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James Gogo: Playing the keys to success

Saturday February 28 2015

James Gogo is set to launch his first solo

James Gogo is set to launch his first solo album. Previously he was part of the Gogosimmo band. PHOTO| COURTESY 

By Brian Cliff

As I get out of the lift at Nairobi’s Villa Rosa Kempinski and walk across the broad sweep of marble floor heading towards hotel’s Balcony Bar, I can already pick out the unmistakable high-pitched voice of James Jozee Gogo belting out Billie Holiday’s popular classic.

“All of me, why not take all of me. Can’t you see I’m no good without you...”

James and his Gogosimo Band are seamlessly gliding through musical genres with ease, at one point leaping from Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain to Papa Wemba’s acoustic masterpiece Rail On without breaking the beat.

James is standing behind his pair of mounted Korg keyboards looking composed and resplendent in his light-blue checked shirt. It is a tough balance between singing and playing two keyboards.

From time to time, he lowers the volume of his keyboards as a signal for the saxophonist to take over. And then, one by one, the band’s instrumentalists take their turn to churn out mind-blowing sounds. It is this combination of sublime skill and showmanship that the audience appreciates. 

Watching the performance, it is hard to imagine that life has not been a bed of roses in the last few months for  James, the charismatic name behind Gogosimo.

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The father of three recently endured a much publicised split from his talented ex-wife Susan Wanjiru – an accomplished singer in her own right.

When the band takes a break from the energetic performance, he tells Lifestyle that after the split he has received a barrage of requests for interviews which he has since declined. His reticence, he says, is partly due to what he considers as “mischief” by a journalist keen on sensationalising the separation.

“He really twisted a lot of facts,” James says of the journalist, “I mean, the guy even wrote that I was still wearing my wedding ring at the interview, which was not the case!”

His separation

And true to his resolution, James declines to discuss anything touching on his separation from Susan who, apart from being his ex-wife and mother of their three children, was a co-founder of the band in 2001.

“Let’s just stick to the music,” he says, shaking his dreadlocks for emphasis.

The son of a Congolese saxophonist and Malawian mother, James who was born in Mombasa, says one of the most difficult periods of his life was coming to terms with the sudden deportation of his father Govea Ndongo back to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the 1980s.

James’s mother was left to fend for him as he nurtured his passion for the piano at the Mombasa Baptist School, where he had become involved in the music department as a vocalist-cum pianist.

By the time he completed high school, James was so adept at playing the piano that when musician and producer Bruce Odhiambo stepped down from the legendary Safari Sounds band, he was promptly hired as the band’s new keyboard player.

It was while at the Safari Sounds that he met Susan who at the time was the band’s lead vocalist. They fell in love, tied the knot and took a leap of faith – both stepping down from one of the country’s best known bands to start their own. The daring couple launched into the live music scene as the “Susan and James duo” but soon incorporated other instrumentalists to start the seven-piece groove machine that is the Gogosimo Band.

James, who credits his musical beginnings to his father, casts the figure of a gentle musical giant during the interview with Lifestyle.

“My dad always used to tell me that I’ll become a great singer. He was so proud of my musical aptitude,” he says.

Musical father

Whenever his father practised on the saxophone at home, James, then about 10-years-old, would pick out the tunes and joyfully hum along. Amazed at his son’s ability to muster such dexterous melodies as the Desafinado (a popular Portuguese tune from the 1960s), James’s father had no doubt his son would one day be a music star.

“He taught me how to play the saxophone,” James says, adding that his father left behind the instrument when he was deported.

“My mum couldn’t afford the sax reeds though, so I eventually abandoned it and took up the piano in school,” he explains.

The result of the childhood passion can be seen whenever James leads Gogosimo in performances in various venues. Last weekend, the band cemented its position when it featured at the well-attended Safaricom International Jazz festival in Nairobi.

“I honestly need some competition!” says James matter-of-factly, adding that he believes Gogosimo is the most versatile band around.

The band’s high performance fees, he says, is a sign that their music is appreciated.  

Our strength

“We play coastal music as if we’re a coastal band and pure jazz as if we’re a jazz band, among many other genres.”   

It is a bold statement to make in a country that has many big-name bands that give live performances.   

“There are no serious bands in Nairobi. Most bands play only three or four genres and call themselves versatile,” he says.

Although he is quick to point out his respect for local artistes like jazz pianist Jacob Asiyo, singer Carol Atemi, H_art the band, Nyota Ndogo and his ex-wife Susan, he insists it takes a certain kind of magic to share the stage with international musicians like Gogosimo has done in the past. 

James reveals that his band is slated for an appearance at a concert headlined by South African great Hugh Masekela later this year.

James says the band’s last album Finding the Keys (2014) delighted Hugh Masekela, earning them the invite.

His new album, A Step Ahead is also in the works, with planning for a star-studded mid-year launch already underway.

As I leave the luxurious city hotel, James leaves no doubt that despite the recent personal problems, Gogosimo is still going strong. 

 

His beginning

GogoSimo have been performing in Kenya since 2001.  The band was founded by James and his former wife Susan Wanjiru. 

 The two met when they were part of one of Kenya’s most renowned bands – Safari Sounds. They left to form their own band.

 James’ love of music can be attributed to the influence of his father – Govea Ndongo Jose, who is a well known musician of Congolese descent. 

 He has three children.

 The band has produced several albums, the latest being Finding the Keys (2014).

 His new album, A Step Ahead is also in the works, with planning for a star-studded mid-year launch already underway.

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