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Thursday, February 24, 2011

A date with Kenyan Revolutionary Anti-Colonial War Heroes

I arrived at Kencom Bus stop at 7:00am, 30 minutes late and found most of the people that we were supposed to travel with had not arrived. The elegant National Youth Service (NYS) bus was more than half empty, and only the front seats were occupied by some Kenyan Rastafarians. Luckily for me, Macharia Mukua, a good friend of mine, had already arrived, so we found ourselves some seats, and began analyzing Kenyan politics, as projected by the dailies.
One hour later, the bus was full, and we slowly took off for Nyeri, some 250km from Nairobi, to attend the 54th Anniversary of the execution of Field Marshall Dedan kimathi Waciuri by the British Army. The program was that we plant a tree at Kahiga-ini, where Kimathi was shot and captured by the British, and then proceed to Kimathi University College where we would have the official ceremony.
Along the way, we admired the Thika road expansion project, on which the Chinese are doing remarkably well on it: They are placing over 6 inch thick tarmac, tarmac which is placed on 4 inch thick concrete, concrete which stands on meters thick hard core. But we wondered whether the construction would end within the stipulated period. We then discussed about the Chinese journey to this prominence, and talked about the Chinese revolution and the massive input of Mao Tsetsung and the Communist leadership into the Chinese industrialization process.
We began talking about the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, from the formation days when Bildad Kaggia’s and Fred Kubai’s began organizing together with members of Anake a 40. I did not hesitate to tell him that my father’s father, was one of the earliest Mau Mau leaders, who had even taken a photo with Jomo Kenyatta (when he was still considered progressive) as he (Kenyatta) was going abroad for the last time before incarceration. I also let him know that he was among the first people to be murdered, immediately the emergency was declared. He died without seeing his last born son, my father, who was born a few months after his death. Macharia, not wanting to be left out of the Mau Mau glory, told me about his father’s brother, whose nom de guerre was Shotgun Murage, who would give the colonialists in Nyandarua sleepless nights. He told me that Shotgun would shave off his dreadlocks in 1989, after becoming a born again Christian. I criticized the church for encouraging the shaving of the Dreadlocks, and its role in making the Mau Mau people feel like they had done the wrong thing in the liberation war. This behavior was especially conducted during operation pipeline, where a liberation fighter had to accept Christ, or lose his life, literally. But Macharia thinks that his conversion to Christianity helped bring his uncle to the reality that the war was over, and that Kenya and the government had forgotten them.>>>The Catholic Church played a major counter revolutionary role, by encouraging and sponsoring the homeguards movement. The homeguards would rape women left at home by the fighters, they would steal cows and goats belonging to the fighters, they would terrorize anyone suspected of belonging to the KLFA and they helped kill many freedom fighters. Some of the homeguards are still alive today, and they are running the country, using riches acquired during that period. Mr. Michuki, the current minister of environment, is one of them<<<
We talked about how the War veterans were quickly dying out, while nobody was documenting their stories, especially the stories of the Rank and Files Guerillas to whom Kenya and Africa should be greatly indebted to. We also talked about the big lie that the Mau Mau struggle ended in 1957, with the death of its great leader, Dedan Kimathi. Here, I told Mash about how at independence, Kenyatta asked the British army not to leave, because the fighters who had remained in the forest, together with those who had left earlier, had vowed to continue with their struggle, if they didn’t get their land back, and if they were not conscripted into Kenya’s Military. Land consolidation had taken place three years before independence, when most of the Fighters were still in the forest, and many others were in the “rehabilitation” camps, which were located in Kenya’s desert regions. Kenyatta’s excuse for not allowing the experienced and self made soldiers into the army and the government was that they were illiterate. This is despite the fact that some of these people were in the frontlines of the Second world war, this is notwithstanding the fact that these soldiers, using mostly homemade guns and Pangas, whooped the asses of the world acclaimed British army, who had superior weapons that included tanks and Air support (Liberator Bombers and Harvard Trainers), and here we have Kenyatta calling them illiterate. Unlike the other liberation Armies across Africa, it was only the Mau Mau who didn’t have any external support whatsoever, it was the Mau Mau who made the Colonialists realize that they could not sustain colonization of Africa, it was the Mau Mau who would later inspire great leaders like Mandela and Malcom X, it was the Mau Mau who sparked the winds of change across all of Africa, and here we have Kenyatta, asking the British Army to remain behind to check them.
I also told him about General Mwariama and Field Marshall Baimungi who demanded that Kenyatta addresses them in ruring’u stadium, rather than them going to Uhuru Park (Kenyatta would later send Waiyaki to calm them down. Baimungi was later killed on Kenyatta’s orders. I remembered the famous video clip taken several days after independence, of Mwariama holding Kenyatta, with Mwariama donning a General’s Coat, with long dreads and looking somewhat confused.
Along the way, as we entered Nyeri town, a gentleman who was seated next to us Joked about how Nyeri women “Seat” on their husbands, something that would never happen in western where he comes from. We all laughed, then Macharia told him not to joke with those women, because they have the militant Mau Mau blood in them, and many women from the region passed through the war trenches, I added that we even had General Muthoni, who managed to reach the highest rank, in a male dominated field.
This Chinese made NYS bus that we were travelling was very comfortable and very modern, with air condition, several TV screens, very good lighting and a toilet too. But it was damn slow (or rather, the driver was). We thus arrived four hours later, and no sooner than we approached Kahiga-ini did we turn around and head for Kimathi University College. Those who were ahead of us had already planted a tree several meters from where Kimathi was shot. I have to note here that they would have loved to plant it at the exact spot where Kimathi was shot, but nothing grows at that spot, not even grass! The place is actually surrounded by Tea plantations, but nothing has ever grown on that spot (and its circumference) for the last 54 years.
We arrived at Kimathi University, which has many buildings under construction and we were welcomed by a group of traditional Kikuyu dancers. There were two tents, one was small, empty and in it were cushioned seats. There other one was big, partially filled, and had the usual plastic seats. Mr. Wambugu, who was one of the organizers of this event, told Macharia and I to seat in the small tent, since we were in the guests of honor list. I hesitated and told Macharia that we just seat with the Wazees in the big tent. I later joked with him telling him that we might seat on that side, and find ourselves being asked to create space for other guests who carry more honor and who usually arrive late. (After some time, most of those who were seated in the small tent, including the DOs and DC had to give their seats to other important people from Nairobi.) We then realized that these Wazees seated around us were Mau Mau war veterans, and they would arrive one by one and great each other enthusiastically. The one who was seated directly in front of me had some cool looking dreadlocks and Macharia told me that going by his dreads, the guy could be some Captain or some high ranking Mau Mau officer. We would look around us and wonder if some of them were imposters……There was this particular one who had a big Rosary around his neck….
Then an old but strong woman arrived, wearing a dark green dress, a head scarf, some socks (similar to the ones worn by Primary school pupils) and rubber shoes. All the veterans stood up to greet her, and they were treating her with a lot of reverence. By this time, all the seats were occupied, then two men offered her their seats, and as she sat on one of them, she was still waving to some veterans seated at the far ends. I wondered aloud who this woman could be, and Macharia told me that she might be the General Muthoni I was talking about. I told him that that was not possible, since Muthoni is obviously passed on by now.
Guests continued to arrive; with Mwangi Thuita causing a stir when he arrived donned in full traditional Kikuyu elder’s regalia. He was closely followed TJRC Commissioner Margaret Chava, who drove in together with Mukami Kimathi. We were all very excited and everyone was raising their necks to catch a glimpse of Mukami, Kimathi’s widow. The atmosphere was just exhilarating. Then the PS ministry of culture arrived, and finally the last guests, Chris Murungaru and Paul Muite pulled in. All of them took the front row seats of the small tent.
The MC, a young well dressed fellow (a Divisional Officer, I’m not quite sure) invited the women Traditional dancers, who were followed by Mwomboko dancers >>with time, I have come to appreciate the skill in this traditional Kikuyu dance, it is more sophisticated and smoother than the Waltz<<<
Just as the speeches were about to begin, some guys came over to our tent, and asked the woman in green to move to the smaller tent, as that is where she was supposed to seat. We now really wanted to know who this woman was.
Professor Kioni, the principal of KUC invited all visitors to the college, briefly spoke of the achievements and the aspirations of the University, and noted that one of Kimathi’s grandsons is on a full engineering scholarship at the University.
Then the first shocker came, General Karari Njama, the secretary of the Mau Mau war veterans association was invited to make the first speech! For a long time I had thought that Karari njama had long passed on, until just the other day when my friend Mwandawiro Mghanga told me that they were together at Peter Young Kihara’s burial in Kiambu (even Mwandawiro was at that time shocked to know wa Njama was alive, and we agreed that we would organise to visit him in Nyeri.) Karari Njama was Kimathi’s personal secretary in the forest, and a well known fighter too. Unlike in the brown and white videos shown by KBC on national holidays where Karari has a few white hairs, thick spectacles and an upright and tall posture, here he was very old, with white hair and long white beards, still in a sharp suit, but without the spectacles. He had a written down speech, done in very good English, which he comfortably read in the blazing sun. In his speech, he recognized the economic achievements of Kibaki’s government and he decried the living conditions of the war veterans. His speech was full of patriotism.
According to the MC, the next person to address the meeting was supposed to be Mukami Kimathi, but Mukami said that the Chairman of the Veterans association had something to say. The MC was very hesitant, and then blurted out that he would give the chair just a minute to greet the people. The Chair stood up and sarcastically said that he would follow the MCs orders, and the crowd laughed. He was General Bahati. Bahati was his nom de guerre. This was a very exciting moment for me, just seeing these people whose stories we read in history books was just moving. Unlike General Karari Njama, General Bahati looked stronger, had no written speech, and addressed the meeting in kikuyu. General Bahati’s speech was tough, and he castigated the current leaders of forgetting the Mau Mau. He demanded that those who have not gotten some land must be given the land before they pass on. He said that it is sad that many years after getting our independence, Kenya could still have an IDP situation. He asked the government to solve their plight immediately. At this point, the MC, who either did not understand who general Bahati was, or might have been retarded, stood next to the General, asking him to wind up. At this point the goonship in me came out, and I began shouting from our tent that the MC must allow him to continue, since this was their day. A few Veterans joined me, and in Kikuyu, said that he should be allowed to continue. The stupid MC went back to his seat, but after a minute or so, he was standing there again. General Bahati wound up and the MC invited Mukami, to address the people. I was so worked up by the MCs behavior, and began telling Macharia that the MC is timing the freedom fighters, whereas I was sure he would not time the politicians and the government officers. I was right.
We enthusiastically welcomed Kimathi’s widow with makofi ya kilo. She began by recognizing the presence of all the dignitaries, and proceeded to speak to us in Kiswahili. She was not as energetic as Bahati, her address was more like that of Karari Njama, only that it was not written. She was grateful that the government had erected her husband’s monument in Nairobi. She also thanked the principal of kimathi University College for accepting to educate her grandson for free. (She made people laugh when she asked Prof. Kioni to stand, it went something like this: “Bwana headmaster, simama” then Kioni hesitated a little, and she went on “Nimekuambia usimame” then he stood up, “haya sasa kuja hapa,” “kuja unisalimie”The good professor had no options other than to obey!) She then narrated how she had approached him for the scholarship assistance, and that she didn’t know what she would have done were it not for him. She then asked the youth not to lose their brains in Alcohol and drugs, and told the youth that they should find some hustle to do. She asked husbands to be responsible to their families (and the women ululated) and then asked the Women to take care of their husbands, since finding a husband is no easy task (and the men cheered.) She also spoke well of Kenyatta (many Mau Mau veterans speak well of Kenyatta, even after he neglected them, I have never understood why. Probably the indoctrination in praise of Kenyatta before independence was too deep and strong, that it stuck into their subconscious) she also congratulated Murungaru, for repealing a section in the Kenyan laws in 2003 that still referred to the Mau Mau as terrorists. She also spoke of the hardships that she went through during the emergency years, especially since she had a very young child with her. She said that there were some war heroes who are still landless, and the government must settle them, then, she called the woman in green who went and stood near her, and said that it was a pity that even her (the woman in green ) was never given land by the state. She then finished by reminding the people what each color on the Kenyan flag stands for.
Then the daft MC stood up and said the most outrageous thing, he went something like “let us clap for Mukami as she goes to her seat. Now, time is not on our side, so I think we will now go to the main program, but there is a woman here called Field Marshall Muthoni, who they are saying that she must speak, but time is not on our side………okay…….i will give you just a minute, one minute Muthoni.” The burger didn’t even have the courtesy to hide his stupidity from us, how could Kimathi’s wife, and two generals address the people, then deny the Field Marshall a chance? How? In the Mau Mau struggle, there were several generals, and three field Marshalls, and this MC, who is probably a DO is trying to deny the only surviving field Marshall a chance to speak to us! For me, the shock that Muthoni was alive was actually transcended by the shock that this fellow thought that giving her a chance to speak was some kind of favor…on Kimathi day!

Field Marshall muthoni wa Kirima.
So the woman in green was actually Field Marshall Muthoni! What a pleasure it was to see her. I had read some short stuff about her two or three years ago, as I was studying the history of Mau Mau. At that time, I had read some negative post-1963 story about her on Wikipedia (the story is no longer there). Wikipedia’s report on Kimathi today also tends to make him look like some small time pick pocket rather than an international hero (but I’m am planning to change the info on that stud)
Field Marshall Muthoni took the microphone and began signing a Mau Mau war time song, the rest of the veterans around us stood up and sang along with her. Call it a grand entrance. She then told them to take their seats, and said that she would address the meeting in Kikuyu, saying that that is the language that she can best speak in, and that she doesn’t know English or good Swahili, because when others were in school learning, she was in the forest fighting(we excitedly clapped.)
She is a tough one this woman. She reproached the government where it was doing wrong (lack of jobs for the youth, the IDP issues, the landless freedom fighters), and praised it where it was doing well (free primary school education, recognition of the heroes through Mashujaa day.) At some point she spoke in very difficult Kikuyu, and I sought for some translation from the Macharia, but he also told me that he understood nothing. (Macharia was born and raised in Nyandarua). She said that she was saddened that land in Kenyan was being sold to foreigners, instead of being rented to them on short leases, or the government utilizing the land itself (I think she was talking about the Qataris at the Tana Delta.) She then praised Murungaru for removing them from the terrorist list, and asked what Paul Muite, a big Kenyan lawyer, had done for the Mau Mau veterans. (She had asked in a snobbish manner, so the crowd laughed while Muite covered his face smiling)…then the MC came and stood behind her, as if wanting to grab the microphone from her, again, forgetting my decorum, I began shouting that she be allowed to continue, but the seemingly unintelligent MC did not budge. She continued for some few minutes and gave the MC the mike. The Mc retorted that there are many people who would have wanted to speak, but time was not on our side, and that there would be another day for veterans them to talk! Talk of downright thickness!
He then invited the District Commissioner, who invited Murungaru to speak. He spoke for well over 30 minutes, without anybody hurrying him up. The DC invited Muite, who had Muthoni’s case to answer. Muite was modest, speaking for around 5 minutes, in Kikuyu, first by clearing his name, and stating that he was the lead counsel in the case put forward in Britain by Kenya National Human Rights Commission, where they are pushing for an official apology from the British government, Compensation, and for information on where they buried Dedan Kimathi, and adding that he is the one who helped Murungaru, the then Internal Security minister to write the gazette notice that removed the Mau Mau from the terrorist list.
The TJRC commissioner, Chava, spoke about the need for unearthing the truth, and documenting it, she spoke about the Wagalla massacre and the IDP issue. In fact, she expressed some very powerful points, very good points. Unfortunately, the intended audience was not listening, because she was speaking in very refined English. (I later realized that maybe her intended audience was not the Veterans, but the TV guys.) She spoke for quite some time, so the most of the guys in our tents began talking among themselves; I have to say that these Mau Mau people had very good stories, full of humor, that I was sad when she completed her speech. She invited Wafula Buke, who spoke (in Kiswahili) of how heroes of Kenya are always mistreated. He remembered of how he was once arrested during the Moi days, when they went for a procession to honor the freedom fighters.
As some other speeches continued, General Muthoni began walking away from the tent, and Mash and I went over to her. It was great honor shaking her hand, and I actually told her that I had thought she was dead. I asked her about life as a forest-based fighter, about Mathenge and Kimathi, her opinion on General China’s confessions, whether she could still make a homemade gun, among other questions. She told us of how she was among those who were never caught, and came out of the forest after independence in 1963. I then asked her how come I didn’t know that, whereas I knew of Field Marshall Baimungi and General Mwariama. She told me it was because she had met with the Nationalists before coming out in Ruring’u, and she was cleaned up, and given modern clothes, unlike the others who were still in their jungle animal skin clothes, which distinguished them and attracted a lot of attention to them.
We talked at length, even as it drizzled, and we exchanged contacts, and I promised to visit her soon.
We then went and had a chit chat with General Karari Njama, and held some brief talk with Mukami kimathi, and exchanged contacts with them too.
As we took our journey back to Nairobi, I wondered how things would be, if Nelson Mandela, during his visit to Kenya after his release from prison, had not sent the Government on a helter skelter by asking on the whereabouts of Kimathi’s widow.

Benedict Wachira
23rd February 2011

Monday, February 21, 2011

Urban Contemporary Musicians should do Kenya some Justice

A listener of Kenyan contemporary music will realize the music is actually not music in the artistic form, it is music in the descriptive form; the presence of some sound from instruments, combined with some voice(s).
By combining these two, and then calling it Kenyan music, is doing Kenyans a great injustice, both in the definition, and the quality of the mixture that that those ‘musicians’ give us. They also deny Kenya its international recognition with respect to good music.
In order for Music to acquire artistic value, it has to produce an effect to the listeners, the effect could be some emotion that they can relate with, or some motion from their bodies.
There are three aspects, that in my opinion make music to qualify as music, and musicians to be qualified as musicians, and they are: The message expressed, Creativity (and Talent) projected and the rhythm created.

  1. The Rhythm
Rhythm, whether created by some instruments or by use of the body (clapping, humming, clicking, tapping etc) is one of the major pillars of Music. The rhythm doesn’t necessarily require the accompaniment of words, though words give more meat to rhythm. A singer too, using words alone, can create a certain rhythm, by controlling the strengths and accentuations of the words being produced.
Again, not just any arbitrary combination of clapping, sound control and instrumental play will create a musical rhythm, no; on the contrary, it might actually create noise, plain noise.

The best instrumental songs are usually founded on rhythm, Jazz instrumentals will create some cool emotion, and even control the rate of your heart beat, and dancehall and Ragga instrumentals would immediately lead one into the dance floor.
Most Church songs have good rhythms, where one will find themselves moving the body from side to side, and even clapping to add some more rhythm.
Listening to most round songs and lullabies, one will find that there are words that are stressed, lengthened or eaten up, so as to create some rhythm. In a song like “Row, row row your boat,”the first two ‘rows’ create some repetitive but moving rhythm, then the “row your boat” create a falling or a hasty rhythm, the combination of the two will make the listener to unconsciously move the upper body back and forth, and hence unconsciously bring about the expected movement, as if one is actually rowing a boat. Similarly, in old African societies, during work, especially manual and collective work like tilling the land, songs would be created, with more stress of the rhythmic aspect of it, so as to create the same (rhythm) in the work, and thus bringing in some unity in speed and uniformity of the work, without any physical supervision.
The traditional Isukuti players also create different rhythms when compared to the traditional Ameru drummers, and the different rhythms will then create different motions.
A kikuyu will dance to Ohangla, though he/she may not understand the lyrics, a Mswahili would dance to Mugithi even when he/she doesn’t understand the words.

Pop and Soul music have good rythme too, But the best example of music with a strong rhythm aspect is the Congolese Lingala music. Lingala music is largely constituted by two aspects, rhythm and Creativity (which is covered in the next title) Whenever Lingala music is played, one is bound to let his/her body go, and just coil all the body parts with all the possible flexibility. There is only one rule in this genre of music: Dance to the rhythm. The Lingala rhythms do not respect sex, age, or the region from which one comes from. Unlike some other genres where you might be able to distinguish whether one is from an urban or a rural area by their dancing styles, Lingala comes and breaks this barrier, it is all about feeling the music, shaking your waste, moving your body, and going with the rhythm. a young person is allowed to jump and fall onto the ground, and old man can just move the waist (in as much as the waist might not be clearly defined,)while a shy person will just tap his feet on the floor, as he/she enjoys watching the dancers on the floor.
That’s why the likes of the Late Tony Msalame became countrywide radio stars in the late 90s and early 2000s. In fact, Tony Msalame would add onto the rhythm and the feel good effect, by emulating a moving train’s sound (eh-e, eh-e, eh-e, ), and moving with it to all parts of the country, where people would call in once the ‘train’ reached their town. Even he himself would be moved by the rhythm, and going by the pace of his voice, he would actually dance in the studio! We also had the late Harry Kabetsha, a presenter from Congo, who would explain to the listeners what each music means, and he would even explain the beefs between the musicians, and the generational facts, But he would explain to people who are already fans. Unlike other genres, Lingala musicians have to grow from an established band, and not just come from nowhere and become overnight stars, and hence their understanding of the importance of rhythm and other important aspects of music.
It is also because of the Rhythm that the Lingala Musicians had to develop dance styles, which would be adopted all the musicians, and would also be adopted by followers all over Africa. Wenge BCBG, was one of the first groups to come up with the Ndombolo style, where one would curve his body like a Monkey, and move as they wished, as long as they were in that monkey position and as long as they followed the rhythm, Koffi Olomide would popularize Kibuisa Mpimpa, while Werrason, after his break up with JB Mpiana, would popularize Helicopter while Kinkester, Awilo and almost every Singer sang and showed their own derivatives of Kiriwanzenza style. And that is the beauty of it; several people can do the same dance, but make their own innovations, depending on how the rhythm entered into them.
It is so sad that such beautiful rhythms are almost dead in Kenya today, especially after Metro FM shifted to an exclusive Reggae station.
With rhythm and creativity, the Congolese musicians would go ahead and dominate the KORA awards for a long time, despite the fact that most Africans don’t understand KiLingala, the language that the singers used.

  1. Creativity
The second thing that distinguishes music from plain noise is the Creativity aspect. In creativity, the listener doesn’t have to dance or sing along: Here, what the listener does is a lot of listening. Most international musicians as well as vernacular artists do very well in this aspect. Creativity contains bright rhymes, catchy stories, usage of beautiful/distinct voice, and skills with musical instruments. It is creative music that one normally listens to carefully, and then claps at the climax or at the end of the song.

Rap music (real rap, not the commercial trash) demands a lot of creativity from the musician. They have to write their rhymes in a very poetic manner, and speak them in a rhyming and flowing manner too, the way the spoken word artists do. It takes a lot of brains and limitlessness in thought, since one has to rhyme, and more importantly, still make sense. This art is commonly found with the underground rappers. The best example among the famous rappers is Lil Wayne, this kid just knows how to kill it, for instance when he goes like:
Safe sex, Is great sex
Better wear latex
Cause you don’t want that late text
that i think i’m the, late X
Locally, Abbas Kubaff has some of the coolest rhymes, like these rhymes from his song, Get down
mafans wako bananas kama tu Kiambu
na ma-rapper huleta kichwa kama Erykah Badu
industry ni matatu na Abbas ni bu
wale hawajalipa wana-step kaguu
mi hufanya vile najiskia ku-do
nang'ara vile hung'ara, kwani wata-do
ebu cheki lebo, ngepa na jeans ya blue
nime-land na ma-timber, kwa maguu
nina T-Sho mbichi nimedunga juu
 But it is in the underground that we have the best guys, the likes of Mr. Ree (one of the wittiest rappers in Kenya), Octopizzo, and many others who attend the B.C and other freestyle competitions.
Here are some of Mr. Ree’s rhymes when featured in Mc Cantona’s Haters song:
Notice unabonga lakini siogopi
Juu wewe ni kama safcom when it is off peak
Yaani, your talk is cheap
Msee m-weak  kwa drinks
Mpaka Sunday akineda church, apatiwe holy communion
Anaamka Monday na hang over
Mr. Gova, pull over land rover
Mr. Ree, na Cantona
Most Country music and local vernacular Kenyan songs have very catchy story lines. It could be a story of how one was conned of some cash, or about some love gone sour. Rock music has a lot of this too. An example is Kenny Rodgers’ Coward of the county or Kamaru’s Muhiki wa Mikosi among others. Taraab music also tends to have nice (and mature) storylines. If there is a contemporary Kenyan singer who has understood and this art is Jimmy Gait, he is telling a story in almost all his songs, in as much as they are gospel. Maddtraxx also uses this style quite often. Rapper Rabbit also does this a lot, and his star is up there. By telling these stories, they tend to excite the mind and emotions of their listeners. Even Nameless might have been some unknown architect somewhere, were it not for his first song, Megarider, which in my opinion remains his best song so far.
Some musicians, especially bands, have very good skills on their instruments. When you listen to the creative manner through which the Lingala/Rhumba/Benga bands (again) play their guitar: Stopping here, starting there, at times the guy on the bass goes off, then he comes back with a bang, how the drummer moves through all the drums and back...etc: This is also seen clearly in the Ohangla beats. When one listens to the guitar towards the climax of a Kamba song, one cannot fail to admire the skills on that electric guitar.
The other creative aspect (more of a talent) is the voice, and how it is used. Again, many singers do very well in this, especially the female singers. When it comes to voices, and how to use them, women rule. (....interestingly, most of these women are very beautiful too, and they seemingly never grow old)
From Celine Dion, Mariah Carrey, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Tony Braxton, Alicia Keys, Tracy Chapman, Laurent Hill, Allaine, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Miriam Makeba, Tshala Mwana, Mbilia Bel, Angelique Kidjo, Lady Jay Dee, Lira, Ray C, Marion Shako, Henrie Mutuku, Sheila, Juliana, Linet and many many others, especially those who specialize in Love songs. In Kenya, most female gospels musicians have excellent voices, voice controls and voice usageSome of the men could be Sam Mangwana, Don Williams, Daudi Kabaka, all products of TPOK jazz, TID,Eric Wainana and a few others.

  1. Message
But the most important aspect of music is the message projected, and this is where most Kenyan Urban Contemporary musicians fail. This is where an artist becomes the voice and the mirror of the society. Right from our African settings, messages would always be passed through music, some songs even allowed for free styling, so that the most immediate message would be passed to the people. There were songs which condemned laziness, commended bravery, imparted skills, told history and so on.
Here, just like in creativity, the listener listens. The music could be about a period in history, remembrance of a historic figure, about historical achievements, it could be about the ills or achievements of the System, it could be a call for solidarity, a call for arms for a just cause, a call for unity and peace, a call for reawakening, it could be a song showing the way forward, a song that brings in new ideas...


Struggle/Liberation songs.
In the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, during the struggle for our independence and during the Mau Mau uprising, songs of struggle were common among the Africans, and they would ask people to organise themselves, they would tell people not to fear, they would praise the freedom fighters and their leaders like Kimathi Waciuri and Mathenge, they would praise KAU and their leaders, they were sang in workers’ meetings, and some of the songs would be coded, such that only the revolutionaries and their supporters would decipher them. The same happened with all the struggling peoples of the world during that colonial era. Most of these songs are now unknown, especially among the younger generations. In Africa, it is only in a country like South Africa, that due to their protracted struggle, we find these songs still alive amongst all generations, both in and outside South Africa. Workers too have their songs, which are usually sung during strikes.
The Internationale, became one of the most famous (if not the most famous) songs of struggle, and was, and still is used by many Socialists and revolutionaries all over the world.
National Anthems
A national anthem that lacks some clear message would be preposterous. National anthems contain messages of pride to the nation, loyalty to the leadership, unity amongst the people, recollection of the past struggles and even messages to god. (An interesting thing to note here is that the national anthems of South Africa and Tanzania have the same tune, though the former was already in use during the apartheid days (pre-freedom) and the later coming into being in post independence days)
American Rap music of the 80s and then to a dwindling extent in the 90s was very progressive. The rappers, most of them black, would rap about Black history, slavery, racism, black power about life in the projects, about unemployment, insecurity, rich-man democracy, human rights, the need for a revolution and many other relevant messages.
They would pass these messages, and still maintain the creativity aspect of rap genre. From the days of the likes of Gill Scott, to rappers like Immortal Technique (who in my opinion is should be more of a poet than a rapper), KRS one, Arrested development, Public enemy, Nas, Killa Priest, Jedi Mind Tricks, The Fugees, our very own K’naan among others.
Save for the likes of those mentioned above and many unknown underground rappers, rap music of today is full of crap. No message at all. Whereas rap is meant to bring pride and unity amongst the blacks, these days it promotes murdering one another. Whereas rap used to preach equality of sexes, today it portrays women as whores and bitches, whose only job is to be laid. Instead of promoting brotherhood and solidarity, it promotes selfishness and extravagance, and the current substitute for awareness, is drugs.
Kalamashaka (K-Shaka), who could be said to be the fathers of hip hop in Kenya, have maintained the essence of rap to date. Through Ukoo flani/Mau Mau, they have paved way for even greater rappers, who collectively i consider to be the best musicians in Kenya and beyond. When i was younger, i would record All K-shaka’s songs on tape, but today, i find it difficult to copy Ukoo flani/Mau Mau songs, the guilt and the respect just doesn’t allow me to do that.
There are many other unknown hip hop rappers just doing their stuff in the underground. A lot of credit must be given to Mwafrika, for unearthing most of these underground rappers on a national and even international scale, during his days at Y fm, and later in Ghetto fm. were it not for him, most of these stars would remain in oblivion. Many others are yet to be discovered though, and others will definitely become big characters in the industry, due to the messages in their songs. Artists like Dr Dan and his brother Elton, have done songs like Revolutio, Pamoja Tunaweza and Haki Yangu which will remain relevant for a very long time to come. It is good to note here that their creativity can also be seen in their collabo called discuss which is very amusing. Dr Dan’s revolution attacks the government with a lot of courage. Another artist called VBO, through Prezzo wangu ni Mwhak have had the courage to critic the government too.

But the genre of music which never disappoints when it comes to the message is reggae. It is because of this message that reggae music never goes out of fashion, it never dies. Music from the 70s and 80s will still attract the same positive reaction as a reggae track released in 2011. Reggae music brings in the motion (an average pace, such that one can dance the whole night) and the emotion aspect of music. It is the emotion brought out by the message that makes reggae very popular. Reggae brings out resistance, it brings in pride, it brings out pity on our current standards of living, it calls for freedom, it call for love, and it is such messages that give reggae world wide popularity.
Though Bob Marley died 30 years ago, most of his music remain so relevant today, is as if they were sang yesterday. Anyone who listens to songs like Africa Unite, Belly full, Real Situation, Coming in from the cold, Zimbabwe, Redemption song, Rasta live up, Rat race, Jamming, Time will tell, stiff naked fools and Exodus, to songs like War (done from Haile Selasie’s speech), Blackman’s redemption, Jump Nyabinghi, Pimpers paradise, No woman no cry and others will realise that the message in every song was well thought through, before it came out of the studio, and as long as there is oppression and other problems, Marley’s songs will always have relevance. The lyrics of his song, Slogans which released two years ago, would qualify Bob as a prophet.
People like Burning Spears write songs as if they were custom made for Kenya, especially songs like Not Stupid,Dis man and Fireman befits Kenya very well. Songs like Come come and Not guilty will inspire any person in the struggle for a better living. He also never forgets to remind people of Marcus Garvey, through songs like Old boy Garvey, Garvey, Subject in School and Not guilty. He has also criticized Christopher Colombus’ claim of being the so called first person to discover the Americas. Another person who criticizes Colombus is Joseph Hill’s Culture band, through its song, Christopher Colombus. Listening to fusing and fighting’, Peace and Harmony,Mr. Sluggard, In this together and many other songs just confirms the power of Reggae music. Beres Harmon’s Rise Up and Putting up a resistance are extremely fresh and Sizzler’s I wonder remains my all time favourite, while i felt like dedicating Cocoa Tea’s No hope no solution to Ben Ali and Mubarak.
Even newer entrants to the reggae industry always keep to the message, from the like of Capleton (Jah City, That Day will come), Damien Marley (welcome to jam rock), Richie Spice (earth a run red, di Plane land), Turbulence (Mass destruction, Real warrior), Cecile (Rise up), Queen I’frica (to serve and protect, Keep it to yourself), Romain Virgo (Him who feels it knows it) Ginga’s Guilty Conscience and Gramps Morgan’s Time were in my opinion the best reggae songs of 2010.
Even non-Jamaican reggae musicians have done pretty well in maintaining the message. Dezarie, from St Croix could as well be the biggest reggae artist after Bob Marley. Her jams like Poverty, Not one Penny, Gracious Mama Africa, Strengthen Your Mind, Law Fi Di Outlaw, Gone Down, Slew dem an Done and many others just show why she’s so big in the music industry. Gone Down, Poverty, Not one Penny  and ease the pain remain my favourites. An Artist like Nasio Fontaine from Commonwealth of Dominica has some of the best reggae songs, from Crucial, Rise Up, When to Jah. UK’s UB40 have dominated the reggae scene for many years. Africa has produced outstanding people like Lucky Dube (God Bless the Women, Trinity, Tax Man), Tiken Jah Fakoley (with state threatening albums like Francafrique, l’Africain, African Revolution), Rita Marley (Harambee) and many other musicians. Locally, MC Sharon has been quite impressive.
The biggest shortcoming of most Reggae artists is their obsession with Jah: and Haile Selasie, who they suppose he is some kind of a god, whereas in real sense he was quite a brutal dictator of Ethiopia.
Other genres
We have other musicians in various genres passing very good messages, the likes of Tracy Chapman, Miriam Makeba, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Fella Kuti, Asa (also Nigerian, she is bound to be the next biggest thing in the whole music industry) and others who, in their respective genres, have done great in the message aspect.

Kenyan Bands
But perhaps the best musicians are the ones who have a bit of everything in most of their productions. A song with good rhythm, lots of creativity and a message.
Our young urban contemporary musicians perform very poorly in this regard. It is only the band-based musicians who are give meaning to Kenyan Music. It is actually impossible to sustain a band, without having at least two of these important aspects of music. Just look at an artist like Eric Wainaina, he is a definition of Kenyan music. From Daima Kenya, Inchi ya kitu kidogo, Sawa sawa, Ritwa Riaku, to who’s to blame (with an even hotter remix of this song with Juliani).
No person with a good taste in music can complain when charged some entrance fees to be entertained at the Luo Nights, Kamba Nights, Kikuyu Nights, Luhya Nights, Gusii Nights, Benga Nights or to attend performances by Maroon Commandos, Jamnazi Africa, Any of the One man Guitarists, Them Mashrooms, and other bands that do not necessarily do originals, but perform extremely well.
The best example of an Urban Contemporary Kenyan song that I have heard so far and has some Message, Creativity and Rhythm is the song Beba Beba, by Ma3.(I’m impatiently waiting for their album, to see whether they will dilute, or continue with this very good trend), here are the lyrics for Beba Beba
Verse 1
I thought the world was ending only yesterday
all the news on the TV made me wanna pray
everyone was fighting
trying to make more money
or end disease and the useless celebrity

I believe that we all
need to love more
and live our lives like
the little sparrow
It starts with me
and then to you
soon the world will be all brand new

Chorus x2
beba beba
you don't have to pay a thing
beba beba
come and join the family
beba beba
have a seat in the ma3
beba beba
we keep on smiling

Verse 2
what if the politicians vowed to tell no lies
and the people in the church were really light
shining like the moon in the night sky
open up your hearts wide
and let the love inside

I believe that we all
need to have more
and spread the smiles and
not the arrows
it starts with me
and then to you
soon the world will be all brand new

Chorus x2

Verse 3
I believe that we all
need to love more
and live our lives like
the little sparrow
It starts with me
and then to you
soon the world will be all brand new

The role of Radio and TV Stations
Unfortunately, our radio and TV stations are always pumping us with meaningless music, impose them on us, and before we know it, we are all dancing or singing along to songs that we at first dismissed as useless. No wonder Kenyans never buy those music deficient albums, when, the likes of Ken wa Maria, rakes in millions from their albums. These people cannot even perform their own songs, they will claim to perform ‘live,’ and on attending, one realises that the live performance meant Mc-eeing, and being asked to throw the hands up, while screaming. But the sickest part is when you are charged sh500 for a show, only for the clown to MC in two or three songs (each taking around 3 minutes) and leaving the stage with no shame at all. Rock, Lingala, Reggae, and local Bands perform the whole night, in real live sessions for the same amount of cash.
Were it not for a station like 1 fm, bands like Ma3 and Musicians like Asa would be unknown in Kenya. The selectors in this radio station make sure that what they give us is real music and not the usual noise (even though they occasionally air the noise)

Getting in to Music to get Money
Most of these ‘Musicians’ get into music to try and earn a living. They will thus come up with crap that would be aired in the crap filled radio stations, rather than music that will impress the listeners. You will also find a totally Unknown artist complaining that piracy is killing his ‘music,’ instead of complaining of lack of air play (The need for cash is deep in their minds, that they actually think that their unknown music is being pirated!)
A true artist will remain steadfast with their art, whether they are making money or not. They will even be happy to perform for free and entertain or educate their listeners.

In the Project Fame performances, those people who sing songs from these Kenyan ‘Stars’ usually end up flopping (and the judges end up claiming that so and so’s songs are difficult.....whereas they are not even songs in the first place!) When, in TPF3, Illuminata was almost being kicked out, she made a comeback by singing Miriam makeba’s Alluta Continua. In TPF4, Kenyans were wondering what the Southern Sudanese would sing, then Paleki sang Yaba Angelosi’s Salama Aleikum and in as much as this was an unknown song in Kenya, she (and the song) became an instant hit. This shows that good music will always resonate with the listeners, irrespective of the region that it comes from, or the number of times that one has listened to that song.

The Best in East Africa
It is unfortunate that nowadays, it is difficult to come across music from the rest of Africa. At least KBC through URTNA, used to expose Kenyans to good music from all over Africa. These days, it is only Citizen TV, through a once-a-week show called Afrodizzia that tries to Keep African Music alive in Kenya (but the show has now been pushed to midnight hours, as if to ensure that nobody watches it.)
In my opinion, the overall best Musicians in East Africa are Professor Jay and Lady Jay Dee. The best overall music group is Ukoo Flani/MauMau.
It is sad when a Kenyan Musician releases an album, and in it he fails to sing about the living conditions, the poor political state, tribalism or those things that really affect the common Mwananchi.

Benedict Wachira
20th February 2011