What you need to know:
- A computer-generated sound is more celebrated than a skilled instrumentalist.
- Nobody can really consume a trend for a long time. What makes something secular is the rejection of God and not the sound or beat.
This year, veteran gospel musician Reuben Kigame is marking his 33rd year in the music industry. Mr Kigame has released 29 albums in those 33 years.
Besides being visually impaired he has fought his way through to stay at the top. He shares the story of his long journey and how the music industry has evolved over the years.
Where did it all start?
I recorded my very first album titled What a Mighty God we Have back in 1987 at the studios of Transworld Radio in Nairobi. I was 21 years then and a student at Kenyatta University. Having shifted camps from secular to Christian music following my salvation, the Spirit of God continued to pour new songs regularly into my heart.
It must be insisted here that recording music was not really the first priority for musicians of the time. We sought to be good in performance and we listened to other people’s music, not so much to go to the studio and beat them at their game, but to be better on stage and communicate excellently with our target groups.
What can you attribute your success to?
I would attribute my achievements to three main things: First, love for real music in its diverse cultural and sonic spectra. This gives me a real big global perspective and audience. I enjoy classical, jazz, RnB, techno, reggae, dancehall, country and western, rhumba, benga, wmomboko, sengenya, taarab and chakacha, banghra and other expressions of folk music across the world.
Second, one word: Risks. I am a risk-taker when it comes to trying new musical things. I like to go against the grain. This is really the biggest reason behind the shift of Swahili worship music from simple repetitive idioms to full-fledged modern African hymnody. My music was initially rejected by distributers, radio stations and shop outlets deeming it too complicated for the time. I look back with gratitude that taking risks and persisting paid off and Swahili church music is different from what it was before I stepped out in 1995 to start writing contemporary worship songs.
Third, I do not like mediocrity in my life at all. I say to myself, if it is for God, it will be the very best.
Please paint a picture for us of how the gospel music industry was like when you began.
There was very, very limited electronic music and, even when the synthesiser began to appear in the early 1980s in our circles of Kenyan music, it was too expensive and it was fitted for limited styles.
For my first five years or so, I just picked my acoustic guitar and, without amplification, hit the road to sing, sometimes to audiences of 500 to 800 students in a hall without microphones and PA systems in general.
You were charged per hour in the studios, so many of us signed our lives away to producers who would pay you something like Sh10,000 for you to hand over your album for him to sell as they pleased. There were no computers, and so we did not make or sing with tracks as such.
Even when multi-track recording came, the extra tracks were utilised mainly for embellishment and ornamentation, speech or special effects from actualities.
I remember traveling with a friend to Limuru with a cassette recorder to record the sound of donkeys for use on some of my music. I would also go into town and record the city traffic. Nowadays it is all there at the push of a button. You were lucky if you got Sh10,000 from your sales in a year.
What changes would you note now that the industry has evolved in such a big way?
First, there are more celebrities than musicians hence too much competition and obsession with airplay. Both radio and TV stations are obsessed with “latest releases” than with new music. We hear more beat than music arrangement and message.
Now you become famous for exceptions to the rule. People no longer enjoy “a good song” but instead they enjoy a “hit.” A computer-generated sound is more celebrated than a skilled instrumentalist.
Kenya as well as the rest of African media is obsessed with non-African music. African instruments are frowned upon. It is a dark musical night the time we are living in, but there still are wonderful shining stars in this night. There is hope.
Has it been a challenge to be visually impaired while doing ministry?
It has been extremely tough getting to where I am today. People think I am a millionaire having released my 29th album last December. You may think that because I have made it this far as a blind man that I am also paid for being blind. Not really.
Actually I am ignored very regularly because of my handicap. Again, it shocked me when I realised that; compared to my sighted friends, I am paid less for performances.
This is because the picture is painted right from the begging culture on the street that a blind man deserves coins that is how I am perceived by most institutions to the highest offices.
I am in my fourth year of paying for a car loan while those who handle my music can pay theirs in less than a year. I gave up taking my cases to lawyers because, in all the cases I have given to them, I have lost money and my cases either overrun by time or passed from lawyer to lawyer and then forgotten.
MCSK has collected my dues and kept them. Every year groups like PRISK get millions and then simply do a ritualistic distribution of three or four thousand shillings to me in what they call “general distribution.” Since we are talking music, suffice it to simply say in passing that I have been denied many job opportunities. Even though I am almost through with a PhD, even getting teaching positions at the university has not been without its dramas.
How have you managed to stay relevant for all these years?
Relevant? I do not know if I am. If you mean steadfast, then what keeps me going is focus on God who does not segregate, hard work and then creating music for God and for the people. I guess one reason people are still singing some of my old songs is the same reason they keep singing hymns: They are based on the Word of God which is timeless.
It never changes. Heaven and earth will pass away but God’s word will never pass away. If you sing a song for your girlfriend, you cannot sing the same song if you part ways. If you write a song like “Tawala Kenya” for President Moi, you cannot sing the same song with the same words and meaning for President Kibaki or President Uhuru.
What do you make of the urban gospel musician who is trendy, has ear piercings, dreadlocks, and sings in an urban style that almost appears secular?
I really have no beef with styles. If you do not reach your generation in a language it understands, you will be irrelevant. Yet, if you replace music with a trend, you can be sure that putting a trend above music will make you see the trend more than the music. Nobody can really consume a trend for a long time. What makes something secular is the rejection of God and not the sound or beat.
That is why I do reggae, RnB and classical. God, the Creator of everything, initiated music and so it does not originate with the devil. I live now but if you looked at my music with “trendy eyes” you would find a song I did last year being classified as “old school” just because of the lack of a throbbing beat, talk art and a little slang here and there.
It's been said that these days' artistes are not preaching “enough water” what do you think?
It is not just in these days. We need to sing Christ a lot more. G.K. Chesterton put it well, “it is not that people are tired of Christianity; it is that they have never had enough Christianity to be tired of.”