The history of Tanzanian musicians who made a mark after crossing the border in the 1970s in search of greener pastures in Kenya is incomplete without mention of the mightily talented Professor Omari Shaban.
Omari Shaban, the prolific composer and guitarist, first arrived in Kenya as part of Simba wa Nyika band that was then led by brothers Wilson Peter Kinyonga and George Peter.
The Simba Wanyika group, which was initially known as Arusha Jazz, was formed in Arusha, Tanzania as an offshoot of the legendary Tanzanian Jamhuri Jazz band. Fans of Tanzanian music will remember some of the popular songs by Jamhuri Jazz band like Shingo la Upanga and Nafikiria kurudi Shamba.
Under Arusha Jazz, the Kinyonga brothers (George, Wilson and William) recorded songs like Mama Suzie, Mary Mtoto and Tutengane salama.
When the group moved into Kenya in 1974, through Mombasa, they teamed up with Omari Shaban, Tom Malanga and, later Rashid Juma and redid most of those songs. Today, their songs are classified under Kenyan music, where they performed and did most of their recordings.
Before long, Omari Shaban left Simba Wanyika. The group, which was by then led by Wilson, first pitched tent in Mombasa at the then popular Sports View Hotel. In 1975, the group moved to Nairobi, where they first played at Marathon Club, then later Tree Shade Hotel in Parklands.
However, all was not the well between Omari and the Kinyonga brothers, who parted company in 1977. Alongside Malanga, Rashid Juma, Phoney Mkwanyule, Stanely Mtambo and others, he formed Orch Les Wanyika in November 1978.
Speaking to Review earlier this week, Malanga recalled the days. “Nairobi was teaming with many new bands and we were determined to prove to be the best,” he said. Others who later joined Les Wanyika band include guitarist John Ngereza, who joined the group from Orch Bwambe Bwambe, the deep-voiced Issa Juma , Joseph Just, Mohammed Tika Abdallah and Victor Boniface.
This month marks the 12th anniversary of the death of Omari Shaaban, who, though a household name at the time, was well known for being soft-spoken and was one of the most smartly dressed musicians. His fans still dance to his music to date.
Many of them will be familiar with one of the hit songs he composed, Pamela. What they might not know is that the band leader was, in fact, singing about his wife.
This week in Nairobi, the widow, Pamela Omari, broke her long silence in an interview with this writer, in which she spoke lovingly of her late husband and confirmed that the song was, indeed, composed in her honour. “I first met Omari in 1974 while I was still in school,” Pamela recalled.
And just as attracted to the man and his music as she was so many years ago, Pamela, remains committed to preserving Professor Omar Shaban’s legacy. Pamela is not only in the process reviving the band her husband led for many years, but is also putting his music together to ensure that royalties go his estate.
One version of the hit song Pamela was released by Orch Simba Wanyika and the other, a little later, by Les Wanyika, which Omar Shaban had established after parting ways with the Kinyonga brothers. Pamela remembers the events of the time as if they just happened a few weeks ago. Pamela No1, she says, was released while she was still in school.
Says she: “I feel honoured taking care of the two children, Emily and Marcus, whom I had with Prof Omar,” she said. Emily lives in Germany while Marcus is in Kenya.
Omar, who is also remembered for the all-time hit song, Sina Makosa, whose cover versions have been done by several other famous musicians, was mesmerised by the young woman and no wonder in Pamela No1, he sang, “Nasikia waniita lakini kazi imezidi mama nikiimaliza nitakuja nikuone mama nikupe busu mama Pamela. Ukimaliza masomo”). He was telling her to work hard in her studies and, on completion, he would go over, sweep her off her feet and kiss her.
Wilson Peter did the lead vocals on Pamela No 1. The rivalry between Omar and the Kinyonga brothers was immortalised in two songs, Sikujua kama Utabadilika and Sina Makosa. Pamela says Omar composed Sina Makosa, after he fell out with and parted company with Wilson and George Peter Kinyonga to form Orch Les Wanyika in November 1978. Sina Makosa was became a hit that won gold record.
Omar died 20 years after forming the Orch Les Wanyika band. George Peter died in December 1992, while Wilson Peter died three years later. Though on the surface, the lyrics of the two songs were about family feuds, they were, indeed, actually about the differences between Omar and his former colleagues.
The Les Wanyika group, which pitched camp at the then popular Bombax Club off Ngong Road in Nairobi, is best remembered for compositions like Afro, Paulina, Dunia Kigeu geu, Kwanza Jiulize, Ufukara si Kilema, and Sioni wala sisikii, among others. Like most other groups, Les Wanyika was hit by a defection when Issa Juma left to form Super Wanyika alongside other musicians.
In 1983, Omari took the band on a tour of Uganda on return they released Safari sio Kifo, which talked of some of the tribulations they faced in Uganda. Later in 1988, Omari briefly teamed up with the Everest Kings band, then led by Abdul Muyonga, to record the popular song Kujenga ni kazi ngumu kubomoa ni rahisi.
As Muyonga put it, “Omari was a humble colleague who was dedicated to his work on stage.”He later rejoined Orch Les Wanyika till his death February 1998. According to Pamela his body was found abandoned in Kisumu after he gone missing from home for almost two weeks.
“It was a painful loss, but I have ever since endured and taken up the courage and determination of keeping his family alive,” she says. Meanwhile, besides Omari this month Swahili music lovers will also be marking the ninth anniversary since the death of Fadhili William, composer of the legendary Malaika hit song.