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
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’
And now for something completely different! The Black Savage group, famous for the rare mid-70s EMI LP. The band line-up featured one prominent member; Job Seda, better known as Ayub Ogada (later released an album on Peter Gabriels Real World label) In a Pink Floyd-esque landscape these two tracks are oddball and unique enough to go unnoticed. Completely without any noticeable local rootings, except the lyrics. There is an uncanny quality over them and both songs complete with anti-hunting lyrics “Save the Savage, don’t shoot ’em down, they are trying to survive, they have feelings too…You know people, I think it’s very strange. How would you feel if someone was wearing your skin, or wrapping it around their feet, have you ever stopped to think, that all these animals all over the world, you know they have feelings too, bet you never thought of that, there you go shooting them down hanging them up on your wall to hide the cracks!”. Thanks to Jumanne Thomas for finding the tunes!
A) Black Savage ‘Do You Really Care’|
B) Black Savage ‘Save The Savage’
Famous band from Tanzania, this release was before they changed their name to DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra after a sponsor deal. Notice the name typo done by the Kenyan label press. Read Werner Graebner excellent notes on the band over at East African Music.com This number translated to “Gossip among people” is a great showcase number; fluid rumbling backbone, fierce guitar interplay and fantastic horns. We’ve glued both parts together so you can hear the song in it’s entirely .. even put in the drop noise of the needle in the start. If you are curious about other releases on the label follow the label logo graphics on bottom right.
|A&B) Orchestre Milimani Park ‘Fitina Za Watu’|
A personal favorite from the mighty Nairobi Matata Jazz catalogue that truly showcase how tight they where back in the days. This Swahili number pretty much has it all for me, a bouncy bassline, superb breakdowns, fierce guitarlines plus a razor sharp rhythm section to match. Update! A user comment requested part one of the song so we’ve added that one as well. Please enjoy!
Nairobi Matata Jazz ‘Tereza Sina Ubaya Pt.1’
Nairobi Matata Jazz ‘Tereza Sina Ubaya Pt.2’
A sweet vocal number by the Elgonets, a group that had quite a few releases on different labels. Listen to the great driving guitar/drum shuffle beat that lays the mood for the crooner ending the track; “God bless Africa, Africa we love, with wild animals, with oceans and woods, god bless the continent Africa, Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, use your bow and your machete and guard it. The togetherness of Africa is worth great goals. Look at it and what it offers, wild animals, lions, crocodiles ..” Thanks to Irine Nzungula for the translation.
|A) The Elgonets ‘Umoja Wa Africa’|
Another goodie from Santa Loi-Toki-Toki Jasta, a lovely tune with mod feeling. Check the superb organ & guitar solos. They recorded several funky pop songs such as ‘Ware Wa’ or ‘Lakusema Mimi Sina‘ on Pathé, and one 45 on Angel, which is a bluesy, melancholic afro-ballad with deep wah-wah guitar licks. Very unique sounds. One of the most distinct bands from Kenya.
|A) Loi Toki Tok ‘Wakati Nilikuwa Na Baba’|
Today’s selection comes from our good friend Philippe Noël (Canicule Tropicale) from Montréal, Canada. Phil chose this obscure 45 pressed in Kenya – probably another Congolese band based in Kenya at that time – because the guitar seems to be doing both the melody and the rhythm at the same time. Really unique sound, especially on ‘Mtoto wa mama’ The flip side Sukuma Wiki (Kenyan-style sauteed greens) is we assume is dedicated to the kenyan side dish. Love the way the song builds up into a chanting vibe! Hope you’ll enjoy this record as much as we do!
|A) Medico voice of Africa ‘Sukuma Wiki’
B) Medico voice of Africa ‘Mtoto wa Mama’
Digging through thousands of Kenya 45’s has proven one certainty, labels marked “Afro rock” provides positive results and usually in a funky manner. In this case, a full on quality double sider from Latapaza Band. The single was unearthed sometime in the 90’ties by Duncan Brooker, if you haven’t read the story check out this 2001 Guardian article on his ventures in Kenya. He released the b-side here ‘Odi-yo’ as a Kona promotion 45 for the forthcoming Afro-Rock 2 sampler, a compilation that never came. A shame because this stuff really hits the spot, some great guitar work featured and a catchy vocal effort on both sides of the 45. Produced by Love peace & happiness .. check!
A) Latapaza Band ‘Maziwa Ya Chai’
B) Latapaza Band ‘Odi Yoo’