When thinking of urban coastal Kenyan musicians whose careers run decades deep, taarab performers may be the first who come to mind. Indeed, taarab taps into a poetic tradition that goes back centuries and it may be the longest surviving thread in popular music across the Swahili coast. Sadly, in recent years the thriving scenes of Mombasa and other coastal towns have become increasingly quiet, for a number of reasons including economic decline, the ageing of the live musicians who came up in the 1960s and ‘70s, Congolese and later Nigerian music becoming popular, and the recent clampdown on terrorism which adversely affected public life in Mombasa.
There’s another Kenyan coastal sound, one that came up in the seventies and survived it all, a genre that even enjoyed commercial success abroad but has often remained ignored and despised by western critics. Afro7 previously released an EP re-introducing one of the finest examples of this school: Them Mushrooms, a band that played its part in the introduction of coastal dances like cha-cha to the masses; then the second volume of Kenya Special included Hinde, a song from the mid-eighties by African Vibration which even made Kikuyu people in Nairobi speak a bit of the coastal Giriama language at the time, as it became an anthem of sorts. Taarab music has been the essential wedding music of the Swahili coast, but these new bands made their living recording for the club and radio, and performing in hotels. Even though the different currents in Mombasa taarab all borrowed from a multitude of local and foreign genres, Them Mushrooms, Safari Sound Band and the likes created a type of pop music with a modern sound led by keyboards and drum machines that was soon embraced by the eclectic Kenyan audience and foreign visitors alike.
One of the most prolific bands in this field has been Mombasa Roots. They recently hit their 40th anniversary, not a small feat in the Kenyan musical landscape that is full of pitfalls. When they started out in 1977, the group was made up of the brothers Ebrahim, Suleiman and Ethiopian drummer Tamrat Kebede, among others; another Juma brother, the late Ahmed Juma, joined the next year as he left the Mombasa Vikings. In 1979 the band, trying their best to come up with their own compositions, recorded their first single in their residence at Muthaiga (Nairobi) with the assistance of Nabil Sansool, the Syrian born producer who, later on, would assist in elevating the production values of Kenyan coastal music. On What Is It That You Want / My Everything, which was released on the Mombasa Roots imprint, the band was still carving out their own niche, and it wasn’t a big hit. Unlike other bands, they invested in their own instruments and the equipment from the start, which helped them finetune the sound that propelled them to fame by the mid-eighties.
It was a string of singles, released in 1984 and 1985, and ultimately compiled on their first lp ‘MSA-Mombasa’ (1987), that landed the work of Mombasa Roots in discos, bars and jukeboxs in the remotest corners of the country. ‘Disco cha-ka-cha’ was a sensation when it came out, a bold attempt at reinterpreting a semi-traditional female wedding dance for the clubs, but it worked well. Up to that point, the most common way for urban Kenyans and foreign visitors to hear traditional Kenyan music had been through performances during ceremonies or aimed at tourists. Their version of ’Kata’, a sparse and hypnotic rhythm with the right touch of keyboard, is still well remembered after three decades. The chakacha dance songs helped them gain popularity among the taarab audience, but It was their version of ‘Kasha langu’, a Swahili evergreen first recorded in the 1950’s, that got them a lot of new fans; it’s still a part of Mombasa Roots’ live set today.
From its inception, Mombasa Roots played the live circuit on the coast and upcountry in clubs aiming at local audiences and foreign tourists, too. In the years to come they accepted gigs abroad, which led them to places like Germany, Dubai and Ethiopia, where they have been regular guests for the past twenty years. And despite most of the founding members leaving the group (Tamrat and Emile since passed away), Mombasa Roots is still going strong today. The band performs in different venues seven days a week with a diverse line-up of young musicians led by veteran Ebrahim Juma, playing own compositions and covers. The latest Afro7 release is a tribute to these pioneers of Kenyan pop music. The EP combines the first Mombasa Roots Band single from 1979 with three of their biggest hits from the mid-eighties: the melancholic ‘Kasha Langu’, the poppy disco of ‘Karibishe’ and the chakacha trance groove of ‘Mezea tu (Lele mama)’.
Head over to our shop to secure your copy, in shops on the 13th of April, but we’ll start shipping out preorders as fast as we have them.
A1) Karibishe A2) Mezea Tu (Lele Mama) A3) Kasha Langu|
B1) What is it that you want B2) You’re my Everything
Finally back with a blog post and it’s the release day of the special Them Mushrooms EP. Kenyan musical journalist Emmanuel Mwendwa has written a nice little article about the band, read it here. If you want to get your hands on our new twelve you can order direct from us, or you can check out what shops stock our releases in this interactive map. Here is the original single that has the cathcy ‘A Little Love’ and ‘Akumu Nyar Kisumu’song on the flip. As Emmanuel describes the lyrics Akumu Nyar Kisumu is a coyly crafted love song, a suitor’s lamentations about sleepless nights and desires to propose nuptials to the lakeside beauty…
A) Them Mushrooms ‘A Little Love’|
B) Them Mushrooms ‘Akumu Nyar Kisumu’
This song rekindles memories of the fiery wave of the black consciousness movement that swept across the African diaspora from 1960s through to the ’80s. The Rift Valley Brothers band’s lyrics are seemingly a clarion call imploring local Kenyans to come to terms with their rich African roots and home-grown heroes. These were likely inspired and penned in praise of Kenya’s liberation struggle and key Mau Mau frontline freedom fighters. Several unsung and long forgotten ‘bush’ generals are saluted for their sweat, gallantry and bloodshed. But the underlying message is undeniably emphatic on the pressing need (especially for the younger generation) to embrace selfconsciousness and pride in their African heritage.
A) Rift Valley Brothers ‘Mu Africa’|
B) Rift Valley Brothers ‘Uhiki Wa Nduru’
Happy summer! We are have been working hard to update the site to be more mobile friendly and will keep adding more vintage stock throughout the year! Keep coming back in!
The intermingling of nifty guitar riffs on this blend of Congolese and Kenyan musical influences is deeply original and typical of a very unsung musical outfit that seemed to have become largely forgotten over the years. ‘Let’s sing, dance and party on to our music’ (ngoma yetu)’ the lyric goes. This deep track is indicative of the multi-layered repertoire of The Loi Toki Tok – the resident band at the uptown Arcadia Club (now the Florida Night Club) along Koinange Street in Nairobi. This track is featured on Kenya Special by Soundway records, compiled by Miles Cleret, Fredrik Lavik and Rickard Masip. It was recently repressed and can be bought here on all formats!
A) Loi Toki Tok Band ‘Leta Ngoma’|
B) Loi Toki Tok Band ‘Jennie’
Gravity – Lost in love Towards the end of the 1970s, which had been a decade of abundance in Kenya’s homegrown music industry, CBS (Columbia) set up a well-equipped studio in Nairobi and started releasing records locally. Apart from reissues of European, American and South African hits of the day, they also recorded regional acts. Some of the most interesting output on CBS was produced by Nigerian-born Desmond Majekodunmi, better known as Des Majek, who had moved to Kenya with his wife Sheila who was a gifted singer (together with her husband she would released two singles for CBS Kenya). His early engineering credits in the UK included albums by Fleetwood Mac and Thin Lizzy, and before he started out with CBS in Nairobi he produced a few records for bands in Nigeria. In the early ‘80s Gravity, a group of college students, recorded three singles, two of which for CBS with Des Majek. Group members included Chris Kariuki, better known as Njoroge Benson and Anthony Ndungu, who would later provide lead vocals for the African Heritage Band. While the ballad ‘Goodbye Masai Girl’ catapulted Gravity into the local pop charts, it’s the modern soul / funk on the b-side that makes today’s boogie heads’ hearts skip a beat, and collectors pull out their wallet.
Matokenya – Mrs. Onyango Unknown to them, Kenyan disco group Makonde became an unlikely hype on the dance floors of uptown New York, not long after their first international record was released in France in 1977. ‘Manzara’, a raw disco anthem led by a looping clavinet, a distorted bass and the vocals of Greek-Tanzanian band leader Taso Stephanou, was hand-picked by Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay for its huge percussive breakdown 2/3 into the song, which made it the perfect record for b-boys to perform their moves to. And so a Kenyan song became a part of the early history of hip hop culture, a fact immortalised on a bootlegged cassette recording of Jazzy Jay deejaying in 1978. While Makonde enjoyed some celebrity in Kenya towards the end of the ‘70s, and group member Sammy Kasule kept using the Makonde name when he moved to Sweden, they were soon forgotten by most until the new millennium when diggers rediscovered the Manzara 12 inch (‘Soseme Makonde’) and the group’s second album ‘Matata Riots’ (EMI, 1978). Only recently, their first album reappeared on the radar – the original issue of their ‘Manzara’ hit. ’Dawn in Africa’ was formally a split title, with four Makonde songs on the a-side and the b-side credited to a group named Matokenya. However, at least some of the credits were shared between both groups, including the Demis Roussos-style vocals by Stephanou, and indeed Matokenya’s sound is very much in line with the early Makonde work. ‘Mrs Onyango’ (likely a tribute to Shaban Onyango’s wife), like ‘Manzara’, is a brilliant merger of distorted disco percussion, fuzzy bass, a trumpet that sounds much like the Makonde horns and a guitar riff that appears borrowed from a rumba song.
Jabali – Folk Song (Kanyoni) The previous Afro7 12-inch release featured Dai, a song by Francis Njoroge. Nowadays seen around Nairobi with his jazz funk outfit, Francis’ early studio credits include Makonde, Radi and Jabali. In the latter project he was joined by Joe Kuria, a versatile artist and music manager who in the ‘70s had coordinated Afro-rock band Awengele (featured on the Kenya Special Volume 2 compilation). The Jabali sound was a precursor of what we hear on ‘Dai’, joyful pop with a disco groove and smooth keyboard licks. The vocal melody and the lyrics were inspired by a famous Kikuyu traditional, Kanyoni Ka Nja (‘little bird’) here sung by Chinese kids. ‘Folk song’ is still remembered by many who grew up listening to Kenyan radio in the ‘80s. Jabali also recorded an LP which remained largely unnoticed and is by now near-impossible to find.
A1) Gravity ‘Lost In Love’|
A2) Matokenya ‘Mrs. Onyango’
B) Jabali ‘Folk Song (Kanyoni)’
One of the most prolific Kenyan taarab musicians from the 1950s and ‘60s was Yaseen Mohamed. Born in Mombasa in 1922 to a Omani mother and Kenyan father, Yaseen got professionally involved in music while working for a Mombasa-based music store as a radio technician during the second world war. Assanand, which would later grow into a well known music store brand with branches in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and whose name is still on a store front in Nairobi today, started recording local musicians for Columbia Records to meet demand of a growing market for East African music on 78 rpm shellac records. Around 1950 Yaseen joined the recording sessions at Assanand as a singer, cutting a couple of songs for Columbia Records. In the next fifteen to twenty years many more followed on a number of labels, including Jambo, which released songs he recorded as Yaseen & Radio Singers for Sauti ya Mvita, a local radio station. Towards the early ‘60s Assanand started its own label called Mzuri, which would continue to put out an impressive range and number (hundreds) of songs from Kenya and Tanzania up to the 1970s on 78 rpm records and 45 rpm singles.
One of the first releases on Mzuri was indeed by Yaseen; ‘Harambe/Africa Twist’ (Mzuri HL 2) carried the enigmatic name of Mac & Party (a group name that was not remembered by anyone we met in Mombasa) but an early Mzuri master catalog mentions Yaseen as the artist. Other Yaseen releases on Mzuri were under the name of Yaseen & Party. At least some of the songs were available both on fragile 78 rpm records as well as the handy and modern 7 inch format. While many of Yaseen’s releases under his own name (sometimes accompanied by his wife Saada, also known as Mimi) were Swahili songs in a number of styles loosely based around the increasingly eclectic Mombasa taarab, this and following Mac & Party singles were mostly sung in English, and musically the Mac & Party songs related to the international pop styles of the era. As Yaseen explained in the ‘60s to musicologist John Storm Roberts: “There is no certain thing which is tarabu. Even rock is tarabu if people just sit and listen”. Rather than explaining the genre by its borrowing from Arabic or Indian musical traditions, to Yaseen it was mostly the way the audience experienced the performance – sitting down – that made taarab unique, while “style depends on the people’s choice”. This would explain the experimentation and innovation during the era, and the introduction of new instruments such as tabla, a drum kit or the taishogoto, a Japanese harp.
In a way, Mac & Party’s light hearted songs can be seen as an early example of pop targeting foreign visitors to coastal Kenya, an approach that – twenty years later – introduced thousands of westerners to Kenyan music via pulp compositions such as ‘Jambo bwana’. However, the Mac & Party compositions were uniquely Kenyan, as can be heard in the instrumentation on on both ‘Harambe’ and ‘Liverpool’ which bridges to the taarab sound of the era, not least with its trademark electronic organ sound, and even in Yaseen’s vocals in ‘Harambe’ – right from the intro ‘Msenangu’ meaning ‘my friend’ in Giriama language. The lyrics to ‘Liverpool’ (the b-side to ‘Hi-Life Mambo’, Mzuri HL 59 and reissued by Philips) are a youthful fantasy of becoming rich and moving to England, released shortly after Kenya became independent. An edited version of the song, which was included on a Dakar Sound promo cd in the 1990s, ended up on the late BBC deejay John Peel’s playlist. ‘Harambe’ was most likely released in 1963; harambe was a concept promoted in post-independence Kenya under president Jomo Kenyatta, urging communities to stick together to build the nation, and the single’s b-side followed the international dance craze that was the twist.
A clue to Yaseen’s reasons for leaving the music industry can be found in the lyrics of one of his Mzuri singles, ’Nimepata mwana’ on which he sang about the birth of his first son. As new parents, Yaseen and Saada decided that their hobby of music should take a back seat so that they could provide for the family. In the early ‘70s, Yaseen moved to Oman where he worked as an engineer. In the next decade, his earlier releases got distributed outside Kenya through the compilation ‘Songs the Swahili sing’ (Original Music) which featured two of his songs. Yaseen Mohamed passed away in 1985; even though the majority of his songs came out over half a century ago, he’s still remembered as one of the most important names in Mombasa taarab. Some of his later songs are available on the Zanzibara 2 compilation (Buda Musique, 2005) and one of his sons has uploaded a number of tracks to Youtube.This and two other singles are now available again from afro7.net head over to the shop and grab your copy. Special thanks to Michael Kieffer for the transfer of Liverpool track.
A) Mac & Party ‘Harambe’|
B) Mac & Party ‘Liverpool’