Joseph Kamaru: The man, his music and rise of benga

Saturday October 06 2018

Joseph Kamaru sings alongside pupils from Westlands Primary on April 15, 2009. The story of Joseph Kamaru is the story of Kenya’s music industry — for he lived through it. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


As a secular musician, Joseph Kamaru had for decades conquered the benga music scene.

But his 23-year dalliance with gospel music and church ministry was a flop — so much so that there is a whole generation that never saw him perform.

Gone were the days when he would set the stage on fire at the defunct Hillock Inn in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, clad in the Australian-styled akubra cattleman fawn hat.

Despite his absence, he remained a brand name thanks to the avalanche of secular fans who still followed him like a music deity, especially in Mt Kenya region.

The story of Joseph Kamaru is the story of Kenya’s music industry — for he lived through it.

For a man who was at independence a cook at the British Kahawa Garrison on Thika Road, Kamaru lacked the trappings of stardom as he rose as a recording artist and poetic composer. Fanatics thought he was a seer.



As a self-taught guitarist and accordion player, Kamaru rose rapidly.

While his contemporaries, who included Fadhili William, Daudi Kabaka, David Amunga, Ochieng' Kabasseleh, Gabriel Omolo and Fundi Konde managed to break, albeit for a short while, into the regional and international music scene after being recorded by CBS, the American label owned by Columbia Broadcasting Studio, and PolyGram, a music subsidiary of Phillips and Siemens, Mr Kamaru was not as lucky.

Most of these had been the products of the Coventry, UK, born producer, Charles Worrod, who owned the Equator Sound Studios and is credited for producing Fadhili William’s "Malaika" and Daudi Kabaka’s "Helule".

Worrod had at first bought shares of East African Records but soon sold his shares to start his own Equator Sound Studios Limited.

He took with him the young talents recording at East African Records under Jambo Boys Band and renamed it The Equator Sound Band.


This became the band that brought together Uganda’s Charles Sonko, Kenya’s Fadhili William and Daudi Kabaka, and two Zambians, Nashil Pichen Kazembe and Peter Tsotsi Juma — who sang "Pole Musa"- and they managed to weave both the British pop and twist into Swahili.

The result was songs such as Kabaka’s "Harambee Harambee", whose military band version was for years used as a Voice of Kenya signature tune, and "Helule" — later copied by British pop band The Tremeloes, which had entered the UK music scene with their song "Twist and Shout".

Although Kamaru had in the pioneer days been signed by the British Polydor, which recorded his 1972 single "Kaba Utinie Kiara" under the Sululu label, he was perhaps overlooked and he went solo with his own independent vinyl label, Kenya United Sounds, which he used to record with his sister Celina — one of the first female recording artists in the country.

But still he would release a 1977 album, Kenya Kurungara, through RCA, an American label owned by America’s Sony Music Corporation.

Other independents who went solo at this time included Collela Mazee, who together with Ochieng Nelly, formed Victoria Kings, one of the greatest benga outfits of the 70s.


The departure of Celina after she got married saw the end of Kamaru Celina Band, which had been started in May 1965 when the two recorded their first songs "Celina Witu" and "Tiga kuhenia igoti" (Stop lying to the court).

It was a promising time for Kenya’s budding musicians after CBS Records opened an ultra-modern 16-track studio then situated in downtown Nairobi.

As the sole state-of-the-art equipped recording studio this side of Africa, it attracted musicians from as far as Congo, Zambia, and Tanzania — turning Nairobi to be the base of many guitarists and musicians who came and found home, here.

Some of these had followed the footsteps of Nairobi-based Congolese musician Edouard Massengo and Jean Bosco Mwenda — the Congolese artiste regarded as the father of Rhumba music, and who was then recorded under Hugh Tracey’s Gallotone label.

Kamaru saw music as business and had two wholesale music shops in Nairobi: Kamaru Super Sounds managed by his second wife Teresia and City Sounds, which competed with music hawkers who until the end of vinyl records in 1990s were a common presence in Nairobi’s River Road.


He could comfortably compete with AIT Records, Shankardass, and Assanads — some of the biggest music stores in Nairobi.

The 1970s and 1980s were for funk music, a genre that had been popularised by African-Americans such as James Brown and George Clinton.

The funky shuffle benga was introduced to downtown River Road music and Kamaru was one of those who picked the dance floor beats.

Others who took it up included Daniel Kamau (DK) and the talented Lawrence Nduru — whose early death denied Kenyans a possible international star.

At the peak of his popularity, Kamaru’s studio in Nairobi was the meeting point of local musicians.

At the back of the shop in an open sitting area was a place with benches — where you could find musicians going through their vibes.

Upstairs — up a wooden staircase was a poorly-ventilated practicing studio with guitars and drums.

It was here in late 1980s that, as a budding musician, I met him.


He didn’t know me but he welcomed me to his studio and assigned one of his guitarists, Simon Kihara alias Musaimo, to look at my compositions.

Musaimo had just recorded his hit-single "Mwana wa ndigwa" and "My dear kwaheri" and was about to leave Kamaru’s band for his Mbiri Young Stars.

Somehow, we left together and Musaimo turned to be my employer, producer and friend.

Kamaru was later impressed with my hit single "Nyakari" with flip side "Uhiki wa Korogocho" — and always wondered why I went into journalism.

Many budding musicians — and masquerades like me — were never turned away by Kamaru.

It was Kamaru who plucked Kamba musician Kakai Kilonzo from oblivion to stardom when he recorded Kilimambogo Brothers’ hit single and patriotic song, "Ewe Kenya Nchi Yangu Sitakuacha Milele".

This opened doors to more than 2,000 songs which were recorded by Kamba musicians through Kamaru-owned music labels.

In total, he once estimated to have recorded upwards of 8,000.


Whether he got dividends from these songs is another story.

Kamaru was a founder member of Music Copyright Society of Kenya together with the likes of Juma Toto and Daudi Kabaka.

But while their music royalties were supposed to be collected by MCSK, which they had assigned the rights, other bodies have been registered.

In this confusion, many of Kamaru’s songs remain unprotected and he died complaining about loss of MCSK’s mandate.

When he died this week, aged 79, Kamaru left a rich legacy of recordings on politics and society.

He will be remembered for popularising the funky benga sounds and guitar riffin that was the signature of his later songs, influencing a generation of artists in central Kenya.


Among them was the 1980s and 1990s wonder boy, the Gatanga-born John Ndichu — a man who toppled Kamaru out of the charts with his powerful recordings backed by a former Nation journalist turned producer Joe Mwangi of Mercury Records fame.

But after a near decade of dominance, John Ndichu faded and died — a dejected soul in his late 30s.

With his music, Kamaru, a former scout leader, played politics like a poker player.

Shortly after the assassination of Tom Mboya in 1969, Kamaru came out to defend Jomo Kenyatta against critics with his song "Jogoo ya Kanu", which cursed those criticising the old Jomo.

He would be picked by Provincial Commissioner John G. Mburu and taken to Kenyatta’s Gatundu home “to perform for Mama Ngina” — as he would later put it in an interview.

But Kamaru surprised the Kiambu mafia when he recorded his song “JM Kariuki” in which he took on those who assassinated the former legislator in 1975.


The death of Mzee Kenyatta and the entry of Daniel arap Moi saw Kamaru compose praises of both Kanu and the Nyayo regime, earning him a Head of State commendation.

This followed his two songs "Fuata Nyayo" and "Safari ya Japan" — a song composed after he was a member of President Moi’s 1980 entourage to the Asian country.

But Kamaru and Moi would fall out during the clamour for multiparty when he composed songs like "Mahoya ma Bururi" (Prayers for the Nation) — criticised by Kanu politicians as an attempt to divide the country along tribal lines.

But he would also appear and entertain crowds in Kanu rallies — thanks to his friendship to Kanu Secretary-General Joseph Kamotho who came from his Kangema backyard.

Kanu and Moi regarded Kamaru as a bait for their popularity in the Mt Kenya region.

This was a major goof for Kamaru and the turnaround was hard.


Whether this was an attempt to cushion himself against State harassment — or he was doing what Franco did to President Mobutu Sese Seko by paying music homage is not clear.

Before he left the secular scene, Kamaru recorded some X-rated songs titled "Adults Only", cover versions of Kikuyu circumcision songs.

He also recorded all the Mau Mau songs and various banned songs of the colonial era, creating an important repository.

His surprise entry into gospel, closure of his studio and disappearance from the performing stage was a blow to the music scene.

Kamaru was unable to convince his fans to follow him. Eventually, his star dimmed, as income from his music dwindled, thanks to pirates and online platforms that shared his songs for free.

Once in 1970s, Kirinyaga MP Nahashon Njuno asked National Archives to have all the recording of the one-of-a-kind Kamaru and scholars who study the artiste and his work agree he was a genius of his time.