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Resilience of a musical sound as Mugithi wafts across land

Friday November 19 2010

By MWENDA WA MICHENI [email protected]

Onstage, a man sings and plucks a box guitar rhythmically, giving revellers a taste of the popular classic music which has come to be known as Mugithi.

Within a radius of a few metres are dozens of other concerts taking place, in churches or bars. This is just a slice of the exciting world of popular Gikuyu music in 2010.

The history of Gikuyu music is a story of resilience through the years and imaginative engagement with the audiences.

The community’s history and philosophy have always been encapsulated in oral traditions — whether dance, chants or nonsense songs that children played to.

Starting in the 1890s when colonial rulers started to exert their influence, there were serious disruptions. 

Dances and other rituals that kept society intact were declared unholy as Christianity spread. Marobo, Muthirigu, Muchungwa and rituals like Ituika were outlawed as was female circumcision, throwing the community into cultural confusion.

To capture the story of popular Gikuyu music and the forces that shaped it, a team of researchers and historians was dispatched into the past and another into the future.

Their narrative paints a picture of Gikuyu rhythms and melodies today and the promise of tomorrow.

But the future is not as clear as the melodies wafting across the land; it is still a work in progress especially due to the nature of online trends, where the music has made its presence felt. 

All this is captured in Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, comprising a booklet, a 19-track CD and a documentary by Katebul music.

Notably, what has grown to become Gikuyu popular music is a defiant sound; one that voices the people’s concerns.

It has also remained highly didactic because the descendants of Gikuyu and Mumbi are believed to value poetic messages more than plain beats and rhythms — it is a creation that has also had to reinvent itself several times to remain relevant and in tune with the times.

In the beginning was the traditional beat and step but colonialism was to change this entirely, even defining what was a popular beat or not.

Tired of this oppression, young Agikuyus resolved to confront the encroachment and plotted to stage what was traditionally called Ituika, a revolutionary undertaking that would change the community’s leadership after four decades.

This time, the target was the British administrators and land owners who had occupied ancestral land.

Afraid of losing control, the British settlers banned Muthirigu, a song of defiance borrowed from a Coastal community to inspire the youth into action, along with other cultural activities that united the community.

The ban, though meant to suppress, gave birth to exciting experiments in the years that followed.

At the end of the Second World War, returnees from the Gikuyu community brought guitars and accordions from abroad, giving rise to a new and exciting sound.

But the music could not be a public affair in a censored society and to beat the system, performances went solo, hence the proliferation of one-man guitar performers and travelling poets.

The accordions were used to create Mwomboko, a clever mimicry of the settlers’ waltz. This was the beginning of what has been referred to as the first generation of Gikuyu music.

Around this time (1940-1950s), Gikuyu music borrowed heavily from cowboy movies and country music. This was not in total disregard for cultural aspects but was an experiment offering a bit of the familiar alongside novelty.

In this hippie era were great musicians like John Arthur, Shinda Gikombe, Kirikwo Waganagu, who still sings and plays his accordion, and Gacungi wa Kamau.

Alongside this group was another toying with popular gospel tunes to voice the masses’ unhappiness with oppression.

With the proliferation of independent churches and schools, what was referred to as Karinga-Gikuyu gospel music became one of the many ways of expressing the peasants’ anger.

One Kinuthia wa Mugia released Nyimbo Ci Kwarahura Ruriri (Songs to awaken the community) that were full of potent idioms of resistance.

Later were collections like Nyimbo Cia Mau Mau (Mau Mau songs) that Joseph Kamaru was to release. And the march had just begun.

In between the rebellious music and popular tunes with foreign twangs was another generation of Gikuyu music which borrowed heavily from traditional wisdom.

Musicians like Joseph Kamaru, John Ndichu and DK were great entertainers and social commentators who engaged the community on diverse issues.