Veteran benga musician Paul Orwa Omollo, alias Jasolo, is a relaxed man nowadays. He has seen it all in his long career in music. He laughs heartily when asked about the secret to his longevity.
“To stay for so long in this career, one must be self disciplined. I don’t take alcohol, neither do I chase after women. That is what is finishing many male musicians today; women and drug abuse,” Jasolo says.
At the height of the spread HIV/Aids in the 1980s and 1990s, many benga musicians from the Nyanza region fell sick and died. Many blamed the deaths on witchcraft.
“It was a lie to claim that other musicians employed witchcraft to kill their musical rivals. God is the giver of life and we must safeguard that gift by being disciplined and true to ourselves,” he says.
In one of his 2015 composition in his album Osiepe ma Nairobi (Nairobi friends), Jasolo sings in praise of God for taking care of him.
Many benga musicians passed on in the 1990s, with 1997 being particularly tragic. That was the year Okatch Biggy, George Ramogi and Ochieng’ Kabaselleh died.
Other benga musicians who have since died include Collella Mazee and Ochieng Nelly.
These deaths disturbed Jasolo, pushing him to compose a song in their memory in 1997. It was titled Jothum Tho Rumo (death is finishing musicians).
Jasolo was born in 1947 in Jimo village in Nyakach, Kisumu County. He began his musical journey in 1968 as a solo artist with his box guitar before joining George Ramogi’s C.K. Dumbe Dumbe band in 1970.
In 1972, he formed his first band, Victoria Jazz, where teamed up with Ochieng Nelly and Were Kelly. In 1973 the band was renamed Milambo Jazz Band.
Jasolo explains that changing times in music often made him change the band’s name to suit his audiences.
In 1985, he formed a new band called Kagero Jazz Band but had to rejoin George Ramogi in 1991 because of Ramogi’s more modern musical instruments.
In 1994, while still with George Ramogi’s C.K. Dumbe Dumbe, Jasolo toured the US, courtesy of a group of Kenyans living in there.
Their hosts, led by Peter Kaula and Opiyo Midiang’a, organised the band’s tour of several American cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC, and Atlanta.
“The US trip is my most memorable moment,” he says. “I still remember how we thrilled our US fans.”
Peter Kaula, who facilitated the band’s US tour and who is now an MCA in Homa Bay County, describes the talent in the band.
“George Ramogi and his C.K Dumbe Dumbe Band was a cut above the rest. They played fascinating music to their US audience.”
Unfortunately, the band disagreed after the trip over monetary proceeds from the tour, forcing it to break up.
“We failed to agree on how to share the proceeds we got from our US tour. The band’s leadership kicked me out together with other musicians,” says Jasolo
Today, Jasolo leads his band, Connections Jazz, which he formed in 1995 after leaving George Ramogi’s band. He named the band Connections after an entertainment joint they performed in while in the US.
His son is a lead singer in the band. Jasolo says his son will take over the band upon his retirement from music.
“I intend to leave the band in my son’s safe hands when I retire from music. Many bands have witnessed disintegration after the deaths of their lead artists and I would not like my band to go that way,” says Jasolo.
In his advice to upcoming musicians, Jasolo says self discipline is prerequisite for longevity in music as a career.
“To live long in music, young artists must avoid promiscuity and excessive consumption of alcohol that may impair judgment and focus on music as a job.”
He says he hates listening to music composed by the current generation of musicians where sex and adultery are praised. He asks the government to regulate the music played by radio stations to curb the deteriorating moral standards.
“As an old musician, I am not impressed with the kind of music musicians of this generation produce. They promote adultery and promiscuity, this is in turn leading to risky behaviour.”
He blames the risky sexual behaviour among musicians for the spread of HIV/Aids in the Nyanza region.
The misrepresentation of facts about HIV/AIDS in benga songs in the 1990s was so serious that it attracted scholarly studies. In a 2009, T. Michael Mboya released a research paper titled ‘Sex, HIV/AIDS and Tribal Politics in the Benga of Okatch Biggy.’
He examined the celebration of sex and prostitution at a time when the scourge was doing a great damage to Biggy’s own fan base.
In the wake of deaths that rocked the industry, other musicians used their platforms to warn about the scourge. Benga songstress Princess Jully composed an educative hit, Dunia Mbaya, in 1997 urging fellow musicians and the public to be faithful to their partners.
In raising awareness, Princess Jully waded on various issues; she became candid about the existence of AIDS and the various ways in which the infection is spread.
She confronted the fact that there is, as yet, no cure for the disease and that the outcome of infection was almost certain death before the introduction of anti- retroviral drugs.
Maseno University sociology lecturer Ken Nyamoro attributes massive musicians’ death in the 1990s to open glorification of sex in most lyrics that bordered on undressing women.
‘‘Revellers in disco dances and live bands religiously adhered to immoral teachings of their musicians who fell short of using their opportunity of wide audiences to educate them on HIV scourge,’’ notes Nyamoro.
Mr. Nyamoro explains that the night disco dances or disco matanga as they are popularly known contributed to promiscuity and spread of HIV. Disco matanga are after burial in many communities in Kenya especially in western Kenya.
Cultural practices of the Luo community where most benga artistes hailed from could easily be blamed for quick spread of HIV like sexual cleansing that demands a woman to undergo some sexual rituals which included sex to ‘‘purify’’ her and make her acceptable in the community after death of her husband.
The widow inheritance practice also requires that a woman gets inherited by her brother –in-law as his new wife after the death of her husband.
Using sex as a "cleansing"’ exercise in major events like harvesting, planting and establishing a new home exposed masses into vulnerability of the scourge.
Luo Council of Elders Chairman Nyandiko Ongadi attributes misuse of culture to massive loss of lives.
"Wife inheritance was a meaningful practice that ensured widows were safeguarded but people have replaced it with prostitution," says Nyandiko.
Jasolo has over fifty music albums under his name. Some of his best-known albums are "Ondiek Chillo" (1972), "Thum jo Kalee" (1972), "Agumba" (1973), "Opiyo Midiang’a and Peter Kaula" (1994), "Onyango Koyoo and Cyprian Awiti" (1992) and "Osiepe ma Nairobi" (2015).