The disharmony in the remembrances that we have witnessed since the announcement of the death of Kenya’s second president, Daniel Moi, signals to two related issues. First, none of us is a stock character, flat or one dimensional. It is possible to find the worst in the best of (wo)men and the best in the worst of them since every person is a complex mix of motives and moments.
Secondly, our dissonance reflects the tension in the soundtrack that marked President Moi’s tenure — songs of praise vs. songs of protest. But we shouldn’t talk about the music that Moi inspired without paying homage to the music that he muted.
Elsewhere, I describe August 1, 1982 — when Hezekiah Ochuka and his co-conspirators in and outside the Kenya Air Force staged a coup — as the day the music died. That coup had been triggered by a heady mix of ambition and quiet desperation. In 1981, the Constitution was amended. The new Section 2a made Kenya a one-party state, effectively stifling freedom of association and thought.
When the coup ringleaders captured the state-owned Voice of Kenya — the country’s sole radio and television broadcaster — they seized the playlist. Regular Sunday programming was off. Leonard Mambo Mbotela was ordered to play a selection of Lingala tracks, some Franco and Maze, whose popularity had skyrocketed following Tabu Ley’s April 1982 concerts in Nairobi.
After the army ousted the Air Force lads, the station began playing martial music.
That evening, a red-eyed President Moi went on air in a live broadcast to reassure the public that peace had been restored; life could return to normal. He also announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in Nanyuki — seat of the Air Force — and Nairobi, scene of crime.
I explain elsewhere that this curfew killed nightlife in the CBD and catalysed the masandukuni culture — recreation in the margins, in residential estates. Bands like Black Savage, which played at the elite Pasha Club on Kimathi Street were choking. Further down the social-economic ladder at Garden Square, Bombax, Starlight and others, the fortunes of Congolese bands were equally st(r)ained.
The curfew dimmed our musical boom in a year that had thus far yielded hits such as Nguashi Ntambo’s Shauri Yako, Simba wa Nyika’s Barua Yako and Goodbye Maasai Girl by the boy-band Gravity. It took a little over a week before Orchestra Virunga came up with the culture-saving idea of afternoon dancing at Starlight.
Meanwhile, court martials, civilian arrests and detention without trial reignited the old fears that Moi had quelled on December 12, 1978 when he released Jomo Kenyatta’s detainees. After the coup, repression amplified rabid sycophancy. The witch-hunts from grovelling Nyayo-metres like Okiki Amayo, Shariff Nassir and Kariuki Chotara measured everyone’s loyalty to Moi. Nyayo was in the ascendance. Moi ordered his ministers to “sing like parrots.”
Massive radio airplay was given to old and new songs of praise. As Vice- President, Moi had witnessed how a popular Gikuyu musician, Joseph Kamaru, had swelled disenchantment with President Jomo Kenyatta through the song JM, an emotional dirge released in March 1975 following the shocking killing of Nyandarua MP, J.M. Kariuki.
Not surprisingly then, when President Moi sought to consolidate his popularity, he included Kamaru in a 1980 state visit to Japan. Kamaru reciprocated with a flattering ballad, Safari ya Japan.
Everybody Fuata Nyayo, 1981 recording by Kilimambogo Brothers, was also on air ad nauseam. It featured Kakai Kilonzo’s shrill falsetto in a pop song that was remarkable for the slippery way in which it fused politics and religion.
Aiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii, Kenya! Serekali yetu, aii
Sasa ni ya Bible ooh
And everybody fuata nyayo, fuata nyayo oh!
The flipside of this vinyl record was Beba Kitambulisho. It softly blunted the fact that the identity card was being weaponised. In the coming years, identity politics directed the forced evictions that swayed the 1992 and 1997 General Elections in Muhuroni-Nyando valley, Rift Valley and at the Coast.
Jomo’s favourite night-cup consisted of traditional dancers, with jingles shackled to their feet, belting tunes of colonial struggles to be free, as he sat on the throne on the veranda of his Gatundu home, or whatever state lodge he was visiting.
Moi’s brand of daily entertainment was mass choirs. From Kenya Posts and Telecommunications to Kenya Prisons, every government body had a choir.
These choirs were assured of generous airplay on the renamed state broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. To boost their productions, they circumvented the ban on importation of musical instruments while popular bands struggled with out-of-tune guitars and outdated recording equipment (I remember the buzz in music circles when it was rumoured that Moi had gifted a synthesizer to the all-girl band, Musically Speaking, which included the daughter of Kenneth Matiba, then a Minister).
At the numerous functions Moi officiated over, parastatal choirs joined school choirs to compete for the president’s mirth. Tawala Kenya, Fimbo ya Nyayo, Maziwa ya Nyayo, Enzi Zao, Tushangilie Kenya rent the air. Kitenge uniforms and hearty dance-steps heralded this building of new traditions, overseen by composers and choir masters. Notable among those choir masters are Arthur Kemoli, David Salo, Peter Akwabi, Thomas Wasonga and Boniface Mghanga, who led the globe-trotting Muungano National Choir.
Besides praise for the ruling party, KANU, and its wise leader, these songs carried colourful labels for perceived enemies — wasiotosheka, wachochezi, wasaliti, adui wa maendeleo, and even kwekwe (weeds)!
Some of the lyrics encouraged brutality, genocide really.
“Kwekwe, kwekwe shambani mwa Nyayo na zilimwe,
Wanao cheza na uhuru waangamize!”
The dangers of brainwashing lyrics cannot be gainsaid! Here were schoolchildren calling for the elimination of fellow Kenyans.
This ideology of elimination fertilised the child-to-child massacres at St Kizito, Kyanguli and Nyeri High schools, and the 2007/8 post-election violence. The lyrics of dehumanisation — purportedly to build patriotism and nationhood — also nurtured the protests against Moi.
Protest songs painted graphic pictures of the nation’s state of decay. Through fable and allegory, D.O. Misiani’s Piny Ose Mer (1989) demonstrated how our world was amiss. Eric Wainaina denounced corruption in Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo (2001). T.A.V. (tax added value) — ironic spoken word from Redykulass — bemoaned the high cost of living.
In 1990, in the wake of the heinous murder of Robert Ouko, a Cabinet Minister, Peter Kigia had released Reke Tumanwo, a lover’s angry call for divorce.
Many interpreted it as a metaphor for the denunciation of Moi. With his detaining eyes trained sharply on the universities as the hotbed of dissidents and dangerous ideas, Moi systematically presided over intellectual atrophy. The production of knowledge was now being driven by lyrical public intellectuals.
Liberalisation of the airwaves exploded following the December 20, 1991 repeal of Section 2a of the Constitution. The new broadcasters amplified underground dissident music. Kalamashaka could now decry poverty and police harassment on radio with Tafsiri Hii (1997).
But the first avenue in popularising these songs was matatus. Protest was literally on the highway — to reform! Civil society demos energised by radical choruses like Mambo ni yale yale and Bado Mapambano led the way.
That journey ended with Gidi Gidi Maji Maji’s Unbwogable, the idiom of defiance and freedom that aided victory in the 2002 General Election, but in 2003 D.O. Misiani revisited state failure in Bim en Bim (a baboon is a baboon).
Did any good come out of that era of state-sponsored choral music?
For music, yes. One. Out of those choirs, we birthed the likes of Juma Odemba and Kayamba Africa. In 2001, Kayamba’s talent for remixes and cover versions of old pop songs fuelled a nostalgia for the 1950s at that critical point in the push for a second liberation. Kayamba teased the hitherto conceding old guard into reimagining the taste of freedom.
What of the nostalgia for the patriotic songs that Moi sired? We must acknowledge the validity of these remembrances by those that Moi’s mass choirs furnished with songs to sing along to, to skip to, to jive to. How can the soundtrack of their childhoods be erased?
How we publicly remember Moi is a matter of exposure. That exposure has three primary dimensions: when you were born; your political interests now, and your proximity to Moi’s power and largesse then, and now. So, we are mourning differently but, I pray that we will hear each other across the inevitable disharmony of our remembrances. Listening will broaden our respective world views on leadership, legacies, life, and what matters — in the end.