OKATCH BIGGY: A STORY-TELLER'S ANTHOLOGY
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
OKATCH BIGGY: ANTHOLOGY
There is not much difference between a liar and a lie teller but there is a difference between putting on a dress and wearing a dress just as there is a difference between a song of stories and songs of a story teller. All songs are stories but not all singers are story tellers. Songs need a story teller to give the story life. Biggy was such a story teller.
I read the fierce criticism of the biography of Congolese rumba King, Graeme Ewen as having fallen flat due to the fact that Franco's life was a story sitting there waiting to be told but the author in a rush to make a kill never told the story in the biographical works Congo Colossus. In the same way, It is the same with many Luo benga songs unless it is finds a story teller like Okatch Biggy. Like all Luo folklore these are stories in musical form. The difference is in the power of storytelling and if the story is delivered by Okatch as the singer it acquires a different flavour because he was such a super story teller.
OKATCH EARLY YEARS
How Eliud Mathews Okach travelled his journey from 1954 in Ujimbe Yala division of Siaya District, Nyanza Province, Kenya and back to Ujimbe, Gem of Siaya county in 1997 as the late Okatch Biggy is not very well documented just like any other biography of that generation. For example, a fellow musician on a tribute to him has on recorded literature sung that he is not of Gem clan even though born in Ujimbe Gem. Whether he is Alego or not does not matter now for us now. We will know when his children get married and due diligence is being observed.
Legend has it that from 1977, Biggy commenced on a career that at first led to Biggy doing various stints as a drummer for fast granite Benga bands such as Kiwiro Boys Band, Owino Misiani’s Band, Collela Mazee, Ouma Omore, Awino Lawi and middle of the road benga like George Ramogi to the other side of the extreme Benga of Ochieng Kabaselleh.
In the transition like all artists, he coalesced and formed his own Band Super Heka Heka from the last group of Kiwiro Boys Band. Heka Heka was more of a Swahili word which earns very little milestone for one in the lakeside town of Kisumu where Swahili is still rejected with studious inattention 300 years since the language came about. But in Kisumu he did hard nights work with revellers to what we ended up knowing as Okatch Biggy. At times he performed in such makeshift structure made of par (reed mats) wall and open roof top. Gloriously he eventually ended his career performing at top auditoriums like Nairobi Safari Park Hotel even if being an opening act for International artists like Kanda Bongo Man.
I am not sure how the name Biggy came about. One story has it that he loved Boxing and tried his hands at boxing literally and figuratively at now Obat Masira’s Kisumu Social Hall. This is not unusual as Pepe Kalle was also a Karetaka who fell foul of the 1976 African Boycotts of Olympics. And Michael Jackson’s father was a boxer before dropping off to start the world renowned Jacksons Fives. There is something between musicians and boxing but I don’t know what it is. There is another school of thought on how Biggy name came about which I find credible because unlike the boxing story, I can see remnants of this name. This other story is even more apt because in a way it leads as onto the Biggy music style. Even though the timing is tight, there was an innovative artist in the North American East coast hip hop scene by the name Notorious BIG or Biggie Is Small. There are similarities not only in their unlikely back ground but also in the way they went about innovating their music. This hip hop innovation led to a time when Hip Hop was reaching out to mellow pop song and super-imposing story telling into yester-year hits without changing the pace or the song. Hits like California Love by Dr Dre were just stories on an old hit record. The crossover was so complete that the innovation has stuck between two very opposite audiences just like Okatch Biggy music has transcended benga fans and artists. So listening to Notorious BIG hit like Hypnotise, you can relate the two Biggy’s. And believe me Okatch Biggy was not stupid as an artist. Is this hip hop angle farfetched? Take a look at the photo showing a lean bassist Adwera, before beer belly, next to an even leaner Okatch Biggy in a hip hop pose and come to your own conclusion.
Many things that Okatch introduced into lakeside benga are now being used by all music genre from Ohangla to academic school music festival. There is this style of chanting a ray of names of anybody-who-is-anybody. It is Okatch who gave us that style. Then there is the sexualising of Lakeside Benga. It is Okatch who gave us that. But Okatch had the discipline not to go beyond what is acceptable on the River Yala/Nzoia basin. In fact, Okatch only went that much explicit after he World AIDS Nov 1 1991 resolution in Paris that declared that abstention from sex was a ticking time bomb. And rather like now, sexual permissiveness and condom use like face masks in the current pandemic must be enabled and promoted. "Hot Sex Now" campaign meant also being shy about openly talking condoms to your children would lead to a holocaust. Biggy even took it a step further and positively sung about Condoms. To some this was promoting permissiveness yet AIDS politics maintain that it is the permissiveness and condoms discussion that saved millions.
Then there is the nonstop dancing session after observing that Lakeside people just want to dance. Okatch Biggy gave us that. Okatch Biggy is the first Benga artist to venture into commercial advertising partnership with the Private sector and the Third Sector.
Another invention of Biggy’s is the reintroduction of a musical style that suited the Luo girth when dancing. It’s not easy for the Luos to do those Congolese manoeuvres, neither does it fit a Luo woman’s dressing etiquette. No Luo woman wants to jump like a monkey or imitate a monkey eating bananas neither do they want men that behave like animals. You know Luo women and their high standards. The furthest Luo women wanted to go is Pesa Posa of early 1990’s and twist from the west in the 1960s. Any other style, it was “BI MOS KAE PEK” just the way older Congolese bands rejected some of those fast paced Soukous dances. Or sometimes Luo women dancers would cut down some useless choreography in the Congolese dance moves like tondruok, liekruok or nudruok and re-introduce a benga version like they did with Mangelepa and Virunga congolese band dance moves in late 1970s.
However, when it came to Okatch fun-a-while dancing, they were at ease. Naturally he was a dance hall craze. In later years when Kabaselle moved his base to Kisumu, he also halfway adopted to meet Okatch style in record structure like in Oyundi, Jela. And So did Owino Misiani in hits like “rip Nyerere”. Even later day artist and modern Ohangla was fashioned to feed of Okatch fan base and style.
I can therefore say it without any fear of contradiction that the boundaries of the Middle of the road Benga class that once had only samplers Juma Toto and Ochieng Kabaselleh has been rolled back to include all the modern day Ohangla groups from Mbita to Ugenya. Artists like Emma Jalamo, Musa Jakadala music structure was fashioned by Okatch Biggy for dance hall fan base. Of course Musa Juma, John Junior are substantially the Urban benga class of Kabaselleh and Juma Toto even if sometimes they teeter very close to Middle of the Road.
I have said above that Biggy gave us some things that we did not have. In the market stratifying, I am not sure whether it was accidental or just a coincidence. Okatch music fan base entered through the middle class benga fans. One feature of this market is that they were people with disposable income. You had fans who could travel from Mombasa by air or by road just to come and revel over the weekend. They were working class. Another thing is that they were people who had been working for 10-15 years and had families and therefore were not of fickle loyalty. The drawback is that in some cases it created a lot of problems on the home front. In fact, almost 30 years later a woman walked out of a party in my house with the husband on account of the bad memories the Okatch years brought into their marriage. Of course Biggy is not to blame for this. Neither is Biggy to blame for the lifestyle of his revellers which did not have such a happy ending. Biggy's only mistake was to be there when the tragic story ended just like dying in bed. We cannot now dispose of all beds. I can also speak for myself here.
I testify that I attended Biggy shows only twice in my life because of so many other reasons. The first time was on the last day of Kisumu show when my football team, the neutrals favourite, Re-Union FC was abruptly slotted to play a Sugar belt team. I led a make shift second 11 squad for some easy Shs 100,000. At night after dispatching the rest of the team back to Nairobi, me and my temporary team manager went out to sample Biggy show. The next morning to say goodbye was my temp TMs dancing partner who was again elaborately spotting a navy blue set on her petite frame. In the light of the day I noticed that she was also spotting a telling matching herpes on her left lower mandible. Then in my next show in Nairobi the following year when I was no longer in football management, I went to Nairobi Makuti club to chase a land deal scuttling between Nairobi, Kisii and back in 15 hours. This time to my primitive and traditional Ugenya-Luo horror I ran into a bubbling brown widow who had just been released of manslaughter for stabbing the husband dead some 27 times. At that moment I was headed on stage to shower Biggy while he was belting out the new infectious hot single Okello Jabondo which I only knew as "weche magalagala". It would not be fair to blame Biggy for controlling events from asking ASK officials to assign Re-Union FC to fill the game slot on that last day of Kisumu show on a two day notice. And would you blame Biggy for releasing this manslaughter bevy to go and be in Nairobi Makuti that very Saturday? These are all weche magalagala like the stabbing of that pleasant colgate advert star. Besides remember what I told you, Arsene Wenger the Arsenal FC coach said. "Before a team concedes a goal, 5 mistakes must have taken place." Okatch Biggy the drummer, was just a goal keeper.
Biggy's fame crept on the Kenyan scene because he was never in airwaves like other household recording artists. His fame was raging with his fans and he never bothered to bribe his way into airwaves. As a matter of fact, Biggy entered Kenya at a difficult time for Benga artists. But we will come to how that fashioned his fame.
In this journey Biggy must have been infected by various benga styles and being a drummer, the time keeper and pace setter he was the one most demanded upon to conform to each music style. In many ways a drummer is like a goal keeper. A legendary football technician from France, Arsene Wenger, once said that, ‘for a goal to be conceded, five mistakes must have happened’. A drummer like Biggy at his base was best placed to see the whole stage and fans. It may explain why great musicians like blind singer Steve Wonder had their roots in drumming. The dual role they occupy as a master and servant in delivery of a song enables them to pick out all the weaknesses of a song and where the strengths lie. In addition, after performing with a variation of Luo styles, Biggy was best placed to chart (or chat) his own path and mostly his own music style.
I am not sure of what other literature authority say of Benga styles but it is wrong to say that a music now followed by millions in almost every part of the world can be uniformly the same. In my 50 years of listening to Benga, I can pick out three classes of Benga music on the Lake basin. In order to fully explain Okatch Biggy delivery, it is important that I identify the classes and then identify his class and its influence and contribution to recorded literature.
There is the class that I call Garage benga for lack of better words. This Benga is fast paced and characterised by a sharp paced lead guitar and as you reach the climax the lead guitar and the drum set have a field play of a steady strong foot drum. In fact, in Alego a celebrity professional discotizer by the name Ogola-Ondialo augmented the foot drum with an additional two sets of cow drum. The impact it created reverberated a whole location and all. The guitar is struck or attacked, but not played, to piercing metallic sound. The song introduction is short and is always choral. There is no gospel call and answer in the vocal arrangement. More like sanctified music. The fashionable dances are short piston like automation. Elaborate dances like Kwasa Kwasa from Congo are not welcome. Also rudely unwelcome are suggestive and sexually explicit dance formations and lyrics. Not even remotely welcome is obscenities in parables like in Taarab music. Most of the artists Biggy worked with are of Garage benga class and he really understood what lakeside fans want. They just want dancing rhythm of the foot drum. And he borrowed the foot drum, the choral vocals and long play from Garage. And he is not alone. The rest of Kenya fell so much in love with Garage Benga that when Garage reached Miraa Mt Kenya, you always thought there was a threat of violence because there was no patience in Eastern Province. It is this class of Benga that broke the Kenyan frontiers and marched down south to Central, South and west Africa then swam across the oceans to Latin America.
Then there is what I can loosely call Urban Benga. One feature of Urban Benga is that it is slow and elitist. The guitar is played not attacked and the steel from the percussion and lead guitar is toned down. The foot drum is almost an irritant. Then there was heavy experimenting with music from elsewhere but mainly from Congo. The High Priest at the extreme end here was one Hajulas Ochieng Kabasellehe but the prototype was Juma Toto. Like many elitist groups, this urban Benga group were fashionable in comparison to Garage Benga.
The following is very small and is shared with foreign music and Congolese artist rampant in urban centres. In any case once one left the urban dwelling, the music was more an interruption to the locals. It became more academic and some musicians resorted to part time careers with the others furthering other careers like medicine, academia etc.
In the Middle Of the Road Benga class were visiting or smapler artists like Jimmy Likembe of CK Band and this is where Okatch Biggy nicely nestled in. Generally, from extreme end musicians dipped into middle of the road styles like George Kembo with Arnolda Jackie.
At the beginning of the song Biggy would retain the choral singing structure from his earlier stints with Garage benga artists. He only brought back the Nyatitit call and answer to fill the space in the chorus but mostly borrowed the chant of the Congolese. He took away the steel from the lead guitar, toned up the percussion but dominated the song with more of his own vocal singing. From the Urban benga class Biggy also borrowed other gimmicks like the picking lead guitar of Simba Wanyika brothers George and Peter. When necessary he unleashed the foot drum. It appeared having listened to the critics of Garage and Urban benga classes he tried to blend everything.
THE STORY TELLER.
There are certain aspects of Okatch music that are unique. First and foremost, Okatch was a story teller. It is like his work station in the band limited his ability to tell his side of the story. Once liberated and brought close to the audience, Biggy never let go. And rightly so. A good story can be told by different people but it is the person who tells it best that stands out. In the dholuo it is ja mbaka.
Take for example his average lessor known Lizzie- Yukabet record. Biggy like any Benga artist would have stopped at the first two stanzas because the story of the disappointment with the disappearance of Lizzie- Yukabet. Like all popular songs, the song was really complete. There is nothing else to sing about or ask for. We fully know the story here. The rest could be filled with instruments and dancing or left to the imagination of the listener. That is the trend of many songs Congolese and other wise but not for Okatch the story teller. But for this man, there is a story to be told here and Biggy duly delivers.
What Biggy was practising had earlier been propounded again and again by an all time African great. Rumba Maestro preached this up to his death bed with his mouth drooling that an African music is not that simple. Speaking in French a truly emaciated and bed ridden in an ill-fitting western suit devoid of his fulsome African frame hugging shirts, Franco Luambo Makiadi propounded that African music (in the form Okatch Biggie was delivering) was richer than European even if ignored. A new book on Congolese rumba, death of rumba visits another quarrel with original rumba Music that Franco had. It is that the entry of jazz and orchestra was designed for limited European stories so instruments was left to entertain instead of singing or telling stories. This was not in line with folklore rich Africans culture with colourful story telling abilities. And that was Okatch Biggy’s speciality.
In Lizzie- Yukabet instead of letting the listener dance to the instruments, Okatch weaves his tapestry. Not introducing a new story but giving the details. Okatch folklore drawn out with gentle Simba Wanyika style picking lead guitar retells the hiatus, introduces the dialogue and even shares with the listener the personal dialogue with Lizzie-Yukabet, Nyocha Ilal Kanye, as Okatch is taking you right to the front line meeting after the hiatus.
Okatch brings you closer than close as if you were seated right in front of them like a cellophane. Nyathini Wek ga maka.
And just to make sure you cannot get away Okatch places you where nobody else in the room can see. Wek ga ndhuna then the final intimate Wek ga mula. And nobody in the room can see how Lizzie-Yukabet is shifting through gears to the overdrive of the gears of non-verbal apology as is typical of Luo women. They never apologise that way, these Luo women. One of my grandmothers once told my married cuz that a well cultured Luo lady's mouth was never made for apologising, "Ka ot otami rito to ibiro ritoni". Whatever that means.
As if that is not enough Okatch lets you into the lovers’ secret communication signals that only the two of them know. Wek buonjo koda.
It is practically impossible to know the habit of Lizzie-Yukabet that when guilty and is asking for forgiveness or wants to gazump Okatch would gently smile after playfully shushing Okatch with a pinch; pulling Biggy close; massaging Biggy, then unleashing that ‘wicked smile’ unless Okatch or Lizzie-Yukabet herself told you of her weapons of destruction. And here Okatch the story teller is not only narrating to us how the impasse was resolved but passing on Luo oral literature or maybe counselling any listeners the Luo women art of saying-without-saying the last words first- I am sorry .
By now you should know me and my blog, I just love stories with happy endings.
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2. Caleb Doctor
3. Rosemary NyaYala
5. Dave Ayoro
6. Nyathi Nyakach
7. Agono George
9. Okello JaBondo
10 Akothe Nyakobura
11 Nahashon Adoche
12 Oduor Leo
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