Singer, songwriter and guitarist Sali Oyugi, who was a pioneer of contemporary gospel music in Kenya, died on Sunday, August 26, at the age of 48 after a short illness.
Sale will be remembered as a member of the group Hart, which broke the barriers in gospel in the early 1990s by producing Christian music that was radical, edgy and stylish. Pete Odera and Tedd Josiah, who were both members of Nairobi Baptist Church, first spotted Sali during a youth camp in Mombasa.
"She was with a group from the Kileleshwa Community Church, but she stood out because her voice was really outstanding,” says Odera. “The three of us shared common interests, so we wrote some songs together even before we were formally a group,” he says.
Hart eventually took shape in 1993 with Esther Muindi, who joined later, completing the quartet.
As Sali recalled during an interview with Ketebul Music in 2013, Hart was the first urban Christian music group of their generation in Kenya combining R & B, rap and hip-hop when church music was mainly choral and very traditional. They were trendsetters in contemporary Christian music in Kenya, presenting a sound and image that shocked the church establishment.
“Pete and Tedd wore earrings, the outfits were bright and our hairs wild, we just looked crazy,” according to Sali. The group was virtually declared persona non grata by the church and, according to Odera, some churches even labelled them devil worshippers.
“We were the first group of our generation to have a full time music ministry,” says Odera. Opportunities opened up for performances outside church, especially in private schools like St. Mary’s, Loreto Convent Msongari and Nairobi Academy. “Gerson Misumi, who was then general manager of the Carnivore (now managing director, Tamarind Group), heard about us and before long we were performing at his venue,” recalls Odera.
Their first album, Miya Ngima, was recorded in 1993 at Samawati Studios and released the following year. It yielded hit songs like Hakuna Pendo and Show You Love, a grainy video of the latter is available on YouTube. The second album, Xtatic, was released in 1995 and featured the hits Miracle Men and Heavenly Party.
Besides their shows in Nairobi, Hart performed in Nakuru and Mombasa and Uganda, notably at the Sheraton Hotel in Kampala.
“We stopped trying to impress church leaders and focused our energies on the music, we practised, got invitations, performed and got ready for the next gig,” said Sali.
The group would meet at the Odera house in Woodley every Monday to Friday for vocal training, rehearsals and writing music, and during the weekends they would be on stage at shows.
The end of the group came in 1996 when the members decided to pursue their individual interests. Odera says gigs just didn’t pay enough to sustain a group at that point and they had also suffered from the “pariah” status within the church community.
Tedd went off to work as a professional producer at Sync Sounds Studios, Odera continued with music and church ministry and Esther married and moved to Mombasa.
Sali’s ambition was to create music that integrated African culture and was particularly inspired by Achieng Abura’s Songs of my People concerts in 1996.
“I sought Abura out as my mentor and toured with her as a curtain raiser accompanied by the Pressmen Band.”
The experience of working with Abura helped Sali start her solo career and she worked with other emerging female singers, like Suzanne Owiyo, who was a back up singer in her group, and Susan Wanjiru, formerly of Gogosimo.
In 1998, Sali settled in the US after her marriage to Mark Hanson (the American musician popularly known as Marcus Kamau, who had been based in Kenya). Living in the US exposed her to the global music scene, interacting with African musicians from Mali, Ghana and South Africa who impressed her with a sound that, according to her, was ‘cultural and unique’.
She formed a band with other African musicians at Berklee College of Music, where she studied stage performance, and traversed the US music scene. She also took lessons in legal administration to pursue a long-held dream of becoming a lawyer.
Sali returned to Kenya in 2009 and set up the Leko Foundation to support music education among children from underprivileged areas of Nairobi.
Sali Oyugi was born in Uganda on June 14, 1970, to a Kenyan father and a Tanzanian mother. She grew up in Nairobi and attended Moi Avenue Primary School and Arya Girls School before enrolling at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music.
Her debut solo album Vuma was released in 2002 while the second, The Return, came out in 2007. Her latest project, Uromo, was recorded at Ketebul Music Studios in 2016.
Since the beginning of the year, the former members of Hart have been talking about the possibility of doing a reunion.
“We had not all committed to the idea but clearly it was not meant to be,” says Pete Odera in hindsight.
This tribute is partly based on an interview with Sali Oyugi in 2014 for the book Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music In Kenya.