BENGA: THE HUMAN SIDE OF THE ENTERPRISE
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
One of the greatest handicaps of Benga music is that its human side far dominates the business side.
In most advanced music genre, the human side is deliberately stifled to let the business thrive.
A casual perusal of the names of lakeside musicians gives a detailed story of how the human side of Benga has a stranglehold on the whole industry.
From the 60s when we encountered names like Masengo Edward to present day Koffi Olomide, our Congolese brethren who are the pace setters of the entertainment industry have laid a marker in names. In the whole time the driving force has always been one the market share.
The naming Congolese Kenyan based bands have varied from Hi Fives, Les Noirs, T P Mazembe to present day artist led bands.
The stage names of the artists have also changed with times solely directed at the market share. From simple pious names like Franco Luambo, Nicholas Kasanda to present day Koffi Olomide (a corruption of come-and-get-me wink to the populous Nigeria and pan African Ghana names).
In between there have been myriads of catchy trendy names such as Mombasa Vatta, Fataki Los Los Masumbuko ya Dunia, Bozi Boziana, Djinu Djanani, Zengele Zengele Zaida, Mpongo Love, Nzilu wa Banzilu, Dilu Dilumona, Zadik Zadikanda, Bill Clinton, Fabrigas, Double Dealer etc. Even the names of the bands have moved from Orchestra Jazz bands to catchy names like Big Stars, Quarter Latin. All the branding and packaging have been to attack and wrestle the market share and maintain the business side of the enterprise
Benga on the other hand are so stuck on the human side of things from Catholic names to names of clans. Little room is left for the thought as to how much they would gain by naming a band after a trendy Man United player for example.
It is honourable to name your band after your mother's clan or name yourself after your sister but what will an artist gain from such sentiments? Are there any clan members to support such a sale in units? One Saturday I witnessed at a nyatitit gig at Ziwani, Nairobi, a reveller monotonously kept dragging the praise interludes by calling himself “An John Wayne Owad-gi-Atieno” and dropping pittance at musician Amolo Kongo’s collection plate while other people were waiting for their turn. A dozing Dr Obama Senior was stirred from his dozing to hear such a repeat of the praise name to which he scoffed "Just give the money and move, Who is Atieno after all?”
It was comical but seriously Dr Obama, himself an economist had a point. How is Owad gi Atieno name helping Amolo Kongo or other revelers if after all that lull all he dropped for the entertainer was some miserable coins? The value of these Dholuo band names, artist names, and title of songs must lead to a market share.
Then we move to the lyrics. Most Dholuo lyrics are very personal and in praise of real person. The closer the person the, the more perfect the creativity. In fact, the greatest Lakeside products had very personal stories to them.
Aside from names of the bands or the artists a sample of great Benga lyrics exposes a weakness in this side of the enterprise. Most great songs were in praise of human subjects who were eventually married to the artist.
The human subject therefore facilitated the composition but the creativity died there because unless the next subject is due for marriage no great composition will be forthcoming.
The lakeside female artists are shorn of this burden and rarely sing of infatuation with lovers. Why? Can you imagine Suzanna Owiyo singing a love song after another man? The first to tear her career into little shreds will be women themselves. A few years ago a young German based lady started on the path to serious on line entertainment industry. The first to come for her head were none other than fellow women who took turns vilifying her over personal vendetta.
The human side of lakeside culture is that it is the men who sought the women. It is the man who marries the woman and not the reverse. The opposite is seen as a sign of permissiveness. Even the die-hard Luo feminist do not cross that line. Hence for a female artist to compose a song in praise of a male lover is a no go area. The second deterrent for lakeside women is that modesty allows them to praise only one heartthrob. They cannot keep of having a heartthrob every month while Ochieng Kabaselleh or Collela Mazee are allowed to have and sing about them as they wish. Even hard core polygamy opposers do not deny Luo artists this window of latitude. The more they sing of them, the more they are hallowed. For female artist just praising that one man has the ready detractors on tenterhooks. And detractors of female artists are never in short supply because of the cultural position of the industry.
Interestingly for Lakeside women in the entertainment industry like Suzanna Owiyo, Lady Maureen, Shari Achieng- Nyasega, Jackie Akinyi, this freedom releases their creativity. They are not looking for the next romance to inspire their creativity. In other words, they don’t need to be doped with permissiveness to sell their songs. This allows them to lead average private lives which is also evident in their clean attire and lack of unnecessary mayekeyeke (paraphernalia) for the supporting performing artists. You get a sense of enterprise security even by looking at their performance schedule alone.
Singer entertainer Akothee for example picked a stage name from the other side of the lake and far removed from her side of the lake possibly because it is urban, trendy and fresh and enables her to remain chic the way Koffi Olomide chose a pan African
I have selected a few songs to illustrate the strength of this human side of the enterprise that has become the grave yard of our artists’ creativity.
THE PULLING IN LUO 4-PT WEDDING.
Would stifling of the human side of the enterprise go against Lakeside culture? I don’t think so and I will explain.
Most young Luos struggle to explain the origin of this now dead tradition in the 4 part Luo wedding. Luos discouraged a man marrying a lover or a woman being married by a heartthrob. Reason is that it took the man’s martial instincts away and greatly impaired aptitude and alacrity. It is the same way it will inhibit a Benga musicians’ business acumen.
Clan girls were therefore married away or separated from their loved ones to preserve this military selflessness to the wider community. It was therefore necessary for the suitor’s side to extract the girl physically and sometimes violently at the encouragement of her people.
In some cases, this relationship was nabbed in the bud by using wise men to put obstacles in the way of this young pretenders. I witnessed such a case not very far from me. Incidentally it was a Nyalego Owiyo, an ancestral auntie who possessed such powerful charms. (No relationship to pretty Suzanna Owiyo). A story for another day.
Just like the Luo four part adapted to economic sense, it has also become sensible for artists like Jackie Akinyi, Bonny Nyaila, Terry Nyan’giya to forge on with their careers without personal love stories.
It became now normal practice for lovers to marry but still to illustrate my point I found it interesting to write about 5 top Luo music men who married their lovers and how such relationships helped them compose the best of their career best.
1. JOHN JUNIOR
I don’t relate much to this young man’s music because he is several generations my junior. One time in West London I met a lady Rosemary who was into trendy lakeside music. And when I asked her who the leading artist was, she convinced me that John Junior was far above the current lot. And she went further and recommended the hit song Sweet heart. And I was greatly impressed by this song and several hits that have come from JJ. One particular hit that even if young girls singing in a vocal unison and it still come good is Nyoremo.
I recently heard that JJ wedded his child hood sweetheart in a colourful but private wedding where he led all the singing minus the instrumentation. Just like they used to do in 1980s wedding with Barry White love songs. The Name of the Bride? Yes, you guessed it right. Nyoremo!
2. COLLELA MAZEE
Collela also known as Owino bemused me with love songs when I was young. I was barely into my wondering teens when ISABELA MULA was scorching the charts. He had just broken off from another Benga Master Ochieng Nelly. A year later he released another hit song JANETA NYADUSE. Amongst his romantic songs I rate these two highly. And him and Ochieng Kabaselle spawned a lot of love stories. Apparently one record was not just another love story to be sung about. I don't think it was a childhood sweet heart. Maybe midlife crisis fling that became real. I am told BI- KAJOS about his wife. And there are two other songs apparently dedicated to his other wives, Jack Jack and Helena Nyaduse
3. JUMA TOTO
JT was not a romantic crooner. In fact, he sang very few love songs but this song JABER ROSY which was supposed to support the A side GOR MAHIA was such a huge hit it took a life of its own matching Gor Mahia pound for pound. Jaber Rosy was about his sweetheart and fiancé whom he later married even though the marriage hardly lasted a month. It was gentle, a plea and a request. In the rare field of his recorded music the song still stands out. I don't think JT recorded near 50 songs in his career. To be fair to JT his musical career had very strange turbulence.
First he broke away from HODI BOYS Band when the Gor Mahia/Jaber Rosy royalties became a problem. Kenyan pressing plants were causing band disputes all the way to Kinshasa. Dr Nico and OK Jazz royalty disputes can be laid at the doorstep of Kenyan pressing plants. JT went solo and formed TODI SIX in 1971.
Immediately tragedy followed when his fiancé died in a rare tragedy towards the end of 1971. It is the sort of tragedy luos talk of only in early morning daylight and in whispers lest the ill wind pays you a visit if you mention it at night. In mid-1972, the Nairobi PC whose children were also at Alliance Girls, the former school of Jaber Rosy banned all teen weekend swing time. Bands folded one after the other.
As he was coming to terms with this new economic order and clubs like Hallians were either folding or could only host one band in a weekend another ill Luck arrived. In purely mistaken identity a later day Gem aspiring politician arranged for him to be mugged and beaten up seriously causing the screwed lower teeth on the lame excuse that he was dating the girl. He was left for dead and sprawled on the streets. JT was on the scene to meet a supermodel from Seme named L- and not Lupita. This one is LO. The mahogany dark and lovely who posed nude in an advert for Rexona luxury soap around 1973. A real Venus in black. Voluptuous Seme clan ladies have made modelling career their own the way Ugenya men have made priesthood a career (Trust me that beneath that alcohol there is a heavenly calling). I can count 17 all-time leading Seme women models.
4. GEORGE KEMBO
Affline The Pretty,
A rare title indeed for a lakeside Benga song. This song was not as romantic as the follow-up one he recorded titled "ARNOLDA JACKIE". But this song was danceable. I knew about Affline the person and the pretty because I grew up with Kembo younger cousins.
Anyway the bassist for George Ramogi and Central Kendu Jazz Band, George Kembo married his sweetheart Affline the pretty and they lived happily.
5. HAJULAS OCHIENG' KABASELE.
Collela Mazee and Ochieng' Kabaselle hardly sung a song other than romantic ones. It is no wonder that the song Kabaselle dedicated to his child hood sweetheart was the gently rendition of Grace Kabaselle. The following lines were as personal as they could be.
"jahera piny otama wang'a ka iongeye
aaah GK onego duogie adundo nyaKano
aaa yawa bende ung'eyo
aaak GK no to oloyou adundo nyaKano"
· Odongo Manila Waya Ngozi (Herina Atieno),
· James Owuoche (Jaber Nya Sega),
· Musa Olwete (Serfina Atieno),
· Kasongo Joseph (Margy Nyalego),
· Paul Omari Nyakwar Duka (Persy Atieno),
· Owino Misiani (Perez nya Ugu),
· Collela Mazee (Jack Jack, Helena Nyaduse and Betty)