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Joseph Kamaru: The day Moi gave me Sh800,000 to stop my hit song

Friday September 4 2009

Joseph Kamaru takes a break during a recent recording Photo/LIZ MUTHONI

Joseph Kamaru takes a break during a recent recording Photo/LIZ MUTHONI  


Don’t sit comfortably with your fimbo (club). I know there are people telling you that you are popular, but the truth is that people do not like you.”

There was deafening silence in the packed Nyayo National Stadium when singer Joseph Kamaru uttered these words of caution to President Moi’s face before a whole nation watching the 1992 Madaraka Day celebrations live on radio and TV.

It was a brave – many thought foolish – thing to say in the months leading to the first multi-party elections in December with an edgy President of 20 years facing the first real challenge to his authority. Many had expected him to be arrested by the presidential security but, surprisingly, nothing happened to him.

Offer praise

Like Kenyatta before him, Moi had come to realise that no president could ignore the prolific singer from Kangema in Murang’a and had befriended him early in his Presidency. Thanks to this friendship, the popular singer endorsed him in some of his tracks.

But like the founding president, he would realise on this day that Kamaru was as quick to offer praise as he was to criticise.


The singer’s relationship with Kenyatta soured in 1975 when sang that those behind the assassination of the former Nyandarua North MP JM Kariuki deserved to die. An instant hit and a source of official discomfiture, it sold 75,000 copies in the first week. And although the government did not take any action against Kamaru, as many would have expected, Kenyatta never warmed up to him again.

After newly-elected President Moi included Kamaru in the 1980 presidential visit to Japan, the musician composed Safari ya Japan in praise of Moi’s leadership.

But come 1988, the year of the controversial mlolongo (queue-voting) system of elections, Kamaru found himself doing what he does best with the release of Mahoya ma Bururi (Prayers for the Nation) in the backdrop of growing opposition against the government and the 1986 crackdown against political dissidents, including members of the underground Mwakenya movement.

Great critic

Fast-forward to the post-Moi era: Kamaru, born-again the year after his little speech at Nyayo, was invited to pray for the wheelchair-bound Mr Mwai Kibaki in his home ahead of a contest for the presidency with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002.

A song on Kibaki, Mbaki ya Kibaki (Kibaki’s snuff) followed.

Many will also remember that in June last year, he accompanied, Prime Minister Raila Odinga (a vocal critic of Moi) and former Constitutional affairs Minister Charles Njonjo (a Moi associate and a noted critic of Kibaki) for a much-publicised lunch at Kosewe’s on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street in the aftermath of the December 2008 elections.

Still as strong as ever, he celebrated his 70th birthday in May with a performance at the Carnivore.

Currently, he is working on a new DVD in collaboration with American and British artistes.

In the Saturday Nation interview (below), Mr Kamaru reflected on a long and often eventful career.

Nothing could have prepared Kamaru for the events that would shape his career and country. Arriving in Nairobi from rural Murang’a with a primary school education, Kamaru became a street hawker. His first formal job was as a house-help for a Nairobi schoolteacher, for a sum of Sh180 a month. His interest in music, which he had harboured since youth, burst forth with his first recording in 1965. The rest is history, as he told it to Stephen Mburu

I was a good singer since my youth. I would sing along happily with the Mau Mau leaders. About 75 per cent of Mau Mau songs had their origin from the Bible or hymn books. I loved the songs and I decided to write them down in an exercise book. I had a big compilation of the songs between 15 and 20. I used to hide the book in the thatch above the door to my mother’s hut.

Sometimes we would sing from the book, just as worshippers do in churches. I would be very happy, to see other people chorusing after me. This was between 1952 and 1953.

But when colonial police started burning houses in 1953, my mother’s hut was also torched and my song-book perished. But God is good because I memorised many of the songs. My aim was not to make money. That is why I used only one box guitar and sometimes no instruments at all. Examples of favorite Mau Mau songs I recorded included, Wiyathi na Ithaka (Independence and Land), Twathiaga Tukenete (We journeyed joyfully), and Bururi wa Gikuyu (Land of the Kikuyu).

The Mau Mau songs made us dream of very good things to come after Independence. I thought we would take over properties that belonged to the white settlers. I thought we would freely take even their vehicles. Many of us thought we would each own a car.

But when Independence came, the vehicles we thought would be a free-for-all affair never came. Our expectations changed immediately after Kenyatta told us not to take revenge.

I remember going to Gatundu with my sister Celina Muthoni to sing for Kenyatta.

While we were performing, I heard Kenyatta shout: “That man called Kamaru should be told to stop playing the guitar. Could he be brought nearer so (Mama) Ngina and I can hear the lyrics?”

My sister and I moved forward just near where Kenyatta and Ngina were seated, and we repeated the song.

After we finished Kenyatta called PC Mburu and ordered him to grant whatever I wished done. My wish was to seek protection for local musicians from exploitative practices of the mostly Asian music producers.

We musicians had a big problem. I had been paid only Sh100 for my recording the previous year. I felt so bad.

So I told the PC to ban the producers. He did so. But soon, some musicians went back to Kenyatta and pleaded with him to reverse the decision arguing they depended on the Asian producers for livelihood. Kenyatta reversed his decision.

One of the trying times for me followed the assassination of JM Kariuki. We knew each other very well, through my brother Mwangi wa Thayu, who was a great friend of his. They used to visit each other at Kangema and Nairobi. JM would come to Kangema or my brother and I would go and see him at his restaurant at Castle Inn, near Roasters off Thika Road.

Death threats

I sang the JM Kariuki song three weeks after JM’s death. When I did the song, I had no idea it would be so popular and move so many people so emotionally.

I started receiving death threats. Some notes would be stapled and left in my shop, Kamaru Music Store, in the building next to Ramogi Studios, on Luthuli Avenue (in Nairobi). Others would be left on my car parked outside. All the notes were written in Kikuyu.

For instance, one read: “Wee kiongo giaku ni gigutuarwo Ngong (Your head will be taken to Ngong”, threatening that he would be assassinated and his head dumped in the Ngong forest where JM Kariuki’s mutilated body was found after the politicians was lured to death from the Hilton Hotel on March 2, 1975).

Another note had the message: “Now that you are singing about JM, we will come for you tomorrow and take you to Ngong.”

When the threats grew, (veteran singer) D.K. Kamau and I would swap cars as we went home to beat off anyone following us. We used to live together with DK, and our bedsitter was at Grogan, off present-day Kirinyaga Road.

I called (Ignatius) Nderi, the director of CID, and told him about it. Nderi and I knew each other very well. He assured me nothing bad would happen to me. He told me to ignore the messages. I believe he talked to Kenyatta and told him I was harmless and was only singing to earn a livelihood.

Mzee unhappy

I only heard Mzee was unhappy and had made enquiries wanting to know what caused me to record the song at a time when all fingers were pointing to the President’s aides and cronies as the culprits.

(The relationship with Kenyatta never warmed up after the song and it would be many years until he stepped in State House again with the entry of President Moi)

I was a great friend of Moi. He wanted me closer to him after he had realised I was liked by the Kikuyu and I was influential.

I had been introduced to Moi by former attorney-general Charles Njonjo. I had known Njonjo since his days as Attorney General through a friend of mine called ‘General’ Kimiti, a businessman and dealer in game trophies, including elephant tusks. Njonjo did not need me before Moi rose to power.

But when Moi came to power, Njonjo thought I could use my popularity and influence to help Moi be accepted among the Kikuyu community.

And when Moi introduced free milk programme in primary schools, I released the song Ciana Ithome (Let the children learn), in which I praised him for his leadership and Njonjo for defending the constitution. That was in 1980.

In 1982, before the (abortive) coup (by a section of Kenya Air Force servicemen on August 1), he took me to Japan. I then composed song Safari ya Japan in his praise.

In 1988, I released a cassette Mahoya ma Bururi (Prayers for the nation). It was about the country’s leadership in general. It was a hit and created a lot of tension countrywide. It was so evocative I would shed tears when singing it.

(The song came soon after the 1986 crackdown of political dissidents including members of the underground Mwakenya movement and at a time opposition to the Moi government was rising. President Moi was also under pressure to reintroduce multi party democracy).

Moi was jittery about the song. One Sunday morning, two people in a Peugeot car drove to my house at Ngara in Nairobi. They told me Moi wanted to see me. It was about 9am. I followed them in my car to Harambee House. Moi was called on the telephone and I heard the caller say: “Mzee, the Kamaru you wanted to see is here.’

He instructed that I be taken to State House. My car was a Mazda and it was good. But I was asked to leave it at Harambee House and I was driven to State House in the Peugeot.

I found Moi with about between six to 10 people… (former PCs Joseph) Kaguthi, and (Hezekiah) Oyugi were present.

Moi wanted to know what the song was all about since it was so popular around the country. He wanted to know what was happening. I told him: ‘Mzee, you are called Daniel and in my song I have talked about you and the biblical Daniel. I’m saying: If you are not careful, you will soon be thrown into a den of lions by your enemies just as happened to the biblical Daniel. And there is no doubt this will happen. But even if this happens, since God loves you, the lions will not harm you.’

Moi said “Kama ni hiyo, tengeza. Tengeza hiyo (If that’s it, you continue)”. So I was given the go-ahead to continue. I was asked to leave. No one went to see Moi and left empty-handed. I was given about Sh50,000.

But the following day, I learnt later, Ngibuini Kuguru (a top Kanu leader in Central province) went to Moi and told him to watch me. That Kamaru would finish him. That I would use my music and spoil things for him among the Kikuyu community.

Two days after I had left State House, Moi summoned me again. He was cunning. He started by praising my song. He told me: ‘Your song is very good, and everybody is talking about it. So to make it reach a wider audience so people could get the message that I would not be thrown into a lions’ den, you need to have it translated into Kiswahili. And as you do this, stop selling the Kikuyu version.’

He asked me to deliver to him the Kiswahili version at about 3 pm at State House the following day. I told him I would not beat the deadline as the translation involved a lot of time. He gave me Sh800,000 so I could do the job fast.

I translated the song, and within two days returned to State House to deliver it. But I was barred at the gate. I tried in vain several days to reach Moi. I never saw him over the song. I think his aim was to stop me from selling the Kikuyu version.

Paying taxes

I have known Kibaki since he was MP for Bahati before he switched to Othaya. And even when before he went to Othaya to cast his vote in 2002, I was called to his home in Muthaiga, to pray for him. I placed my hands on his head as he sat in his wheelchair. I had been called there by Dr Gikonyo. [Dr Daniel Gikonyo is President Kibaki’s personal physician].

When he (Kibaki) was Finance minister I went to him as chairman of Kenya Association of Phonographic Industry (KAPI) and told him it was wrong for musicians to continue paying taxes. He removed tax on local music. That was about 1976.

Kibaki also liked my songs. He was always jovial and loved traditional songs. Sometimes he would dance to my music through the night. And at functions, like at City Hall, he and Lucy (the First Lady) would dance to my music.