By Bobastles Owino Nondih
Published June 28, 2006
Through his East African benga music, Daniel Owino Misiani entertained, seduced and attacked socio-political malaise in Kenya for more than four decades. DO Misiani was creative, incisive, fearless and always invoked poetic license whenever cornered by intolerant political authorities for composing and recording satirical and sarcastic songs that “incited the populace against the government.” Bobastles Owino Nondih pays tribute to this Kenya-based Tanzanian musician who perished in a road accident near his home in Kisumu on May 17, 2006.
DO Misiani may have seen police cells more than he could remember but he was never jailed or subjected to arduous court proceedings as the government appeared to be afraid of his fans, mass media and opposition politicians who always criticised it for “harassment and stifling of creativity.”
Whenever the storm blew over, Misiani would market and distribute the album clandestinely, then hole himself again in a studio only to unleash another vicious attack on the government before sliding away, or facing the police.
The panic on the political leadership of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki was heightened by the fact that Misiani sang in Dholuo, the language of the politically-radical River-Lake Nilotes, Luo, whose brand of politics is broadly influenced by the late Kenya’s first vice-president and “father of opposition”, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Following the December 2002 elections that brought the National Rainbow Coalition of Mwai Kibaki to power, Misiani was arrested in 2003 for releasing Bim en Bim (a baboon will remain a baboon), a song that was perceived to be anti-government for criticising the political leadership for turning against the people who took them to power.
During the clamour for multi-party politics in the early 1990s and especially after the mysterious death of then Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Robert Ouko, President Moi’s government extradited Misiani for fueling political discontent in Kenya. He had warned in his songs that he was “foreseeing a time when leaders will be called upon to explain their actions against the people” and that there would be nowhere for them to hide. He even asked the government to be “open and name Ouko’s killers because the government knew.This time shall be terrible for leaders who have strayed into wicked ways.”
After the failed coup d’etat in 1982, Misiani heaped praises on Hezekiah Ochuka, the failed coup architect who was later hanged, asserting that with the prevailing political trend, “even if Ochuka had not attempted to topple Moi government, someone else would have.”
Between 1972 and 1974, Misiani had problems with President Kenyatta for his composition of Kalamindi in which he talked about Kenyatta’s development policies that benefited only his Central Province and his Agikuyu community.
Whenever any prominent politician died in mysterious circumstances, Misiani was quick to point an accusing finger at the powers-that-be, warning that “time is coming when leaders will be led… It will be wailing and gnashing of teeth for women and children. For Kenya was headed toward becoming a banana republic if God did come to her rescue! And when such a time comes, the lyrics went, perhaps when I am already “asleep” and resting in Shirati, don’t say Owino did not warn you.”
DO Misiani acknowledges fans during one of his charged music concerts
When asked if he was using his creativity for political activism, Misiani would answer, “I just sing about what is happening and if this offends some people, I can do little about it. What is wrong with singing about what’s going wrong in our society?”
|Kenyan politicians Raila Odinga and Peter Anyang Nyong’o were among those who bade farewell to DO Misiani|
When the news of DO Misiani’s death poured out, Raila Odinga, a Liberal Democratic Party’s luminary who campaigned for Kibaki and who is now opposed to his leadership, said: “Misiani’s death is a big blow to Luo-land and all progressive voices of this country. Misiani spoke for the voiceless not only in Luo Nyanza, but entire Africa.I have lost an advisor, inspiration and supporter.”
Odinga later led 11 Luo Members of Parliament and numerous other leaders to Misiani’s burial in his village of birth, Ka-bwana, Shirati, Tanzania.
Some of Misiani’s fans pleaded that he be buried in Kenya because “this is the country he lived in, fought and suffered for. He was one of our greatest sons”. Misiani himself showed love for Kenya in his songs where he had lines like “Kenya Nchi Yangu (Kenya My Country), Kenya I Love You.” In Tribute To Heroes, Misiani says that he is “crying for my country that has gone through much trouble in so short a time.”
Ida Odinga, the Kenya Women Political Caucus chairperson said, “Misiani identified with our struggle and therefore we must give him a decent burial.”
In one of his recent songs, Misiani prophesied that “The way I see things going around in this country, we are likely to get what we have been fighting for. Or we will be running like wild animals.”
Misiani’s did not cow away from sharing his mind on world politics as well. In Wayuak ni Piny (We Cry for The World), he mentions the war in the Gulf region, asking if the world is seeing what US President George Bush and his alliances are doing to the people of Iraq.
He also sang about African tribulations such as hunger and famine, political assassinations, coups, ethnic conflicts, economic ruin and diseases, choosing his subjects from as wide as Kenya to Congo Kinshasa, Egypt to South Africa and Somalia to Liberia. Misiani scorned leaders like the late Idi Amin of Uganda and ridiculed other heads of state in Africa and the world.
On Kenya’s political landscape, Misiani would advise, caution and prophesy through his songs claiming that he only talks about what he has been “guided by God to say. And if you disregard me as just another musician, you will have yourselves to blame when these prophesies come to pass at the appointed time.”
Misiani said, “I am just an ordinary man traversing the world with a guitar like a slave, searching for money and women. Sometimes like a mad man, just to make people happy. A man who will die just like all the others. But a man who will be remembered for what he lived and stood for.”
And talking of women, Misiani’s appetite seemed insatiable. He launched into music by singing descriptive love songs, defining real women whom he loved, and died just after releasing a song that describes the kind of women he hated. Amongst those he loved would fall his 6 wives. The first wife, Peres Nyambori of Ugu village, Tanzania, passed away in 2002, leaving behind five sons and three daughters.
In 1971 Misiani married Philister Adoyo of Kadem, South Nyanza, with whom they had three sons and two daughters, before marrying Seline Achieng of Asembo, Central Nyanza, in 1974 with whom he had three sons and one daughter.
In 1978 Misiani married Susan Atieno of Ugenya, Siaya, who later left after having a daughter.
His fifth wife and who also left, was Mary Achieng of Alego, Siaya, whom he married in 1987 and with whom he had a girl.
Misiani’s sixth and last wife was Beatrice Atieno, a vocalist in the old man’s Shirati DO7 Jazz Band.
But Misiani will perhaps be remembered more and longer for his consistency in articulating traditional cultural values, good governance and morality through his music. Even his style of music for a long time maintained the up-beat benga rhythm where guitar, traditional drums and jingles dominated with vocals arranged in at least three verses giving way to instrumental climax doted with heroic self praises.
But even the strongest of all men bows under the power of love. When Misiani teamed up with Beatrice Atieno (Queen Babito), he adopted the new generation benga that borrows much from the new generation Congolese Lingala tunes where vocals run alongside richly arranged instrumentation with the only beat taking faster pace in phases, doing away with the typical “vocals-instrument-vocals-instrument-vocals-climax type of benga.”
Traditional or hybrid, Misiani could create enjoyable music (whether danceable or listenable)virtually from anything under the sun. He sang about sports, politicians, politics and political parties, climate, situations, events, personalities, cultures, talents, love and death among other numerous themes. What was common in all his themes, however, is the controversy that surrounded his choices and the familiar refrain that “don’t take my words for granted. For one day you will be forced to say we wish we took Owino seriously.”
In one of his all time hits, Isabella Nyar Asembo, Misiani expresses his gratitude to “a medicine woman from Congo who healed the musician when he was bewitched and left for dead. My guitar could have been kept in the granary. Isabella who can take away and give back life itself.”
The song talks about the power of African traditional doctors. But as some people danced and sang along “Ja Nawi Ma Dhako” “the woman witch-doctor”some, especially Luo musicians and their fans, were scared stiff. They saw Misiani as a man who wallowed in voodoo that protected him from the rage of the authorities, enabling him to “abuse them with impunity, and caused deaths of other musicians who appeared to be a challenge to him”.
And so while Misiani was busy poking criticism at leaders, some people were equally accusing him of what he was fighting against, but privately lest they meet “his Tanzanian witchcraft”.
Misiani was a musician who could not be ignored. Friends and foes waited for his next release with bated breath, dying to hear what he would unleash and how authorities would react to it.
Misiani, a rebel who parted ways with his staunch Seventh Day Adventist father before his 20th birthday, appeared to enjoy riding upon fanatical support he got from equally rebellious fans.
Born in 1940, Misiani started playing about with a box guitar brought by his elder brother from world war when he was only nine. He fell in love with it and at 16 he was already an established musician back in Shirati. His popularity was fired up shortly through controversy that saw his instruments confiscated and his hut torched.
“They were anguished that I sang about the beauty of their daughters’, the warm seductive gap between their teeth, their well endowed legs and bosoms, their long giraffe necks and their angelic voice,” he explained.
Misiani moved to South Mara where he performed at night clubs and did manual labour during the day. When he came back thinking the rage was over, girls sneaked from schools to where he put up and home became hell as men were up in arms demonising him for spoiling their women while parents cried for their daughters.
“The villagers teamed up, flashed me from my friend’s house where I hid and smashed my box guitar. I almost lost my life as the villagers hunted me down with dogs, spears, rungus and pangas, Misiani told Omwa Ombara and David Ohito of The Standard newspaper.
But this was just the beginning of a life full of controversies. When Misiani sang a love song in praise of the beauty of a nursing student, who was also a staunch SDA and who was expected to marry a local pastor, the whole village bayed for his blood.
“I was banned from Shirati Ka-Bwana. They cursed me. I knew I would never live at home again.” He said, adding, “I loved the girl. I wanted to marry her but fate had it otherwise. She got married and I never quite got over her. I composed for her a song that was later to become one of my greatest hits, Harusi ya MK. But after that, I stopped singing love songs and chose topical issues.”
It is after this incident that Misiani decided to change base and by 1965 he had teamed up with ‘boys’ like Daudi Kabaka, David Amunga and Mathias Mlamba and formed Victoria Boys Band in Kenya.
But Misiani’s stay at Victoria Boys Band was momentary as in 1972 he formed his own band, Shirati Luo Boys Band. Later, after noting that Luos were spread across Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, and that he was winning fans from outside the Luo community, he again changed the name to Orchestra Shirati D.O 7 Jazz Band, a band with which he recorded more than 300 songs.
Without knowing, Misiani had become an ambassador for the hitherto little known Shirati people. When Misiani was finally taken to his resting place back in Kabwana, the village that banished him over four decades before had a different cry: That they have been left “without a roving ambassador that Misiani was. We could walk around Kenya with a feel that we have a big brother around,” they said.
In fact Misiani was an ambassador who took benga to all continents with enthusiastic fans in all the countries he staged performances.
Misiani’s music was raised a notch higher when Professor Atieno Odhiambo and Wiliam Cohen explained the controversy that surrounded SM Otieno’s burial for their book, Burying SM: The Politics
of Knowledge and the Sociology of Power in Africa, using Misiani’s song on the same matter.
Professor Wolfgang Bender, a music professor at the University of Mainz, Germany, considers Misiani the greatest from the region. “Owino is a great musician from East Africa. He has consistently taken benga to another level, sticking his neck out on topical issues. He deserves to be treated better at home as he is abroad.” Prof. Bender told ArtMatters.Info at a music workshop in Nairobi in March 2006.
In appreciation of Misiani’s following, a vernacular Radio Station dedicated two weeks to his songs and discussion where fans called in live with their condolences. Newspapers dedicated pages and repeat coverage. Some tabloids were entirely filled with Misiani’s stories. But, for a man whose life is not so unknown to the public, perhaps what stood out is the assertion that the word “Benga” was actually the name of Misiani’s mother, where, as for many African achievers, you name your achievements after your mother or grandmother. But whether or not 2006 saw the curtain fall on the man who gave the East African brand of music its international trademark is debatable.
Some of Misiani’s hits included Giko Piny (end of the world), Nyiego Thiro Oganda (jealousy hinders development), Jamoko wange tek (The wealthy are arrogant), Rapar Ouko (In Ouko’s memory), FORD Biro (Forum of Restoration of Democracy is coming), Thim iye Lich (Scary jungle), Bim en Bim, Love is Blind, Pauline Ber Neno, Lala Salama, Amka Salama, Jowi Jamwomo and Teng’ Rarieya.
|Daniel Owino Misiani has joined his ancestors|
Other great benga musicians who died before Misiani are Okatch Biggy, Ouma Omore, Prince Jully, Dr Collela Mazee, George Ramogi, Ochieng Kabasella, Adwera Okello and Prince Kassam (also from Tanzania).
And, with Gare (train)”as he called himself”now sleeps with his ancestors, his fans are wondering if his sons who have taken after him like Robert Onduru (aka Gun B) and Jared Aywayo (in gospel) will keep the engine roaring fearlessly through the jungles of Kenya, Africa and the world.