By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published August 20, 2012
Whenever the question of why music by Kenyans hardly makes it to international charts comes up, most musicians are quick to say that the limit comes because they sing in Kiswahili and sheng, languages understood mainly by Kenyans. But is the language in which music is delivered everything?
Miriam Makeba, the late South African singer who was referred to as Mama Africa, sang in local South African languages but her music appealed to a worldwide audience. The same could be said of the late Brenda Fassie, also of South Africa, Senegalese Youssou N’Dour, and Malian Salif Keita. Malaika, a song by the late Fadhili William of Kenya, is an evergreen tune that is heard on stages all over the world.
Good music is identified by much more than just the words or the language in which it is crafted. For a song to appeal, various elements “pace, tune, harmony” come into play. How to Write on 1001 Subjects!, a manual for writers, critics and journalists by Ogova Ondego, says good music entertains humans besides enabling them to control their emotions and also serving as life’s sound track while people drive, date, or study.
The ability to appeal to the audience is also a quality that sets apart musicians like Rokia Traore who despite singing most of her songs in Bamanan and a few others in Bambara she has been invited to perform with her band in many festivals around the world and has gone on to win many international awards. Other celebrated artists from Africa include Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Baaba Maal, Koffi Olomide, and Angelique Kidjo.
Music composers who do not see language as a limitation stand a better chance of producing songs that can still appeal to listeners many years after they are composed and released and in a wider geographical sphere; a big contrast to what happens especially here in Kenya. A musician releases a song and he/she achieves the clichÃ©d overnight celebrity status, the song receives some air play on local radio stations, various newspapers contact the musician for interviews and after two or three weeks of this “cloud nine” status, the song is forgotten and if the musician doesn’t release another song soon enough, he too is forgotten. That is a sad state of affairs because music, like any other form of art, should outlive the composer; it should be able to be appreciated beyond the hype that comes with a newly released song.
Afrodizzia, a television show that airs weekly on Citizen TV of Kenya, could be used as proof that good music stands out regardless of the language in which it is performed. The show features music in all types of languages from all over Africa and yet it is still highly appreciated.
Music, like the mass media, is a very powerful tool; indeed, Ogova Ondego writes in How to Write on 1001 Subjects! that music not only interprets and defines life but is also a powerful socialising authority in the 21st century. For instance, he contends, music shapes things like language, hair and clothing styles.
“As such,” Ondego writes, “musicians can be potent teachers, preachers and evangelists. When we talk of songs or music, we are talking about a very powerful and influential tool used by the media to either pass on information, or brainwash the mind of the audience and especially the young people.”
Good music makes the human society lively and is a source of entertainment during our leisure time. In addition it is a source of educative information which ensures sound moral development in a human person. One should however, be aware of music which encourages questionable morals.
In a nutshell the position of music in the modern society cannot be compromised. The challenge is for the composers to recognise their prominent position in the society and use it for the betterment of the society.