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Emigrant musicians who made Kenya their home

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ELVIS ONDIEKI

By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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What is the grandest thing you have ever done for the love of music?

There are those who have named their children after the music stars they adore. Some have changed their manner of dressing to ape their musical icons.

Others have travelled long distances, spending a fortune in the process to attend a performance by their favourite artistes.

Then there are those whose love for music made them migrate from their homes, never to return. This lot belongs to people who were not just fans of music, but performers.

In pursuit of better ways to make their music, they found themselves at home away from home.

They met an adulating fan base miles away from their countries, exotic entertainment spots eager to have them perform, and good tidings generally. And so they stayed.

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That is roughly the story of the more than 20 rhumba artistes originally from neighbouring countries — especially Congo and Tanzania — who are currently buried at Lang’ata cemetery in Nairobi.

The latest to be laid to rest there is Kasongo wa Kanema, who was a member of the Orchestra Super Mazembe Band that hit the Kenyan airwaves with songs like “Shauri Yako”.

Kasongo, who died on April 14, had been battling diabetes and hypertension and had recently suffered a stroke.

In an interview with comedian Daniel ‘Churchill’ Ndambuki in 2017, he had tearfully made reference to the fact that Lang’ata is the ultimate destination of that generation of musicians who left their native countries to establish themselves in Kenya.

He said there were initially 13 members of the band and that only four were alive then.

“Wengi hawako mbali; wamelala tu hapa Lang’ata. Kwa sisi wote, ndio hivyo kunaitwa huko, kwa sisi wote. (Most of the departed are not far from us; they’re lying here in Lang’ata. That is known as a place for us all),” he said, his face creased with emotion.

The list of emigrant musicians interred at Lang’ata includes Baba Gaston, Longwa Didos, Moreno Batamba, Songo Ley, Bukalos wa Bukasa, Atia Jo and Lovy Longomba. Lovy is the father of the Longombas, the duo of Christian and Lovi that are known for the hits “Dondosa”, “Vuta Pumzi”, among others.

So, how did these artistes make Kenya their home?

For insights, Lifestyle spoke with 53-year-old Sijali Zuwa, an artiste hailing from Morogoro, Tanzania, who has made Kenya his permanent residence.

He played the trumpet and was an arranger in the Les Wanyika band that made timeless tunes like Sina Makosa and Afro.

We also had a conversation with Longwa “Disco” Ngoi, 40, a son of Didos Longwa, the founder of Super Mazembe band.

He said his father, who died in 2000, never returned to his home in Likasi, a city in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, after establishing himself in Kenya.

Lifestyle also got the perspective of Tabu Osusa, the founder of Orchestra Virunga, which that has famed crooner Samba Omar Mapangala in its stable.

Tabu has also written a 650-page book – Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music in Kenya 1946-2016 – that captures the history of music in Kenya.

The enduring narrative from the interviews was that because the artistes visited Kenya in their youth, they found the environment conducive and in no time they had families, hence tying them down.

Sijali says globetrotting is in any artiste’s DNA. “For a musician, you’re only fixed to one place when you age. But when you’re a young man, a career in music entails travelling to many places,” he says.

His career in music has seen him relocate from Tanzania to Kenya then back to Tanzania, later to Botswana and eventually back to Kenya. It all started when he joined the Simba Wanyika band in late 1976.

“They used the name Arusha Jazz. On reaching Mombasa, they mixed with Kenyans and became Simba Wanyika,” he says.

“For me and Simba Wanyika, we came to Kenya to record songs. I started off with Mbaraka Mwishehe. After recording for the first time, we were like, ‘Ah, it appears this place is freer than where we came from; let’s start life here.’”

He now has a Kenyan wife, who comes from Kirinyaga County. This is his second marriage, he says. He parted ways with his first wife, with whom they had a child.

A major split happened within Simba Wanyika and one group that broke away in 1978 formed Les Wanyika. Sijali was part of it.

Others included Profesa Omari, Rashid Juma, and Tom Malanga. “We did a lot of shows; we travelled all over Kenya,” he says.

He notes that the famed beat at the beginning of “Sina Makosa” was his idea. “I’m the one who proposed that we start the song like the national anthem,” he says. “Hiyo ni kazi yangu hiyo. Na hiyo ndio nyimbo ilitupatia sifa. (That was my work. And that is the song that made us a name.)”

He would later quit, then went on an odyssey where he joined various bands in Mombasa, Nairobi, Arusha and later in Botswana.

He returned to Kenya in 1994, heeding the advice of some that he should continue the legacy of Les Wanyika.

He has been trying, with moderate success, to build on the Les Wanyika legacy. They have recently released a song, “Rafiki Yangu”, but are yet to make its video.

He earns his keep by playing the piano in Nairobi hotels. But with the shutdown of recreational facilities in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, he is now stuck at home, worried about how he will foot his bills.

With a shaky voice, he expresses his uncertainty as to whether a hotel where he usually plays the piano will retain him when the pandemic is over.

So, does he ever regret trading his country of birth with Kenya? “I won’t say I have regrets. For a long time, I have lived in Kenya. I have grown old in Kenya. I don’t regret one bit. I have been to Botswana and all but I resolved to return to Kenya, where I was used to. I came here when I was young,” he says.

In our chat with Longwa Disco, the last-born of the Super Mazembe founding member, who is keen on continuing his father’s legacy, memories of the musical renaissance of the 1970s came to fore.

“It was not their initial plan to stay here because they left for a musical tour. When they were here, you know about music: you meet people, and more and more tours arise. They came here, got good contracts, good openings. So whenever they decided to go back home, another opening would come up and they would postpone their exit.

“That is how they settled here because they got an opportunity to record more songs, and they got an opportunity to travel the whole of Kenya during the ASK shows, and so many musicians joined them when they were here. That’s how they decided to settle because after that, nobody went back home,” says Disco.

In the early days, he says, his father lived with fellow band members at a house in Eastleigh, near the Pumwani Maternity Hospital.

“My father stayed there until he met my mum,” says Disco. “Many of them moved out when they got married. That time, life was not expensive. One by one, they moved out. But they were all together as one, as a team. Because they used to work as a team, this was like a family. They used to call themselves a family because they came together as one from Congo.”

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His father, Didos Longwa, first settled in Nairobi’s Dandora before relocating to one of the residential houses on Kirinyaga Road in Nairobi. “That’s why they call me a born-tao,” he jokes.

By the time he died in 2000, Didos was living in Buruburu. He was buried at the Lang’ata cemetery on the same day and not far from John Ngereza, a member of the once high-flying Les Wanyika band who had died two years earlier but a number of issues saw his body lie in the morgue for long.

So did Dicso’s father ever have reservations about switching his base to Kenya?

“I cannot say he regretted in any way because this is where he found the good life. His career in music was actualised here, completely. It is here they grew to the legends they are today. Back in Congo, I know there would be a lot of competition,” he says. “But they ran away from that.”

In Disco’s opinion, the only regret in that group might be the fact that they died before ever returning home. He said he has been in touch with his uncles in Likasi, thanks to advancements in technology.

“I have uncles there who I always talk to. With technology, we look for each other online,” says Disco.

At the moment, Disco is part of a 12-member band that plays at Office Park in Nairobi every Thursday and Saturday and at Karen Oasis every Friday.

“The music pays my bills. Basically, that’s what I do for a living,” he says.

His initial idea was to continue with the name “Super Mazembe” but he had to change it.

“When most people ask about the name of the band I play with, when you tell them ‘Super Mazembe’, they say, ‘No, that’s an old band. You cannot be in that band.’ So what I did was just change the name ‘Super’ to ‘Bana’, to mean ‘the sons of Mazembe,’” he says.

Disco notes that he has seen a number of Congolese musicians relocate to Kenya even in recent times, but unlike those of the 1960s and 1970s, the latter generations are eyeing a ticket to the West.

“They are those who say, ‘I am going to Kenya to find my way to go to the US.’ Because they are told here is the simplest way to go to the US,” says the musician. “So when they come here, they register as refugees but then they play music.”

We capped our discussions on immigrant artistes with an interview with the legendary Tabu Osusa, who runs Ketebul Studios.

We wanted to hear his thoughts on a common life cycle of such artistes: they were a hit back then but at some point their fame waned, leaving them to wallow in poverty till their demise.

“Some, not all, have died in abject poverty. This is because the music trend has changed. And that does not just apply to the Congolese,” he says, mentioning a number of Kenyan artistes who have also died in want.

“To me, they were killed by the media. The media stopped supporting them. There is also the mismanagement of all of these CMOs (collective management organisations that collect royalties) in Kenya. So some of them didn’t get their due pay and royalties. There is no reason for them to die in abject poverty but, yes, some of them did,” he adds.

In his recollection, artistes from other countries flocked Kenya partly because there were strong multinational recording labels in Nairobi.

“That was very attractive for them to come here because then they were able to record their music,” he says, though he notes that the recording labels left in the mid-1980s.

There was also the aspect of competition: “There were too many musicians in Congo, to be honest. The competition was really stiff.”

He also echoes Disco’s perspective that some of the emigrating artistes used Kenya as a gateway to Europe and other destinations.

As for the reason for settling, Osusa believes age played a role. “For those who settled, they were young men mostly. When they got here, they got married and had children. So they settled because they had families here. That’s why most of them didn’t go back. This became their second home,” he reasons.

He recalls a time when Congolese musicians had legions of fans in Kenya compared to local acts.

“They were better managed due to the fact that they had come here as professionals. They had left home, so all they did was play music … Kenyans were treating music as a part-time thing,” he says.

“The Congolese really played for survival. And they were very good. That’s why when they used to go for ASK shows, Mazembe particularly loved that. They used to attract big audiences. They were very good. They were more professional; they took it seriously,” adds Osusa, who is quick to note that Kenyan bands soon caught up and gave the Congolese bands a run for their money.

Even beyond the golden era of rhumba, a number of artistes had made Kenya their bases. An example is Kidum (Jean-Pierre Nimbona).

The award-winning musician hails from Burundi, a country he left for Kenya in 1995 to escape civil unrest. He gained fame in Kenya through the Boda Boda band.

Ugandan superstar Jose Chameleone (Joseph Mayanja) also sojourned in Kenya and got a breakthrough with his 2001 hit “Mama Mia” before relocating to his home country.

There is also Gilad Millo, the Israeli artiste who in 2015 ditched the diplomacy world to work in music. He was at one time the Israel deputy ambassador to Kenya.

Osusa thinks emigration of musicians to Kenya has been happening since the late 1950s. But it is in the 1970s when the bands that made a longer lasting impact arrived.

These included Les Mangelepa and the Orchestra Super Mazembe — which sparked a sharp competition with local bands and saw the release of major hits.

There were not so many emigrants from Tanzania, he says, save for Simba Wanyika and its offshoots.

“Of course there are other groups that came from as far as Zambia, like the one called Musi-O-Tunya. They were playing an interesting funk and rock style. But they didn’t stay that long. They came, recorded, and then went back,” he says.

Asked whether the golden era of rumba was phased out in favour of the more contemporary genres, Osusa thinks that type of music still has fans.

“Congolese music is still very popular,” he says. “Go to these small clubs in Migori, Busia, among others. It is Congolese music playing there.”

Regarding the ending of the emigrant musicians’ story, Osusa also sees nothing wrong in the fact that most of the artistes have ended up being buried in Lang’ata, which is considered a lowly burial site.

“Somebody asked me, ‘Why did they bury them in Lang’ata? Why didn’t they take them back to Congo?’ Really, what for? These guys came as young people. They married here. Their families are here. So the nearest place is Lang’ata, which I don’t think is a bad thing,” he says.

He adds: I’m not even for this thing regarding the people where I come from that when someone dies you have to make a big deal and take the body all the way to whatever county. I think being in Lang’ata is fine.”





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