Music made in the streets: The flute of his labour

Wednesday February 20 2019

Gatune takes a break from his music for a chat. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

Gatune takes a break from his music for a chat. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI 

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The music came back to him at the time of pressing, at the time of crushing. It came to him while he was in his distillery, just not in the distillery or brewery of the books and bottle labels and polite company.

When the music came, he was labouring in a tiny room out back in his home in Mugoiri, Murang’a. He was pressing honey into a vat, from which he would pour traditional liquor-known as muratina into waiting mugs in a few days’ time. There would be music-the most disjointed music anywhere as the warm brew coursed down parched throats. Oh, there would be music.

But the music that came to the man was of a different kind; it didn’t need the warmth of the brew that he made. It had to come to him as a young boy during his schooling days at the Thika School for the Blind.

The chords came to him in unbidden harmony, and his voice carried along, clear and true. Later when he discovered the magic of the harmonica, his music had met a suitor.

The broken music of tippled patons ended in 1993. The work didn’t make much business worth, and so the brewer got rid of his machinery and decided to go for broke.

At first he tried his luck with the district commissioner’s office in Murang’a town as a telephone operator but he was looked over. Out of work and out of sorts, Gatune- the brewer, bought a bus ticket to Nairobi.
Chords of wonder

The conversation between the Immortal and the mortal, as recorded in the Book of God goes like this: “Moses, tell me, what do you have in your hand?”

It was a time of pressing, of crushing and captivity. “I only have this cane,” Moses the prophet said.

Gatune, what do you have in your hand?

“It was such a difficult time for me,” says Gatune. “No money coming in; there was nothing to do in my village. Then I held this solo conversation; what did I have that could get me out? The answer was simple, and it had been there all along; I just hadn’t esteemed its worth."

Anyone who has lived in Nairobi for a time has encountered Gatune (he prefers just the middle name). The blind man occupies a spit of real estate along Kimathi Road. He has stood here for the last 25 years. He plays the harmonica, and sometimes dances to its music. You are unlikely to hear more serene, arresting, healing music as the one proceeding from Gatune’s organ.

The music floats in sharp contrast to the cacophony and the jostling and the comings and goings and accents that inhabit Nairobi’s confounding soul.

For the first 10 months of his life, Gatune’s eyes worked just fine. But as months progressed, his family noticed that his pupils had taken on a misty appearance and the eyes didn’t respond to light or movement.

Concerned, his parents took him to a specialist at Kenyatta National Hospital. But even after a lengthy stay, the doctors couldn’t rescue the young boy’s eyes.

At the age of two, Gatune was enrolled at the Thika School for the Blind. It was at first a bewildering place. The white teachers spoke in a strange language. The boy missed home and its familiar sounds. But the school would be home for the next decade and half.

Over time, the teachers noticed Gatune’s talent in music and encouraged him to hone his voice. In addition to Braille, they taught him the harmonica.

His formal education ended after his CPE exam. He moved back home to Murang’a. “I couldn’t do any garden work, and that’s why I began the brewing business,” he says.

Gatune’s Braille wrist watch. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

Gatune’s Braille wrist watch. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI

After the venture proved untenable, Gatune moved to Nairobi in 1993, first putting up with friends in Dandora estate, Nairobi. The friends took him around, mentioning buildings, roads, landmarks. He couldn’t see them, so he filed them away in the compartments of his mind.

A quick learner equipped with an encyclopedic memory, it wasn’t long before Gatune mastered the warrens in crowded Dandora, and the streets in the city. Tapping his way with his walking stick, he would travel from Dandora on his own, setting up shop-his office as he prefers to call his spot on Kimathi Street.

The way he puts it, the choice of Kimathi Street as his base was part of an ordained path; he just knew. The shop outside which Gatune travelled to play his music was an outlet of the shoemaker Bata.

“They said, you just stand here, we have no objections,” Gatune told me. “If I needed a glass of water or needed to use the washrooms I would just walk in. They must have loved my music.”

People were drawn to his harmonica, Gatune, today 50 years old, suggests, because the music came from a good place. It was-and still is, a job, he says; one akin to a backup musician or an instrumentalist on a band. His plastic alms bowl tinkered with the sound of coins finding kin. It wasn’t long before he moved to his own rented room.

When attending church one Sunday in 1994, Gatune was introduced to a young woman who, like him, loved music and was a member of the church choir. Their hearts travelled the distance, equally yoked and soon they were sharing accommodation in Dandora-where they still live.

While evasive about his average daily collection, Gatune admits that it is enough to cater for his family’s upkeep.

A lot has changed in the quarter century Gatune has been in the Capital. The Bata shop whose owners allowed Gatune his office has since moved. The Uchumi supermarket branch farther up the road crumbled under the weight of thievery, and Dedan Kimathi poses in marble down the road named for him.

The buses that pass by him no longer allow standing passengers; and the dull, unwieldy taxi cabs preferred by European vacationers that waited outside the pelican-white Stanley exist only in memory, so does the red phone booth where callers queued.

Experts suggest that when one of the six human senses is indisposed its vigour doesn’t disappear; it finds home elsewhere, selecting one of the other senses. A man deprived of sight, for example, might acquire a preternaturally sharp sense of hearing.

atune hears voices, picking bits from conversations as people walk past him. The people are distant, walking in the shadows. Gatune hears them, and he also hears the sharp clop of stiletto heels.

He’s wary of strangers, especially those with a camera. It’s a fear founded on exhibitionism, and also, he tells me, exploitation by crafty individuals who might use his image to wheedle philanthropists of money.

“I have my people lurking nearby who have agreed to warn me of someone trying to take a picture, even arrest them!” he jokes.

I first approached Gatune in late 2016, when I lived in Nairobi. I looked forward to his music on my way to work; invariably I’d slow down for some healing, and greetings.

After he told me that he retired a harmonica every two weeks (breath vapour after a period compromises the clarity of sound) I asked if he would consider selling me two of the instruments.

Even after I had been away for nearly two years, Gatune only needed to hear my greeting and he’d put name to voice. On a recent brief Tuesday afternoon while on a short visit, I pass by to catch up. The harmonica he’s playing is different; it sounds like the accordion.

“It produces better sound,” Gatune tells me, beaming. Plus it has a longer lifespan.

It is lunch time, he announces, and he wants to go. His joint is an eatery near the former Odeon Cinema. How you tell time, I ask. Gatune pulls up the sleeves of his shirt to expose a wrist watch unlike any: It is a Braille watch with tiny beads, each representing the minute and the hour.

He then empties his can of the coins that have gathered. He taps his way down the street, the cane, his internal Global Positioning System guiding him on to lunch.