|Article by Bobastles Owino Nondi
Published February 7, 2007
Kenyan Afro-fusion music neophyte, Olith Ratego, is set to perform at the annual Sauti za Busara (Sounds of Wisdom) Music Festival in Zanzibar on February 10, 2007. Also performing in the world-famous spice islands on the night of February 11 will be another Kenyan social commentator, Charles Odero Ademson, who was previously known as Mr Lololova as he specialised in dancehall-style music before taking up Afro-fusion that has given him the name Makadem or Ohangla Man. BOBASTLES OWINO NONDI reports.
Though a man, Olith Ratego (meaning “the strong hawk” in Dholuo) looks like a woman, talks like a woman, sings like a woman, grooms himself like a woman and, in his debut album, Osuga, addresses issues touching on women.
Born Musa Odhiambo in Siaya District, western Kenya, Olith Ratego grew up around music. His mother, Mary Anyango, was a dirge singer who not only performed at local ceremonies but also entertained dignitaries who at one point included father of the Kenyan nation, the late Jomo Kenyatta.
Despite the strong music influence, the community Ratego grew up in could not support his talent. On several occasions young Ratego often found himself in trouble in school for what he describes as “writing songs in class” and was sent home to dissuade him from the habit.
Apart from his mother who he says “awakened his interest in music,” Ratego would listen to and sing along to songs by South African Miriam Mekeba and Congolese Tshala Mwana. It is therefore not surprising that Ratego sings like a woman, having been mentored by some of Africa’s greatest music divas.
With his school life cut short in standard five (equivalent to grade 5) due to lack of funds, Ratego almost gave up on his dream of becoming a musician on realising that he was not going to get his songs recorded; he went to work with his carpenter uncle as an apprentice.
With savings made from carpentry, he produced a song, Mamano Daa, which was released on radio. But despite the massive airplay, fortune remained elusive and Ratego had to return to the village.
As fate would have it, in 2003 Ratego heard of a show in his home town, Siaya, by the self-proclaimed His Majesty the King, Mighty King Kong, a reggae musician who also hails from the same region. After curtain-raising for King Kong where he got impressive response from the crowd, King Kong took him to Nairobi as one of his singers. It is from his links with King Kong that he was introduced to Tabu Osusa of Ketebul Productions who was to later midwife Osuga in 2005.
In the 12-song Osuga, Ratego, Ratego does a rendition of some mid and late 20th century dodo–solo-styled traditional Luo music where the soloist is accompanied by ajawo or gara percussions and a group of vocalists–songs. These were the songs that reigned during inter-school sports events and music festivals in the traditional music categories.
In his hybrid production, Ratego replaces Luo asilili with modern flute that he marries with guitars, jingles, live percussions and harmonic Ohangla (a drum-like instrument with an opening at the lower end and membraned with alligator skin at the upper end which is slapped by hands to produce distinctive rhythm.
Ratego engages in strong social messages. In the melodious Osuga, the title song, Ratego–like Congolese Moreno Batamba’s Orchestra Moja One of the 1980s–sings that women are ungrateful no matter what a man does for them.
“Even after consuming a whole cow you have struggled to provide, a woman will ungratefully remark: ‘What is it that I eat from you that was never available at our home?’ A woman has no respect for her husband.”
Like Moreno and Moja One’s Mwanamke Hatosheki, Osuga catalogues what a man goes through just to satisfy the insatiable desires of his woman. After doing everything in his power but failing to satiate her numerous wants and needs, the man eventually resorts to crime: he steals a neighbour’s chicken but is caught and beaten thoroughly by a mob; he peddle drugs but is arrested by the police and sent to prison.
Other love songs on Osuga are Josefina that Ratego–for reasons only best known to himself–attempts to deliver in Luluyia with dismal outcome; and Juddi–that he attempts to “rap” in Kiswahili to the Taarab drum beats.
Mamano Daa, the song which would give a hint as to why the singer calls himself Olith or hawk, tells the story of many boys growing up in neighbourhoods that always suspect them of any mischief.
He protests: “OK, you say that I am the one who does all these bad things; I impregnate girls, and steal food, chicken and cows, and slash people at night. But where are you when I do all these?”
Ratego or the strong one, also addresses issues that most people shy away from.
Like the song Osuga, Nyiri Gi turns the sharp blade on “today’s women”. “They have no respect for the community, their husbands, their parents or parents-in-law. And if they dress, they don strange things that don’t cover their bodies; they indulge in prostitution, breed jealousy and laugh like empty heads, sluts or T-9s.”
Ok Mit talks about people who dance profanely to music during live performances. “The women are dancing wickedly in this game, the girls are dancing improperly in this game, the men who are drinking are dancing disrespectfully in this game and children are also dancing irreverently in this game! It is not exciting.”
Jawanya or the glutton, which was traditionally sang at feasts and happy ceremonies such as marriage, and danced to by women wearing Owalo (sisal) skirts and men wearing animal skins and brandishing clubs as its name suggests, admonishes greedy people to steer clear of this unbecoming behaviour.
The flute used in this song replaces Tung or the horn, while percussions replace Orutu, the one stringed instrument played skillfully by rubbing a bow on a chord that resonates through a minute drum-like opening.
Also in this category of chiding the greedy is Jodongo, which categorically targets older people who are expected to be good role models but instead are “as greedy as hyenas, worshiping food, drinks and moving about with girls their daughters’ age.” But here Ratego appears to borrow danceable fast-paced guitar lines, percussions and flute from the Congolese.
Awuoro laments chronic unemployment and tribulations of job-seekers. In what might be a “Thank You” song to King Kong and other people who have held his hand as he groped in the dark seeking the way out, Ratego says: “Blood relations have failed to help so many people. You never know who will help you in this world!”
In this dirge-like song Ratego employs lone and pronounced Ohangla beats and drums, and flutes and jingles mostly associated with Cushitic or Indian traditional ceremony songs.
Twendeni Kwa Shamba and Wamama are social activism songs.
With well loved Osuga album to his credit, Ratego has come a long way from his days as a carpenter’s apprentice and back up musician.
Osuga is produced by Ketebul Productions and distributed by AI Records.
Additional reporting by Ogova Ondego