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.