry night.
But the people in that room did not know all this. They might have noticed the weed and shook their heads. And me, silly me, I had stood in front of the sleeping old woman lying during the viewing, and said a quick farewell prayer for her, in a ganja decorated shirt!
That song however, that goodbye song that sounded like an Arabic poem, that song will come back. I have a feeling about it. Someday it will remind me of how life is just like music; with high notes at one point, and low notes at the other, but always a beautiful song. And just like with the best songs, we never want the best lives to end.
I also have uncertain feelings about the day I will be lying still, in a prayer room filled with the unmistakable scent of incense. I wonder what my sleep will sound like. I wonder what melody will be playing when God finally plays His games with me. I wonder what the world will be singing when I finally leave it. And if anyone will be listening.
Hopefully, it will be Bank Otuch by Vicmass Luodollar and Octopizzo.