Aziz Abdi Kilambo & Orchestra Benga Africa - Talanta
Reader/listener Tim Clifford has a big interest in East African music and is responsible for two of the best installments in Matsuli's late, great "African Serenades" series. Tim's working on a detailed discography of East African music and I was happy to pass on to him a listing of titles in my collection. In response to one of these, he wrote, ". . .I can't wait for you to post the single by Brother Charlly Computer and the Gloria Kings as it just might be the best band name ever!"
Of course, I agree. I'm happy to post Brother Charlly, and why don't we listen to a few more Kenyan 45s while we're at it? Most of these are from around the same period, the early to middle '80s, and they are among the last singles pressed in that country (record piracy pretty much killed the format within a few years).
I know absolutely nothing about Brother Charlly and his band. They apparently didn't make many waves, but "Goodbye Hully!" and "Achieng Born-Zo" (Brother Charlly BRO 1) are prime examples of the benga sound, then at the peak of its popularity:
Brother Charlly Computer & the Gloria Kings - Goodbye Hully!
Brother Charlly Computer & the Gloria Kings - Achieng Born-Zo
One thing the Victoria "B" Kings cannot be accused of is being one-hit wonders. Together with D.O. Misiani's Shirati Jazz they were the foremost proponents of benga in its salad days. The Mighty Kings of Benga (Globestyle CDORBD 079, 1993) is a great collection of their 45s. Here are two side of a single (Pamba Oluoro Chilo PAC 14) that is not on that release:
Victoria "B" Kings - Leo Odondo Mak-Awiti
Victoria "B" Kings - Wabed Gi Hera Chuth
Barrier 4's version of benga (this example being Elimu ELM 06) is somewhat more subdued than the above examples, and is also in Swahili rather than Luo:
Barrier 4 - Gharama Haihesabeki Pts. 1 & 2
I understand that the Mombasa Roots Band are one of those Kenyan groups that cater primarily to the tourist trade. Here's their infectious update of the coastal chakacha style (Polydor POL 561):
Mombasa Roots Band - Disco Cha-Ka-Cha Pts. 1 & 2
Malako, recorded by Samba Mapangala & Orchestra Virunga in the early '80s, is rightly considered an African classic (it was reissued in 1990 as Virunga Volcano [Sterns/Earthworks CDEWV 16]). Mapangala, who is originally from the Congo, had a thriving career in East Africa throughout the decade. Around 1990 he left for greener pastures abroad, first in Paris and more recently in the U.S. Sadly, his more recent efforts, recorded with Congolese expatriates, lack the spark of his earlier recordings. "Kweya" (Editions Virunga EDV 005) represents him at the peak of his Kenyan success. Even the cheap-sounding drum machine (something I normally abhor) is in good form here:
Samba Mapangala & Orchestra Virunga - Kweya Pts. 1 & 2
To close out, let's journey about ten years earlier than the previous records. Gabriel Omolo & the Apollo Komesha's record "Lunch Time" not only received a gold disc in Kenya in 1973, it was a smash throughout Africa. Here's the B-side of the Nigerian pressing (Philips West Africa APL 7-618). And if you want to hear "Lunch Time," you can get it on Kenya Dance Mania (Sterns/Earthworks STEW 24CD):
Gabriel Omolo & the Apollo Komesha - Tutakula Vya Ajabu
Update: Tim Clifford's two "African Serenades" compilations are available again, for a limited time, here. Get 'em while they're hot!
Update 2: They're already gone. Sorry!
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've written here before that twenty years ago I accumulated an archive of about 24 hours worth of East African music on 10" tape reels that I finally got around to digitizing a year and a half ago. These records were loaned to me by friends from that part of the world, most of whom have moved on to other cities, and cover a gamut of languages and styles.
Digitizing this material was fairly straightforward, but actually processing, organizing and making sense of the collection has been a daunting task, one that I've pursued in whatever spare time I've had. It's complicated by the fact that the various genres and artists are scattered among the tapes willy-nilly.
Some of the more refreshing of these tracks have been the ones recorded by Kamba musicians. The Akamba, related to the Kikuyu, are said to number about four million and live in the south-central region of Kenya just east of Nairobi (refer to the map on the right; click to enlarge). While contemporary Kamba music is often labeled "Benga" or "Cavacha," it's characterized by its relative simplicity and straightforwardness. Doug Paterson had this to say in World Music: The Rough Guide (Rough Guides, 1994):
. . . Although distinctive melodies distinguish Kamba pop from other styles of benga, there are other special Kamba features. One is the delicate, flowing, merry-go-round-like rythm guitar that underlies many Kamba arrangements. While the primary guitar plays chords in the lower range, the second guitar plays a fast pattern of notes that mesh with the rest of the instrumentation to fill in the holes. This gentle presence is discernible in many of the recordings of the three most famous Kamba groups: The Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters, Peter Mwambi and his Kyanganga Boys and Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, led, until 1987, by Kakai Kilonzo.It turns out that I have quite a few tracks by the Kilimambogos, almost none of which are on the two recent compilations Best of Kakai Vol. 1 and Best of Kakai Vol. 2, so you can assume I'll be devoting a future post exclusively to them. Tunes by various other Kamba musicians (most recorded around 1983) add up to about three hours' worth of music, and the ones I'm posting here are a representative sample. If you like these I'll be happy to post more in the future.
Back in the early '80s Kenya was under the sway of the imported Congolese musicians, Virunga, Baba Gaston and the like, and the various Swahili "big bands" like Mlimani Park and the Wanyika groups. Kamba music and the other "vernacular" styles were part of an older, less-sophisticated tradition that had its roots in the '60s and earlier, as described by John Storm Roberts in the liner notes to his compilation Before Benga Vol. 2: The Nairobi Sound (Original Music OMCD 022):
. . .I soon found that this was very much a people's music. The hip young Kenyans moving into government and the professions were uneasy with its reminder of the Swahili-speaking, makeshift past, more happy with the sophistication of Zaïrean music and English-language pop and rock 'n' roll. True, compared with the work of the great names of Kinshasa, the discs cranked out of the scruffy record stores of River Road, down near the country bus station, were simple and sometimes seemed naïvely optimistic. But for the majority of Kenyans whose English was functional at best, they reflected day-to-day life with a plain-man exuberance that was very like their audience: lacking the glamour of West or Central Africa, but in their own way wholly admirable. . .In this light I regret that I've been unable to find anyone to translate the lyrics of these records for us. I'm sure they would be even more pleasurable if we knew what they were about! As it is there's plenty of wonderful singing and guitar-picking for our musical enjoyment.
The Kalambya Boys, led by Onesmus Musyoki and Joseph Mutaiti, were one of the primary Kamba bands of the 1980s. Unfortunately I have nothing by the naughty Kalambya Sisters, the Boys' female auxiliary, who caused a sensation with their 1983 release "Katelina," but there is a good track by them on the compilation The Nairobi Beat: Kenyan Pop Music Today (Rounder CD 5030). Here are the A & B sides of Utanu UTA 108 by the Kalambya Boys:
Onesmus Musyoki & Kalambya Boys - Katelesa
Onesmus Musyoki & Kalambya Boys - Kyonzi Kya Aka
And here are sides A & B of Utanu UTA 113:
The Kalambya Boys - Eka Nzasu
The Kalambya Boys - Mwendwa Losi
The Kyanganga Boys Band, led by Peter Mwambi, have also been quite popular. Doug Paterson writes that Mwambi's ". . . musically simple, 'pound 'em out,' pulsing-bass drum style may not have enough musical variation to keep non-Kamba speakers interested." Listen to these sides from Boxer BX 018 and judge for yourself:
Peter Mwambi, Charles Mutiso & Kyanganga Boys Band - Beatrice
Peter Mwambi, Charles Mutiso & Kyanganga Boys Band - Mwenyenyo
From Mwambi BIMA 002, here are two sides that Mwambi apparently recorded without the Kyanganga Boys:
Peter Mwambi - Matatu
Peter Mwambi - Mueni
Of course, the Kamba music scene has produced nuemerous other artists, including the Kaiti Brothers, who give us these refreshing tunes (from Kaiti Bro's KAITI 04):
Kaiti Brothers - Ndungata
Kaiti Brothers - Nau Wakwa "J"
The Ngoleni Brothers, led by Dickson Mulwa, a Kalambya Boys alumnus, also produced numerous hits, including these, side A & B of the Ngoleni Brothers Boys single DICK 02:
Professor Dick Mutuku Mulwa & Ngoleni Brothers Band - Kavinda Kakwa
Professor Dick Mutuku Mulwa & Ngoleni Brothers Band - Ngilesi
"Kibushi" was a dance craze imported from Congo/Zaire, the most important exponent of which was the Orchestre Hi-Fives. Here's a Kamba version of Kibushi which doesn't bear much resemblence to the original style. These tracks are the A & B sides of Akamba AS 801. I know nothing of Fadhili Mundi & the Ithanga Brothers, but these are certainly enjoyable tunes, especially the delightful "Wakwa Sabethi."
Fadhili Mundi & Ithanga Brothers - Mzee Tamaa
Fadhili Mundi & Ithanga Brothers - Wakwa Sabethi
Fans of East African 45s know that looking at their colorful labels is almost as much fun as listening to them. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to provide you with scans of these recordings, but KenTanza Vinyl has an excellent gallery for your enjoyment. The picture at the top of this post is entitled "My Neighborhood" and is by a Tanzanian artist named Mkumba. Explore more of his work and that of a number of other excellent East African artists here.
Major players in the '70s and '80s music scene in Kenya, Kakai Kilonzo and his band the Kilimambogo Brothers were one of the few benga groups whose popularity crossed tribal lines. It helped that they recorded in Swahili as well as their native Kamba language, but the quality of their musical output no doubt played a major role as well.
Kilonzo's beginnings in life were modest indeed. His daughter Anita Kilonzo writes:
Kilonzo's talents as a musician soon won him renown. He recorded "Kaylo Kyakwa na Mary" in 1974 and with the Kilimambogo Brothers scored many hits like "Baba Mkwe," "August One" and "Mama Sofia." Many of these recordings are collected in two CDs, Best of Kakai Vol. 1 (Shava Musik SHAVACD011-2, 2002) and Best of Kakai Vol. 2 (Shava Musik SHAVACD017, 2006) and an LP that was released in 1987, Simba Africa (Popular African Music PAM 03). As far as I can tell, these compilations are all out of print.
Kakai Kilobzo was born in1954 at Kilimambogo in Machakos district. He attended Primary education at Kilimambogo in 1962 to 1965. He definitely did not finish it because of lack of school fees. Kakai then sought for cheap labour like herding in to help his poor family. These continued for a duration of five years.
In 1970 he was employed in Thika town at farms that dealt with pineapple plantations as a harvester.
While in Thika, Kakai made single stringed guitars which were made of tin, due to his interest in music. He played then during his leisure time in the farms. Through his peanut earnings he managed to by a box guitar. He used to entertain local people at night during his off-time; which is termed as Tumisonge in Kamba.
Three nights a week 20 Kenyan soldiers take a break from the rigorous routine that defines their military life from sunrise to sunset. On these nights they let another side of their personalities take over as they mingle with civilians through music. Hands trained to hold weapons hold guitars, trumpets, drumsticks and microphones. Feet accustomed to marching in formation and jumping in and out of trenches tap lightly, keeping beat to the music.
Voices conditioned to bark out orders in military drills croon words that have entertained generations. And the faces that seldom crack the faintest of smiles soften and become warm. During the two hours on stage there are no ranks, no obligatory salutes. During this rehearsal, united by their common love of music, they are all equal.
The Ikenga Super Stars of Africa, led by Victor Okoroego, weigh in here with a funky slice of Ikwokilikwo. The Ikengas were born in 1973 as "The Nkengas" when they split from bandleader Osita Osadebe, in the process hijacking the master tape that became the legendary Nkengas in London (Orbitone OTO 06, 1973). This was but a prelude, though, to the group's massive hit, 1975's Ikenga in Africa (Rogers All Stars ASALP 2).*
The band continued kickin' it at least until 1984, when its output seemed to trickle out with the rather weak War Against Indiscipline (Rogers All Stars RASLPS 065). In the meantime the Ikengas established themselves as one of the most beloved Nigerian groups of all time, not only in their homeland but across Africa and in Europe as well. African music fans were delighted when a collection of Ikenga recordings, Great Hits Vol. 1 (Rogers All Stars RASCD 018), was finally issued on CD a couple of years ago.
Side 1 of this LP, Late Celestine Ukwu Special (Roger All Stars ASALPS 12, 1977), pays tribute to the great highlife musician Celestine Ukwu, who died in 1977 in an auto accident. It opens with the refrain "ariri," meaning "grief" and continues, "...we go about our lives but we don't know how close death is... Life is pleasurable but death spoils everything... The death that took Celestine Ukwu did something terrible to us." "Ego di Nogwu" on Side 2 is actually mis-spelled. It should be "Ego di Nugwo" ("There's Never Enough Money"). The refrain repeated throughout the song, "Ego siri ike, ego di nugwo," means roughly "Money is hard to get, there's never enough money." The song continues in that vein, stating approximately, "I'm not going to steal for money, I'm not going to kill for money... Make sure your hands are clean."
Neither of these tunes is on Great Hits Vol. 1. Enjoy! And once again thanks to my wife Priscilla for interpreting the lyrics.
Ikenga Super Stars of Africa - Late Celestine Ukwu Special
Ikenga Super Stars of Africa - Ego di Nogwu
* Which you can download here. And in case you were wondering, Ikwokilikwo (or Ikwokirikwo) refers to a fast-paced form of highlife popularized by Oliver de Coque and Godwin Kabaka Opara (of the Oriental Brothers and later Kabaka Guitar Band) in addition to the Ikengas. A product of the confluence of Congo music, benga from East Africa and the Igbo cultural renaissance that took place following the Biafra war, Ikwokilikwo was quite the rage in Nigeria in the late '70s. A discography of the Ikenga Super Stars is available here.
First of all, let me introduce myself: My name is John Beadle, and I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. From January 1985 to June 2001 I produced and hosted a one-hour program, "African Beat," on WYMS 88.9 FM in Milwaukee.
For a number of years I have posted my discographies of African musicians on Dr. Toshiya Endo's African Music Home Page. I've also compiled a couple of "African Serenades" for Matsuli Music and contributed music to Comb and Razor. More than one person has suggested that I set up my own audioblog and after some resistance to the idea (I've got a lot of other irons in the fire) I couldn't think of one good reason why I shouldn't.
The thing that's so wonderful about the Internet is its democratic nature. We all contribute what we know - there are no "stars." I've learned so much from some of the other blogs that are out there and I hope to pass on some of the knowledge that I've gained over the years. Likewise I've heard some wonderful new sounds and hope to return the favor with selections from my collection.
The name "Likembe" refers to the Congolese version of the thumb-piano, an instrument that can be found across Africa, that in various versions is called the mbira, sanza, kalimba, ubo, etc. While the name is Congolese, that country probably won't be the main focus here; for one thing, there are quite a few places on the Web that deal with Congolese music already. I expect to spend a lot of time on Nigeria, as that's my main area of interest, especially Igbo music, but my interests run the gamut: Kenyan and Tanzanian music, Ethiopian funk and Senegalese mbalax, you name it. Maybe I can shed some light on some of the more obscure, little-known corners of African music, but I expect I'll learn a lot from you, too. And I reserve the right to write about things other than African music!
Like many, I was intrigued by the sounds of the Afro-Rock group Osibisa when I first heard them in the early 1970s. What really got me going, though, was, purely by chance, listening to Fela Ransome-Kuti's Live with Ginger Baker in 1973. Maybe you know the feeling: from that point there was no going back, as I spent every dollar I could spare on these strange and wonderful sounds from the African continent - Afrobeat, Soukous, Highlife, Benga, Makossa, Kwaito. . . and so on and on.
When I started "African Beat" in 1985 it seemed only proper that I should open my first show with the opening track from that 1972 Fela LP, which appropriately enough is entitled "Let's Start!" Likewise it seems a perfect tune to initiate this blog. Let's start!
Fela Ransome-Kuti & Africa '70 - Let's Start!