Opinion: Kenyan music must trace back its roots before it can dream of regaining its spot on the international stage and a place in the hearts of Kenyans

Kenyan music must trace back its roots before it can dream of regaining its spot on the international stage and a place in the hearts of Kenyans
  • For an industry that was at one point at the forefront of innovation and creativity and achieving worldwide recognition, it is the high time Kenyan musicians pressed the pause button and really reflected upon where the rain started beating them.
  • In recent weeks, Kenyan Musicians have been crying foul, that their music is not being played enough by the mainstream media, which according to them is giving unfair and over-representation to cheap ‘foreign music’.
  • Kenyan music is now a pale shadow of itself and lacking in content and beauty to the point that it’s a near impossible feat, for it to sell; not just internationally, but also to Kenyans themselves. Why?

It is high time somebody told Kenyan musicians that it is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

For some time now the majority of Kenyan musicians have been singing off tune ‘second hand music’ and boring and disgusting their audiences to the point of driving them away and into the hands of foreign musicians; the likes of Tanzanian Diamond and his Wasafi Records and Nigerian ‘irresistible’ Afro beats.

For an industry that was at one point the vanguard of innovation and creativity and achieved worldwide recognition, it is time Kenyan musicians pressed the pause button to really reflect upon their performance; especially, where the rain started beating them.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Kenyan music industry thrived and produced some of the most beautiful and artistic interpretations in the world. 

For instance, Fadhili Williams took the world by storm with his classic ‘MalaiKa’ and had musical greats like Miriam Makeba and Bonnie M rushing to the studio to produce their own renditions of the classic song.

There was no Internet then, let alone Youtube, to popularise one’s song. Yet, Kenyan music conquered the world and warmed its way into Kenyan hearts. 50 years later Kenyan music is a pale shadow of its former self lacking in content and beauty to the point that it’s a near impossible feat for it to even sell not only internationally but also among Kenyans themselves. Why?

I think today’s Kenyan music has lost connection with that of 1970s to the late 1990s. We have to get back to our roots, so that we can build a trade, which can have elements of modernization and the fusion that gives the music a distinct character; a distinct unique identity that immediately screams Kenyan,” says Martin Ocholi, a Media and Communication Specialist and lover of good music.

Mr Ocholi, who once dubbed as a DJ before he was told to get ‘serious’ about life remembers the good old days when the Kenyan music industry was filled with musical giants who produced nothing but great music to wake up the dead.

“Look at what musician greats like Mombasa roots, Safari sounds, Les Cavaliers who later become The Mighty Cavaliers, the Makonde, Them Mushrooms, and Maroon Commandos did. They produced brilliant music back in the days. There was something authentically and uniquely Kenyan in their music. Every time it played on Radio irrespective of where you were, you knew immediately that is Kenyan music,” says Ocholi.

In recent weeks, however, Kenyan Musicians have been foaming out of the mouth and crying foul that their music is not being played enough by the mainstream media which according to them is giving unfair and over-representation to cheap ‘foreign music’.

“We need to be given preference as Kenyan artists when it comes to airtime. There is no way we can be giving our radio stations ratings, we give TVs viewership and still, we are not getting that airplay, it is like we are watching other people prosper,” Abby Nguma, a Kenyan singer who recently dropped a new love tune titled ‘Mwanamwali’ told Business Insider SSA.

But that exactly is where the first hurdle lies, what is Kenyan Music? What qualifies as Kenyan music? While the majority of us cannot sing to save our lives, some can easily pick a fake American twang and spit a few lines, does that seriously qualify for one to then be called a Kenyan Musician?

Mr Ocholi says Kenyan music should be more than just the artist behind it.

“First of all the kind of music that we call Kenyan, I don’t know if we should call it Kenyan in the first place. Simply because it is played by a Kenyan artist or whether we should call it Kenyan because of its character, its genre and style that makes it Kenyan? Just because you sing in Luhya or Swahili does not make your music Kenyan” says Ocholi.

“I don’t see for instance, why I should listen to an artist who is doing dance hall and he is speaking in Patwah, which is Jamaican accent and you want me to play that and call it Kenyan? That is not Kenyan music. So a proper definition of what would make Kenyan music should be deeper than just who is playing that music,”

The Americans have Hip Hop, Jamaicans have Reggae, Tanzanians have Bongo what do Kenyans have? For some time, Kenyan contemporary artists, the likes of the late E-Sir, Nameless, Nonini, Jua Cali, Clemo etc. tried to create a modern identity of Kenyan music with Genge and Kapuka but what exactly is the Kenyan sound has since gotten lost in translation.

Mr Ocholi gives an example of one of Kenya’s most successful artist who has since performed at the international stage and even collaborated with renowned international acts, the Inchi ya kitu kidogo hit maker Eric Wainaina who before he made it big, had to find his own niche and identity.

Look at Eric Wainaina, when he started out with the group Five Alive, they were hip-hop artists then Eric Wainaina went to school, he went to Berkley, and I think somebody told him don’t be funny you can’t seriously come here and try to compete with American hip hop artists thinking you can beat them at their own game. Why don’t you get back to doing your own music in a way that appeals to the world? Today, look where he is! I can comfortably listen to Eric Wanaina’s music all day long. There is a blend of western themes and a fusion of Benga in there, if you listen to the collabo he did with Oliver Mtukudzi you instantly recognize it as authentic African music. That is how Eric Wainaina has sustained himself and remains relevant. Otherwise, he would have gone into oblivion by now,” explains Ocholi.

Ocholi adds that it’s a shame really, that it’s not like Kenyan musicians need to even go far to look for inspiration to produce good music. They only have to scratch the surface to discover the raw untapped archive of timeless music.

“Who is building up on Joseph Kamaru’s style? Who is building up on Daudi Kabaka’s style? Who is building up on Fundi Konde’s and Kakai Kilonzo’s styles? And say, this is how Kenyan music has evolved; but you can do it with a modern twist,” asks Ocholi.

Take Benga music for instance, which from a simple traditional village entertainment on the shores of Lake Victoria grew to become a national and regional music genre.

Today, from a genre that was previously considered low class, Benga music, whose distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat and bouncy finger-picking guitar technique, has managed to establish its hold as a definite Kenyan style and beat. Sprinklings of it are to be found in DR Congo. It has been borrowed, repackaged and found a new form in Zimbabwe.

Think of Bango music which has coastal roots, why don’t young people take it back and do a remix? Mzee Ngala is still alive and I don’t know why we don’t celebrate him enough. Because to me, he is our Hugh Masekela; a musical archive we can use and put Kenyan music back on the international stage. He is authentic to the core,”

In the 1970s Kenya was the hub of Music development within the East and Central Africa, with the countries in the region relying on Kenya to get their music into the international realm. Multinational recording companies including Phillips, Polygram, CBS, EMI, among others recorded booming business churning out Kenyan music that resonated well with the local and international audience.

The likes of Les Mangelepa alongside Super Mazembe, Baba Gaston and Samba Mapangala crossed mountains and rivers just to set base in Kenya where they achieved national stardom belting out real authentic African music, marking one of the golden eras of Kenyan Lingala music acts.

Kenyan musicians back then knew that the secret of selling music was to make it authentic as it could be, then proudly package it as Kenyan and take a bow for a job well done. This is something that other African musicians have since copied and mastered while Kenyan modern artists continue to die with cheap imitations.

“I once went to Mali and literally, there are clubs where people dance to live folk music. You know live instruments; the Kora and the drums, it’s all very beautiful. Now compare that with where we play our Nyatiti for instance; in funerals or very dingy places along River road, where you cannot even enter. Or the Nyatiti is played in front of passive western audiences so it doesn’t have that African inclusiveness and participation. The late Nyatiti player, Ayub Ogada, was celebrated abroad more than he was at home. We need to own our stuff and whoever is going to produce music has to think deeper and for something authentic. Not what we are currently being served with as Kenyan music,” says Ocholi.

And this is where the Kenyan mainstream media now comes in. Radio presenters, some of whom have no media background to begin with; continue to deny talented local artists like Abby Nguma much needed airtime under the pretence that they are only playing what their audience wants. Mr. Ocholi who also teaches Broadcast Journalism at the University of Nairobi is more than happy to give them a free lesson on the role of Media.

“What is the role of Media? It is to inform, educate and entertain. So you are already failing on the education function when you can’t use the medium to expose the public to good Kenyan music. Tastes can be developed and acquired. Someone is tuning in one day and goes like oh! That’s a good song that I heard on that radio station. Or perhaps, that is a good interview with a local artiste. So this is what that song means, oh! I remember that beat in my village; this is how people used to sing. So they have modernized it and so forth,” says Ocholi.

At the end of the day when all is said and done, Mr Ocholi has one last message to Kenyan musicians ‘it is better to fail, trying to be original than to succeed in imitation’.

Look at the Congolese they sing in Lingala and do their own thing and look at how successful they are. So we need to think and stop crying. We just need to put in more work and create acts that someone will feel proud to own. The late Achieng Abura tried and so did Suzanna Owiyo. But I don’t know what has happened to her lately. You see; that follow up and consistency just lacks. You know the discipline of the Kamarus, Kakai Kilonzo, Jacob Luseno, Mzee Ngala, Daudi Kabaka among others. These guys sang because they had passion, they had a message to deliver. People today sing because they want to be celebrities. That’s the problem” concludes Ocholi.


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