The memoirs of a musical maverick
Posted Saturday, April 18 2009 at 14:04
There is more grey in his hair and beard, but he looks a decade less than his 70 years, and his energy level would put far younger people to shame.
Veteran musician Joseph Kamaru — the man who told truth to power more than once — looks back on his eventful life and recalls the turning point.
One evening in 1965 he was listening to the radio when he heard Mwangi wa Gachau’s classic Mbeca Ithiragira Urakua; it changed his life.
“I am going to play a better song than this one, and it will also be played on radio,” he told his sister, Catherine Muthoni, who was sitting with him.
Forty-four years later he has not only composed dozens of hit songs but is a living legend on the Kenyan music scene, sought out by musicologists and scholars doing research on Kenyan music and Kikuyu culture.
Some of his own classics are Ndari ya Mwalimu, a reflection of affairs between wayward teachers and pupils; Tiga Kuhenia Igoti (Don’t lie to the court), a tale of sexual harassment involving rape nearly 30 years before it became the subject of public debate; and Nuu Ucio, a deft insight into the issue of promiscuity in the 1980s long before it gained public prominence.
On Friday, Kamaru will be at the Carnivore — where he was the first to perform live Kenyan music in the late 1980s at a venue that hitherto featured foreign music — to celebrate his 70th birthday, his 40 years as one of Kenya’s greatest artistes and his 16 years as a born-again Christian.
He is not quite sure how many songs he has recorded but estimates there could be more than 1,000, some of them never released.
His journey began in Kangema, Murang’a, where he attended primary school, leaving in 1957 for a tough life on Nairobi’s mean streets where he peddled everything from Suta capsules to vegetables.
His first formal job was working as a house-help and a nanny, and it paid him Sh180 a month, enough to put his sister through a commercial typing course and buy himself a guitar. But after hearing the Mwangi wa Gachau song, he never stopped believing he would one day become somebody.
His music opened the way into elite circles and, for a time, he enjoyed a special relationship with Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Moi. But he fell out with both over matters of principle.
“I was an artiste through and through and defended my constituency, writing songs that reflected the mood of the times,” he recalled in an interview.
Eventually the words to his songs fell afoul of the two leaders; he was banished and began to receive death threats.
This will all be told in his forthcoming autobiography but, for now, his mind is on the Friday event.
Martin Dunford, the chairman of the Tamarind Group that owns the Carnivore, remembers watching as hundreds of Nairobi night owls who were seeing Kamaru perform live for the first time danced on the tables, intoxicated as much by the music as the traditional brew muratina.
What he called “one of our best nights ever” was to open the venue to Kenyan music and, more significantly, to an African public, setting the stage for its transformation into a meeting place for a mixed liberal urban audience.
The 1975-85 period clearly represents Kamaru’s best years marked by a string of hits and a live band that was one of the best in the business, and that success was only enhanced by the release of the adults-only cassettes, all dealing with Kikuyu folk songs, most of which were as explicit as they could possibly be.