By Bamuturaki Musinguzi
Published March 11, 2011
Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, a 19-track multi-media production containing a sampling of Kikuyu popular music through several decades and genres–from the blending of the Karing’aring’a (traditional rattles) with the accordion in the 1940s, to the imitation of yodeling and country and western guitar in the 1950s–has been released in Nairobi, Kenya.
These are songs about love lost and love found; personal sacrifice in the struggle for independence; traditions altered and abandoned with the adoption of urban living; the challenges of survival in a money economy; songs in praise of honesty and hard work. Songs about life.
The narrative booklet, music CD and documentary DVD has been complied and produced by Ketebul Music, a Non-Governmental Organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya. This, Ketebul says, is a non-commercial venture and all the proceeds from this multi-media package will go into further research, development and documentation of East African music.
The recording contains Sammy Ngaku’s 1948 love song, Rosanna (praising a woman called Rosanna and sang in the yodeling style of early country and western music); Mwangi wa Maguru’s 1957 song, Ndinakuruma, (about a jilted lover’s advice to his girl friend in which he bemoans the fact that she has left him and succumbed to immorality in the big city. He urges her to shun her evil ways and get back to decent living. All in good faith. Ndinakuruma: (I have not insulted you); and Roman Warigi’s 1962 song, Kunda Ruru (about a carefree drunkard singing of his drinking prowess, proclaiming that he has enough money to buy himself several rounds. If he gets drunk he will just lie down where he is, fall asleep, and start drinking again as soon as he gets up in the morning!).
In his 1966 song, “Ndari Ikumi na Inya,” Joseph Kamaru advises young men to be wary of promiscuous young as an example. He discovered to his horror, that when she called him “ndari” or “darling” he was in fact one of fourteen, hence the song’s title.
SK Kimani, in his 1979 song, Rugano Rwa Naivasha, narrates to his friend Jimmy how he was raised on the shores of Lake Naivasha by his parents, who were fishermen. He tells Jimmy how he met a girl called Jane and the woes he faced when he was knifed in the ribs by a jealous lover. By the grace of God he survived the attack and decided to go back home to Naivasha to be comforted by his father and mother.
Tiga Kumute,a song released by JB Maina in 1992, urges a young man to marry a woman who has another man’s child. Love will prevail and it may even mean an added blessing to the home.
Roman Warigi’s 1962 song, Muhiki, is a tragicomic tale of a prospective bridegroom who writes a letter inviting his ex-girl friend to his wedding only to panic at the last minute when he finds the ex more alluring than his chosen bride. Angry and betrayed, the ex declares she will never speak to him again. His belated request to the preacher to wed him to both women is flatly denied!
With more than 3,000 compositions performed in at least three languages and in an array of styles and genres, Joseph Kamaru is the king of Kikuyu popular music. Kamaru is an institution. Over the last 45 years, his performances modes cover Nguchu, Mumburo, Nguru, Muthirigu, Mwomboko, Njukia, and Mucung’wa, in addition to other styles such as reggae, calypso, rumba and the local benga.
Others are DK Mwai (Daniel Kamau wa Maria), Christopher Daniel Mwaura Kiratu (CDM Kiratu), Jimmy wa Yuni, Pius Mwangi Mukira (Pius Kihingo), James Wahome Maingi, Mwania and Kakai Kilonzo. James Wahome Maingi (Kimandu Gikiuma) feels that the current music scene is dull with live performances replaced by playback machines.
The heart of the production of Kikuyu popular music is Nairobi’s River Road. River Road became the socio-cultural capital of modern Kikuyu music following the Africanisation policy that is often associated with the late Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano who was then the minster for commerce and industry immediately after independence in 1963 and in the years that followed.
On River Road, commerce and entertainment became two sides of one coin and, over the years, ingenious musicians like Joseph Kamaru, Nderitu Munene, and Albert Gacheru have run some of the recording studios on this street. Today, River Road’s music shops have grown tenfold and offer a wide variety of entertainment products. It is also associated with Kenya’s budding ethnic language film industry, which has been popularly dubbed “Riverwood.”
Throughout the 1980s, Kikuyu popular music became increasingly sophisticated and one could now see fully equipped bands with a complete set of five guitars on stage, accompanied by drums and rattles. The music also spread from its roots in Kiambu, Nyeri, Muranga and Nairobi, to other places such as Nyandarua and Nakuru.
The spread of Kikuyu pop music was partly made possible at the time by the arrival of the audio cassette which had replaced the vinyl record. Production not only became cheaper and faster but also made it possible for the establishment of more and less sophisticated recording studios, a number of which were owned and managed by Africans, many of them Gikuyu. But this was also a field day for the music pirates because it was easy to duplicate the audio cassette tapes.
Hardstone’s (Harrison Ngungiri) hit “Uhiki” did not enter the market as hardcore Kikuyu pop, it was in fact one of Kenya’s pioneer hip hop anthems but it did also succeed in pushing the imaginative boundaries of what could be done with ethnic folksongs.
Another interesting experiment with the form of Kikuyu popular music consists of the use of reggae guitar riffs and their accompanying rhythmic drum beats in Simon Kihara’s 1998 hit, “Mwigerekaino” (copy-cutting).
Joroge Benson (Chris Kariuki)’s 1999 number “Gichichio,” made a bold attempt at combining rap and benga.
As if to push this idea of rap in Kikuyu music a little further, Alex Wainaina using the stage name Ndarlin P recorded the song “4 in 1” in 1999. The rapid-fire narration was as hilarious as it was unprecedented. It was a runaway success.
Other attempts to break the mould of benga in Kikuyu popular music have come from gospel artistes. But until Heze Ndung’u revolutionalized the conservative music of the Akorino, by embracing contemporary dance the Akorino sect represented authentic gist of Kikuyu gospel rhythms.
The foremost Kikuyu musicians of this gospel stable have been Elizabeth Nyambere, Julia Lucy and Miika Muthoni. In the 1990s, the emergence of musicians like Sammy Nene, Zackary Wandaro, Simon Mbugua Ben, Sarah Kiarie, and Nancy Torome, among others saw the balance sheet of Kikuyu country music tilting in favour of the gospel. Nakuru town was caught in the limelight of kikuyu music as the base of many Akorino sect musicians.
“One-man” guitar performers would not miss the party. Originally the one-man bands employed the use of a common chord of the guitar to strum out almost all their renditions. These days, the artistes have added keyboards their standard guitar accompaniment.
Joe Mwenda, considered by many as one of the early pioneers of the one-man guitar, died mysteriously while on a tour in Rwanda shortly after the turn of the new millennium.
Others include Sam Muthee, Kafel Maina, ‘The Retired General’ (Kimana), Mike Rua, JB Maina, Mike Murimi, Salim Junior and Kinyua Wamsoni.
A number of Kiyuku female musicians started their careers as one-lady guitarists, such as Lady Wanja, and Florence Wangari wa Kabera. Others like Margret Watherero were the only female members in their bands. They are a fine example of women who entered a male dominated trade and tenaciously struggled for recognition and success.
As the one-man guitar wave spread, the Mugithi train dance gained prominence and today clubs burst their walls with capacity crowds. In the more open clubs, the train meanders through the gardens and it is whispered that, at some venues, muggers await in the shadows!
With the exception of Nyakinyua choirs, the female artistes of the 1950s and 1960s were no more than accompanying vocalists. When Roman Warigi recorded with his sister, Muthoni, he carried the by-line alone. Likewise, when Joseph Kamaru started recording with his sister, Catherine, she used a stage name, and Kamaru appeared to be the star of each record.
The late Jane Nyambura Ciira (Queen Jane) was a talented composer and had the ability to fuse the old and the new, both in terms of lyrics and tunes. She explored the unique experiences of women, and she did not shy away from attacking patriarchy and reverse images of female villainy and a victimized innocent male, like in her song “Mwanake.” Some of her songs attested to the problems she had to contend with in a career that is male dominated and where female musicians are easily mistaken for prostitutes.
“The future of Kikuyu music seems to belong to those artistes who can retain the essence of Kikuyu rhythm and idiom while at the same time welding these sounds to global music forms,” Ketebul Music suggests.