Three nights a week 20 Kenyan soldiers take a break from the rigorous routine that defines their military life from sunrise to sunset. On these nights they let another side of their personalities take over as they mingle with civilians through music.
Hands trained to hold weapons hold guitars, trumpets, drumsticks and microphones. Feet accustomed to marching in formation and jumping in and out of trenches tap lightly, keeping beat to the music.
Voices conditioned to bark out orders in military drills croon words that have entertained generations. And the faces that seldom crack the faintest of smiles soften and become warm.
During the two hours on stage there are no ranks, no obligatory salutes. During this rehearsal, united by their common love of music, they are all equal.
Kilometres from the noisy Nairobi streets behind high walls on Langata Road is the headquarters of the Seventh Kenya Rifles, popularly known as Langata Barracks.
For the past four decades, the Maroon Commandos have called it home. True to its members’ military calling, the band has remained disciplined and consistent in delivering music that cuts across generations.
Since its formation in October 1970, the band has released dozens of albums and has been a platform for many army men to pursue their talents in music throughout the years. Among the most popular alumni of the band is legendary former band leader Habel Kifoto.
Sergeant David Kombo cuts the figure of an amiable man. His stocky figure, muscular arms and thick neck hint at years of either heavy lifting or a strict exercise regime.
“Exercise. Our duty demands that we are fit at all times. You never know when your country will need you,” said Sgt Kombo, who is also the current Maroon Commandos band leader.
Performing on stage at the popular Nairobi restaurant Ranalo, also known as K’Osewe, his nearly six-foot frame is dressed in plain jeans and a loose fitting shirt.
As he steps up to the microphone, his light complexion — plus the effects of the multicoloured neon disco lights — make many mistake him for a Congolese musician. But off stage, he is a different man. Although he maintains an ever-present smile, his military fatigues add another dimension to his appearance.
“We are a group of hard men and women. The uniform just compliments this trait,” he said.
But no matter how hard-hearted or stone-faced they might want to appear, all the band members have a soft spot. And the Maroon Commandos band was created specifically to reach these hard-to-find spots within the soldiers and massage them until their hard masks fall off to reveal the human faces of those charged with securing the country’s borders.
“The frontier can be a lonely place,” Captain Sammy Leyagu said. “Soldiers are at times forced to spend long periods of time away from family and friends.”
And so the band was formed. Its original mandate was to entertain soldiers at military bases around the country. They were to be the badly needed connection between outposts and the fast-disappearing memories of home the soldiers were finding hard to hold on to.
“The band was meant not only to entertain but to encourage as well. While at the front line it is important to know that you are not alone and that even though your unit was the only one facing the uncertainties that lay ahead, there were others with you in spirit,” Sgt Kombo said.
The band moved around from base to base boosting the morale of fellow soldiers and serving as messengers who brought the news from the outside world.
From time to time they also performed at state functions, and soon their popularity was not confined to the military.
“Their songs began to get good airplay in the radio, and soon the public was demanding Maroon Commandos’ music,” the band leader said.
As their popularity grew, so did the demands on the band. Stardom was beckoning. The faces of band members could easily be distinguished in a crowd.
The Kenyan music scene was awash with several other bands that were making the kind of music people wanted to listen to — DOC Milimani, Hodi Boys, Les Mangelepa and Them Mushrooms.
Most of these bands split into different factions and eventually disappeared from the play lists of most Kenyans. Even the most loyal of fans lost touch with them. Rivalry among band members took centre stage. But the Maroon Commandos soldiered on.
“The guys had been through a lot together. They had a bond that couldn’t be broken easily, but the most important aspect that has enabled it to survive this long is discipline,” Sgt Kombo said. “Without it, we would be nowhere today.”
But to succeed in music, a lot more than discipline needs to come into play before the final product fit for the market is achieved.
“I believe our message is unique. We speak to the hearts of everyone, and our message is relevant,” he said, adding that all the members work on the compositions.
After the post-election violence, the band recorded Kenya Unite, an album that aimed at encouraging Kenyans to thrive in their diversity and shun tribalism and bad politics.
But the music is not always about their fans. At times the band uses it to talk about life as they have seen it. They talk of triumph and of loss. Of comrades who have died in foreign lands, and of successful missions as well.
The uniqueness of the group extends far beyond their lyrics. The special unit of the Seventh Kenya Rifles unit is the only army unit in the country whose members are allowed to walk into Nairobi without permission from their seniors.
During her tenure as mayor of Nairobi from 1970-76 Margaret Kenyatta extended this privilege to them. As a result, they are allowed to come into town in full military fatigues.
“We can confidently walk into the city complete with our weapons to either calm residents, or even when we come back home from a triumphant mission,” Captain Leyagu said.
Despite their musical success, the band members do not let their popularity outside the barracks go to their heads.
“We are first and foremost soldiers whose duty is to protect our land from external aggression. This comes before everything else,” said Private Faith Nekesa, a back-up singer with the band.
“All of us are soldiers, and we are at the beck and call of the needs of our country.”
She has been with the band since she joined the army in 2004. Pte Nekesa is one of the four women in the band, a position that has come with its share of challenges.
“Many people still look at me as a woman first, a singer second, then a soldier third,” she said. “Sadly, the perception that we are the weaker sex still exists.”
Blessing in disguise
But she says this is also a blessing in disguise.
“Many have low expectations of me so that gives me an opportunity to shock them each time I do something they think I cannot,” she said.
The military pays her salary, and her terms of reference are determined by the disciplined forces. Music is just a co-curricular activity.
“We have no illusions about our duties. We are soldiers. Everything else is secondary,” she said.
Despite the fact that Maroon Commandos was originally a military band, there is room for non-military men as well. But becoming part of the ensemble is not easy.
“Let’s just say a strict vetting process is employed in case we need to recruit from outside,” said Sgt Kombo.
But he says, such occurs when the members notice extra- ordinary talent that the band would benefit from. To get in, one needs to show not only a high level of discipline, but should also be a singer, composer or play an instrument.
Gone are the days when they used to perform for free at stadiums on national holidays to thousands of cheering fans. Now they are hired to perform at private functions or at restaurants. The money they earn is used for maintaining the band.
“That is what we use to buy equipment and any other thing that the band may need,” the band leader said.
For him and many of the members, Maroon Commandos will always occupy a special place in his life, 20 years of which have been spent with the band. Currently he is the longest-serving member.
He remembers when in 1990, just two years after he had joined the band, they were deployed to the new republic of Namibia that had just gained independence.
“Seeing hundreds of thousands of people at Windhoek Stadium dancing along to our songs is a memory I will take to my grave,” he said as he swayed to the rhythm of a bass guitar in the background.
“Maroon is in my blood. It will always be.”
It has been an hour since the band’s practice session began. The drummer plays a set. The lead guitarist takes cue. The saxophonist joins in, and Pte Nekesa belts out a popular tune. Music is slowly penetrating the hard exteriors of the soldiers.
Beneath the thick military fatigues, a shoulder shakes, hips sway, and a soldier does a simple Lingala dance step. Three others follow suit, and within seconds a dance routine gets under way. Each of the soldiers enjoys these little moments.
“This is their hobby. Some of us play soccer; others are boxers. This is how they let off steam,” said Cpt Leyagu as he nodded to the background sounds of the rehearsing band.
He is also in the grip of the charm of the 40-year-old Maroon Commandos. Perhaps if he had been in his private quarters, he would have done much more than nod his head.