By Sheila Waswa with Ogova Ondego
Published December 22, 2016
“She was a person who spoke her mind and who could not stand mediocrity. She was proud of being an African. Her music was more about Africa’s social issues and stories. It was the voice of an African woman proud of her heritage,” is the tribute singer Sali Oyugi pays to Lydia Achieng Abura, a Kenyan gospel, afro jazz and afro fusion singer who died in Nairobi on October 20, 2016.
How does one describe a singer, songwriter and pianist with the larger than life profile that Achieng Abura had without writing several books on the musician and social justice and environmental conservation activist?
Lydia Abura was among the highlights in what was described as Kenya’s first ever event in France–the Festival of Kenya in Paris–in June 2003 when the East African country that gained its political independence from Britain in 1963 showcased its rich cultural diversity; artistic talent in music, cartoons, film and paintings; dishes and drinks with a view to promoting itself as Africa’s world tourism hub. Parisians got the opportunity to watch her live performance besides purchasing copies of Spirit of a Warrior album in which Abura features a Senegal-based Congo-Brazzaville musician known as Saintrick.
Abura’s 26 years in the music industry kicked off with a debut gospel album,I believe,an album produced by Mike Andrews and Jack Odongo at the Pentecostal Church Studios in Nairobi in 1990. She followed up this in 1993 with Way Over Yonder, an album she did in honour of her mother who had passed away. The third album, Sulwe, a collection of Christmas songs, was produced by Tedd Josiah Odongo of Blu Zebra Production before she switched to afro jazz in 2002 and released an album titled Maisha or life.
Spirit of a Warrior, a 12-track album sang in English, Kiswahili, French, Luluyia and Dholuo, brings out Abura as an experienced multi-lingual musician with rich and powerful vocal prowess. The album carries gospel, secular and contemporary music content characterized by generally slow relaxing beats and rich instrumentals.
The album was supported by the Embassy of France through its then Maison Francaise or French Cultural and Cooperation Centre and Alliance Francaise.
“I’ve got a lot of support from the French government. Even my work with Africa FÃªte is under them. The collaboration with Saintrick was initiated by them and they still give the collaboration a lot of support,” she said in an interview in 2003.
But how did Abura, who held a Bachelor’s in Chemistry and a Master’s in Philosophy and Environmental Studies degrees ply her music career?
“I have always played my music by ear and I could do music by Michael Jackson within the first year of getting my piano,” the singer who attended Nairobi’s Kenya High School tells Bill Odidi in a Daily Nation newspaper article.
Lydia Abura treated music not as a career but a calling through which to change her society for the better.
“I want to transform our society. I write about the girl child, women, environment, and even politics,” she said. “I want my music to make a difference by changing somebody’s opinion about life.”
This could partly explain why she switched from Gospel to secular songs in 1996.
“I was torn between gospel and secular and I switched to secular because I wanted my music to bring positive change and not just spiritual change, but also peace, environmental protection, women and girl child empowerment,” she tells Odidi in an article published after her demise.
Abura won the Best East African Female Artist prize during the now defunct all-Africa Kora Music Awards in 2004 prior to being honoured with the Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) of Kenyaby the state for her contribution to the development of music in Kenya in 2006.
Abura, alongside Kenyan musicians Suzzana Owiyo, Mercy Myra and Princess Jully, formed Divas of the Nile group that performed at the Festival Mundial in Tilburg, Netherlands in 2007, courtesy of Kenya-based Dutch Rudy Van Dyke’s Sarakasi Trust.
Abura went on to serve as Principal of Tusker Project Fame, a music talent search initiative of East African Breweries for young East Africans in 2008.
Kenya’s Tedd Josiah-founded Kisima Music Awards nominated Abura in its˜Social Responsibility”category in 2008, her criticism of the organisation as not being representative of Kenyan range of music talent notwithstanding.
“I think Kisima Award must reflect our capacity. If you make it that competitive, it will force all these people to grow in music. Nowadays people are just going into cubicles with a tiny recording system and coming out with catchy beats, a catchy phrase and they are number one on Kiss. They are not even musicians because those catchy phrases donâ€™t even have to be musical. And then you take them to Kisima Award and judge them against serious musicians. It’s at that point that I will withdraw from Kisima as to whether I’ll be interested in participating in Kisima again,: Abura had told freelance writer Angela Kamanzi in 2003.
Apart from music, Abura was also involved in peace, social justice and environmental conservation advocacy.
Through her connection with Alliance Francaise in Nairobi that supported her music and linked her with Francophone African artists, Achieng Abura was noticed and named a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) alongside Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, Congo-Kinshas’s Koffi Olomide, and Cameroon’s Manu Dibango in recording and performing songs in various parts of Africa about poverty and AIDS in their role as Millennium Development Goals ambassadors.
United Nations Goodwill Ambassadors are distinguished individuals, from the fields of art, literature, science, entertainment, sports or other fields of public life who volunteer their time, talent and passion to raise awareness of United Nations efforts to improve the lives of people around the world.
The artist who was born and grew up in Eldoret where she attended Hill School Primary School before moving to secondary school in Nairobi did not fight shy of getting involved in local Kenyan issues.
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“We cannot give lip service to peace, reconciliation and national cohesion,” she said at a Press Conference on April 2016 while calling on the Government of Kenya to initiate the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation process. “We must fight to restore hope in our country, in our people.”
Using her well deserved and earned public position, Abura called society to action on national issues; she was vocal, condemning corruption and inefficient leaders. For instance, she used her Social Justice Movement group on Facebook to condemn the Kenyaâ€™s government for neglecting its world-beating athletes during the Olympics in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“Sports teams, athletes and artistes continue to suffer because of gross mismanagement and bloated corruption. The Olympics just unearthed a sordid situation yet the same people remain in their jobs. Is it that we owe them jobs?” she said in a hard-hitting post. “The Ministry needs a thorough clean up, top to bottom’¦This nonsense has to stop! We work hard to build our careers, the Sports and Culture Ministry cannot be the boulder tied to our feet. It must change.”
In an interview with a Nairobi daily called Standard, Abura said, â€œI believe that until Kenyans learn to choose leaders who have them in their heart, we will always suffer. Until Kenyans realize that they are not tied to people, that there were no people born to be their leaders, they have a choice and they could find leaders that could make a difference in the country.â€
But perhaps nothing pays better tribute to Lydia Achieng Abura than Women in the Public Space, a study by Fred Ochoti from the Faculty of Media and Culture of the University of Nairobi in 2012 that focuses on her music as one that is ’emancipatory’: serving to denounce cultural and patriarchal yokes of oppression, and campaigning for social, economic, political and cultural change and independence. The analysis concludes that Aburaâ€™s music sets agenda around issues of importance in the public space.
Lydia Achieng Abura–the artist who had performed in countries such as England, Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, USA and South Africa and Kenya–died on Kenya’s 53rd Mashujaa Day, a national holiday the East African country celebrates its heroes of political independence from Britain in 1963. Abura, like Kenya, was 53.
Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s President, described Abura on October 21, 2016 as “A good and inspiring figure in the music industry, and a great mentor to up-and-coming musicians.”