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The Music Business in Kenya  

The following article is the second in a two part series about Kenyan music.  It originally appeared in Africa Beat in the Winter 1986-87 issue. Although the details are far out of date, the broader themes are still relevant to Kenyan music today.

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Doug Paterson, concludes his panoramic tour of the Kenyan music scene.

Photos are of members of Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band.

AS we climbed on the bus in downtown Nairobi, all eyes turned towards us, no doubt pondering why two Wazungu (Swahili for "Europeans") would be going to Eastleigh at 9.30 in the evening. Eastleigh is one of Nairobi’s bedroom communities only tenkilima1.gif (39885 bytes) minutes from the city centre but light years away from the skyscrapers and plush tourist hotels downtown. We were heading to a place called Muungano Point to hear what must rate as one of Nairobi’s oldest institutions— Simba Wanyika Original. The "original" part was  recently added to the name to help folks remember that Simba Wanyika is the parent of the several other Wanyika off-shoots that have come (and gone) in the sixteen years since SW was formed.

Jumping off the bus, the driver pointed us down a dark, dusty road in the direction of Muungano Point. After a couple of hundred metres we came upon a long corrugated iron sheet fence looking a lot like a construction site. But no! Cars were entering through a gate and a small crowd of people was gathered around the opening. This must be the place. We paid our ten shillings entry fee (about 40p), went inside and found ourselves in the midst of a big car park.

kilima3.gif (30319 bytes)What a concept ... not even in America have I seen a drive-in bar. At one end of the parking area was a small covered area for the band and dancing. Adjacent was a small building with a window from which customers and waitresses were ordering beers. The place was not much on furnishings ... a few benches, practically no tables, but no one seemed to be troubled. A few cars and trucks were lined up along the fence next to the dance floor. Their occupants could listen to the music and watch the dancers as waitresses ferried a steady supply of beer.

On the bandstand, in front of some pretty thrashed equipment, were the legendary Simba Wanyika—sounding much like their recordings (which could be good news or bad depending upon your perspective)—a smooth, driving sound characterized by the distinctive harmonies of the two brothers, Wilson and George Peter, founding members of the band. Simba Wanyika are one of the many Kenyan bands struggling for that elusive breakthrough, the payoff for all the years of sweat and frustration. By Kenyan standards, SW have been a stunning success. They have steady employment at Muungano Point. They had a long association with Polygram Records that includes four solo albums, a number of contributions to album compilations, and a constant stream of single releases. Their songs are regularly heard on the Voice of Kenya.

Yet, when compared to the overwhelming popularity of Zaireans such as Franco, Tabu Ley, Mbilia, Quatre Etoiles, or South Africans Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho Mabuse, Brenda, Pat Shanga, all their efforts seem to have gone for naught. Kenyans have so far been unwilling to grant superstar status to any of their local number. Could it be a Kenyan version of the Groucho Marx quip, "I’d never join a club that would accept me as a member"?

As I have discussed in earlier issues of Africa Beat, one of the most interesting features of the Kenyan music scene is the great variety of pop music styles all competing for the attention of the Kenyan public. But this variety may in fact be the Achilles heel of the Kenyan music industry.

Unlike neighbouring Tanzania which has a distinctive Tanzanian sound based on Swahili language lyrics, lots of brass, and a flowing rhythm from the congas (not to mention Radio Tanzania’s inimitable recording sound), one would be hard pressed to identify a corresponding "Kenyan style". Instead, we must refer to a number of different styles which, among other criteria, reflect the linguistic and ethnic background of the bands. While such a fragmentation of the music market may make it tough for Kenyan-based bands such as Simba Wanyika, for those of us with no special allegiance to any particular language or ethnic group, it makes for a very interesting musical environment. What follows is a review of some of the major contenders in each of three major musical categories: Zairean, vernacular, and Swahili language.


The concept of Zairean music is getting broader and broader as Zairean musicians have spread throughout Africa and into Europe. Each Zairean

enclave has carried with it components of the soukous sound, yet in each place musicians have also made adaptations to the local musical environment. The Zairois of Nairobi are most definitely not doing the same things as their counterparts in Abidjan, Dar-es-Salaam, Harare, or Kinshasa.

Zairean bands have been a major component of both the local recording industry and the Nairobi club scene. Super Mazembe and (the now departed) Orchestra Virunga are two Nairobi groups that managed to break out of the East African market with well-produced LPs that made an impact in Europe and the States.

Mazembe have had internal difficulties and have no regular spot to perform. Even with their work permit status in doubt, Virunga couldn’t manage to "Kenyanize" themselves (that is, bring in a few Kenyans) and as a consequence, they lost their regular employment at the Starlight Club. The band ended its Nairobi stay in disarray, some of the members returning to Zaire, others remaining to form lbeba System.

At the moment, Vundumuna is probably the most successful band in Nairobi and perhaps the best. They have a recent LP release on Polygram’s ASL label which, while good, has nowhere near the intensity and excitement of their live performances. They have proved to be a very popular group among the young African and European elites frequenting the fashionable Simba Grill at the Carnivore Restaurant.

Lessa Lassan who has been on the Nairobi recording scene for a long time has put together a performing band, Orchestre Popolipo, that have recently become the house group of Hallian’s Night Club. I heard them in one of their first performances at the club and it was clear they hadn’t yet come together as a group although there is a lot of potential. No such criticism can be made of Les Mangelepa, the band Popolipo replaced. Mangelepa are certainly one of the oldest Zairean groups in Kenya and their polished sound and performance always guarantee an enjoyable night on the town. In this case, however, that town has to be Athi River, 30 km down the road from Nairobi at a place called Kitengela.

Rounding out the Zairean line-up, lbeba System are still at the Starlight Club but probably not for much longer. This time, rumours of the Club’s imminent closure may be true—a casualty of disco fever. lbeba is a pretty good group. I heard them do a version of Ahmed Sabit from the Earthwork’s Virunga album that knocked my socks off. It may be difficult to get hold of any of their recordings in Europe but, as a sample, their first single release is on the Kweya LP from Polydor. Finally, one of the most enjoyable bands at the present time in Nairobi is Zaiken. They are gaining quite a following performing weekends at the Chiromo Hotel’s Club Naya. With two LPs out, and a third on the way, this group may be the one to watch.


In this category, we throw together all the bands who record and perform in local languages. Four of the big linguistic groups predominate: Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, and Luhya. Bands from the Kisii and the Kalenjin areas of western Kenya are also quite active in their respective localities but so far have not made much impact in Nairobi.

My friends tell me, "this (vernacular) music all sounds the same" and, indeed, there is a commonality which crosscuts much of the vernacular scene—namely, the benga influence. Originating with the Luo bands coming from the Lake Victoria area of western Kenya, benga has been a dominant force since the early 1970s. Musicologist Werner Graebner has characterized benga as having "a fast beat, a rhythm guitar playing with strong roots in nyatiti harp playing, and a punchy, up-front bass line." The music, though sparse in instrumentation, has a steady, hard-driving beat that is punctuated with rapid-fire bursts of energy from guitar, bass, or vocal. D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz are the premier example along with such groups as Victoria ‘B’ Kings and Victoria ‘C’.

Sega Sega is another Luo band coming out of this tradition but they have also managed to gain quite a following outside the Luo ethnic group with a series of quite humorous songs recorded in Swahili.

Among the Kikuyu artists, Joseph Kamaru ranks among the most prolific and most successful in the industry having recorded at least 300 singles since 1966 with record sales in the order of 500,000. His songs provide a commentary on current day social and political issues and he is renowned for his skillful use of Kikuyu language and proverbs. Some of his melodies are adapted from tunes that were circulating in the 1930s and 40s. On occasion, Kamaru has ventured into Swahili and English language songs with mixed success. His recent cassette, Chiira wa Mama Chiru contains a wide range of styles from the near-benga "cavacha" to some things that likely have some traditional Kikuyu folk elements underlying them.

Among other Kikuyu musicians which must be singled out for their successes over the past year are Mbiri Stars, James Mbugua, John Ndichu, and the Gatunga Boys.

Of the Kamba musicians, Kakai Kilonzo and his Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band stand out, like Kamaru, as consistent hit makers (as well as astute businessmen in the recording industry). Les Kilimambogo are a great band.kilima4.gif (63411 bytes)Peter Muambi, Ngoleni Brothers and Francis Danger are also putting out some quite good recordings. Yet, of the Kamba bands I’ve seen, the performance that stands out above all others was one by the female side of the Kalambya Boys Band, the Kalambya Sisters. I saw them in a marathon all-night performance along with three or four other groups at a place called Mateso Bila Chuki (Suffering without Bitterness) in Nairobi’s Eastleigh community. The reaction of the crowd (especially the men) to these three ladies was like nothing I had ever seen before in Kenya. Typically, the Kenyan audience doesn’t pay any attention to the musicians. It’s the music that counts, not the individuals. However, in this case, from the moment the "Sisters" took the stage, a large enthusiastic crowd gathered in front pushing and shoving each other to get a view. And it remained that way for the whole performance.

The reaction of the Kalambya Sisters to this was all the more fascinating. They were simply "too cool" to notice that there was even anyone there. Picture the three attractive young women swaying back and forth, looking over and beyond the crowd (no hint of acknowledgment), singing (or rather. meowing) in their high feline-like voices, with the sort of benignly surly expressions that have made Kenya Airways flight attendants famous. Definitely a crowd stopper... A must see!!!


But for CBS’s brave attempt to cultivate (and capture) all segments of the Kenyan record market a few years back, the emphasis in local production on the part of the multinationals has been on Swahili language music from both Kenya and Tanzania. As mentioned above, Simba Wanyika (with their Tanzanian origins) have been a major force in Swahili language music. Since the late 1970s, the spin-off group Les Wanyika have enjoyed considerable success with a series of singles beginning with Sina Makosa, Pamela, and Paulina up to last year’s hit Dunia Kigeugeu. Their sound is rather sparse with very light drums (a lot of high hat) playing something other than vernacular’s heavy 1-2-3-4 beat, some light horn parts, and pleasing rhythm guitar parts that are soft but active.

Out of Les Wanyika, Tanzanian lssa Juma has had several incarnations under various Wanyika names, the latest being Super Wanyika Stars appearing on what may be half a dozen different record labels. After spending six months in prison for working in Kenya illegally, Issa is now out and recording again with a recent album filled Bwana Musa and a number of new singles.

Another spin-off from Simba Wanyika was Orchestra Jobiso, George Peter’s attempt to go it alone from brother Wilson. The two brothers are now back together again in Simba Wanyika but some of Jobiso’s efforts have been preserved in the Dunia Kigeugeu compilation that features some good material from three of the four "Wanyika" bands.

There are a few other bands with Swahili language repertoires (for example, Maroon Commandos and the Mombasa-based tourist bands) but, on the recording scene, most of the remaining Swahili music is Tanzanian in origin. Polydor is still releasing collections of the late Mbaraka Mwinshehe’s recordings seven years after his death. In the past, Tanzanian bands such as Mlimani Park, Safari Sound International, and Vijana Jazz were the major concern of Polydor and AIT’s local production efforts. Today, although these labels have very little to do with the Tanzanian groups, there is a fairly good selection of such music available in Nairobi from independent labels (such as Ahadi).

Recording under the band name Moja One, Zairean singer Moreno Batamba has, in the past, put out quite a number of worthy Swahili singles. (A sample of Moreno’s style can be heard on the Polydor Kweya LP in the song Jua Lako). His music represents an interesting Zairean Swahili cross. Moreno has a rich and powerful voice that makes him one of my favourites.

In the past year, he has joined forces with another Nairobi group, Kenya Blue Stars. Blue Stars are the product of the two sisters, Betty Tett and Margaret Safari who now run Andrew Crawford productions. Their 1980 single Sina Kisomo was first rate, innovative, Swahili language music. Over time, however, the band was pushed into the background to the status of back-up group for Sheila Tett (Betty’s daughter) and Margaret Safari.

In their recent CBS LP, Losele, they have tried to fashion a new Kenyan sound melding some Zairean guitar, Moreno’s superb vocals, and some modem instrumentation including synthesizers and electric drums.

Unfortunately, the female voices are unexceptional and uncontrolled and the experimentation with synthesizer simplistic. While there are some good things in this LP (a high quality recording, some good songs, tight arrangements), the overall product is disappointing.

A second CBS album, Sylvester Odhiambo’s Muungwana, suffers the same fate in, for example, its scandalous, shameless use of the synthesizer (sounding like a wimpy trumpet imitating the vocal line). Odhiambo is a good musician and songwriter and it is significant that as a "Luo" group he and his Ambira Boys Band are attempting to reach out to a broader audience in Swahili.

This group and the CBS producers deserve credit for at least recognizing that the Kenyan market is crying out for a local product that goes beyond either the benga or Swahili music recipes. Unfortunately, I done think the direction they are taking us leads anywhere. As a consequence, it may even work to discourage innovation by making those with the money even more conservative and assuring us a continuation of the "tired" and true.

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Go back to Part I of "Kenya:  The Business of Pleasure," Issue 5, Summer 1986, Africa Beat.

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

Last updated May 9, 1999.

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