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From ridiculed Obokano player to famed musician

Saturday May 30 2009

By JOSEPH NGUNJIRI

Though the eight-stringed Obokano is an authentic Kisii traditional musical instrument, all it earned Grandmaster Masese was scorn and ridicule when his villagemates in Nyamira saw him carrying it around.

Just after he completed high school, he began performing his music at social and public functions for a modest fee. Despite his efforts, people refused to see him as anything more than a lazy, improvident musician.

Envy of many

That was in 2004. Today, courtesy of the instrument, Masese, whose real name is Dennis Mosiere, is the envy of many in the same village.

He arrives tomorrow after a 10-day tour of the UK, where he was part of a group that performed at one of the biggest literary events in the world, the Hay Festival. They also performed at several other venues for Kenyans living in the UK.

Cut off my Tongue, a unique poetry performance show, is a production of Storymoja Publishers. The poetry, written by Sitawa Namwalie, among other things, addresses issues of ethnicity, bad leadership and corruption. It is accompanied by music and dance, and this is where Masese and his Obokano come in.

Although when he started off his musical career Masese had dreams of making it big, he had never thought that he would perform at such prestigious events. “I think all this is due to the focused approach I have given my work,” says Masese, who is also a poet.

His love for the Obokano started when he was in primary school. “A relative had formed an Obokano band, and I joined in as a dancer,” he says. The relative also happened to make the eight-stringed instrument, some of which he sold.

In high school, Masese composed poetry and performed it during school assemblies. “I was also a very active sportsperson in school,” he adds. It is his ability to dabble in various activities and be good at them that earned him the name Grandmaster.

After completing his secondary school studies in 2003, Masese found a job in the highlands of Sotik where he worked as a tea-picker. He describes conditions at the tea plantation as modern-day slavery, “only that they don’t whip you”.

To ward off boredom when he was not working, he made his first Obokano and together with a few of his friends, formed a band that would entertain residents during social events.

He eventually quit working in the plantations and went back home in 2004 where he continued with his music. But he felt he needed to do bigger things. “I was a keen newspaper reader and I saw that Nairobi had a growing arts culture.”

Rather rough

When he first arrived in Nairobi in 2005, he found the going rather rough. To start with, he stayed with a relative who could not understand why he was not going out to hunt for jobs like other people.

Eventually, he was kicked out of the house in Mathare. He moved to the informal settlement Mukuru kwa Njenga and stayed with friends.

He frequented arts events and venues, making contacts. And his efforts paid off for a few months later, he met Binyavanga Wainaina, the founder of Kwani?, who was impressed with Masese’s Obokano skills and gave him a short contract as an intermission artiste during Kwani’s poetry slam at Club Soundd.

From the contacts he made through his performances at Kwani?, Masese was invited to the Pan African Literary Forum in Accra, Ghana, in July last year. And this year, he joined the cast of Cut off my Tongue as a replacement for Ingosti Star.

Among other high-profile events, Masese performed for Prince Edward when he came to Kenya in 2006 and at the Obama inauguration ceremony at the US Embassy early this year.

During the performance, which was also an art competition, he won the top prize with his song Twajivunia Kenya Yetu. His music has also been used as a soundtrack to a short movie called A Glass Story, done by German, Catherine Ender.

Masese has teamed up with Anthony Mwangi, a former Idols contestant, and they have been performing together.