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Jim Curupt's "Untold Facts about Benga Music..."
East African music is in a continuous process of change and my articles about benga music have not been able to keep up. An interested reader, Jim Curupt, offered his perspective on benga from the 1990s in the new Millennium. Jim's ancestral home in Kenya is Migori, a place well-known for producing some great benga musicians. I give you Jim's essay below:
The late 1980s down to the 90s towards the new Millennium was an era worth a replay in the musical history of East Africa.
This was a time when East African youths most got involved in the music culture. The memories of Elvis Presley and Bob Marley were still fresh in the minds of many following their deaths in 1977 and 1980 respectively. While Reggae music sounded fashionable by then, new musical styles (mostly local music) were taking their grounds and the local scene was beginning to shape itself. Of course there was no Hip Hop and coupled with the rise of Lingala mogul Maitre Franco, the Congolese music was having its hay days in the region.
Since we're talking about East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia) , it costs nothing to state our focal point, Kenya and of course the Benga Music Bizz. For those who were not yet born (I mean the very most beautiful ones), there had been a Benga Boom between 1967 and 1975 led by icons like David Amunga, the Georges Ramogi and Ojijo, (both were George but not like the 2 Republicans) , Olima Anditi, D.O Misiani, Daudi Kabaka, Musa Olwete & Migori Super stars, Kiwiro Boys, Kakai Kilonzo, Kapere Jazz e.t.c. This generation enjoyed cool air play in the post independence radios and were short wave celebrities. The second generation was made of the likes of Ochieng Nelly, Ochieng Kabasellah, Awino Lawi, Kasongo Polo and Collela Mazee. It was the latter artist (born Richard Owino Osala) Collela who stole the show from this generation.
Being a revolutionary era, the Berlin Wall started developing cracks and bulldozers would soon be called to tear it down and clear the concrete so that any German from the east side could tip toe to the west side to have a sip or two of the Bavaria beer. The USSR was having its days numbered meaning we would soon hear about Latvia, Lithuania, Slobodan Milosevic e.t.c but no one ever expected Saddam Hussein to be hanged and neither had any American seen Bin Laden on TV. It was during this time that Collela Mazee and his Victoria B Kings led a bloodless Benga Coupe and seized the opportunity to launch some of his greatest successes like Ayuma Jey, Selah welal, Atieno jasunga, Molly and Arwa Doctor. His band was well served with some of the most talented young turks like Oriro jokago and Onyango Odol (solo Guitar), Odham Wembe , John Oyona and Otondo kajonyo (Rhythm guitar) , Rabby Oyndi, Okeyo Achayo, Opiyo Emma and Apiyo Kapella (vocals), Ochuo Stand by and Omoya Ukwala (percussions), Odongo Agwatah and Otoi Jadudi(Bass).
Following Oyona's demise, Collela composed a song in his memory "Rapar Oyona" and it was a great hit. The revolution was still underway all over except in Cuba and a rising star known as Omore Mamor (born John Ouma Nyamuga in May 1963 at Radienya, Nyatike) started his Jolly Boys band. He was still a student at Mc Alder School in then South Nyanza and no one ever took him seriously. This amateur must have been encouraged by his close buddies Daniel Ogoye and Odero Owere among others to pursue his dream and soon joined hands with Julius Okumu (later Prince Jully) to form his Jolly Boys. He was joined by Peter Akatch, Omollo Mwanda and Oguda O.T.C. In 1984, Omore released his first single "Loo Kare Loo" in memory of his late father in-law and Apondy Betty. Omore's rise soon prompted a split in the Victoria B Kings and Opiyo Emma moved out together with Odongo Agwatah, Okeyo Achayo, Richard Abandu and Rabby to form his own band. This led to two funny provocative slogans from the ex-partners with Opiyo's group yelling "Wan gi Kweh" (we're at peace) and Collela´s group replying, "Oula mol makat uonge" (the stream flows plus or minus you). Opiyo went on and released hits Guya Wuod Alego, Pauline oloko paro and Pany lie odiembo. To prove their grit, the Victoria B Kings incorporated new members Peter Odiwuor, Onyango Oregorego and Alfred Oyuech to fill the gaps. Omore on his side released "Auma Pilly and Lilly B" and started changing the course of the race. Feeling the pinch, Collela launched an album with songs Karina, Ayugi Toti, Fatuma, Nyar Kanaan, Aketch pammy and Piny en mano, an absolute success. The soon to be a two horse gained an extra ingredient when Omore dropped in his first album Loo odino Jaber. Opiyo on his part got a boost from the recently arrived Brother Charlly (Oyndo Oloo), Awil Kamusa and Owuor Ja mapera. They soon released "Hully Aoko, Judy nyar kaswanga and John Oganga" among other hits.
Not all was running well on the political scene and D.O Misiani was on the attacking side with the hits Hon. Horace Owiti and S.M Otieno. Contrary to Misiani, Omore and Collela mostly played love songs and in 1986 Omore released his best hit so far, "Hera gima rumo" (passion eventually fades away) and "Lizah". The two songs catapulted him to top of the Benga charts. This made the period between 1986 and 1992 to be a two horse race epoch in Benga history. In Opiyo Emma´s band was in deep financial mess that it got disbanded and he played the prodigal son by rejoining the Victoria B kings together with Rabby, Awil Kamusa and Odongo Agwatah. Owuor joined Jolly Boys. Collela therefore made a timely reply and released "Sebby, Jey to ere and Dhok tung thano (tongue is man's horn) among other songs. Omore's second album "Come on Vicky" containing songs like Hera Ongiewo ndege came out to usher the race. While the Nyanza benga was enjoying cool play in the roadside stores and night clubs, the KBC radio broadcast was also playing their part airing Benga from Central and Eastern Kenya with Newton Karish' "Muthoni Kifagio' and Katitu Boys' "Safari ya Katitu" as their top hits. The Nairobians Sukuma bin Ongaro and Kabasellah were also being attended to.
In 1990, the Berlin Wall fell, the USSR collapsed, Kenya became a multi-party state and Jolly Boys band split with Peter Mapenzi and Omollo Mwanda forming Mwanda Kings and releasing their only success "Dama nyar orya and Piny tamo wanga". Jully also quit taking with him the band name and Alex Seta. He soon received Charles Alot, Simeon Apiyo, Daudi ka Jesse and Agido Jowi and released "Aus nyar Gina" hit. Omore jostled with the coming of Jossy jakombato, Odende Winga, Okidi Nyanyuok, Odoyo nus Pesa, Omondi Senior, Agwambo make money and Thomas Bunde waya to Omore Kings and launched "Januar marjan" with "Okinyo nyar mula as the top hit" and went up while Collela released "Philo hera kende" in counter attack.
In 1991 the music market started behaving the NASDAQ and Dow Jones during the recent melt down in 2008. Kabasellah popped in with Zainabu success while D.O Misiani energized by his golden girl vocalists Maureen nyar Rusinga and Aus Lilly (currently Princess Jully) also shot in with "Mercy Awino nyar gi Rosa" success. Soon Omore released "The book of Love", his penultimate CD while Collela launched "Solea". The two top contenders suffered heavy blows when Collela's group split to form Victoria Chomeka led by Opiyo Emma, Odongo Agwatah, Peter Odiwour, Omoya Ukwala, Onyango Orego-rego, Ali Oyuech Malago, Richard Abandu, Ndugu Rabby, Onyango Pasaka and Okal Ben Bella. An interesting factor tilted the turn of events. There was a gold boom in Nyanza and miners all over the southern part were setting up new shopping centers while urban population across the country began appreciating benga music thus widening the market. Collela however took a low profile while Chomeka released 3 CDs in a row launching "Mayienga FORD biro", in praise the newly acquired multi-party status, "Piny osiko to ok seekie Mary" and "Joyce Akinyi nyar Gem". Omore was already threatened by ill-health in 1992 but being a mega star of the class, he made a good farewell beat for his fans releasing his last ever CD, "I defect from love" in which he paid tribute to all his ex-girlfriends and his wife and predicted his death. By this time Victoria Chomeka had taken full grip of Benga leadership and business was posh. In 1993 Omore died followed by Opiyo Emma, Omoya Ukwala, Peter Mapenzi, Omollo Mwanda and Peter Odiwuor, all in the same year. Omore Kings now had no leader and was up for grab. Dr.Collela embraced the opportunity to fill the vacancies with John Ogega, Owuor Jamapera, Bunde Waya and Ezra Nguka, all ex-Omores. Chomeka on their part looted Jossy Jakombato, Okidi Nyanyuok, Abando System (Kiboye Ojuki), Odoyo nus Pesa, Odende Winga, Agonda ja Nyandema and Omondi Senior, all ex-Omores too. Oguda O.T.C and Agwambo each formed their own bands. Chomeka therefore began colonizing unchallenged, a reign that would last mere five years. While all seemed well, the doom descended on Kenya hitting hard not only the artistic class but the country as a whole with a chain of deaths which took away many including Ndugu Rabby in 1995 and Chomeka signed Maureen nyar Rusinga from D.O Misiani's Shirati Jazz and the late Emma's son Ouma de Emma.
One of the best Chomeka's CD was Jemima Pambo which was the last work by the late Ndugu Rabby with the band prior to his death. It featured songs like Night Odende, Jossy Andere, Apollo Doctor, Kapis Ogallo e.t.c, all top class Benga. A split was soon to follow with Agwatah rejoining Collela, Orego rego, Alfred Oyuech, Tom Chogo and Richard Abandu moving out to form the Roady Copany based Les Chomeka.
Other factors put Chomeka's grip on check, for instance, there came Hip Hop with moguls such as Snoop Doggy, Tupac, Coolio, Dr. Dre, Lost Boyz, Eve, Da Brat, Foxy Brown e.t.c and the Kenyan urban youths shifted their previously relenting taste. There was also the emergence of Ndombolo music with Koffi Olomide and Awilo Longomba both of Zaire. Back at home, Collela was still alive and besides D.O Misiani's force was recovering the momentum. In 1997, Princess Diana of Wales died in a road crash in Paris, Prince Jully also died in a Migori hospital just a few months after releasing his greatest CD, "Dunia Mbaya" with hit like Grace Akinyi, Balmun Otwol and Amayo Charles. Soon after, his already famous and influential widow Princess Jully took over launching successes like Oula Soldier, Aroko Charley and Mary piny orumo. And then there was the rise of Okatch Biggy with Orchestra Super Heka Heka of "Nyathi Nyakach" success and Osito Kalle with "Asembo piny maber".
Still Victoria Chomeka defied all odds to release two wonderful CDs, "Nyiri mallo"(Ladies in) and "Nyiri Mwalo"(Ladies out).
With uncertainty hanging in the air, Chomeka were soon to lose their podium and retreat to Migori and Homa Bay towns near Lake Victoria. D.O Misiani and Princess Jully were now leading propelled by rampant deaths nationwide attributed to the HIV-AIDS scourge to which the death of majority of the artists was being associated though not officially confirmed.
It must be noted that in spite of the retreat and the plummeting prestige, Victoria Chomeka still managed to release their last CD, "Okinyo Nyathi School" (possibly Christine the school girl) which was a success too but they were already breathing their last . By the year 2001, Okatch Biggy, Abando, Ben Bella, Ndugu Rabby, Jossy jakombato, Oregorego, Apiyo Kapella, Okeyo Achayo and Collela himself had all died. Just before his death in 2000, Collela released 5CDs within 2 years. They were, Okoyo Makambo, Silvan Omonge, Apidi nyar John, Jey nyar jo Yimbo, Mary nyar Gem and Mercy Awino. The last work that both the late Collela and the late Odongo Agwatah did together was "Apidi nyar John".
Following their father's demise, Collela's sons Collins, Ogwela and Ken took over their father's band but Ken has since died. From the Chomeka side, the living legends Onyango Pasaka, Odende Winga, Maurice Okidi, and Owuor ja Mapera from Collela's Victoria B Kings teamed up with Emilly Nyaimbo to produce the success namely "Achieng Lily, Atis Lover, and Angelly mama. They have since quit the band. Maureen nyar Rusinga has since joined the Late Misiani's widow Queen Babito. The death of the late D.O Misiani in 2006 has been a heavy blow to the Benga community. There are however some living legends like Odham Wembe, Onyango Odol, Ali Oyuech, Brother Charlly, etc.
Anyone would agree with me that the late Omore will always be remembered for his preference for the Victoria's Secret like kind of ladies and also for his unique style of playing pure Benga with no Congolese influence besides his ever jolly smile even during hard times. Recently Ouma de Emma re-inaugurated the Victoria Chomeka but it may take sometime before he puts it back to the podium. The Benga music in general is currently endangered specie as a majority of videos on the web which are supposedly "benga" by young Kenyan artists are nothing but Congolese music with a few elements of Benga. Our only surety right now is that in the list of Dinosaurs, Dodo, Mammoths, Communism, etc. we can also include Benga Music. Unless something is done by the producers, Benga will soon be a History. Currently a handful bands in Kenya still play real Benga, e.g. Queen Babito, Odira Jawath Onger, Karish and Majoge Kings.
Anyway, my sincere tribute to all the fallen musicians and Benga heroes.
-- Jim Curupt, August 2010.
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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.
Last updated 22 August, 2010.