Veteran musician Gabriel Omolo Aginga of the “Lunch Time” hit song is dead.
Gabriel, who was among the few surviving veteran musicians of the 1960s and 70s, died after a short illness on Wednesday night at the Busia Referral Hospital.
Speaking to the Nation.co.ke Thursday morning, his counterpart Charles Makawita confirmed that the 79-year-old Gabriel had died from breathing complications after being admitted to the hospital on Tuesday.
“His widow, Alice Adeya, called me last evening to the hospital when she realised his condition had deteriorated," said Charles . The two musicians were childhood friends who both hail from Nyabeda Village in Uholo, Ugunja, Siaya County.
Radio broadcaster James Onyango Joel, who also hails from Ugunja, told Nation.co.ke he also learnt of the musician's death through the widow.
“Omolo was one of the best composers whose music will be remembered for its enticing social commentaries," Onyango said.
Until the time of his death, Gabriel was among the few surviving greats of the Swahili music generation of the 1960s until the 90s.
Born in 1939, Omolo was raised at the Kenya Railways quarters of Muthurwa and later in Makongeni, Nairobi.
He learnt how to play the guitar while at St Peter Claver Primary School, where he also sang in the choir.
His career took off in the 1960s when he joined the iconic Equator Sound Band where he played alongside Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili William, Zambian legend Nashil Pichen Kazembe and Peter Tsoti .
The band was formed in 1960 by veteran producer Charles Worrod who also managed the Equator Sounds Studio.
Notably, it was Gabriel who played the bass guitar on the famous “Pole Musa” a composition by Tsotsi.
Besides performing with the Equator sound Band, Gabriel also performed with the Eagles band Blue Shades and later Apollo Komesha band.
A remix version of his “Lunch Time” (originally released in 1970) was done 35 years later in 2005 by the late Poxi Presha and Kenyan-based Congolese singer Paddy Makani.
In September 1974, Gabriel became the first Kenyan musician to be awarded an International Golden Disc for the sales of his single, "Lunch Time".
Phonogram Records certified a total of 150,000 copies of the single, sold in East and West Africa by that time.
The company’s vice-president, Joop Buinink, flew to Nairobi to be present when the permanent secretary for Information and Broadcasting, John Ithau, officially handed over the plaque to Omolo at the Panafric Hotel in Nairobi.
As a result of this achievement, he was selected as the first musician in the country to be awarded the Guinness Stout Effort Award in September 1974.
Omolo and his band, Apollo Komesha, had recorded 20 singles for Phonogram with total sales of 300,000 copies, more than the 80 bands contracted to the company together.
In his social commentary that still resonates 40 years after its release, Omolo captured the plight of the urban worker who struggled to make ends meet and could only afford a little luxury at the end of the month. That applies to date.
“I was working in Industrial Area and noticed that at the end of the month, my fellow workers would all run away from the usual githeri and porridge for lunch and instead be found eating chapati and beef. Similarly, come the end of the month and all the fellows who would otherwise be whiling the time away, sleeping under the shade of Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi would be feasting on chips and chicken,” he said.
The lyrics for "Lunch Time" came naturally from these observations. The impact was felt beyond Kenya.
Veteran producer and band manager Tabu Osusa, who oversaw the release of “Lunch Time”, said: “We have lost of the Kenyas’ best singers."
Gabriel's follow-up singles like "Keep Change" and "Mr Kupe" retained the social commentary, but could not attain the same heights of success as "Lunch Time".
In later years, Omolo tried his hand at various businesses, including running a taxi venture and operating a music store in Mombasa.
He was also employed as a driver with the United Nations in Nairobi from 1989 to 1995.
His accomplishments have, however, gone unnoticed by most Kenyans, save for a performance at the first Mashujaa Day celebrations in 2010 and a Head of State Commendation (HSC) a year later.
Gabriel Omolo spent his time at his home in Ugunja, Siaya County, writing songs and playing his guitar.
Additional reporting by Bill Odidi