The death of veteran Kenyan musician John Amutabi Nzenze at the age of 80 on the eve of Madaraka Day marks the end of an enduring career that straddled the history of independent Kenya.
While Nzenze is celebrated as one of the pioneers of African twist along with his cousin Daudi Kabaka, he was equally influential in the popularity of the movement that was inspired by American soul and funk, starting in the late 1960s and reaching its heyday in the 1970s.
Nzenze was a founder of the band Air Fiesta Matata, which featured the flamboyant singer and dancer Steele Beauttah, along with other top musicians of the day like Rishadi Anwar, Jacques Kalunga, Joseph Yankenken (vocalist from Congo), Abdallah Yusuf, trumpeter Paul Chege (PC), Gabby Wamalwa and John Otieno.
Just like other top bands of the era, Air Fiesta played both American-influenced soul/funk along with Congolese rhumba; while Steele, Anwar and Mohammed Mwachi were the soul singers, Yankenken was the main rhumba vocalist.
The band is remembered for their musical versatility and their colourful stage costumes, with white trousers and a similar shade of silk shirts for instrumentalists, while the singers wore blue trousers and shirts of yellow lime hue. They were the resident band at the Brilliant Club before establishing themselves at the legendary Starlight Club in Nairobi.
Nzenze was born in 1940 in Nairobi’s Eastlands, the son of Samuel Mwanga and Esther Alusa. He started school at St Peter Claver’s in Nairobi but was transferred to a school in Tiriki, Vihiga, when he was in Standard Five.
His interest in the guitar started as he watched his father strumming and he would try his hand at the instrument every time the old man took a break from playing. By 1962, he had mastered basic guitar skills and was back in Nairobi seeking opportunities on the music scene.
His first recording experience was with the African Gramophone Stores (AGS) label, which released records by top musicians of the time, including John Mwale and George Mukabi. It was here that Nzenze recorded his first song, “Angelike Twist”, which became a signature tune throughout his career. He also recorded other classics like “Twist Ni Nzuri”, “Veronika Mpenzi” and “Nairobi Twist”.
Nzenze was a member of the AGS Band along with Joseph Abbas, Thomas Miriti and John Lwango. It was also at AGS that he met other musicians like Gabby Wamalwa, later a bandmate at both Air Fiesta Matata and Pan Afric Band.
His cousin, Daudi Kabaka, who was already recording at Jambo Records, introduced Nzenze to other musicians at that famous label, like Fadhili William, Nashil Pitchen and Peter Tsotsi from Zambia. Although inspired by American star Chubby Checker, the African twist also drew influences from the kwela music of South Africa and elements of traditional African music.
“This first generation of artistes after independence was special because they all had a unique style,” said Nzenze in an interview with this writer in 2011. “If you heard a song by Fadhili, you would immediately identify his style right from the opening chords of the guitar. (David) Amunga had his unique style, and so, too, did Kabaka.”
In 1964, Nzenze relocated to Nakuru, to join the Bongo Boys band led by James Mbimba, along with John Lwango and bassist William Kinyozi and Sammy Karanja on drums. They recorded at the famous Chandarana Studio in Kericho, fusing Luhya traditional music with contemporary benga. Within a year, Nzenze had again returned to Nairobi, and this is where his dalliance with the emerging trend of soul music began.
Air Fiesta Matata was born, comprising Nzenze and a group of friends, vocalist Steele Beauttah, Elijah Talian, Jacques Kalunga, Anwar Rishadi, Joseph Yamkenken, Sammy Kagenda and Gabby Wamala on drums. That original line-up evolved with the inclusion of other musicians as the band’s popularity grew on the live circuit in Nairobi.
Among the musicians they groomed was a young schoolboy who called himself Cally The Bushman, later Kelly Brown, who sang with the band during the weekends. He would go on to become a major solo star in the 1970s before settling in Germany.
Air Fiesta was mainly influenced by the music of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and Steele Beauttah fashioned his vocals and stagecraft along the same energetic style of the American. The competition was fierce among the bands of the era, with Cavaliers, Ashantis and Hodi Boys all seeking to draw the largest crowd of fans to their live shows. The daytime dances known as the boogies were a feature of Friday and Saturday afternoons and were immensely popular with the youth.
“We started the afternoon jam sessions known as the boogies for the young generation and later in the night we would play for the older crowd of fans,” recalled Nzenze in the 2011 interview.
In 1968, Air Fiesta Matata represented Kenya at the All African Music Festival in Algeria where they emerged third on the continent. The following year, they were invited to perform in Ethiopia and they remained in Addis Ababa for three months.
In 1972, they won an international competition for professional bands organised by the BBC World Service, which earned them a trip to the UK. They went on to perform sold-out concerts in Germany, Switzerland, France and Norway and were guests at shows by Kenyan-born singer Roger Whittaker and American trumpeter Miles Davis.
The European tour marked the final chapter in the life of Air Fiesta Matata as differences arose between the musicians and a split inevitably occurred. Nzenze and Steele Beauttah returned home, where they started performing as solo artistes, with Nzenze playing at the Sombrero Club for about three years before joining the resident band at The Panafric Hotel in the late 1970s as a guitarist alongside singer and pianist Juma Toto and other musicians like Peter Ndula and Gabby Wamalwa formerly of Air Fiesta Matata.
After a three-year stint at the Panafric, Nzenze left the band and became a producer at Philco Studio based at Harambee Estate, Nairobi, working with popular bands like Les Wanyika. He also continued composing and recording his own songs during this period at Philco, the most famous of which were “Nimlilie Nani” and “Kumbuka Nyumbani”.
In 2003, Nzenze landed a contract as a musician on a Japanese cruise ship entertaining tourists on board. The contract included stops in Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bombay and Seychelles before finally returning to Mombasa.
In later years, Nzenze remained active in various music projects, including a trip with other Kenyan musicians to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, in 2014. He was also a guest artiste on Eric Wainaina’s 2018 album “Dreams in Stereo”, on a song called “Don’t Bury Me” that also featured rapper Blinky Bill.
Tabu Osusa, founder of the music production house Ketebul Music, who was a close associate of Nzenze, hailed him as the “last king of African twist” and has a book of the same title in the works as a tribute to a man whose talents endured through six decades of music.