December 18 marked 17 years since the death of controversial benga maestro Okatch Biggy.
The distinguishing artistic feature in Okatch Biggy’s music was its ordinariness.
While earlier icons of benga music like George Ramogi thrived on churning out melancholic tunes detailing tragic events and D.O. Misiani curved a niche for himself as a master storyteller, the youthfully energetic Okatch Biggy’s tunes bordered on the lewd.
Okatch gave benga music a whole new taste and feel when he formed the Heka Heka band in 1991. He first captured the youthful benga lovers when he released his first hit, Helena Wang’e Dongo, in 1992.
By the mid 1990s, Okatch and his Heka Heka band had become a household name, attracting huge crowds in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and the benga bedrock of the then Nyanza Province.
Probably what stood out about Okatch were his graphic compositions. Was he intentionally lewd?
“No!” is the categorical response from former band member Oginga Wuod Awasi. “Okatch wanted to connect with benga fans that were getting bored with the never-ending storytelling and sorrowful attributes of benga music then. To do so, he designed a more direct approach to talk to the people. Parables can only entertain so much.”
That unswerving manner of composition seemed to have endeared him to the fans while fellow musicians would accuse him of being vulgar to gain popularity.
In fact, D.O. Misiani, in one of his last interviews with Reuters in 2003, rubbished this lewd approach to music claiming benga would soon die if artistes insisted on vocally undressing women and bringing obscenity to the ears of audiences.
Misiani definitely belonged to the conservative group that believed music was supposed to uphold the dignity of the singer and the audience.
But Okatch, a long time protégé of Jashirati, as Misiani was known, would hear none of that.
In his most popular tune, Helena Wang’e Dongo, that is supposed to portray him as a changed man with his constant shouts of alemo (I’m now reformed), he churns out volumes of naked wire lines describing the lifestyle he has abandoned.
Sianda madongo (voluminous behinds) as well as chode (adultery), he claims, are some of the traits that are now no longer part of him.
The other song, Adhiambo Nyakobura, released in 1998, is equally lewd. In this post-humous production, Biggy gives a profane description of his subject so vivid that the audience is forced to mentally undress Adhiambo.
According to his long-time confidant and vocalist Oginga Wuod Awasi, Biggy composed his songs from basic observations of day-to-day life.
FAME AND FORTUNE
“At no time did Okatch write down his songs,” says Oginga. “We would ride in the same van after a performance and therein we would heartily chat about the event. Our topics ranged from how so-and-so was dancing, how a beautiful woman was in the audience, how that rich man stayed all night dancing to our music… and that is how the next song would come up!”
When every emerging musician who wanted to amass fame and fortune started singing praises to politicians, Okatch chose to veer off the norm and instead themed his songs around businessmen, band members, women and close friends.
Heka Heka band, therefore, gave fans a breath of fresh air while maintaining the benga fashion of starting a song on a slow beat, climbing to a danceable climax before it fades off smoothly.
John Owiti’s solo guitar as well as Ouma Jasuba’s rhythm guitar were the trademarks in this while Adwera Okelo’s bass guitar was an ever present identity of Heka Heka band.
Here is the full list of the men who made the core team of the band;
Elekia Mathayo (Okatch Biggy) – Vocalist and team leaderOginga wuod Awasi – VocalistGeorge Jambita – Vocalist John Olang’o – Vocalist Paul Jalamo – Solo Owiti John – Solo Ouma Jasuba – Rhythm Adwera Okelo – Bass Bingwa Machaa – Drums
Twitter: @TomBwana (The writer is an archivist of African music)
Life and times of Okatch Biggy
Born Elekia Mathayo Okach in 1954 at Ujimbe in Siaya County, the fourth child in a family of 10 tried his hands in boxing as a career, earning the name ‘Biggy’ due to his huge body size. His music career started in 1977 when he joined Kiwiro Jazz band as a drummer. He later moved to D.O. Misiani’s Shirati Boys Band.
He would leave Shirati in a huff in the late 1980s, and together with his younger brother Ochieng’ Viva and a few others, they formed Heka Heka band in 1991, performing in Kisii before relocating to Kisumu the same year.
He released four albums — Helena Wang’e Dongo (Helena the marble eyed) (1992), Dorina (1992), Nyathi Nyakach (the daughter of Nyakach) (1996) and Okelo Jabondo (1996). Biggy gripped benga fans with his signature raucously enchanting voice conjugated with the electric guitar. The benga maestro breathed his last on December 18, 1997