GABRIEL OMOLO: RHAPSODY
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The Gabriel Omolo story is truly a numbers game for me. Gabby jakaleya always gave me problems with his maths. I could never breathe before he rams a number down my throat.
Take for example the number 39. Gabby was born in 1939. He recorded his greatest hit record in 1971 and it took 39 years for the Republic of Kenya to notice a record that was selling everywhere in Kenya and sung in Kiswahili the national language and a few words thrown in Agikuyu language deserved some honour. We will get to why Gaby was at ease throwing in Agikuyu lines in his songs. And there are so many numbers games with Gabriel Omolo but we stick to music.
The first time I saw Gaby jakaleya was in front of Ukwala Catholic church and I will never forget that star pull experience in as long as I live. I was just a 11-year-old starry eyed kid and maybe because of that I had never come face to face with star pull. Gaby had just broken away and formed splendidly named Apollo Komesha band from Blue Shades Band. The brouhaha of our own Gaby breaking away was great but greater as in pop bands was being the person to know that his new band is now Apollo Komesha which was quite fashionable as 1969 rocket landing on the moon by Neil Armstrong was strongly doing the rounds and creating waves. And here was our own Gaby jakaleya in front of Ukwala church well synchronised with the end of the mass at about 10.00 am. Nobody moved. It was as if the mass had moved from the church to the road side. I have to explain this.
Most people don’t quite appreciate the romance or bromance of the catholic church and Ugenya people and you can add Alego to that. My people love catholic because it is not straitjacketed on them. The catholic church deals with life after death in Ugenya issues. Life before death is another matter handled without hypocrisy. And you can tell this by the number of young catholic priests from Ugenya. So walking out of the holy communion and embracing a secular musician, Gabriel Omolo was perfectly alright. And besides Catholicism allowed them prayers for every occasion. Catholicism was not overly pious, did not preach water and drink wine in the eyes of Ugenya people. Catholicism is life in Ugenya. In fact, Ugenya is the only place in the world where a secular pub/ bar is named after a saint and nobody has a problem with it. And here it allowed the faithful coming out of mass to embrace the local hero with adulation. I had never seen a star especially reaching out of the sun roof top so close to me and shaking every person’s hand in a Combi van with the writing Apollo Komesha. The numbers and multitude reaching out to shake his hand completely mesmerised me. I could feel the hair on my back crawl. Everybody forgot who they were it seems and just joined Gaby in his greatness. He was larger than life. Even the prison inmates plus their guards in the adjacent old Ukwala prison were one in concert trying to catch the sight of the great Gabriel Omolo. In that fleeting moment they forgot that they were in jail and the prison guards forgot that these were inmates and all of them were pressing their faces against the double wire mesh to catch a glimpse of the great Gabriel Omolo.
We were all out of this world and forgot about ourselves and the world. It was as if the world was stopped and we all got out for a moment. Young or old; male or female, inmates and the prison wardens, protestant or catholic or the much maligned Legio Maria all came together to see his flesh as one. And even protestant Anglican boy like me forgot that I was just tagging along my catholic cousins, Tom Opiyo and just joined in the excitement. I never got close to shake his hand but someone pointed the one in fashionable white sailor’s cap as THE Gabriel Omolo aka Gaby jakaleya. That other one is Sylvester Odhiambo and his brother Peter Owiso. Then there was a Peter Tsotsi and one other and they will be performing at the District headquarters auditorium also known as Ukwala Social centre tonight!
I will leave the second numbers game to your imagination but will deal with the third numbers game that Gaby played on me. When the Golden hit was declared I was in second form in Homa Bay School in South Nyanza district. A friend of ours Abdi from the Kendu Bay Muslim community had a hard time convincing us that Mbarak Mwinshehe was a bigger musician but its only Gabriel Omolo who had the disc. We also had a problem celebrating openly that Gabriel Omolo had the golden disc but not local boys of Collela Mazee, George Ramogi, Leonard Omedo did not even have a prayer. At Homa Bay School we were deep in George Ramogi and Collela Mazee territory. Here were guys who never even wanted to catch the sight of an album record (omera jaloka magi to ang’o ma isieko go kae?). These days I hear them talk Franco and just shake my head at what changed.
And could Abdi and Ogindo Swaleh explain to us why the Congolese bands in Nairobi like the Lubumbashi boys, High Fives, Boma Liwanza, Les Noirs, Co- Bantu of Kisumu did not win it. I am not even mentioning copycat specialists, Steele Beuttah, Air Fiesta, Mighty Cavaliers, Fadhili William, Bahari Boys. So we could not celebrate freely but here he was in newspapers, Mambo leo news when his popularity had waned down from where it was in 1970
Then we had foreigners in the air waves like Johhny Bokelo, Trio Madjesi, Franklin Boukaka, Bavon Marie, Franco, Dr Nico whose sales in Kenya did not get a sniff. Surely James Brown the sex machine, Jean Knight of Big Stuff. Carl Douglass of Kung fu fighting, Miriam Makeba who did not have this Golden Disc. The maths was not adding up. Why Gabriel Omolo? Nobody could explain to us the concept. So our celebration was muted then snuffed out until many many years. When we learnt the truth of the numbers game.
Lunch Time hit record never won the golden disc on the back of East African market supported by a few Luos. That was inconsequential. The East African market could not support any musician to win anything at 100,000. However, Gabriel Omolo had hit the populous Nigerian market hard. Thanks in part to pioneering work by Peter Owino Rachar but mostly to Kenya hosting 1st All Africa Trade Fair held in Nairobi in 1972 when Lunch Time was reigning on the charts. Almost all the African countries came to market their main export. Congo Zaire displayed one of their chief foreign exchange erners- Music. The expo was led by non other than flag bearer Tabu Rochereau and his dancing troupe the rochereattes that had just completed a global tour taking them to Olympia and to Dakar Senegal at a festival hosted by music crazed President Leopold Senghore. The President duly obliged by feting Tabu Ley. Some of these African countries took music seriously. And naturally they sampled what was on offer. The Kenyan 3 table segregated music chart had the African top ten that was dominated by Tanzania music trying to overcrowd Lunch Time. The other two top ten charts had Indian songs and American songs which were not welcome in an African event such as this. Naturally Gabriel Omolo's songs stood tall.
When Lunch Time record hit west Africa as expected it "spawned off" or "metamorphosed" into 3 Lunch time records and only one was being counted as my “broders” true to their habits released another one titled Solea and marketed it in other west African neighbouring countries and among the overseas market. Still the populous and rich brothers supported the 100,000 mark. And to prove that this numbers game, the awarding producers’ reduced the Golden disk marker to 25,000 in order for the likes of Slim Ali and Hodi Boys and popular Mangelepa and others to reach the mark- If you cannot beat them…...
I am not well placed for this, however child hood legend says that Gaby who started off by playing with the mothers wired sieve graduated to other implements. You know the wooden square boxed sieve for Unga, busaa, kwete, etc. When they start to become lose you can use it to play notes. I did it a few times to play that pachanga bass note. You know Pachangaaa, Pachangaaaa. Just don’t do it at home because corporal punishment from mothers was not classified child abuse by then. I was the second of the twin so I got away with a lot of things. I still do get away with a lot of things because she is not alive.
Gabriel Omolo was born in 1939, Omolo was raised in the railway quarters of Muthurwa and later, Makongeni, Nairobi. His father of Keny sub clan in Ugenya around the infamous Ugunja was Longinus Aginga Arek an Employee of the East African Railways and Harbours. Ugunja is the only place in the world with a secular bar/pub named after a saint- St Michaels. This was a classy employer especially in central Nyanza. Marriageable ladies considered askar and ja reru a real catch up to the collapse of the East African economy after the middle east war in 1973. This means that Gaby unlike the many musicians did not have the tale of having come from a poor single mother. Such romantic stories did not apply to Gaby.
Gaby had his primary school education at St Peter Clever primary school in Nairobi across from Muthurwa Estate in Nairobi between 1945-1955. It is said he learnt how to play the guitar while at St. Peters Claver’s Primary School also where he also “sang in the choir”. This is indeed very strange. Those do re mi fah so la ted oh had no place in popular music in Kenya. I am sceptical if this really had an impact. And if indeed it is true then he is the first do reh mi fah so lah ti do graduate to successfully do pop music in this side of the great Lake Victoria.
He came in contact with a Mr Mboss from his neighbourhood in Ugenya who lent him the old acoustic guitar. By late 1940 he could play well. It was also the time of East African community and many people from central Nyanza settled in Uganda. Naturally Gaby drifted to Uganda and only came back in 1960. This background brings him into direct Benga theorists who lay claim as the messiah of Benga and nothing came out of Luo music as it came through them. Here in lies my other numbers game. If Benga was invented in mid-1960, how now do we make Gabriel Omolo a disciple of Benga.
He became a popular village entertainer and Charles Otieno my friend remembers him as a young man who was always in readiness to put the guitar down and go and mix it with the revellers. It was the only way to let any spoilers know that with Musician XX don’t go there stealing other peoples’ dates because he will come and get you. Peter Owino Rachar was also known to take a brawl in his own hands. In Congo word has it that Antoine Wendo Kollosoyi needed no second invitation to get going with an errant reveller. It came with the territory.
Around 1965 after doing enough local circuits he then made his way to Nairobi forming a band known as Ramogi Nilotic band which I confuse with Nairobi Sudanic band for some reason. This quickly transformed to Blue Shades band.
In the late 1969s Gaby joined the big boys at Equator Sound Band along with Fadhili William, Daudi Kabaka, Peter Tsotsi and Nashil Pichen. However, it was mainly jo waya. A recording studio outfit. At Equator Gaby was a bass man
In Nairobi Equator Sounds Band as Blue Shades was good at doing the rounds in residential municipal council halls and sometimes touring small towns around the country. The original Blue Shades band had:
Lead guitar and vocalist: Gabriel Omolo
Rhythm Guitar: James Achieng
Bass; James Akasi:
Vocals: John Otieno
Drums: Fred Mwanyika
As the years turned on James Owuor, James Owuoche, Charles Ajwang’ Awita would also join the band.
“His band, Equator sounds, used to perform at day time "boogies" in the City council halls dotting Eastland’s estates. As kids we just peeped through the windows. He was the master bassist and was nicknamed "Mr. Bass".” Says my friend Nelson Ogola Otieno.
He had other collaborations especially at ceremonies upcountry on the side until Blue Shades Band came along.
Then in 1970 he moved through the gears of the life of a pop band. In quick succession he moved through African Eagles Band to Apollo Komesha 71 band.
His stayed with his last band Apollo Komesha 71, and released music under the Apollo record label that was distributed by Phonogram Limited. “Phonogram not only gave me a contract but the company advanced me 10 000 shillings, a princely sum at the time, to buy instruments for the band” he told a reporter.
At Apollo Komesha which was his band to the final days is when the big break came. First he was blessed by two brothers as colleagues. The two brothers were not only loyal and loyal area mates from next town Ambira near Ugunja but were also consummate composers. The two Sylvester Odhiambo and Peter Owiso were equally talented.
The band also moved their headquarters nearer the upcountry fan base. At that time events around East Africa meant that temporarily Siaya became an entertainment beehive with entertainment centres of Ukwala, Sega Lodge, Savannah and Jerra Inn jostling for the market of the disposable income from the District headquarters of Siaya. Also the breed of returnees and technocrats created a new vibe and activity in Siaya district. Politically the changeover had removed the old school straitlaced politicians and replaced them with sleek easy to get along breed of politicians who had time for a bit of fun. And Gaby was off. To date younger musician without even 10,000 sales on any record are more respected in Luo land than Gaby but Gaby’s numbers game is untouchable.
There is a big debate on how do you classify Gabriel Omolo music. Is it Benga really? I will leave that debate to the experts but there is a strong debate that North of Lake Victoria has always had a slow music with an emphasis on vocals which is not very uniform in Benga all over Kenya.
As far as content is concerned Gaby sung in dholuo, Kiswahili and being a Nairobi dweller enjoyed throwing in a few Agikuyu or Kamba line just for Kidology like “Agikuyu: kiwanja othire mondo” and “mbesha shiake zote azitwaraga moshie”. People like Gaby grew up before tribalism was invented. In fact, there was no known tribal clash between Kikuyus and Luos or Luos and any tribe for that matter.
Gaby general context was social commentary on deviations from morals. In fact, Gabriel Omolo is one Kenyan musician who could stand his own in answering TZ musicians in social commentary. Apart from that typical line he sung praises of Luo personality for distinguished performance or outstanding character. He would sing praises just on personalities as listed below. None of his praise songs was to solicit funds. That sing-song-harambee is not his thing. In any case he quit music before begging became a music art form.
SPOT OF BOTHER
Gaby eulogised fallen loved ones and heroes. His songs about Tom Mboya were devoid of politics for just pure politics. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall a political song from Gaby. But that counted for nothing during Moi dictatorship. At one time Gaby released a song which was supposed to be an up tempo sequel to Lunch time much later in 1980s or so when Moi and his ton ton macoutes were most vicious and lashed at anything that breathes. A real spoof of a song. Honestly it was just a spoof.
The song was titled Githeri but had the chorus line, Githeri yajenga Nchi. Un be known to Gaby, the hardship in Kenya that was in Lunch time had now became offensive to sing about. Or was it Yajejenga Nchi that was protected and listed like the Kenyan court of arms. I was in the car with this Assistant Minister from Western Kenya when the song came on. Actually I was in his car and he was so irritated and asked if I knew the singer, I proudly said Gabriel Omolo of Lunch Time fame. I was getting a lift so had to give something in return. Then I noticed that he was irritated. He then muttered the dreaded words “that this guy deserves a talking to”. Later on I leant that this spot of bother from the outsider who was evidently weeping more than the bereaved did actually reach Gaby. I am not proud of my myself but it is the folly of living a lifestyle by hiking lifts from people. Ironically it is the falsehood of man that Gaby more than once sung against.
In later years I saw Gaby from 10 yards away when he was now working as driver at UNEP and his two assistants had gone into semi-retirement where one was doing graveyard watering hours at Mercury Hotel on Tom Mboya street. Yeah that waiters dirty sand brown uniform with maroon banners of Mercury Hotel is not sight you want on your yester stars. These were stars in my eyes. But I never got to meet Gaby in person and I cannot lie. The closest I got was when a record of his was very popular. I was in standard 7. The chorus was tasty as it had simple line John Omin otieno jayadha mageno. And we sung it because it was easy to sing. Everybody sung it in school and I was just a 13-year-old and did not go to village dances. I had no idea that the record was about my own brother until much later when it was played to me and now I could make out my maternal uncle’s name. John Omin otieno jayadha mageno… Mano okew gi Aginga ja Boroo. It came late but warmed my heart and still brings tears in my eyes. Well, first it was tears of joy but now tears of pain. That was the closest I got to Gabriel Omolo the man from Kakeny clan (Nyambir subclan) of Ugenya near Ugunja.
Gabriel Omolo was a victim of theft from recording studios well documented by Anytha Thierry in his book, Crimes of Benga of 2018. Nobody can deny that, because in its wake was Congolese musicians who died in abject poverty because their records were being boot legged in Nairobi. And the Kenyan government did not cover itself in glory either.
Take for example Congolese and Kenyan bands that did popular music for state propaganda like Daudi kabaka (Harambee Harambee), Mbilia Bel (Nairobi), Miriam Makeba (Pole Mzee), Suzanne Owiyo (Kisumu) what do they have to show for it compared to Congolese counterparts in the west of Africa. In some countries music is recorded literature and is so valued by heads of state and Kings. Unfortunately, Gabriel Omolo delivered for free.
1. Lunchtime- Literary, the hit song is about hard life in Nairobi but philosophically, it sounds like the Greek myth of Sisyphus. That at the end of the month urbanites are in some veiled prison where they engage in sloth to prepare themselves for window shopping and sleeping in the park like babies but can never think of breaking the vicious cycle controlling the end month spending spree.. At about the same time the great Stevie Wonder released a song titled Higher ground (sleepers keep on sleeping). It came 4 years after Lunch time and Stevie wonder is not stupid even if he is blind. You know what I mean.
2. Nairobi (Big Fish)- Nigerians claim this record was a bigger hit than Lunchtime. If so who kept the money? Another social commentary about falsehood of man. However, if it was Greek in Shakespeare time, it would be titled “This masquerade” like George Benson but much more like the philosophy of looking for an honest man. Gaby lists Nairobi residents who cause no harm to anybody but are just dishonest that they dress well and above their humble dwellings. To me Gaby sounds like Diogenes, the Greek philosopher looking for an honest man in this world. Let me know if you find one in those white wedding dresses or military uniforms.
3. Millie- As a rule I don’t discuss songs about Ugenya Kager ladies.
4. Sweetie Monica- I think this was the last main hit. Kabaselleh ochieng lifted it 20 years later in Nyar Kanyamuot replacing, “jahera na anto aheri ma nyaka tho na” with “Haki kalando aheri ma nyaka tho na”
5. Keep Quiet Everybody- Ooh this is bad. The arrogance of parents bragging about children’s achievements and sending them to high cost schools to achieve what they as parents failed miserable to achieve. Gaby warned about this in 1971. Nobody listened, the world is littered with kids falling into hard drugs in a bid to make up the parents’ bravado. Let me stay away from this one.
6. Mr Agoya-Dometic violence? To Gabriel Omolo it’s a no-no. There is no justification for wife beating and there is no justification for debating about it. It must be condemned according to Gaby.
7. Oluoro Dek- This was the first mitumba businessman I saw. But Gaby is not singing about how this guy helped him and the usual benga soliciting for handouts. Gaby is singing about local or regional cooperation and the small business support. He asks why do you have to travel to Kisumu if you can get everything locally. It is the regional cooperation that eludes Africa and developing world. Why do all major African road net-work head to the ports? Why can we not trade between ourselves?
8. Habil Owiso- is the anguish of a mother losing a child after labouring for years. Here Gaby wails like a true Luo mother by the grave side. No written programmes, No Photo Ops, No catering services, No dress rehearsals No hearse. Just pure soulful heart rendering for a chemical engineering graduate who had just come back from the USA with a list of honours
9. Jaluo Asili- A bit of comedy of the paraphernalia of a Luo at a ritual mock dance called tero buru. Tero buru was just for that purpose, to lighten up the pain of the bereaved.
10. Omengo- This a typical Gaby song praising the expertise of this chef from my Kager clan
11. John Nyawallo- The first of the technocrats who were hounded out of the government with the likes of Dr Obama. Here Gaby praises him for professionalism- “Nyawallo mak wuoth gi shirti nono, mak oluowoe koti”, Nyawallo was a self-employed chartered Accountant who went into private practice and established several colleges including the Kenya School of Accountancy. He sponsored many young Kenyans into accountancy and was solely responsible for the reactivation of Ger union and Umira Kager Welfare groups.
12. Sega- More of a PR exercise to up the local revelling joint but the music was good.
13. Tutakula vya Ajabu- I rate this record very highly in music and lyrics. I recently got into trouble for propounding the same things Gaby talks about here in simple clear Swahili- Basically a Spanish poet, Antonio Machado once wrote that, “women are attracted to men with moral flaw but unlike men, they go there to be entertained and not to correct the man”. A man will marry a brothel maid and try to make a wife out of her. A woman will marry a murderous dictator or swindler of government contracts and that is it. She will live lavishly and enjoy Gucci and Prada of the world and roam the holidays resorts of the world as if there is nothing untoward in the tainted wealth. Like Gabriel Omolo’s lady giggling at the butcher man in this song lyrics. It is not that she cannot pay for more kilos of meat but she wants to be showered with flattery and gifts that she does not need since the husband had already provided for that. (kucheka cheka na mwenye duka eti ili apewe ya bure).
14. Githeri yajenga nchi- This was supposed to be a sequel to Lunch time but got Gaby into trouble.
15. Kapango- Was not primarily rural migration as it appears without further thought. The song was castigating consumerism and sloth. When you pay rent in an urban housing , you are consuming but when you build a house in rural area buy a house even if mortgage, you are investing. He also has a dig on sloth of the more than you need instead of adding equity.
16. Dr John Wawiye- In praise of a technocrat but urging people to excel.
17. Argwings Kodhek- Eulogy (Omolo agar nene yuak otamo neno anena)
18. Dr Ang’awa- Euology
19. Tom Mboya- Eulogy
20. Adeya- Tribute to his wife (surprised he had only one)
21. Keep change- witty jab at bad neighbourliness from bachelors and bachelorettes. I hear now they are called fisi and slayquins (to cure what?).
22. Kukosa adabu mbele ya watu- Mischief of Kenyan police accusing all of being drunk and disorderly until judge O’Kubasi born and bred in Makongeni estate like Gaby once challenged the prosecutor, “the accused is saying if a drunkard normally behaves in a disorderly way you cannot then charge them of being drunk and disorderly. Charge them with only one that the law provides. There is no separate charge for being drunk or being disorderly”. End off as Okongo bred rescues Okongo bred.
23. Githeri yajenga nchi- I believe this was his last record.
24. George Owino- The song was a praise for his friend’s non opulence character. The guy was the laugh of the party before he became ridiculously rich (Jerra Inn). In this song, “Japuonj ma lake otop puonjo hygiene” is a double soliloquy and cuts deeper is you think deeply. In other words, how can a teacher with stained teeth teach hygiene and cleanliness. In celebrated author Ngugi wa Thiong’os words, 'how can a hyena guard sheep? How can corporate executives and billionaires be poor people’s representatives? How can thieves be elected to protect the victims? Gaby was sly with lyrics.
25. Tony Onyango- I knew the guy and loved this guy. He was a business man and very funny. This guy could crack jokes even in hell. There is this story when he was being framed by Moi goons for trying to overthrow the government of Kenya. After a long search in his Nairobi Kaloleni house for seditious publications the police asked, “You Luos are notorious for keeping many women, where is your other house?” Then he led them to a drive to his house. When they passed Naivasha and now driving towards Nakuru, one of the policemen asked, where the house is. He answered calmly but as a matter of fact, “Ugenya Uholo huko kwa Maro-oketho-Ugunja city!”
26. Rosemary NyaBoro- This is not only a rhapsody. it must be a collectors item. And if Gaby's essentials were being compiled then this recording must be there. It was the only known successful uses of the echo chamber. The other one being rock star Peter Frampton
27. Jadak Kende- This was an earlier hit discouraging irresponsible selfish life of running away from matrimony. The morals by then was you get to marriageable age then get married; not sleep around, fornicating with every woman on site because of greed and selfishness. Actually Uhuni the swahili word from which Muhuni is derived is not flattering.
28. Mary Akello yuora- Gaby reached out to an old hit to fast pace his music to 1970s Benga style, but fast music was not his thing even if this number was very tasty. It just did not feel right coming from him.
29. Maro oketho Ugunja- The iconic alarm bells of moral decay. When did the rain start beating us? It is when multi clan residential settlements became a norm in the Ugenya frontier regions of the Luo community. In fact we did better in Ugenya because the first mixed race to be born in South Africa was exactly nine months since the first Portuguese ship touched land. Ugunja is a melting pot of all intermarrying Ugenya and Alego clans. The final conflict had to be here- only that it crossed mother and daughter.
30. Ok adwar chiemo, amer- In my eyes this record edged out Queen ma Nyanza because of its literary value. Growing up I thought that a Luo man refusing to eat at home simply meant that, until much later when I was told that the vulgarity of abstention was coded and hidden for adults use only. Then much later I learnt the remarkable value of whiff or aroma left under the finger nails after a meal (to a Luo wife). That is why, "an aneno ni yawa gimoro ema nitie" found a universal listening ear and easily edges out "Queen ma Nyanza" in my eyes.