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.
|A3) Black Savage Band ‘Sharpeville’|
Located on Nyali Beach, south of Mombasa city lies Mombasa Reef Hotel, maybe the grandest of all the classic Kenyan hotels, run and managed by the same family since the mid-seventies. Catering westerners to safaris and snorkelling, and providing local acts of art-acts and music, including the hotel’s then house band the Mombasa Vikings. A band name undoubtedly suited for the many Nordic tourist that frequently visited. If you wanted to bring back some of the magic, musical souvenirs was offered for sale after the nightly musical show and another way for the band to make some extra needed pesa.
Fast forward somewhat 35 year the original Beach Rhythm’s Mombasa Roots seven-inch vinyl single with these two tracks finds Sweden’s own Rickard Masip in some now defunct Stocholm shop, he was mindblown over the music of the b-side track Mama Matotoya, it’s not exactly afro-beat more of a hybrid, heavy percussive with a a tip of chakacha rhythm pattern, a flute solo ooozing with jazz sensibility.
The Ensemble consisted of Tony Rusteau on Reeds. Abdalla ‘Dala’ Hamisi on Percussions and vocals, the late Ahmed ‘Emil’ Juma on lead guitar (…of later Mombasa Roots fame) Keneth Lucas on bass, Clement Fernandes on acoustic guitar, Bernard Pu Cheok Chuen on drums and Bruno Da Silva (who still works at the hotel to this day) and Richard Rusteau on perucssion and effects. The band was a fine example of how good it gets with a daily playing schedule and excited crowds.
We’ve been a fan of this 45 for a long time and the original still is extremely rare (only two copies known to have been found in Sweden!) We had to make a replica and with the help of Carvery’s Frank Merritt and Racuba’s Adam Isbell it’s finally available again sounding fresh and better than it ever did. 100% officially lisensed from the original band members!
A) Mombasa Vikings ‘Kibe Kibe’
B) Mombasa Vikings ‘Mama Matotoya’
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’
As early as 1950s, electric guitars were a phenomenon in the Madagascar islands. In subsequent years, it was typical for lead guitarists to layer their strumming with dazzling riffs on a song hurtling along a frantic pace. This could have been the basis which likely influenced the late Jimmy Mawi’s style, long before he packed his bags destined for the Kenyan capital where he pitched tent in the mid 70s. Unwittingly, he was just coming ‘back home’ as at some point – Madagascar supposedly opted to break away from East Africa’s fold. More significantly, the islands have on instances been described as the country “..where old rock albums go to die..” This uncanny aphorism perhaps resonates with the groove that infuses hard-to-find, rare – until recently, handful tracks credited to Mawi. The not-so-popular Madagascan guitarist virtuoso’s insistent dance-frenzied, Afro-funk singles Black Star Blues, Let Me Keep Away From You, I Want Get Up and Black Dialogue – are already making a grand comeback on the global disco trail. Mawi’s name is undeniably as unfamiliar as his previously out-of-circulation songs, but which are now available on limited editions 10″ Vinyl on Soundway records. Incidentally, rave reviews blatantly draw parallels between Mawi’s “..rough heartfelt frenzy..” vocals expression with his first-name sake Jimi Hendrix’s bluesy funky-rock elements. These 45s were initially recorded some 40-years ago, during late 1970s in Nairobi, then East Africa region’s musical hub.
A) Jimmy Mawi ‘Vero’|
B) Jimmy Mawi ‘Broken Love’
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’|
In all its splendor here is the original Kenyan ‘AFRO-ROCK’ label pressing from the mid-seventies. Let’s follow the lifespan of this song: 1977 – second pressing released in France . 1978 – Used in BBC documentary on African Music. 2001 – Compiled on Duncan Brooker’s Afro-Rock volume 1. 2005 – A remixed NYC/Cuban version with hip-hop vocals is released on Yerba Buenas Island Life album. 2006 – opens up the Last King of Scotland film, as soundtrack. 2010 – Afro-Rock Vol. 1 re-released by Strut with additional unissued material by the same artist. It could be interesting to know what Ismael himself gained from all this renowned fame. Ironically enough it seems from this deleted article that it was Kenya’s large on-going acts of music piracy that shelved his career back in the day. And sadly enough the article also tells us that Ismail Jingo passed away in Mombasa some years ago. In the light of its day ‘FEVER’ was obviously inspired by its West African contemporaries. With its catchy refrain, funky base and killer horn section it was unquestionably a hit record when it was released and to this day. Allegedly a dead rare original LP from Jingo also exists.
|A&B) Jingo ‘Fever’|