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For Juma Toto, music is life's rhythm that must continue

Saturday March 30 2019

Laban Juma Toto

Laban Juma Toto. Toto was the resident keyboard pianist at Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi from 1980 to 1987. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

AMOS NGAIRA
By AMOS NGAIRA
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Older music lovers in the country remember him best for a song he released in 1970 in praise of Kenya's most popular football club, Gor Mahia.

The song, "FC Gor Mahia", became a big hit across the East African region and helped announce the arrival of Juma Toto as a musician to reckon with.

Another notable song by Juma Toto is "Rose Jaber", which he composed to eulogise his wife.

Several decades and many hit songs later, Juma Toto has seen it all, but he is not about to hang up his guitar and microphone. As he strolls down the streets of Nairobi today, the veteran musician, 70, goes largely unnoticed.

He is one of the few legends who made their name in the 1960s still alive, with a regular entertainment gig that pays his rent and meets his other financial needs.

ROYALTIES

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He is in the league of other living legends like David Amunga, Shem Tube, John Nzenze, Fanuel Amimo and Peter Akhwabi.

Toto, together with Amunga, has been involved in fighting for musicians’ rights by pushing for payments of their royalties.

The song "FC Gor Mahia" had a danceable enchanting beat and alluring lyrics in praise of the star Gor Mahia players of the time. It was popular on radio and on the club circuit.

This week, the former Hodi Boys Band member paid a courtesy call on the Saturday Nation. For him, the music still goes on.

It has not been an easy journey, as he has had to cope with new challenges in the music scene. "But I am happy that things are going well now," he said.

MAISHANI BAND

Today, he is the resident pianist at Nairobi's Panari Hotel on Mombasa Road, where he entertains patrons in the evenings from Wednesday to Friday.

In most of his career, Toto has spent his time as a resident performer at one top hotel in Nairobi and Mombasa or another. He however sorely misses his favourite instrument, the guitar, which he began strumming from the late 1960s.

Coming from Nairobi's Eastlands, it has been easy to maintain his fan base as many of the country's top sports people — footballers, martial artists and artists — grew up in the area.

Juma Toto first arrived in Nairobi in 1966 from Gem, in Siaya County. At first, life in the city was not easy, but he quickly adapted to it.

He made his debut as a musician with Maishani Boys Band that was then based at Rwathia Bar in downtown Nairobi.

“Being my first band, I had to get used to singing in a blend of Kiswahili and English, having been used to only Dholuo, and to cope with my new colleagues," he said.

CAREER GROWTH

Later, Toto joined Stereo Band that was then based at Small World Club, near Ambassadeur Hotel. The group also featured Pierre Zombie, Omondi Jerry and Kamanu.

His breakthrough came in 1968 when singer and composer Gabriel Omollo, of the 1970s "Lunchtime" hit song fame, invited him to join his Blue Shades Band.

“Gabriel Omollo inspired me more during practice and live performances. He gave me exposure," he said.

In June 1968, he joined then-star-studded Hodi Boys Band. The group featured saxophone player Geoffrey Ngao, Edward Nginyo, Henry Mbogo and Nicholas Ndungu.

Fadhili William recorded his world famous "Malaika" hit song with the group.

Inspired to record his own songs, Toto composed "Dorie Mama" and "Athieno Nyar Seme", which were produced by seasoned engineer and producer Isaya Mwinamo at Philips Studio in Nairobi.

BREAKTHROUGH

But his biggest moment came in 1970 when he released the song "FC Gor Mahia". It not only received massive radio airplay, but became more of an anthem for the hordes of football fans across the country.

“To date, I still get my fans requesting me to play the song," he said.

Following a rift in Hodi Boys, Toto left the group to team up with crooner and composer Ochieng Kabaselleh in 1972. They would later form Toddy Nationale Band.

Their cooperation was however short-lived, with Ochieng leaving some months later to form his Lunna Kidi Band.

The 1972-1975 period was the season of band splits and formations among musicians.

RESIDENT PIANIST

In 1974, another great, Steele Beauttah, invited Toto to join his session group and they performed in many places, including the Panafric Hotel.

This was the beginning of Toto's association with upmarket hotels in Nairobi. He would team up with other musicians including John Nzenze and Peter Mzungu for oldies shows.

It was also around this time that he groomed a family friend and talented guitarist Okello Jose, who is today based in Australia.

Okello later joined Orch Les Kinois of Samba Mapangala before moving to Orchestre Super Mazembe of Longwa Didos and later on to the Ivory Band.

On the hotel front, Toto was the resident keyboard pianist at Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi from 1980 to 1987.

GLOBAL EXPOSURE

In 1989, he was invited to become the resident pianist at the newly-opened Safari Park Hotel.

“Performing at hotels has given me international exposure," he says.

In 1990, he was among the Kenyan artistes invited to London to take part in a music copyright training session.

From Safari Park Hotel, Toto moved to the Norfolk Hotel in 1993 as the resident pianist.

Due to requests from live music fans, Toto revived his Toddy International Band, which took part in a series of shows, initially in Nairobi, before they moved to Mombasa from 1995 to 1998. For Toto, music is the rhythm of life that must continue.

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