Hardly anyone knew John Ng’ang’a, but mention John De’Mathew and you might as well have introduced a long and well-known friend. Demethiu, Dematthew, Demetthew – the intonation and spelling were frivolous; the music was the introduction; the glue; the camaraderie.
The lean, dark-complexioned man on the screen was a friend, a neighbour; the uncle who pulled you aside and asked that you fess up your wrongs.
And so when news that De’Mathew – one of the most beloved and versatile benga musicians – had died on Sunday night in a car crash just outside Thika town, a pall of sadness fell upon his fans.
For slightly over three decades, De’Matthew (a stage name he customised to mean (son) of Matthew), thrilled fans with an unparalleled catalogue of hit songs. Indeed, beginning in 1988 when, at 21, he released Peris Nduku – a nearly-believable elegy for a lover dead too soon, and one that shot him to fame, through the late half of this decade, De’Mathew appeared to own an endless well of music.
Love. Death. Gossip. Even the hidden potential of the mobile phone. Leadership and politics. De'Mathew had something to say.
But the land was always fecund: at the time of his death at 52, De’Mathew had released a staggering 50 albums — about 300 songs, most runaway hits.
With his signature cowboy-style hats, half sideburns and a memorable catchphrase, seiya! (Say yeah), malleability to adjust to read and interpret the times, and also his everyman deportment, De’Mathew endeared himself to fans.
The land where he grew up – Gatanga in Murang’a County – is considered the cradle of Gikuyu benga, with nearly all the best-known hit-makers having been born there – Daniel Kamau (DK), the late John Ndichu, Peter Kigia and Sarah Kiarie Gachathi Thuo, among others.
“He was saying something; you’d listen and say, ‘what did he mean?’, and then you’d understand,” said singer Simon Kihara (Musaimo).
Besides his body of works, De’Mathew’s influence as a lighthouse to younger musicians will be part of his larger legacy. “It is through his influence that I began writing love songs,” folk music singer Kwame Rigii told the Weekend.
“De’Mathew inspired me with his classic hits,” says Samuel Muchoki, known to fans as Samidoh.
When Samidoh held a mega show in Githurai 44 earlier this month, De’Mathew was one of the musicians who showed up to support the young singer. Later, Samidoh agreed to perform during De’Mathew's Mashinani tour in Embu.
There is nothing as complete and final as death. But there is another kind of death, a living death: The misery of a missed story. In 2017 I travelled to Gatanga where I hoped to uncover how such a spit of land could produce nearly 80 per cent of the greatest Gikuyu language musicians.
De’Mathew was not at home – a comfortable house behind which a sounder of pigs grunted in their pens. His wife graciously consulted her husband after which she gave me her husband’s phone number. I never got to give De’Mathew a call. One thing or other came in the way.
But before the visit, I had sat down with a man who attempted to explain the Gatanga whodunit. Apparently, in the Gikuyu creation legend, when Ngai, the Agikuyu deity, gave the patriarch Gikuyu and his wife their 10 daughters, he awarded each a distinct gift.
One of the daughters, Wangui, was given a voice that could outsing the birds. Her descendants, the Angui, the scholar went on, settled in Gatanga and the larger ancient Murang’a. In the Gikuyu language, the term Angui partly translates into ‘those who can sing’.
If there is any traction to the myth; if ever there was a true descendant of the Angui, it was De’Mathew.