Black Savage Afro7

The mid-seventies in Nairobi were a time of tremendous growth. In the first decade after independence, the city’s population doubled and the economy grew at a rapid pace. Pop culture experienced a boom, live music thrived around the city and young, aspiring musicians were exposed to a wide variety of local, regional and international influences. This was the time Nairobi developed into a musical melting pot that nurtured artists who are well remembered even outside Kenya, such as Les Mangelepa (still performing!), Matata, or Joseph Kamaru. The music industry increased its capacity and by 1975 local pressing plants were able to produce over 10,000 records per day. Amidst the proliferation of Kenyan music being released by hundreds of bands and solo artists, some of the most interesting records did not receive proper distribution or promotion, and four decades down the line they remain ungoogleable, unmentioned in discographies and generally unheard.

One band whose recorded output has been all but invisible until recently, but who are well remembered by people who were young in 1970s Nairobi, is Black Savage. Their music was released on an LP and three singles between the mid-70s and the early 80s, and has remained out of print ever after. The early years of the band, whose members met during their secondary school years in Nairobi, are well described in the liner notes accompanying the current reissue compilation by Afro7. Band leader Gordon was the son of professor Simeon Ominde, who had led the reform of Kenya’s educational system in 1964 upon independence, and who was teaching at Makerere University in Uganda in 1956 when his son was born. Gordon Ominde’s earliest memories included Louis Armstrong’s concert in Kampala in 1961, where – at the age of four – he was invited on stage and started conducting the band. Musical inspiration also came from his sisters who were singers, and from attending musical classes, although at Lenana – a former whites-only boarding school which was gradually being reformed to cater to Kenyans of different backgrounds – music education meant studying Beethoven and Mozart. Together with a group of younger students who shared an interest in music, including original Black Savage members Job Seda, Jack Otieno and Ali Nassir, he started practice sessions using the musical instruments that the school provided. After completing school the band decided to rejoin and pursue a career in music, despite all odds: obtaining their own instruments, finding rehearsal space and getting the approval of their families would all have been challenges in mid-seventies Kenya.

In 1973, two Kenyans of Indian heritage who had run a successful photo business since the mid-50s, gave Kenyan music a boost by investing in a 24-track recording studio, and by acquiring EMI, Pathé and other label licenses for recording and distributing local and international music. In the next few years the Sapra studio, record plant, tape duplication facility and colour printing business would become the go-to spot in Nairobi’s Industrial Area for musicians and labels from all around East Africa. The studio was built and – as the owners struggled to find a sufficiently trained local engineer – also run by Detlef Degener, a German who had come to Kenya to construct studios for training journalists. Between 1975 when Sapra studio opened and the end of 1978 when the company went bankrupt, he recorded hundreds of bands from as far as Zambia (many Zamrock albums were produced under his guidance). Black Savage also came to record at Sapra for their debut album, which was to be released by EMI.

‘Something for someone’ provides a refreshing look at Kenya’s musical landscape of the mid-seventies. Black Savage weren’t drawing their primary influence from rumba or benga but from psych and folk rock, funk and r&b. All songs were in English, and the lyrics were politically and socially aware, breathing the activist vibe of the international ‘summer of love’ generation. The band released three more singles. ‘Do you really care/Save the savage’ is two sides of semi-acoustic protest folk, ‘Grassland/Kothbiro’ embraces the group’s Kenyan identity through the music and language, and ‘Fire/Rita’ (released around 1982 on the short-lived Kenyan CBS label) sounds as if the group attempts to reinvent itself – as a reggae band.

Given the rarity of the original vinyl releases, the lack of airplay and the absence of biographic info on the band, one could conclude that Black Savage ended up all but forgotten. It’s reassuring that the musical paths of the band members didn’t end there, though. Job Seda (who changed his name to Ayub Ogada) and Jack Otieno (today known as Jack Odongo) joined the African Heritage Band. Job then became an actor (Out of Africa), joined the UK record label Real World and scored Hollywood soundtracks. Jack went on to produce numerous Kenyan bands throughout the 1980s and 90s, and is still active as a gospel musician. Gordon Ominde continued his studies but ultimately chose for a career as a musician, and his music took him to England and to Germany where he started a family; he died unexpectedly in 2000. Mbarak Achieng is credit for composing Black Savage’s Kothbiro, which Ayub Ogada re-recorded and which ended on the soundtrack of the Constant Gardener. The memory of Black Savage as Kenya’s most prolific rockers of the 1970s remains vivid in the hearts of thousands of Nairobians, and the current Afro7 reissue is a worthy first attempt at introducing their best work to an international audience.

The Full Black savage compilation Pre-order is in effect now, go to our shop now!
Hear one full track from the album below or check out our soundcloud page with snippets of all the tracks!

Afro7A3) Black Savage Band ‘Sharpeville’

Mombasa Roots EP Afro7 Records

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.

Afro7A1) Karibishe A2) Mezea Tu (Lele Mama) A3) Kasha Langu
B1) What is it that you want B2) You’re my Everything

Gravity, Matokenya, Jabali ‘Lost in Love/Mrs. Onyango/Folk Song’ Afro7

GravityLost 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.

MatokenyaMrs. 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.

JabaliFolk 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.

Afro7A1) Gravity ‘Lost In Love’
A2) Matokenya ‘Mrs. Onyango’
B) Jabali ‘Folk Song (Kanyoni)’

Mac & Party ‘Harambe/Liverpool’ Afro7

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.

Afro7A) Mac & Party ‘Harambe’
B) Mac & Party ‘Liverpool’

Awengele ‘Awengele/Loving Day’ Akili

Awengele was a self-styled ‘boy band’ comprising four members, all of Luhya origin (West Kenya). Barely out of school, they were all pursuing careers – as an engineer, civil servant, a cartoonist and marketeer – and played music in their free time, doing regular shows at schools and public events, but never on the club circuit. Inspired by the afro-rock of Osibisa as well as Santana and the Motown hits of the mid-seventies, their style was defined by the musical instruments at their disposal: guitar, bass and a drum kit. Through their manager Joe Kuria they got to record a single for the Akili label, adding an organ to the mix. Kenyan 45s typically mentioned the style of the song on the label, and their self-titled debut listed both ‘rock’ and ‘Maasai’. The latter referred to the vocal style used on the chorus, which was obviously inspired by Maasai chants, and to the song’s lyrics which were in Luhya with a few words of Maasai thrown in; the flipside was in English. Kenya in the 1970s counted a handful of other bands playing rock (never as many as Zambia or Nigeria though). These included Black Savage and Jimmy Mawi, who was an inspiration to the group as they often played together. However, Awengele’s fusion of soul, funk and psych-rock was one of a kind. This and many more great tracks from Kenyas musical golden era 1970s & ’80s are out now on Soundway’s Kenya Special:Volume II, get your copy from the publisher!

AkiliA) Awengele ‘Awengele’
B) Awengele ‘Loving Day’

Njoroge Benson ‘Nyinukia’ Odyssey

boat2 (3)A studied lawyer, Chris Kariuki took his hobby of music quite seriously, from the early ‘80s right up to his death in 2001. His earliest recordings while barely out of college were with the boogie-funk Gravity who recorded two singles for the CBS label. In the ‘90s he took up the artist name of Njoroge Benson (or ‘Joroge’) and recorded two singles, right at the very end of the vinyl era in Kenya. The dancehall-inflected ‘Gichichio’ and its b-side ‘Nyinyukia’ came out on an obscure label, Odyssey records. During Kariuki’s Gravity days, boogie funk may have been the sound of the day, but by the early ‘90s the Nairobi dancefloors were tuned to (American and European) house, hip hop, dancehall and everything in between. A series of locally released compilation LPs with foreign hits is a reminder of that. ‘Nyinukia’ is one of only a handful of Kenyan songs from the era that reflect that sound, including the keyboard stabs that are very similar to the piano used on Ultra Naté’s 1991 hit album ‘Blue notes in the basement’, and about a thousand other house songs from the early ‘90s. The drum pattern borrows a bit from the new jack swing groove. Njoroge Benson’s lyrics here are in English, but the title and chorus (‘Nyinyukia’ is Kikuyu meaning ‘take me home’) indeed take it home.

Afro7A) Njoroge Benson ‘Gichichio’
B) Njoroge Benson ‘Nyinyukia’

Francis Njoroge ‘DAI’ Turbo

silverjubileebuyBy the time multi-instrumentalist Francis Njoroge released his first solo single, he’d already been recording for more than a decade. An early trace of his musical activity is found on a classic Zamrock album ‘Soweto’ by Rikki Ililonga, recorded in Nairobi and released in 1977. A founding member of Afro disco/funk/rock group Makonde, it’s the track ‘Manzara’ (catapulted to b-boy classic by Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay back in 1977) that’s become Francis’ most well-known song worldwide, although until recently he was not even aware of the fact. When Makonde broke up in between a European tour and a US gig that never happened, he joined the African Heritage Band, one of the hot new names on the Nairobi live scene at the dawn of the 1980s. Shortly after a European tour he quit the band to take up a gig at a new night club in town. Together with fellow Makonde veteran Sammy Kasule he then formed a new group called Radi whose music leaned on boogie-funk. Another project in the ‘80s was Jabali, whose ‘Folk Song (Kanyoni)’ was an audience favourite. Musically it sounds like a stepping stone towards the sound on ‘Dai’, with its drum machine, synth bass and poppy arrangement. The latter was a full-on dancefloor oriented track that came with a dubby remix on the flipside. And where ‘Folk song’ mixed English and Kikuyu lyrics, Dai (‘riddles’) was all Kikuyu: a lyric urging the young generation to maintain the tradition of telling riddles. Originally released on the small Turbo label as a 45, it had disappeared into oblivion until last year when we dug up a copy in a Kikuyu ex-DJ’s private collection in a wooden cottage outside Nairobi.

Afro7A) Francis Njoroge ‘Dai’
B) Francis Njoroge ‘Dai’ ReMix

Sal Davis ‘Sultan Qaboos Song’ SDP

Port Sultan Qaboos, Muscat, Oman.Kenyan singer Sal Davis has had a fascinating career and is still musically active; his ‘Makini’, released in Belgium in 1969, is a sought-after funky mod classic that was reissued on a collectors label in UK in 2008. He also recorded ‘Back in Dubai’ in 1984 which became a classic to the expat community there in the 1980s, participated in the UK Eurovision song festival in 1979, and further back he recorded a tribute to Qaboos, the Sultan of Oman who is said to have turned his country from a poor, rural society to an oil producing wealthy state in the 1970s (and he’s still in power today, ever since 1970). This ode to the sultan was released on Sal’s own label, the b-side is a lounge love song with funky drums but the a-side is what it’s all about. (Editors note; check out the interview with Thomas Gesthuizen aka Jumanne of africanhiphop.com with a brand new killer afro-disco mix to boot!

A) Sal Davis ‘Sultan Qaboos Song’