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Kakai Kilonzo and Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band

Cover, The Best of Kakai Volume 1

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Kakai Kilonzo had immense popularity in Kenya and East Africa for his clever songs and down to earth dance music. Kakai and group played Kenya's benga style, but with sensibilities of their Kamba background from the area to the east of Nairobi. There are some superb music jams in the extended solos. Kakai passed away in 1987 but the music is as fresh as today.

I first heard Kakai and his group back in September, 1985 at Mateso Bila Chuki bar in Nairobi's Eastleigh neighborhood. It was an all night affair that featured many of the the great Kamba bands of the day. I subsequently came to know Kakai from our many meetings at Studio Sawa Sawa. For these two CDs, my role was to restore the original recordings to CD quality. I also edited all the songs that were divided into two parts (sides A and B of the 45rpm vinyl) so that they would play as one continuous track. In addition to writing the booklet notes, my wife and I also provided full song transcriptions and translations from Kamba and Swahili languages to English.

The Best of Kakai Volume 1 Shava Musik (SHAVACD011)

The Kenyan music scene is one of the most diverse and vibrant in Africa. However, ask any Kenyan which pop music style truly represents Kenya as a nation and there is only one possible answer: benga.

Benga is a pop style with its roots in traditional rhythms, instruments, and melodies. Luo musicians from western Kenya brought the style to prominence in the late 60s but other cultural/linguistic groups in other parts of Kenya quickly developed their own localized variants. With its pulsing beat, interlocking guitars, extended solos, and rapid-fire bass, benga music (while having its ups and downs) has dominated the Kenyan music scene over most of the post-colonial period. Yet, as a "national" style, it is an interesting fact that very few benga performers have ever developed a national following. Most, singing in their own regional languages, have little appeal outside their own cultural/tribal groups.

Kakai Kilonzo is one of the rare ones whose benga music was enjoyed by people all across Kenya and beyond. To simple but catchy melodies, Kakai wrote lyrics that were interesting and relevant to the Kenyan experience. His songs offered social commentary, often with humor or bewilderment; songs that the common folk could relate to whether living in the cities or rural areas. Kakai wrote about relationships between men and women, between rich and poor, problems within families and between neighbors. He interpreted the political and cultural landscape to the delight of fans across Kenya. While he continued to write songs in his native Kamba language throughout his career, it was his adept use of Swahili in his lyrics that endeared him to a broader audience across Kenya.

Kakai's first recordings were released in 1975 as the Kilimambogo Brothers Band. In 1978, the group split into two with Kakai's group changing its name to Les Kilimambogo Brothers or simply, Les Kilimambogo. Throughout the 80s, Les Kilimambogo flourished with nearly three dozen singles and at least ten cassette releases. Sadly, while still at the peak of his career, Kakai was taken ill in early 1987 and he passed away a few weeks later in February at the age of 32. Aside from Mama Sofi, released circa 1983, most of the other songs on Best of Kakai Volume One come from his last recordings during the period 1985-86. At this time, 45 rpm vinyl records were still a major part of the music business in Kenya. Thus, for recordings, songs were structured to fit the length of a 45rpm single.

In Kenya, this meant that after about 4 minutes 40 seconds, the song would be faded out. However, it was a common practice to extend the song in a largely rhythmic and instrumental jam that would be placed on the B side of the disc. Usually both sides were done in one take with the band playing through a fade-out at the end of part one and then continuing for a fade-in to part two. All but the last song on Best of Kakai Volume One have this two-part structure. Another interesting aspect of song construction is the distinct break that occurs after the verses have been sung. This usually takes place about 2 to 3 minutes into the piece. The rhythm or chord pattern may change and a different perspective on the subject might be voiced by the "public."

CD Notes contained in The Best of Kakai Volume One written by and 2002 Douglas B. Paterson.

Cover, The Best of Kakai Volume 2 The Best of Kakai Volume 2 Shava Musik (SHAVACD017)

Benga music is Kenya's own, home grown, pop music style that developed in the mid-60s with Luo musicians from western Kenya and quickly spread to other parts of the country in locally distinct versions. Across Kenya, benga is characterized by bright interlocking guitar parts, active bass lines, and a pulsing kick-drum (after its introduction in the 1970s). Lyrics in local languages and melodies reflecting local traditions give benga its regional flavors. These differences tend to place a boundary around musicians' audiences. Though benga is the national style, benga musicians typically have few fans outside their particular linguistic and cultural groups.

Kakai Kilonzo is one of only a handful of benga artists to attract a broad following across Kenya. He opened up his music to others outside his Kamba language and background by singing in Swahili, which is widely understood throughout Kenya. At the same time, with catchy melodies and engaging lyrics, Kakai sang about subjects that all Kenyans can relate to: songs on all aspects of love and marriage, on social responsibility, societal ills (like drinking and witchcraft), moral guidelines, national unity, economic development, and more.

Born in 1954, Kakai had a rather austere childhood. There was little money around his home and his schooling was cut short by his step-father's refusal or inability to pay school fees beyond his third year of primary school. Kakai joined the labor force as a herdsman looking after the livestock of various neighbors and relatives. It was during this time in the late 60s that he made his first guitar out of a large metal can and started singing and composing. It was not until 1972 that he met Joseph Sila, soon to be one of the founding members of Kilimambogo Brothers Band, from whom he bought his first real guitar.

As Kakai progressed as a guitarist and composer, he began to perform for events like weddings and dances. It was at a dance in his home village in June, 1973 that he met Joseph Mwania, another primary figure in what became Kilimambogo Brothers. Kakai and Mwania were both working at Kenya Canners at the time so they decided to room together and work on their music in their free time. After several months of this, they quit to devote full time to their music. Soon, they were in Nairobi, living at Sila's place and working on strategies to promote their music. This included knocking on the gates of the Voice of Kenya to see if they could get an audition with any of the music presenters. It got them appearances on both radio and television. However, it was more than a year later, in December, 1974, when they finally got their first studio recordings made. The first few songs were sold outright to producers to raise cash and get their music out to the world. Finally, in 1976, they had raised sufficient funds to start their own Kilima Mbogo Brothers label. The initial releases were in Kamba, but after two months, they put out the first of Kakai's many Swahili-language compositions. That song, titled Kijana Hatari, is contained in this collection.

The Best of Kakai Volume 1 introduced Kakai and Les Kilimambogo to the world with a sampling of mature, long-form recordings from the mid-80s. This compilation, Volume 2, provides a little bit wider perspective on Kakai's music both in style, time frame, and subject matter. We start among his very first releases in 1976 and move ahead through the years up to 1984. Unlike Volume 1, most of the songs on Volume 2 were structured to fit as a complete 4 to 5 minute piece on one side of the original 45 rpm disc. A few of the songs from the later years were recorded in the extended two-part form common in the 1980s. One of those we offer as an eight and a half-minute combined version of Punguza Ulevi.

Core members of the Kilimambogo Brothers Band in 1978 were: Kakai Kilonzo (vocal and guitar), Joseph Mwania (vocal and bass), Joseph Sila (vocal and guitar), Francis Danger (rhythm guitar and drums), and John Chuma (vocal). Shortly after this time, the Sila and Mwania parted company from Kakai to form Original Kilimambogo. Kakai renamed his group Les Kilimambogo (Brothers) and continued with great success through the 1980s up to the point of his illness and untimely death in early 1987.

Audio restoration: Douglas Paterson, Liner notes: Douglas Paterson, Transcription and translation of lyrics: Felister Nicholas, Annah Paterson, Douglas Paterson.

CD notes contained in The Best of Kakai Volume Two written by and 2005 Douglas B. Paterson.

East African Music - African Radio

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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.

Last updated 19 January, 2009.

Copyright 1996-2008 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.