BENGA: THE MUSIC OF POLITICS
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
BENGA CAN STILL BE REPACKAGED
Among the Lakeside people, getting married for a woman is still dhi tedo. A Luo woman cannot still conceive that a man can be a dependent and neither can the Luo man. This concept of marital union is ripping at the heart of most Luo homes from the Lake side to the diaspora. The theme was well encapsulated when Congolese music attempted a union with Benga.
Dr Kenneth Kaunda once said, “Humanism must respect diversity because Africans have a situation experiencing outlook to live”. Veering out to try new way of doing things does not come easy to Africans. They adopt and endure but that deliberate step to fashion things is not their way of doing things. The African mind will always trust the down trodden path. In fact the older the group the more rigid they are in sticking to safety first.
Take the Luo with something as recent as Benga. As a community Lake side Benga is never seen a product to be repackaged, explored, mollified and modified. Even when Benga music was spiraling out of control in West, Central and southern Africa, Kenya never took it seriously.
The younger generation of Musicians in the Congo music followed the market and repackaged Benga in with spawning of younger groups such as Loketo, Kanda Bongo man Four stars who only plied waters of Benga beats in the far west and southwards. Still Lakeside artist did not read the signs. Is it really insurmountable?
The story of Tabu Ley and Benga tells a different story. Tabu Ley did not steal Benga. The first time he came he talked of the advanced Kenyan recording facilities. The second time he complained of the inelastic Kenyan music market. Then the third time he not only diagnosed the problem that Benga has refused to walk like other of its age mates like Raggae but he did something about it just to prove that he can talk the talk and walk the walk.
Mbilia Mboyo dropped out school at 17 for a career in popular music and. The names are similar but there was no crossing of paths for Mboyo and Tom Mboya. Mboyo was far away in the great Congo River basin while Mboya was in the great Lake Victoria basin. Fate had some deeper and conniving plans for both of them to cross paths. For it is in Mboya’s Lakeside music that Mboyo got the impetus to her career.
Mbilia Mboyo started out of as a backup singer for pop star and Eastern Congolese Abeti Masikini. At age 22 members of Afrisa drew the attention of Tabu Ley to a backup singer now wandering in the services of "wandering" pigeon Sam Mangwana in late 1981. Tabu Ley the man who sung 'Pole Mzee' of Miriam Makeba appeared to have found a new foothold in Nairobi where his two daughters were studying (Utalii and Kenya Polytechnic) with female voice after Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka and all those female artists had done so well in East Africa. Tabu Ley had read the signs that even with traditional and folklore music, East Africans had no problem with female musicians unlike Congo.
As Tabu Ley’s Afrisa left for a tour of Kenya in early 1982 Mbilia Mboyo first hit single Mpeve Ya Longo was released to the Zaire market. Kenyans had no idea they were the first to witness the launch of a real African female superstar after Miriam Makeba. The promotion of the tour was under the personal patronage of late Minister Echakara. Like Tom Mboya who hosted Miriam Makeba earlier in her career, Echakara himself was to meet his untimely violent death in circumstances that has never been cleared.
In the first live show at Bomas of Kenya acoustics would not support the live recording session. Even Afrisa struggled on that day with long instrumentals to help the sound engineers tune up. The live recording was later dubbed as to having taken place in a down town KICC hall in a midweek show.
The mid-day show at Bomas of Kenya was to be the very first public concert ever by Mbilia Bel. As her singing career got under way in Nairobi her maiden record also landed in the music stores in Kinshasa to a very moderate success that would have been forgotten very soon.
After Kenya, Tabu Ley and his Afrisa International headed to Paris for a 5 month recording session. He had been so excited about this protégé and new music direction and needed seclusion and state of the art for one final shot at a female artist and maiden Benga fusion.
In Paris Tabu Ley handed his finest records to protégé Mbilia Mboyo now adopting a stage name, Mbilia Bel. But just in case things did not work out he also released an Album in which he also covered a version of one song in both records. In all this, Tabu Ley’s brain was weaving another sub plot which rose to be the main plot. For this we have to go back a decade in time to 1972.
A DECADE before In his first visit as a government representative, during 1st All Africa Trade Fair in 1972, Tabu Ley was to come face to face with different style of guitar playing which was much more rooted in the lake basin area of western Kenya. In the charts and in the dance hall Benga was trading popularity, toe to toe with Rumba.
When Tabu Ley made a second visit in 1973 for short tour he found Benga beat much more entrenched and slowly sidelining Rumba in popularity.
More ominous was that Benga had broken into the West African market, especially the conservative and populous Nigeria. Stats don't lie and publishers’ stats streaming clearly showed that Gabriel Omolo was on course for Golden Disc of 100,000 records in the piracy infested world of Nairobi and Lagos music producers. And Gabriel Omolo by then was no longer fashionable in East Africa.
The guitar works of the likes George Ramogi, Owino Misiani, Leonard Omedo Ochieng' Nelly, Collela Mazee were scorching the segregated local charts. Especially remarkable was the trendy playing style of one Daniel Owino Misiani and his Shirati Jazz Band. Tabu Ley made a note of these and instructed his rhythmist, Lokasa ya Mbongo and lead guitarist Michellino Mavatiku to collect several records topping the charts that week to go and study. That collection of the top 10 charts was later to be released by Lokassa Ya Mbongo as “Nairobi Nights” which included the local chart stopper decades ago, Kiseru Pek Chalo Kidi.
When Tabu Ley visited Kenya again in 1981 to hustle his royalties he found Benga not only entrenched but was now escalating into central and Southern Africa like a wild fire. He knew he had to sail with the wind as far as Central and West Africa market where Benga was household music. Before he left Nairobi Tabu Ley gave a press interview in which he openly talked of his admiration of Benga. On this occasion he had promised to do something about Benga.
TEAM of Rivals
Back to his recording tour in 1982, Tabu Ley approached the repackaging of Mbilia Bel and Benga with single-mindedness. This was about the 5th venture of Tabu Ley in launching a female act. Others like Henritte had modest success while the last one of the two Les Yond Sisters was a commercial flop with the single Lerida/Maya
The result of this recording mission was two albums released by Mbilia and Tabu Ley but both backed by Afrisa International.
For the immediate song supporting Mbilia's title track she was handed Lisanga ya Bambanda. To underscore positive rivalry, Tabu Ley included 'Lisanga ya Bambanda in both albums. There is no shame in admitting that the protégé outsmarted the master. Whether it was deliberate to make Benga or Mbilia superior, only Tabu Ley knows.
Against the Owino Misiani Benga fuzz edged lead guitar of Dino Vangu, Mbilia Mboyo sounded like chapel chimes in Lisanga ya Bambanda. Tabu Ley leaning over to lift Mbilia version of this recording gave it a rootsy arrangement and with that luminous voice. Out rightly Mbilia's version was the fresher one.
But Tabu Ley did not mind because he was so single minded about the project that he even handed over his earlier African Fiesta hit song, KELYA to complete her album. Kelya was his good luck charm. It was a song he composed as a 14 year old before he joined African Jazz. Infact he was not even allowed to sing it at clubs as he was under age
Dino Vangu was also given a slot for one composition to secure his complete devotion to the project as his lead guitar was key to this musical journey and also welcome him as the replacement of Angolan born Mavatiku Michellino who was now in Franco Luambo OK Jazz en route to better things later on when the perennial xenophobia hit the band, again.
ESWI YO WAPI?
The title track Eswi yo Wapi (where did I hurt you?) was the voice of women and was designed to rope in all women to find favour with this record. For if women could accommodate Franco's stinging jabs on their weaknesses, surely they would embrace this new positive corner woman. Sometimes I get the feeling the overdose of this girl child campaign started with this song.
If the record was in English or French, Mbilia would have been canonized for the message alone. Feminists would have campaigned for the inclusion of Eswi yo Wapi next to the book of Ruth in the bible. PIDHA (not to be mistaken with dholuo word) of Kenya would have built a statue in honour of Mbilia Bel.
Eswi yo Wapi easily dispatched the myth of male supremacy. Mbilia's voice rings strong and clear with a feel of innocence and power of self-possession against the backdrop of Dino Vangu guitar.
"Ask me to tell you/
What's the duty of a man/
God created Adam in this world
So that he'd help Eve/
For what you have given me you talk too much/
In what way are you a man?/
Whether you buy me a house or cars/
You are only paying the debt of Adam to Eve"
And in Eswi yo Wapi, Tabu Ley propelled rumba at rapid clip to reposition the position of Mbilia and Kenya BENGA the scene of her premier appearance. Mimicking BENGA, support singers deliver the chorus in sonorous contrast to Mbilia's limpid soprano; Dino Vangu in a Benga mode delivers sebene his guitar shimmering under the influence of a fuzz tone.
In Sebene Tabu Ley unleashed Dino Vangu to play Benga wizard Owino Misiani's shimmering guitar style. Infact the sebene was an exhibition of Benga lead guitar interrupted briefly by a support of the horn section. As the song closed off, Tabu Ley made sure the shimmering guitar style of Owino Misiani remained on the listener’s ears. Mbilia reappeared briefly in a reprise but it was Owino Misiani Benga shimmering guitar that was left to fade off and linger in ones memory as the signature tune of Mbilia Bel.
The rumba benga hybrid cocktail attracted fans abroad in parts of the world where BENGA has promised so much and failed to deliver. From Ivory Coast to Costa Rica. From Mombasa to Colombia the sound of Mbilia Bel had arrived with a new sound. In the words of Lipua Lipua's Vatta Mombasa and Nyboma, Benga had refused to get up and walk. But this time it did.
Eswi yo Wapi gave Mboyo, the 17yr old school dropout the international star break.
While Benga is still raging all over the world a dearth of Lakeside musicians appears to be appearing. In its place is synthesized musicians who are mostly one hit wonders with no follow up. The synthesized Ohangla is easy to ear and inexpensive to musician, promoters, and to the revelers.
Ironically weaker economies like Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Latin America have persisted with the expensive Benga. It therefore follows that Benga is still doable in Lake aside.
Arise the young Benga artists, as dhi-tedo means Benga is the one to provide in this union and not vice versa.