Born in 1930s, Ogoya Nengo, the priced gem of original dodo music in Kenya, appears to have gone full circle. After more than half a century on stage, Nengo appears to be just starting her career; singing her way into the hearts of many in the villages and in grand cities around the world. BOBASTLES NONDI chats with ahead of her performance at Goethe-Institut in Nairobi on April 4, 2009.
Who is Ogoya Nengo?
Ogoya Nengo is a musician, performer, mother, grandmother, caregiver and wife even though my husband has since died.
Is Ogoya Nengo your real name?
My name is Anastasia Oluoch Akumu. Akumu is my husband. Ogoya Nengo is my stage name and also how I am referred to in the village where I am married. Ogoya is derived from Magoya, the village where I was born, which is near River Nzoia in Nyanza Province of western Kenya.
You know, where I come from women are rarely referred to by their names. People call you by the name of your clan, tribe, village, district, physical features of your birthplace like mountains, lake or plains, your prominent relatives or prominent people in your village, and later, by your children. It is considered disrespectful to call a woman by her real name where she is married.
Nengo on the other hand simply means “the price”. Ogoya Nengo therefore should mean “the priced daughter of Magoya”.
Why are you referred to as “the priced one”?
Firstly, I am a woman and every woman has some value. How high or how low your value is depends on how you value yourself. So for me, even as a young girl I knew I was highly priced. Secondly, right from my early days, to get me to perform at your function you had to pay something. And in the villages, any little price placed on an item could still be perceived to be expensive because of the general poverty of the populace.
When did you discover your talent?
Long time ago, when I was just a little girl! That is more than 50 years ago. As little girls we would accompany our mothers or older relatives to the river to draw water or bathe. Because we were actually merely on a joy trip, we played, sang and danced along the way and in the sands of the river before or after bathing. As kids we could sing our hearts out and dance to our last breath.
We could also go to the fields to look after cattle and as the cattle grazed, all we did was play, sing and dance. All through there was a general agreement that my voice stood out amongst the other girls, some of who are my sisters and who also grew up to become great dodo singers. So by the time I reached puberty I was already in a position to sing at public functions. This was in the 1950s.
So is it right to say that you discovered yourself through childhood plays?
Not really! Even as children we were not just noise-makers. We used to imitate older women and men who sang at funerals, drinking parties, marriage ceremonies and many other family and social functions in the village. Among these were my mother and father who were both accomplished singers in their own right. So I must say singing is in our blood. I am the last born and all my five sisters and the only brother were performers.
Should that mean that dodo singing is something that is widely practised by various people in that part of the world?
Yes and no! Yes because as I grew up and even till later in the 1980s, there used to be many such functions at which performers of various forms were invited. We even had competitions. The people were generally contented. So the land was sprinkled with traditional performers. But things have since changed. There are now very few functions to perform at. This has pushed the competition much higher, which in turn has pushed some performers off the stage.
What has made you to stand out all through?
My voice and the composition of my songs! You see, you could be having a great voice but if what you sing about is of no relevance to the community, or if you are using foul language, people will tend to keep away from you. Yet, as a dodo singer, I know that it is a certain class of people that listens to my music. I have to speak their language. I have to address their issues. I have to dance to their style. And I must say dodo fans are a very special breed in society.
Traditional music, especially of the Luo people, is associated with foul language and some degree of vulgarity. Could dodo be very different?
It depends on where you are coming from and the function at which you are. Everything is viewed and judged in context. Dodo is therefore not any different. You just have to blend your thoughts with that of your audience at any particular time.
What do you sing about?
I sing about everything! I sing about life as I see and live it. I sing about people as I meet and interact with them. I sing about politics as it unfolds before me. I sing about everything, including the rise to prominence of US President Barack Hussein Obamas; Obama wuodwa (Obama, our son). I sing about things as they happen around me.
Which are some of your favourite titles and what do they talk about?
Gare Matatu, which means motor car, particularly the ones that were infamous on Kenyan roads in which passengers faced each other from the sides, and whose entry was from behind, highlights the dark side of public transport and the harassment that women go through in such an uncontrolled society. Passengers entered these vans from the back, and if you are woman, the male tout or conductor would push your behind as you bent over to get in. Sometimes the van is filled to the door, with women’s behinds pushed outside, and men hanging prostrate rubbing themselves against the women’s behinds as the van swerved and bumped along. Yet these are men who could be your sons or your sons-in-law. It still happens to date.
Dhiang Okelo Masira (the cow is the cause of all these suffering) talks about the plight of women in marriage and how they have over the years been turned into commodities traded with cows. Once a cow has been paid as your bride price, you cease to become your own being and instead turn into an item for man, who often than not, treats you like a door mat. So instead of staying in the marriage for your own happiness and family, you stay there simply because of the cow which probably was long slaughtered or sold by your people.
Most dodo singers are confined to the villages. How did you find your way to the city?
Again, my voice and coincidence! People seek me for performance at funeral ceremonies, weddings and other social ceremonies, political functions and campaigns, graduation ceremonies and many others. So there was this day that I was invited to entertain guest-of-honour (son-in-law) in Alego, within Siaya District, and as fate would have it, the guest-of-honour turned out to be a Nairobi-based music producer, William Tabu Osusa of Katebul production house.
Little did I know that I was performing for my next boss! In fact if I had known I would have performed in the best way possible. So, after this meeting Tabu was to come back to the village to look for the old woman who sang her way into his heart and asked if we could record with him. I saw a new world opening for me.
While at Katebul Studios at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, another would-be-suitor in the name of Opiyo Okatch, a contemporary dancer, heard my beautiful voice while he was rehearsing his dance and fell in love with it immediately. He thought that his dance would even be better if he would be dancing to that voice. So he approached me and, being the musician that I am, I gave him a chance and, well, Tabu Osusa understands.
And things are even getting better as you can see I am flanked by younger generation of men: Olith Ratego and Makadem (the two Ketebul Afro-fusion musicians who are currently guiding Ogoya Nengo in the city and acting as her interpreters during her Geothe-Institut tour).
With Katebul and Opiyo Okatch I have toured Kenya (especially Nairobi), Uganda, South Africa, Mozambique, Germany, France and Brazil. I have also recorded an album with Katebul and it should be out soon. They have revived the girl in me.
With that album out I hope we will also be able to be produced in video because I also want to see myself performing on the screen like other musicians.
What has changed over the years in your world of music?
So much has changed in the music world. For example, when we started, we were not being paid directly. Instead, we would be mobbed with tokens of appreciation from our listeners. These could be grains of maize, sorghum, millet, peas and the like; goats, sheep, cows and bulls and things like those. Then things started changing and we started asking for these things upfront. Right now we are paid money.
Another thing which has happened is that so much noise has been introduced into music. For instance, we have always had Ohangla, Tung, Orutu, Nyatiti and even gramophone which were loud enough. Yet we could still sing with our pure voices alongside these instruments on a competitive platform where everyone was competing for audience and even win the attention of the majority. We could still be heard clearly in the midst of these forms of music. This is because everyone was playing music and the audience was so much concerned with the music quality, not quantity.
But nowadays you can be invited to such a platform only to find that your competition has brought truck-loads of sound system that, when played, does not only consume your voice, but also leaves your head, heart and stomach turned upside down and paining. That is noise.
So many things have also been introduced into our music. Dodo was only played with Poko (gourd), Peke(bottle tops), Kayamba and Whistle. But I am told most of these and many other effects can now be produced from one machine, meaning that some of our people who play these instruments could be rendered useless if we go that way.
What has remained the same?
The audience! Whether in the villages of Kenya or in the big cities of the world, you still find a passionate audience that yearns for your music and pays attention to you.
What would you like changed as you continue with music?
The lifestyle of musicians in my category! You see, when people see you traveling all over, flying in planes, interacting with the high and mighty, black and white, they expect you to have money. So much money that you should be in a position to share with them! Yet this is not the case.
Again, when people come to visit me at my home they should find a beautiful home that befits the status of a musician they hear and read about. Yet this is not the case.
How should this be changed in your opinion?
By getting for us many jobs and many tours from where we can get good money. This way I will not have to worry about cultivating my land as I would employ someone to do it while I concentrate on music. We can even do with a band full of traditional instruments that we use for our shows, and are hired out when we are not busy.
I think people can just love watching old women entertainers whenever they want to go back into the day, for the older ones. The younger ones can also walk down memory lane, watching and listening to the music of their fore fathers and mothers.
Is there anything negative about music?
It all depends on how you treat yourself off the stage and on stage. If you treat yourself in a manner that portrays you as negative, music will be negative to you. But if you take it seriously as a career, music will equally treat you with respect.
But yes, all along people have viewed musicians, especially women, with scorn. But that is where the difference comes. Traditional music is often widely treated with respect and dignity. And dodo in particular has a unique classy audience. We give a special entertainment to special people at special occasions. That earns us some level of respect, too.
What should we expect from you in the coming days?
Music, music and more music! I am just getting better!