Daniel Kamau's Kikuyu-language benga sounds a little different from the Luo, Kamba and Swahili versions of the music this blog has featured in the past. Together with the late Joseph Kamaru he was one of the great innovators and popularizers of the Kenyan sound in the '60s, '70s and '80s. In addition to addressing current issues in his music he participated in the political process as councillor of Gatanga ward north of Nairobi from 1979 to 1992. The Daily Standard of Nairobi had this to say in 2009, when the great maestro was 42 years into his career:
Daniel Kamau, popularly known as DK, proudly clings to the title of pioneer of Kikuyu benga music. At 60 and with over 1,000 songs to his credit, DK is unwilling to hang up his cherished guitar. He is scaling new heights by not only producing music videos of his past hits but also releasing new songs.
When Sunday Magazine paid him a visit one afternoon, DK was busy working on a new video at a music production studio in downtown Nairobi. The soft-spoken man who meets us does not look like a celebrity but the large number of visitors seeking audience with him proves he is no ordinary person.
"I am recording my 1,013th song and also editing videos for the song "Muiritu wa Nyiri" (Girl from Nyeri), which I released last year," he says as he ushers us into the studio. DK has been a leading figure in music ever since 1967, when he dropped out of Karatina High School while in Form Two due to lack of school fees.
And so successful has his music career been that the artiste never regrets dropping out of school. At the time, he was already deeply entrenched in music as he had started to sing while in primary school in his home village of Mabanda in Gatanga District. He had learnt how to play the guitar at just ten.
"I had three older brothers who were musicians and owned a guitar that they used to entertain people in the village. But they never allowed me to touch it as they feared it would spoil me and prevent me from pursuing my education," DK recounts.
But determined to realise his dream of being a musician and satisfy his curiosity, DK says he would often sneak away with the guitar while his siblings were away and teach himself how to play it. "I would hide nervously in a thick bush behind the main house, praying that they would not come back home and find me toying with their treasured tool of work," DK says.
He perfected playing the guitar and earned instant eminence when he finally performed in public for the first time. "On Madaraka Day in 1964, my brothers turned up for a public performance too drunk to perform. I offered to play the guitar, only to be become the talk of the village for a week as no one could believe a young boy could be so skilful," he says.
After dropping out of school, DK says he just had one dream - to hear his voice on radio. He subsequently wrote a letter to a Voice of Kenya presenter, Mrs Kabeberi, requesting assistance so that he could produce his own music.
"Mrs Kabeberi directed me to musician David Amunga who co-owned a production studio. He helped me release my first record in 1968," he recounts. The album contained the songs "Mami Tiga Guthura" (Mum don’t hate me) and "Kenyatta wa Muigai." DK went on to release five other records with hits such as "Surusuru ni ya ki?" (Why the gossip) and "Muiritu wa Thukuru" (Schoolgirl). But he felt short-changed when he was paid "a meagre Sh450" for all his toil. He shifted to Sokota Productions in 1969 and released three albums that fetched him Sh2,500.
He used the earnings to establish his own studio, DK Nguvu Sounds, which was located near Tea Room in downtown Nairobi. It is in this studio that he recorded hit songs "Njika na Njika" (Tit for Tat) and "I Love You" in 1970, with the latter getting cross-ethnic approval.
In the same year, DK made history when his maiden benga hit, "Kanini," sold 9,000 records. His studio became an instant hit, attracting then upcoming stars such as Kakai Kilonzo and Joseph Gicheha. After just over a decade in music, DK had become an irresistible darling of the people in his home village and, inevitably, he says, he found himself entrenched in politics. "I was under pressure to vie for the Gatanga Ward civic seat in 1979. I gave in to the people’s request, contested and won. I was thus forced to mix music with politics until 1992, when I quit politics to fully focus on music," he says.
With the advance in technology that has made video production cheaper, DK has now turned his mind to shooting videos of his past hits, a move he says has been influenced by public demand. He has already produced five videos of his past music, featuring "Kanini," "Ningwite Nawe" (I have fallen for you), "Kamugunda-ini ka Mahua" (In the flower garden), and "I Love You." And looking over his shoulder, DK admits that he is today a worried man - all because of modern trends in the local music industry.
He notes that while in the past he could only record four songs in one year, he is baffled to see some modern artistes enter a recording studio and come out with 12 songs in a day. "It took time to record music in the 1970s through the 1990s as we performed as a hobby and our greatest desire was to hear ourselves on radio. Today, music has been turned into a business and this has badly lowered the quality. It is no a surprise that you need a presenter to say whose song is playing. In the past, the music needed no introduction," DK states.
He is furious about the high level of piracy in the country, saying he was recently shocked to learn that his music was being sold online to Kenyans in the Diaspora without his knowledge. He is also bitter that a local ring tones firm has been illegally selling some of his top songs to mobile phone users for over five years without his consent.
I'm happy to present The Best of DK Vol. 1 (CBS 026), which features some of DK's evergreen hits.
Download The Best of D.K. Vol. 1 as a zipped file here.