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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

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