By Ogova Ondego
Published November 15, 2013
Give her pencils, biros, markers, water colours and embossed paper and she will give you evocative paintings. Giving her sisal and plastic bags will reward you with decorative wall mats. And as if that weren’t all, she also produces decorative embroidery, season’s greetings cards, jewellery and music that she herself composes, writes and sings.
Yes, that summarises what Kenyan artist Norah Veronica Kavenge Somba whose creative name is Lady Masallah, does. She may be a trained primary school teacher whose journey into creativity began in her childhood and was honed during Kenya Schools and Colleges Music Festival that gave her the chance to try out her talent in music, poetry and spoken word contests, but perhaps nothing gives Lady Masallah more joy than performing her music on stage.
Lady Masallah, who has acted with the Mombasa-based Little Theatre and Kizingo Arts Group, had initially wanted to study interior design or tourism but circumstances and her parents prevailed upon her to pursue teacher education.
“While my parents advised against interior design,” she says, “the tourism sector was at its lowest ebb following politically-instigated ethnic attack in the country in 1997.”
Thus against her wish, Lady Masallah found herself at St Mary’s Teachers Training College in Bura, Taita region of Kenya to train as a P1 teacher.
Come 2000, Lady Masallah says she took to the stage when Nabil Sansul, a musician of Syrian origin who was then well known in Mombasa, of took the young woman under his wings and introduced her sonorous voice to the public at various hotel venues at the coast where she became an instant hit.
Even before she graduated from St Mary’s Teachers Training College, she says, she had secured her first entertainment job at Voyager Beach Resort as the resident singer. The resort chain was keen on posting her to its hotel in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve as Resident Hostess but, she says, “My aunt advised me against putting school on hold for the job as I had no academic qualification in tourism besides the sector being very unstable at the moment. So I pushed on with my studies at St Mary’s TTC.”
Though Lady Masallah says her budding music career gained prominence at the tender age of 12 years while under the tutelage of her mother, Corrine Somba, who was then a renowned choir mistress at Mombas’s Kiembeni Catholic Church, she is yet to record a complete music album. It matters not that she participated in school choir competitions and even won accolades and awards during the annual Kenya Schools and Colleges Music Festival.
“My musical prowess lies with my vocal versatility. I am at home with Classic Jazz, R&B, Soul, Reggae as well as Contemporary African Music. Her repertoire is extensive,” says Lady Masallah who has just started performing narratives and poetry to mark 50 years of independence in Kenya on the country’s national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. She says it is a year-long programme.
As she waits to record the long awaited full albums, Lady Masallah, who joined Tutu Band as a vocalist in 2002 before moving on to join the Le’ Acrimogene Saka Saka Band where she sang alongside veteran Congolese musician Bikassi Bijosau , performs songs, chants and poetry with ‘conscious messages’with groups like Tumtum Band, Masallah’s Duo, Masallah’s Jazz Trio and Mau Mau Vibrations.
Nairobi’s Safari Park Hotel offered her a singing contract for three years with the then resident band, African Sunset Band, in 2003. She was recalled by the Tutu Band which had now changed its name to Juma Tutu Band as a lead vocalist in 2007.
Masallah has had brief stints with the Weavers Band and Stickbit Band before finally breaking off to pursue a solo career. Her solo pursuit has seen her perform in leading hotels in Malindi on contract basis: Coral Key, Kilili Bahari,Lorenzo, Kivulini and The Eden Rock.
Though she has recorded several ‘singles’ –Mikuki ya Moto ( 2011), Uchi (2012), No Money, No Justice (2012), Fantastic Song (2012)—Lady Masallah says she is yearning to record full albums as soon as she can get the resources for it.
“Meanwhile I am currently working on Bongo Lala, Tamani, Dunia Duara and Niguze that should be ready for release soon,” she says of the four singles.
Among the Nairobi hotspots she says she performs in at the moment include Club Psys, Boma Hotel, Laico Regency, and Secrets.
“I am involved in various peace initiatives that saw me team up with other established musicians to preach and sing about unity ahead of the March 2013 general elections,” she says. “I am a member of both The Kenya Red Cross Tusisahau Amani Campaign & Amanisha Linda Amani Campaign. I am also active in the human rights field as a lead vocalist with the Mau Mau Vibrations Band; my hit song, Mikuki Ya Moto, has been incorporated as part of the Safari Njema Peace Circus Show, an initiative of the Sarakasi Trust.”
Lady Masallah, who attended St Anne’s Mumias Primary School in western Kenya and eastern Kenya’s St Joseph Kibwezi Secondary School (Form one only) and Matuga Girls’ High School in coastal Kenya before proceeding to St Mary’s TTC also at the coast, is a m ember of Supporting Women Artists Now (SWAN) and Pamoja, Amani na Upendo (PAU) that, respectively, promote performance talent among women and youth in Kenya.
Lady Masallah’s songs are narratives—not really poetry—inspired by real life issues. For instance, Mikuki ya Moto was inspired by ethnic violence that claimed the life of one of her friends while Uchi is about her first love. In No Money, No Justice, she laments about the dilemma of living in a state in which ‘everything is free’ yet only those with money get anything done. Even justice comes at a price.