This article comprises extracts from Douglas Paterson's original notes for Sterns Music's East African series. The full essays plus song translations from the original Swahili can be found in the booklet accompanying the CDs, or downloaded as a PDF when purchased as a full album from iTunes.
ISSA JUMA and Super Wanyika Stars
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For nearly thirty years, the "Wanyika" bands were a sensation in Kenya. Institutions of renown they were a dominating presence in Nairobi’s nightclubs and recording industry, and in their heyday there were three or four bands each simultaneously bearing a Wanyika name, together with several spin-off groups operating under different names.
The rumba music these bands played had its stylistic origins in Tanzania but rather quickly took on a unique Kenyan identity. It was propelled by light percussion, the rhythm often on the high hat cymbals and conga drums and made sweet with a delicate interplay between rhythm and solo guitars. The sound was instrumentally sparse with a rich bass filling the gaps in syncopated bursts. Trumpets and saxophones were sometimes used in recordings but rarely in live performance. On top of this were simple two-part harmony melodies in Swahili that could be widely understood across East Africa. This was the defining sound of Kenyan Swahili rumba in the late 70s and early 80s. Issa Juma was a pivotal voice in creating that sound and taking it in new directions as the 80s progressed.
Issa Juma & Super Wanyika Stars - "Barua (The Letter)" by Sterns Music
By 1977, however, the urge to be a successful performing musician brought him to Nairobi where he worked with Orchestra Kumba Kumba and, in late 1978, he joined the first of his “Wanyika” bands: Simba wa Nyika (Lions of the Wilderness). This group had begun as Arusha Jazz in the early 70s when Tanzanian musicians took up residence in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa. It wasn’t long before they changed their name to Simba wa Nyika, then Simba Wanyika, and, in 1975, they relocated to Nairobi. The band was well received and gained a considerable following, but not without some internal problems. Issa had been with the group for only a month when a number of members decided to leave and start a new group, Les Wanyika. Issa joined them as their lead vocalist, and Les Wanyika took off with a string of number one hits including Paulina, Sina Makosa, Pamela, and Kajituliza Kasuku. With Les Wanyika, Issa Juma finally attained the critical recognition and popular support he had been looking for, and his powerful baritone voice was indisputably recognized as the best of the Wanyika clan. It’s also clear he had an independent streak and wanted creative and entrepreneurial control of his music. In June 1981 Issa quit Les Wanyika to lead a new group formed with members of another Simba Wanyika offshoot, Orchestra Jobiso. This started off as Super Wanyika but quickly came to operate under a variety of names (often simultaneously) such as Wanyika Stars, Super Wanyika Stars, Waanyika, and Wanyika “Super Les Les”. Super Wanyika got off to a brilliant start with a number of hits and even some limited international exposure through their inclusion on the compilation ‘Djalenga’ (Swahili Records) released in the UK in 1983. Some of the earliest Super Wanyika recordings have a Congolese flavour in the guitar mix and the full horn section, and this is one of the interesting aspects of Issa Juma's
music: his sound could change with each record producer and each session, even when with the same producers. One recording might suggest a Congolese influence, another (e.g. Mwanaidi), would have a rhythm and solo guitar interplay reminiscent of Les Wanyika, while yet another might merge elements of Kenya’s benga style with Swahili rumba. Of the different Wanyika bands, Issa Juma’s groups brought more variety from one recording to the next, and perhaps a greater willingness to challenge the boundaries of Kenyan Swahili rumba. Under Issa’s leadership, his branch of the Wanyika lineage was perhaps the most innovative, adventuresome, and prolific of all.
The songs in this collection were recorded for AIT Records in Nairobi between 1982 and 1986 and represent no fewer than five different sessions with a different mix of band personnel for each session. His groups were always in flux with disputes over the ownership of the Super Wanyika name, band members coming and going en masse, plus guest musicians brought in for recording sessions. Yet they also performed long stints at Garden Square and Mumias Bar in Nairobi, and toured widely in other parts of Kenya. Despite the ever-changing personnel, Issa’s music always had the powerful, raspy, pitch-perfect sound of his own voice and throughout all the many band members, he carried the essence of Swahili rumba with brilliant rhythm guitarists providing that luscious, quietly active, quintessential rhythm sound. Kenyans, both urban and rural, seem to have been able to identify with Issa’s lyrics whether it be humorously touching on shady business deals or his continuing concern with social relationships and their many problems, where a common theme is, “Don’t blame me, you brought these problems on yourself, but I’ll help you through them”.
Another element Kenyans enjoyed were the band’s many ‘shout outs’ to various locations in Kenya (especially in a song like Mwanaidi where no less than a dozen areas across Kenya are mentioned). The shout outs for band members’ names in the recording sessions is also a clue as to which musicians participated. Thus, when you hear the name “Chou Chou” mentioned, it’s a reference to the high-pitched backup voice that on most songs belonged to the late Betanga Mazinere. Likewise, the fabulous solo guitar work in Mony and Maria is by “Adamu”, Adam Solomon (now in Canada) with superb rhythm guitar by “Abbu”, Abbu Omar Prof. Jr., who played with Simba Wanyika for many years and currently lives and performs in Japan. Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars performed in Kenya into 1987 but he was not always able to work because of difficulties with both his health and his immigration status. At one point in, 1984, he actually spent a couple months in jail for working without a valid permit. His health suffered from that incarceration and it this slowed his reentry into music. Then, in 1988, he suffered a stroke which affected his mobility and speech. His effectively ended his musical career, and he finally passed away in the early 1990s.
CLASSIC 1970S BENGA BEATS FROM KENYA
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As I entered, I immediately noticed a large banner pinned to the back of the stage:
D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz - "Giko Piny (End Of The World)"
He first landed in Nairobi in 1960 where he met Daudi Kabaka, a popular
guitarist and vocalist from western Kenya already well-established in the local music scene and who mentored Misiani. In 1961, after returning home and failing again to reconcile with his family and the community in Shirati, Misiani went back to Nairobi and joined the Sokoto Band, with which he successfully toured Kenya’s coast and hinterland for several years. By 1965 he had patched up relations with his father in Shirati and married the first of his four wives. Back in Nairobi he linked up with Kabaka again and played in the Equator Sound Band through to 1967. He then set in motion the beginnings of what is perhaps Kenya’s most successful band ever. It
started as Luo Sweet Voice, became Shirati Luo Voice Jazz around 1972 and, in 1975, changed to Orchestra D.O. 7 Shirati Jazz, the ‘7’ possibly signifying the number of letters in his name. The songs in this compilation focus in on a relatively short time frame, 1973 to 1979, yet it is quite easy to hear the evolutionary trend in the music.
All of the songs have the trademarks of Luo benga: a catchy guitar riff to start off the song, followed by flowing verses sung in unison or simple two part harmonies and played over gentle guitar fingerings with a very active bass line while the percussion steadily pulses. As the verse finishes, the lead guitar follows approximating the melody just sung. In the second half of the song, the verses fade away and the song moves into elaborate guitar soloing, rhythmic jams, occasionally interspersed with a vocal chorus.
The songs of the early 70s have a lighter percussion with the beat kept by tapping on the rim of a snare drum. They also mastered a rhythmic clicking sound using the electric guitar pick-up that is heard in a number of pieces. From about 1976 this sound changes with the use of a full drum kit and the deeper sound of the kick drum, with now the high hat receiving most of the attention from the drummer’s sticks. The saxophone heard in some of the earlier songs is gone. By the late 70s, we’re into the mature benga sound exemplified by ‘Wang Ni To Iringo’ that propelled benga through the 80s and into the 90s.
While D.O. Misiani’s lyrics might not be much of a factor to non-Luo speakers, in Kenya, his lyrics were of great interest to several million Luos and to the Kenya central government. Though Luos represent the third largest tribal group in Kenya, they were often at odds with, and felt excluded from, the Kenyatta and Moi governments. D.O. was a commentator on the state of the Luo universe, so the government was very interested in what he had to say… and in making sure he didn’t say things that put the government in a bad light. Misiani wrote songs on all kinds of subjects; matters of the heart, social conduct, politics and exploitation, as well as praise songs for community leaders, politicians, and sports teams. He didn’t live to see the election of President Barak Obama in the US, but we can only imagine that he would have had some fun with the fact that a Luo man’s son could rise to become the US President while the Presidency in Kenya has so far eluded any Luo contenders.
Misiani was a composer without fear in an environment that threatened free speech and critical thought. In his early years, it was his love songs in his home village that had got him in trouble, and in the Shirati Jazz years (essentially the rest of his life after leaving the village), he was known for biting commentary on Kenya’s political, social, and economic institutions.
However such criticism was never direct. His songs convey meaning at a deeper level. He would use a theme such as a verse or parable in the Bible, a piece of African history, a prophecy, or an animal fable that would allow listeners to draw a meaning relevant to the current events of the day. Periodically, when one of his songs could be interpreted as presenting the government or a politician in an unflattering way, the authorities would pick up Misiani and take him off to jail. At one point he was deported to Tanzania.
Another time he was arrested – though not convicted – of being an illegal Tanzanian immigrant. Nairobi’s Nation newspaper quotes him in 2006 as saying: “Tell me, is there anything wrong with singing about what’s going wrong in our society? I just sing about what is happening and if some people are not happy, I can do little about it.” It is in this arena, I think, where Misiani really merits his King of History title. With its multiple layers of meaning, it accurately portrays both the status and the mechanism by which he achieved that status: keep it sweet, keep it entertaining but, at all times, keep it relevant. And today, among his vast number of fans in both Kenya and abroad, I think we can still say we’re “very happy” with his songs and the deep repertoire of music he has left us.
Daniel Owino Misiani died on May 17, 2006, the victim of a horrendous road accident just outside Kisumu. He was on his way home after a band rehearsal.
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“Tanzanian music of the 70s is like country music in the USA.” This popped into the mind of my Kenyan friend as we looked over the lyrics for this seventeen-song Western Jazz collection. He wasn’t talking about the music itself but, when it comes to the lyrical content of songs, there are definitely some parallels: lots of songs about relationships gone wrong; topics that provide social commentaries on love, infidelity, deceit, poverty, and the strength and determination to overcome.
|Image courtesy of John Kitime|
Western Jazz Band - Rosa
|Image courtesy of John Kitime|
VIJANA JAZZ BAND
THE KOKA KOKA SEX BATTALION
RUMBA, KOKA KOKA & KAMATA SUKUMA: TANZANIA 1975 - 1980
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This was in 1975 when, as it turned out, it was a lot easier to buy Tanzanian records in Kenya where they were manufactured, than it was in Tanzania and while it wasn’t hard to find lots of great African vinyl in Nairobi, it meant I had to devote my last two days in Africa to an intensive listening campaign in record shops and sidewalk kiosks. But what started off as a favour to my friend ended up, for me, as a lifetime passion for East African music and I owe at least a part of that passion to a couple of songs featured in this collection. For more than 35 years I’ve had the songs Magdalena and Utatugomabanisha on call and playing on-demand in my head, so that now it’s my distinct pleasure to be able to share these two and fourteen more by the Vijana Jazz Band.
Vijana Jazz got their start in late 1971, an example of the emerging model of musical sponsorship through various governmental bodies that was taking hold in Tanzania. Band members were salaried employees of their sponsor-managers. The Swahili word vijana means “youth” and reflects Vijana Jazz’s management by Umoja wa Vijana, the youth wing of mainland Tanzania’s ruling political party, TANU. Two years later, Vijana Jazz acquired the services of vocalist/composer Hemedi Maneti, who took a fundamental role in shaping the group’s sound and went on to lead the band from 1982 until his death in 1990. Although Kenya and Tanzania were on divergent development paths in the early to mid-70s, the East African Community partners were still on relatively good terms (though less so with their Ugandan partner under the brutal dictator Idi Amin). Kenyans and Tanzanians could ravel freely and work in each other’s countries. It was a time when the citizens of both countries felt a sense of brotherhood and optimism for the future.
VIJANA JAZZ BAND 'THE KOKA KOKA SEX BATTALION' - Magdalena
Tanzanian music was enjoyed in Kenya on radio, in clubs, and it was a significant component of the record industry. Tanzanian bands frequently made the 24 hour trip from Dar-es- Salaam to Nairobi to record songs that would be released on disc over the course of the year and our compilation centres around this fondly remembered time in East African history.
As I scoured the AIT Records archive for Vijana materials, I was puzzled by a set of songs under the artist name “Koka Koka Sex Battalion.” I knew those words as a frequent shout-out in Vijana Jazz songs such as the tatugombanisha, but this required a little more digging. As I suspected, Koka Koka Sex Battalion was indeed Vijana Jazz, but under an assumed name. This turned out to be a scheme of the studio producer who, working with the band, tricked the label bosses into commissioning more songs than budgeted. The producer made more money with each song recorded and the band got more upfront money, but the label did not want to release too many songs from the same group so was not amused when the scam of one band for the price of two was iscovered. Thirty-six years later their loss is our gain.
As is the case with Tanzanian dance bands, each group tries to distinguish itself from the others with its unique mtindo (style). In 1975- 76, Vijana Jazz recorded at least three studio sessions in Nairobi for AIT Records’ Moto Moto and Africa labels. This was the era of the koka koka mtindo, in its earliest form it was highly rhythmic with congas and what sounds like beating on a hollow log in something akin to a clavé beat. The instrumental, Koka Koka No. 1, is a perfect example of this.
VIJANA JAZZ BAND 'THE KOKA KOKA SEX BATTALION' - Koka Koka #1
In later recordings, koka koka lightens up on the ‘log’ sound and moves to a more subdued snare drum tapping out a marching drum sound in a similar beat (for example, in the last half of Pili Nihurumie).
This is a precursor to a Tanzanian sound that came to dominate the “Swahili rumba” of Nairobi from the late 70s through the 80s with groups like Les Wanyika and Issa Juma’s Super Wanyika. Interestingly, in a song like Stela wa Kenya, I hear what might be a Kenyan benga influence in the way the lead guitar fills in at end of vocal phrases, and in later solos while the rhythm guitar is quietly but actively chording and embellishing.
Vijana Jazz seems particularly attuned to the Kenyan audience in these recordings with not only Stela but several songs referencing Kenya, Kenya’s President Kenyatta, and various Kenyan institutions. Our album focuses on songs recorded in Nairobi at the famous Hi-Fi Studios in 1975-76 where most of the great benga singles were captured. Prior to this release very little of Vijana’s koka koka era has been available anywhere. Although koka koka was Vijana’s signature mtindo, also prominent in the later Nairobi recordings were frequent references to kamata sukuma, kamata meaning “grabbing hold of” and sukuma meaning “pushing” or “moving.” I don’t think kamata sukuma ever became an official mtindo of Vijana Jazz but it did merit a shout-out along side koka koka in many songs including three in our collection: Salima Utakujajuta, Pili Nihurumie, and Kamata Sukuma No. 2. The latter actually spends the entire song talking in a joking way about the meaning of kamata sukuma.
“The Koka Koka Sex Battalion” has not only the big hits of the time, for example Magdalena and Niliruka Ukuta, but also contains songs that give one a broader sense of the group stylistically in 1975-76, something like you might hear in live performance. It includes songs in Tanzanian languages other than Swahili, together with songs that draw on folkloric tradition like Dibweze Zogolo Jangu. In addition we’ve included three songs from later periods which provide a glimpse of the evolutionary trajectory of the band in the late 1970s towards the pamba moto style that defined Vijana Jazz for the 1980s.