The Congolese have Lingala. The South Africans have kwaito, kwela, mbube and mbaqaqa. Cameroonians have makossa, Brazilians samba and Jamaicans reggae.
Whenever music from these regions is played, be it Franco’s Mario, Yvonne Chakachaka’s Umqomboti, Fela Kuti’s Lady, Manu Dibango’s, Soul Makossa or Bob Marley’s, No woman, No Cry, music buffs from anywhere in the world can instantly recognise and locate its origin.
What about Kenyan music?
Besides Benga, Kenyan music lacks a signature sound. That hasn’t stopped its exponential growth in the past decade, though.
The volume knob was turned by, among other factors, the onset of FM radio stations, talent search competitions, producers and studios, frooty-loops digital recording technology and a fan base of callow youth.
Also, there was a patriotic wave of being “Proudly Kenyan”, at a time when popularity of Congolese music, that had dominated local music scene for ages, was waning.
The generation gap boosted local music too across age, community and class divide.
While the raging hormones of “mahewa (music) generation” found a lyrical home in Kenyanised American hip-hop; their “old skul” parents and the lyrically discerning post-teenagers went for zilizopendwa (golden evergreens), or the folksy Central Province mugithi as popularised by the one-man band craze fronted by Mike Rua, Mike Murimi and Salim Junior.
The same applied to Nyanza Province Ohangla tunes, of Tony and Jack Nyandundo.
Gospel music, on the other hand, moved from choir batons to embrace modern, catchy beats, without preachy lyrics.
This growth wasn’t without trailblazers.
Hardstone (Harrison Ngunjiri) pioneered an urban style by blending ragga, reggae and hip-hop with Uhiki in the late ‘90s. This song in Kiswahili, Kikuyu and English topped the charts culminating in Hardstone’s debut album, Nutin but de Stone, released internationally by German based Kelele Records.
Hardstone showed the latent potential of Kenyan hybrid music.
But the success of any new sound and crop of musicians, has a visionary producer behind the scenes.
Kenya in the late ‘90s had Tedd Josiah.
Besides founding Kisima Music Awards, the musician turned producer founded Blu Zebra Records in 2002. The studio recorded among other artistes; Hardstone, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Necessary Noize (Wyre and Nazizi Hirji), Ndarlin’ P, In-Tu and Uganda musician Kawesa- who all featured in compilation albums.
Tedd either turned artistes into Gold —Poxi Presha, Suzzana Owiyo, Abbi, Didge, and Achieng’ Abura— or polished them into paving way for others. Like Kalamashaka who introduced hardcore Kiswahili hip-hop into mainstream music with the hit song Tafsiri Hii.
Or Gidi Gidi Maji Maji with their Dholuo/English numbers, Ting’ badi Malo and Un-bwogable, which proved that vernacular-couched songs could have crossover appeal when creatively infused with World Music beats.
Tedd wasn’t alone as Ogopa Deejays and Calif Records in the late ‘90s and early 2000, spawned rappers weaned on urban hip-hop.
Ogopa exploded into the scene with Ugandan musician Bebe Cool (Moses Ssali) and Chameleone (Joseph Mayanja) and Kenyans, Redsan (Swabri Mohammed) and E-Sir (Issah Mmari), a rapper with lyrical prowess in Kiswahili.
E-Sir who died in a car accident in 2003, (his father is a Tanzanian) put Ogopa on the map with Mos Mos, Boomba Train and Leo ni Leo, songs credited with creating the boomba (also called kapuka), a cocktail of hip-hop and dancehall inspired beats.
Ogopa, led by media shy brother, Band, Francis and Lucas Bikedo, popularised “fun club music” via Nameless (David Mathenge who is something of a fixture in Kampala), Wahu (Kagwi-Mathenge), Amani (Cecilia Wairimu), The Longombas (Christian and Lovi Longomba), Kleptomaniax (Roba (Robert Manyasa), Collo (Collins Majale) and Nyashinski (Nyamari Ongegu) and the all-girl group, Tattuu (Angela Mwandanda, Debbie Asila and Angela Ndambuki).
Christian and Lovi are grandchildren of Vicky Longomba of the TP OK Jazz fame while Wahu won the best female artiste at the MTV Africa Music Awards in 2008. Fellow Kenyan Amani, a favourite with Kampalans, won in 2009.
While kapuka was Ogopa’s tune, Clement Rapudo’s Calif Records created ngenge, meaning a “dance style with mass appeal”, from its flagship artistes Nonini (Hubert Nakitare) who “blew” up the music scene with songs laced with lewd lyrics like Manzi wa Nairobi and Wee Kamu.
He paved the way for Jua Cali (Paul Nunda), whose sanitised lyrics in Nipe Asali, Kiasi, Bidii Yangu, Ngeli ya Ngenge, and Kwaheri, propelled him to Kenya’s biggest recording rapper in commercial endorsements.
His Sh1 million deal with mobile phone giant Motorola in 2007 and another Sh10 million endorsement as Telkom Kenya’s Orange brand ambassador besides fronting the ‘Hello Tunes’ advertising campaigns was a first of sorts for a local artiste. Most of the mahewa generation artistes though fashioned out an industry without employing the components of great music: melody, arrangement, rhythm, message, relevance or compositional structures.
Save for contending with rampant music piracy, this decade witnessed little government ban on music, unlike the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The past decade also preserved the golden age of Kenyan music through reworking classics of Daudi Kabaka, Fundi Konde and George Mukabi with Songs from Kenya and Zilizopendwa 2000 in 2000 by Them Mushrooms. Kenya Beat: Ultimate Collection, from David Makali’s Sound Africa in 2007, preserved old and contemporary artistes.
Afro-fusion, a combination of benga influenced rhythms and world music, is another notable genre of this decade.
Its local proponents include Tabu Osusa’s Ketebul Productions, Rudy and Marion van Djinck’s Sarakasi Trust and artistes; Harry Kimani with Afro-country numbers like Haiyaa, Achieng’ Abura in Afro-Jazz (Toto Wangu), Yunasi (Jiopogore), Suzzana Owiyo (Kisumu 100), Iddi Achieng’ (Switina), and arguably the face of Afro-fusion- Eric Wainaina who composes socially conscious songs, with sometimes provocative, patriotic rallying calls and has recorded songs with Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi. Think his 1998 hit, Kenya Only, probably one song from this decade that will become a classic.
Indeed, very few Kenyan songs became continental or international hits this decade, even as listeners worldwide voted Fadhili Williams’ Malaika, the most popular African song during BBC Radio’s 75th anniversary in 2004.
Other artistes tried other genres.
Reuben Kigame in country music with Sweet Bunyore and Daddy came home last Night. Jah’Key Marley, Ousmane, Mighty King Kong and East African Bashment Crew, with reggae, albeit without quantifiable impact.
It’s interesting how the biggest selling artiste in Kenya is Roger Whittaker, whose folksy country songs account for over 250 gold, silver and platinum albums.
Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.