The great Kenyan – and East African – Benga and gospel musician Joseph Kamaru died on October 3, 2018) and he was much mourned.
Partly because he sang mostly in Kikuyu, and I was a kid in Kampala during the heady heights of his career, I hardly listened to music. But I had some presentations to being a youth “radical”, which in those days required no more than shouting “aluta continua” and “workers of the world unite”, so I knew Kamaru because of political activism.
In the immediate post-Cold War political ferment, when Kenya was really in the doghouse, news of the banning of his song “Ndumiriri kuri mbeu njithi” (Message to the young people) was a big deal in East Africa. Kamaru bit the hand that had been feeding him, given his dalliance with Daniel arap Moi, thus committing his musical version of class suicide.
But even without that, superficially, with his sombrero and beard, Kamaru really looked cool.
There was something different in the loss of Kamaru. Musicians these days are big, and their death – remember the passing of the prodigiously talented hip-hop artist E-Sir in 2003? – can sometimes hit hard. But in the commentary about Kamaru’s death, it was as if Kenya woke up one morning and someone had stolen Mt. Kenya.
The reason for that is that all over Africa, musicians of Kamaru’s generation were always more than musicians. And music was, well, more than music.
Music then represented five things, that every great musician in Africa – from Miriam Makeba in South Africa, Franco Luambo in Congo, Ali Farka Touré in Mali, Umm Kulthum in Egypt, Daudi Kabaka in Kenya, Bi Kidude in Tanzania – had to do at least two of well.
They had to make a commentary about the heroism of the independence struggle, and reflect on the inequities of the colonialist. Secondly, to celebrate independence and freedom. Thirdly, the Great Betrayal of the promise of independence. Fourthly, soothe the soul of a hurting nation with a love song. And, finally, preach. They had to do a song that bemoaned how our treasured culture was being eroded by foreign ways; the crisis of the African family; the badly behaved children who no longer respected the elders; and those kinds of things. And, though strictly required, there was the liberation of southern Africa to think of, so dropping Nelson Mandela’s name would not go unnoticed.
It could be done in any order, and a musician didn’t have to be directly political in denouncing bad African rulers. All he had to do was come up with idioms that would be understood to be cocking a snook at Power.
And, for reasons of technology and history, music could never be about the kind of solo star acts of today. It was much like a village hunt, with a band or session musicians accompanying a Kamaru.
The result was that there were many famous people in a band, and some – maybe the drummer, the bass guitarist, or saxophonist – would sometimes even be more revered than the front man. The outcome of that was that the next stars were almost all previously band members. The most dramatic example of this came from present-day Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, especially its jazz music. The Main Man was, really, like a parent.
There was a reason for this. Music was a ritual at that point. Today you can have a favourite song, and lose interest in it before you have danced to it. In Kamaru’s time, you both listened and danced. When we were in school, we were taught to dance, and things like how to bow and ask a lady to dance – and how to walk her back to her seat (you didn’t turn away until she was properly sat, etc.).
And 18-year-olds reading this should actually believe it; your parents introduced you to most of your music. The Man went to the record shop and bought the vinyl. Mostly he could play it on the gramophone and later the turntable. There weren’t 200 FM stations to choose from, nor cheap Ksh750 Chinese radios anyone could buy. So The Man, turned on the radio (in the village he was probably the one who had one), at the time he saw fit for the household.
Those were serious men and women, so musicians had to meet high standards before they could unleash them on their fragile households.
Thus when we were little, there were musicians we knew a lot about because our parents talked much about them, not because we listened to their music.
Music today has been largely freed from the tyranny of parents, the church and mosque, politicians, and bureaucrats. And musicians today can choose their own fights. The Kamarus didn’t have that much luxury. They were of the people. And at least once, nearly all of them stepped forward and fought one good fight for them.