OCHIENG’ KABASELLEH: THE LUO ST VALENTINE
Updated: Mar 16
TRIBUTE TO PROF MAGOHA: THE LAST LUNNA KIDDI
I remember this conversation about a soul singer with some female colleagues. I was commenting about US ballad singer Barry Whites baritone voice. And I said something to the effect that I can sing better than Barry but I am sure the ladies would never buy my records. So one lady, Stephanie laughingly answered, “Sure, we would never buy your songs because we don’t believe you can deliver what you are promising!”
If that is the case, then why do Luo women believe Kabaselleh Ochieng the Dholuo singer? Was the banter on me as a person or Luo men in general? Is it because Luo ladies believe that he means what he says? Is it the meaning in words? Or Is it simply the dialect?
Ochieng Kabaselleh and the Luo St Valentine.
In Luo customs there was nothing like the modern day Valentines day. In fact, in Luo customs every day is a day for gifting just like in ancient gifting. And St Valentines gifting is not only for those we love romantically just like the Luo gifting. There was a time in the early 1980s when love song crooner Lionel Richie had a Swahili song, “Jambo nipe centi moja” that was scorching the charts all over the world. Some of us did not take this song kindly. We were all livid that once more the naivety of the African American tourist had been exposed with that song. We assumed Lionel Ritchie just picked up a line from parking boys, street urchins, to go and sing. Then later in 1980s when travelling on the Nairobi- Kisumu train, the old man whom we were sharing the second class compartment with told us in the dholuo, “rawere awinjo ka udhaw to onge rach gi fuho jathum kata fuho nyako ma ichodo kata fuho jamiel”.
Basically “I hear you heckling but here is nothing wrong with a man showering with gifts a musician, a beauty, a dancer or the one you smitten by”
We were mesmerized by this Kager man assimilated in Bunyala, Busia county hundreds of years ago when he went on to school us on fuho nyako. First we did not know he was a closet dhoLuo speaker like a vast majority in former North Nyanza. We also learnt that like ancient Valentines gifting, there was no special valentine day. It could be when visiting unmarried sisters’ in-law arrive in the clan to visit their kin, when todi dances were arranged (dance parties arranged for the occasion of the visit). And one could gift even a bull when overtaken by events when the star musician sings praises to the star attraction whose attention they are competing for. So songs of love and praises of ladies in the entourage to kick off the party and bare the competition was quite in order. Such gifted musicians with the ability to spark love songs or songs of praises came in the mould of Lunna Kiddi band and star crooner Kabaselleh Ochieng’ the subject of this post.
It goes without saying that Kabaselleh could easily be called the St Valentine of dholuo music for his domineering role in Luo romantic songs in the last 60years. He just had a way of describing love in a different way that made it more impressionable. Where other musicians just redho words (threw words into a song with a spatula ) to get by before the next verse comes along, Kabaselleh actually paid attention either weaving a web around the woman or hand stitching the words describing the woman. And in most cases he did both. No matter how short a song was, Kabaselleh would get just the right crotchet to finish of what he had to say. And no two songs tapestries were the same. You can go as far back as his first recorded song recorded in 1967 when when he was in form 3 with fellow school boys Nyar Asembo Konge, popularly known as Akinyi Nyako Nyobiero (chunya nikuomi, lando Akinyi nyobiero, maama ooh nyar gi owaye). Take for example the 1970 hit of “Nyoremo” by his Lunna Kiddi which was recorded by the early line up of Lunna Kiddi including the legendry late surgeon, academician, vice chancellor and cabinet secretary bassist Prof Omore Magoha who we are burying this weekend. Notice the dragged non stereo bass guitar percussive thumbing style of them days.
Atieno owada, ing’e ni ikawo pacha, nyoremo
Nya jodongo ing’eyo ni aheri
Hera oketho denda
Kwa hivyo, kipenzi
Anna Yoo, Atieno Yoo, Nyoremo yoo
Nyako nya jodongo
Kata ka ng’ato opingo to onego ang’e ni mano ng’a
Atieno onego rinda
Atieno rapudo okuedo mapenzi ya pesa
Atieno oloyo u, Aaaa oloyo na u te
Kalando ngima na to chalo nono
Kionge thurwa Gem
Adundo ngima na to chalo nono
Kionge thurwa Gem
Nyamama ngima na to chalo nono
Kionge thurwa Gem
Lando Atieno yoo, aahh mama
Nitakufa juma mosi juu yako, ka ionge jaber
Nitakufa Juma pili saa nane, ka ionge
Kalando mimi napenda adundo nya yagi
Nina kufa na guitar mkononi
He could be saying the same things over and over in the same song but in such fresh words every time that even a night runner would pause to hear what was being said rather than do his business. It’s the sort of storytelling that was captured in Alfu lela U lela (A thousand and One nights). Legend has it that a renowned cattle thief, having sneaked his bull out of the kraal kept on circumnavigating the village scene of crime in Yiro East Ugenya, just to hear one more time the fresh sounding words of GK and Nyoremo songs by Kabaselleh that were competing for encore by the romanticised revellers in a nearby home. And suddenly it was ‘Ugwe wang’ time (5 am). So he abandoned the mission, leaving the prized bull there and took to his heels before the revellers could find him.
Prof Magoha of the Lunna Kidi (Omore Georgi Yeeee!)
When a satisfied and elated Kabaselleh Ochieng' in that captivating gentle rumba of Nyager (1991) screams out in delight "Omore Georgi Yeeeee!", not many people were aware it could be the name of an ever studious surgeon and professor George Omore Magoha. I am not sure the professor took part in the recording or had anything to do with the composition. I suspect it is an earlier song most likely by the professor himself that was shelved for lack of appeal during the days of Si-Cheki gangster grouping or Starehe Boys Centre and Patrick Shaw got in the way; but somehow Kabaselleh rerecorded it decades later and thought it right to chant his name at the delightful rendition of the earlier efforts praising this a nyar Ugenya Kager. In any case Gem is littered with settlers from Ugenya Kager clan. Why do I think so? The song is very different in structure from Kabaselleh songs around this time and any songs in the 1970s on wards. It is not a classical Kabaselleh solo lead. The nearest is the gospel Nyasaye Nyakalaga of 1971. Even Chris JaKaGan 1979 offers a vocal solo lead. The choral leading must have been the thought of an instrumentalists like a bassist who was too shy to lead on their own. But then again why allow his middle name to be chanted there without owning the full works? Only the two of them and the Nyager in Ukwala know why. I am not even getting to the personality of an earlier composer known as one George Peters, who disappeared in thin air as if he never existed, yet there are several earlier Lunna Kiddi songs that bear this name.
But I believe Professor Magoha is the last Lunna Kidi to depart this earth. I had met Ochieng’ Kabaselleh and Otti Emanuel (Monica/Cele) previously, both of who departed this world earlier and they all had something similar whether by choice or not. What is clear is that Kabaselleh is named after the Congolese rumba great of the 1950's and early 1960’s. And Ochieng’ Kabaselleh style of picking the solo guitar is very Dr Nico Kasanda like. Dr Nico was the soloist of that great Congolese band. The name of the Congolese band is African Fiesta just like the full name of Lunna (Leng’re Uru ni Nyithing Africa). And just in case you did not know the early Congolese musicians who were missionary trained were actually more technically trained than the leaders. For example, Grand Kalle and Dr Nicolas Kasanda were college lecturers of the highest institution of learning in Leopoldville (Kinshasa). Antoine Wendo was a naval architect. In fact, at Independence Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s strategists were Grand Kalle, Antoine Wendo, Dr Nicolas Kasanda, and Cameroonian Manu Dibangu, all musicians and all more educated than him. All the musicians were more educated than the politicians at the time of Round table Independence talks In Brussels, Belgium and that is why they gave the colonisers a more difficult time than the politicians. It is the musicians who noticed the underhand tactics by the colonisers who hired prostitutes to do tag team shifts on all the key delegates every night as to leave the delegates so tired and worn out to read and concentrate on the talks. It is Grande Kalle and Manu Dibangu who unsuccessfully tried to warn Patrice Lumumba against colonisers spy Mobutu Sese Seko, before independence and after independence. It is Grand Kalle that held most of the draft speeches by Patrice Lumumba.
But our concern here is the way Professor Omore Magoha rose to educate himself just like members of African Fiesta. In marriage, he also became Pan African which will make his funeral pan African in style. In Lunna Kiddi, songs in praise of people in pursuit of higher learning were prevalent. Lunna Kiddi hardly praised one for sloth like many Congolese music genre post President Mobutu style of soliciting for handouts by calling names. Something that was championed by benga star Okatch Biggy and is now common in most dholuo popular music. It is as if the delusion with opulence that he narrated in the song Lek (dreams), 1969 had become real life. With Lunna Kiddi it was always, dhi neno adundo kama osomoye, Lwak (Sukari na,1969), thuon ja mbaka to kendo osomo (Skul Agulu 1992); mano ng'at mosomo (Jalang'o Mak'Okumu,1977); adundo olal kasomo (Nyar Jo Seje,1973); lando owe gi lake (Nyar Kanyamuot, 1985); Achieng' isom aye imiel Soul kende gi rumba (Achieng' Rudi,1975); kar ang'o ma nene abiro goli e somo? (Millicento nya Asembo,1985). Even in secondary school praise of buddies it was good natured attributes like in the song Naphtaly, 1967 popularly remembered as paka muol chalo nyathi. I am not forgetting that even in Kenya, Kabaselleh was one of the few musicians with credible secondary school education from a accredited government school and this attendance can be vouched by real people. The emphasis is "was" as I am not sure about now. The pursuit of education and higher learning that Professor Omore Magoha stuck to up to his last breadth is evidently one unwavering mark of Lunna Kiddi that Kabaselleh Ochieng also preached up to his last breadth. It goes along way to discriminate the Non Lunna Kiddi followers who may not appreciate such self excel in pursuit of knowledge values and sentimentalities as valentines day of chocolates flowers and all that jazz. Still the Pan African calling and the intellectualism that was a pull for Lunna Kiddi urbanites and the educated valentine lovers does not fully answer the Lunna Kiddi St Valentine lenses that I wear.
A general survey tends to point to Kabaselleh preference for a dholuo dialect but not only standard dholuo but also ancient dholuo. It is the ancient dholuo dialect not preferred by the bible, preachers, radio stations or even grammatically written texts. It is the dialect you do not find the further you move away from river Ndhoya/Yala catchment area. Let us just say it is more spoken in Ugenya and the Ugenya frontiers like Yimbo, Alego and Gem. But the romance of the dialect is that if one marries from these areas they find their dialect slowly changing. Alumni of Sawagongo, Ambira, Rang’ala schools end up picking their lost ribs from this area. Practitioners are trying to argue that it is the romance of the dialect that is the attraction to Lunna Kiddi music. That this dialect is a valentine dialect in itself. Not necessarily because of the explicit directness but because of the short spoken form. It is this romance of the dialect that young lovers find favour with, they claim.
For example, in 1973 hit song, Maziwa Na by Ochieng’ Kabaselle deliberately drawls “ng’ano duari ga gi pesa”, making sure that words like “dwari” is in Ugenyan 3 syllables, “ng’ano du-a-ri ga gi pe-e-sa”. Of course he grew up in Gem and did not have to deviate from the standard dialect. But then in 1977 in homage to the all conquering victorious Luo Union Football Club (Re-union) he is back to the 3 syllables in okelo oko-o-mbe waneno Luo Union. That he persisted in such texts and lingo even in later years must mean that he knew what the impact was to his love song listeners. He would deliberately just drop it in the middle of a verse for the desired effect.
Ancient and Dying Dholuo
Some observers claim that this area contains some of the old forms of dholuo language. This is so because the Exodus from South Sudan entered Kenya before spreading to the South of the Lake. And all Luo clans settled from South of the lake, Tanzania and round the lake to the south eastern part of DRC came through this entry point. And just like Europeans find favour with Latin, romantic dholuo speakers love ancient dholuo and names. Names like Athieno, Akodhee (Akoth), Winde (Awino), Luochi (Aluoch), Okinyo (Akinyi) are competing the African-America Obamanika, Wendy, Shanika, Shakila etc. But there is more. There is the romance of the old dholuo now appearing as new dialects to the younger generation. There is this lady from Kisumu who fell in love with the husband just because the husband asked her, “Nyane I hunera nadi kose ihembo?” (You look so voluptuous, have you conceived?). She says she found the new vocabulary so sweet to the ear she had to go and share with her grandmother. And the grandmother immediately sensed what was happening. At that moment she resolved to marry the boyfriend because of the light of joy she saw also in the eyes of the grandmother. And this lady claims it is the same with the dialect that Kabaselleh used that gave them an extra Valentine feel. And that is why Kabaselle love songs sounded more believable than me and you when he uses ancient dholuo words and forms like, okew kaneya (linky nyar joSaye,1976), gonyo (Jela,1992), bu (Zainabu 1991), renjo (Nya Ugenya Kager 1991), rom gi omoro, good tidings (Jela 1992), atum nadi (Mathews Anyumba Juma 1997), raring'o (Oyundi, 1992), amor ma ngano (Jackie 1992) apong'kor, thenge, Siboye (Piny wa ni, 1992) etc.
A Russian woman once told my cousin and best friend Ouma, “Freddie you don’t have to be handsome, you just have to be gallant”. My Luo brethren are known all over this part of the world for being gallant. Sons of Nam Lolwe are known for polite attention or respect to women. Kabaselleh Ochieng’s songs also had chivalry. The meaning behind the songs were courteous towards the ladies he sung about. It was not just simple I love you. The nya mama, nya mara, lando, nyar gi owete, sukari na, dibuoro, ka ok ayude to pi wang'a nyaka wuog ye, etc were a courteous communication to the subject and most cases in valentine romance all ladies could easily pass to be the subject.
Here is an illustration by compilation of Lunna Kiddi top 10 bewitching lines:
1. GK (1968): Ahh yawa, ubende ung’eyo, aa GK no to olou adundo nyakano.
2. Atieno Nyoremo (1970): Nitakufa juma mosi juu yako, ka ionge; nitakufa jumapili saa nane, ka ionge
3. Cele (1972): Kara nega mondi eka koro iwuog ia.
4. Adhiambo Nyoremo (1975): In ye koth magoya; to in ye chieng’ machama; in ye kech makaya
5. Sate-Sate (all the time) (1977): Pok otieko juma achiel, to an gino kaneno to hera oloko gino chalo higni ochiko
6. Lizzy nyar jo Seje (1973): Pok aneno nyako ma nyalo ketho wiya ka lizzy ongeye; pok aneno nyako manyalo ga loso godo ka lizzy ongeye
7. Achieng’ baby (1974): Um wang’a gi hera kik ane nyiri ma moko; panda ga mondo kik nyiri moko onena
8. Zainabu (1991): Kata mana ndiga di po ka ogoya piny bu nega nono ka podi ok aneni.
9. Jela (1992): Kalando ber makata koth dwa chwe to koth nyaka bare
10.Sikul Agul (1994): Kata ise nyuol dipar pod aduari
Novelty of a foreign language
The romance of foreign words is one aspect that Kabaselleh really exploited in use of fashionable Congolese street dialect, Lingala. He extended this novelty to neighbouring groups around Ugenya, Alego, Gem Yimbo clan frontiers, the later luhya bantus of North Nyanza. The very nature of frontier communities is that people share some common words for everyday communication, for cultural exchange and even youthful biz. Common in these frontier Luo clans is the use of such words as mbula (i.e.), mbuta (happenchance), nyere (verily), and suffix nga (to denote continuous tense). When in Jela (1992) song Kabaselle chants mbuta chieng’ moro nwa winj maber (by happen chance fortune will favour us) and unexposed dholuo speakers confuse it with his fond name is a case in point. The constant use of nga in continuous verb is a suffix extracted from former North Nyanza dialects. And despite the maligning of the nonstandard dholuo grammar, by people who don’t know better, Kabaselle was never shy of using such cosmopolitan dholuo in his songs.
Kabaselleh spoke best for valentines lovebirds. In the words of soul singer Marvin Gaye, "I want you to want me just like I want to" or that folklore US pop song of yester year, Temptations" I have never been to me" (to mean nobody has ever loved me the way I really want to be loved) . And to be able to express that loving desire just like valentine lovers wants to is something Kabaselleh delivered perfectly time and time again. And that is why Kabaselle and his Lunna Kiddi songs are perennially fashionable.
Unfortunately in the absence of Kabaselleh Ochieng wuod Ogola Ka Adoyo (pictured), the future is grim for such powerful Valentine songs. Music is more hurried and the lyrics is naturally more hurried towards the bedroom. The sporadic seductive lyrics of Benga musicians George Ojijo (My Best Wishes to Connie), Musa Juma (Siaya ka Baba), John Junior (Awino Nyoremo) and Jimmy Likembe (Born Smart) who could add on to the Valentine collection has been pushed aside for more sexualised erotic music where lady sex has not only reared her ugly head, but is busy twerking away. The purists will just have to do with Lunna Kiddi memories of Prof Magoha, Otti Emmanuel, Kabaselleh Ochieng’ and company. Fortunately for those who still believe in love and want to celebrate Luo valentines, St Valentine Ochieng Kabaselleh oldies still delivers.
Rest in peace, Kabeselleh, Otti, and Professor and the rest of Lunna Kiddi. You gave so much and took so little.