PETER OWINO RACHAR ANTHOLOGY
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
IMPETUS TO INTERNATIONAL BENGA- PETER Owino Rachar
Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe are right next to the Congos yet Lake basin Benga was able to nestle there disregarding that Benga is delivered in a non-Ubuntu dialect. These southern countries were least interested in the world famous Congolese brand of dance music that had preceded Benga by a good 50 years. Then you have the Francophone Africa like Cameroon, Ivory Coast etc. Congolese music owes its germination to Sierra Leone musicians who were the first to arrive in that basin successfully doing recordings. How did Benga without the power of language as medium of communication manage to ease off other music genre. In Mexico, Colombia and the Caribbean Benga is entrenched in raw Dholuo. A name like Daniel Owino Misiani is house hold in these Latino areas. Back home in Malawi they are still dancing to Kawere Boys band sound despite the death of the band less than a year after its formation. And right here in Kenya locally as politics of the day was maligning everything Lakeside still it was fashionable to dance to music fashioned by UK (Uncircumcised Kenya) songs such as Jenny Ochieng nyar Ahero Lando and Oguk Edward. In fact, I have completely forgotten the owners of the record Jenny Ochieng nyar Ahero Lando and can only remember Mount Kenya John Rugwiti lifting the records to sing it as Sinyorita in cowboy regalia. So successful was Benga in Nairobi and Mt Kenya area that clubs like Gringos in Nairobi made it fashionable among the rich sons of Mt Kenya area.
In an interview with Sam Fan Thomas, the Cameroonian musician on a tour of Kenya in 1989 recounted how during the earlier 1st All Africa Trade Fair in 1972 in Nairobi, a cousin of his who was part of the trade delegation went back with a stack of records of Gabriel Omolo and his Apollo Komesha Band and this is how it influenced his music as a young man. In deed Sam Fan Thomas released a fast paced diet of Apollo Komesha sound in his hits Noa, Sabina, African Typic Collection which was very different to Cameroonian singers. Three years later after the 1st All Africa Trade Fair in Nairobi, Gabriel Omolo won the Golden disc at 100,000 sales on the back of renowned Phonogram legend of fiddling with sales (so many texts have covered this). How did Benga manage to conquer the world?
I can point to the usual contact through Nairobi as a transit centre or to user friendly sound of Benga, very easy to the ear and the vowelled intonation. The Lakeside vowel “O” is the deep one you find in the rest of Africa. We will get to that in a moment. For now, I have zeroed on a much underrated Benga Musician as the flicker of a flame on which the international sound of the likes of Owino Misiani and the other silent Owino aka Collela Mazee are thriving- Peter Owino Rachar.
PETER OWINO RACHAR
I had seen Peter Owino Rachar on several occasions but never in close proximity and definitely not chatting to him on a one to one until sometime in 1974 when I was in form 2 of secondary school. For some reasons I was late to go to back to school and had to alter my ticket at OTC terminus at River road then meet up with an older cousins and friends of Owino Rachar to go back before heading home. After altering the ticket travel dates me and my older cousin Andrew passed Luo community revelling hubs around River road of Alvariz bar in River road, Nairobi area then Hole In The Wall Bar by then very trendy. Then we met up with another cousin Mark and the great Peter Owino Rachar.
Peter Owino Rachar was one of these guys with school boy looks. He was barely 4.5ft tall but had no beards. You could easily mistake him for a lost school boy because he also had very short negroid hair and silky smooth facial skin and zero facial hair. So he was physically a boy not even in his teens yet. He was never allowed into Nairobi film theatres like Casino and Cameo matinee shows without the company of mature looking chaperone. Imagine not even being allowed into matinee shows at 9.30am on a Saturday or Sunday without an adult of which I was allowed.
Matinee is not a dholuo word. Google says: From the French word 'matin', meaning 'morning', a matinee is a theatrical performance during the daylight, as opposed to evening or night. For example, could you go to a cheaper matinee instead of seeing the evening show of a movie?
To further get you to his age, Peter Owino Rachar recalled that in 1965 when my father passed on he came severally with his band to perform in the disco matanga by then. Those days they used to be decent daytime performances but I was never allowed to witness. So he was keen to find me in his memory. I had to explain that I was not on show when they did the euology or farewell performance song for the family members because ritually Luo twins are not allowed near the grave. So me and my twin sister were barred from the grave site until I was 12 years old. Then he talked about my schooling. He told me a remarkable story that had me swelling with a smirk but was all the same factual and defines Peter Owino Rachar approach to business and life in general. It was a story about travelling to perform in Uganda with guys like Juma Odundo (meru tuo I dala paro ga meru, aah Ajuma wuoda) and Adams Nyahone (Risper iweya nang'o, Risper Don’t let me Down) the early Benga lords. This was after the second Uganda Mengo crisis of 1966 when President Obote drove out Kabaka Mutesa II by ordering General Idi Amin to shell the Mengo Palace using heavily mechanised military tanks.
Peter Owino Racahr told me his experience of travelling and I can relate because it was the normal way to travel. Needless to say like any country it was a martial law in Uganda even if not officially declared. So as the commuter bus Ongewe Baba Biro Bus crossed into Uganda, the paramilitary routinely inspected and sometimes ejected passengers with contra band wares of medicines like Aspirin tablets, bottled permanganate and another that was only known by whispering capssssssssssss. I had no quarrel with these hawkers when travelling because they provided the amusement in the buses with various hilarious names for the products. For example, ladies’ panties were “kiful gi nengo ma oyueyo” (fair priced safety locks).
As Peter Owino Rachar explained, that something was the matter with their bus driver or he was just showboating maybe to a female passenger. Most likely it was this notorious “yuora nenaye syndrome”. As the paramilitary was busy picking the luggage of the suspects outside the bus and allowing them back in one by one this driver kept revving the engine vroooom!! Vroooom!!! Vroom! Then beeping pobooooop. You know like they do at bus terminus polluting the air, making noise and just unnecessarily hurrying approaching passengers. So when the Ugandan paramilitary were through with passengers, they came and asked the driver what’s the fuss. Why he was hurrying them etc. Then they told him to get off the bus. Once off the bus they made him sleep on the ground and caned him with that hippo whip. I think about 2 lashes like Peter Owino Rachar explained.
The horrifying thing to Peter Owino Rachar is that the driver came back crying like a baby and in that condition started driving while crying switching hands between steering, manoeuvring the old manual gear lever and massaging his burning and evidently swollen buttocks. And this crying and whimpering, whining, sniffling, snivelling, sobbing, moaning, bleating, mewling, wailing, groaning grizzling while at the same time driving and playing games with his buttocks, gear lever, tears in his eyes and steering happened all the way to Jinja, Uganda the end of their journey. To Peter Owino Rachar this was the most horrifying journey. So he told me that even before I finish schooling I must learn to drive and encourage my friends to do so for any eventuality like a buttocks caned driver. Ugandan forces still enjoy caning peoples buttocks for any reason and even a pandemic is good enough reason to target peoples buttocks. I hear it was there even before that terrible tragedy of Uganda martyrs who were being caned on the buttocks before crucifixion.
The aim of telling you this story is that I noticed that this way of thinking runs through Peter Owino Rachar’s lyrics like Rossy Pii Mama preparedness to go back after a short visit, His music business ventures. He was a man always thinking of eventuality in every situation. The theme of his songs was always resolving an eventuality.
PETER OWINO RACHAR CAREER.
If he was 25 years old in 1965 then he must have been born in 1940 or thereabouts. That would make him the same age or thereabouts as the other Owino, Daniel Owino Misiani but much older than the younger Owino aka Collela Mazee. These three Owinos had a say in how Benga music was blossomed internationally even if they did not do the introduction.
Peter Owino Rachar was born in Lifunga Kobiero on a stone’s throw from Sega in Ugenya. It was East African Community period when so many Luos had very little business with Nairobi in terms of Urban migration. The early Nyanza business men had Uganda as their playground and this went for musicians as well. This is the sort of environment that helped Peter Owino Rachar unlike Daniel Owino Misiani.
After basic education from Lufunga primary school, Peter Owino Rachar followed his other pursuit of making music. I am not exactly sure when Golden Ugenya Boys was launched but it is the earliest of real bands.
Golden Ugenya Boys, Blue Shades band are the music set up that followed the earlier minstrels of guys like Odero Onani and Ogara etc. At one point before the rise of Nairobi these bands were good in cover versions of western music these were the truly indigenous groups.
KENYA WIDE INFLUENCE
Even before the struggles of East African Community, Peter Owino strategically started spreading his wings and influencing the music set up in Kenya and overseas. Even though singing in Dholuo he knew no such boundaries. Legend has it that it is Peter Owino Rachar who upped Joseph Kamaru music. At that time Kamaru and Celine was a two combo band featuring Kamaru and the sister Celina. They were big in central province but were still lagging until Peter Owino Rachar started providing sessional support in studio recording. The major hit by Kamaru convinced Kamaru that this is the way to go.
Soon other Mt Kenya bands joined in and not only took up the sessional support, some took permanent staff off Golden Ugenya Boys. The supremely talented bassist and boyhood friend of Peter Owino Rachar from, Uloma next to Lufunga, Othech Juma crossed over to Kilimambago Brothers not only providing the rich thunder thumbs of the bass guitar but providing band owner Kakai Kilonzo with lifted tunes of the 1960s including Nyatiti samples. The funny thing is that Othech Juma would sometimes lift lurid chants locally known to Siaya people but use them only as musical notes. When Akamba community would be dancing, people with the know how would smile knowingly. Such lifting led to lines like “koblo gi long marachar”. It was funny to a dholuo speaker.
Back in Mt Kenya area other bands jumped on the Peter Owino Rachar band wagon of lifting older hits from lake basin.
Other Golden Ugenya members moved into uncharted waters like promoting Congolese bands. The vocalist Andrew Coco Porche was actually the founder and promoter of the famous Nana Akumu and Lochestre Popolipo Jazz in Nairobi. In Kenya she released Ouma Mobali Ya Tembe and the sequel Auma Mwasi Ya Tembe before retreating to Zaire where she joined Tabu Ley’s Afrisa International en-route to Franco Luambo’s OK Jazz.
Peter Owino Rachar had profound influence in west Africa but he reaped the least due to piracy. Long before Gabriel Omollo’s Lunch Time hit was a chart scorcher in Lagos, Golden Ugenya Boys was already fashionable with bands aping the name Golden Ugenya names with such names as golden, Expensive etc. How those sales did not translate to numbers is the renowned Phonogram's unwanted reputation.
Undeterred Peter Owino Rachar eventually accepted an invitation to tour West Africa and base in Sierra Leone. He was so popular that a music promoter from Liberia was in the tussle with a Sierra Leonean promoter. Unknown to Peter Owino Rachar the Liberian promoter was a member of senior politician’s family from where a son was dating the daughter of a Kenyan senior politician. Names are revealing because the daughter of Kenyan senior politician noticed two things Owino and Ugenya and her younger sister back in Nairobi was also dating an Owino from Ugenya. To make a long story short the two Owinos are all cousins from Lifunga Kobiero of Ugenya.
Later in a funeral in Ukwala in late 1974 for the Mark who we met up with at Hole In The Wall bar, River road, Nairobi, Peter Owino Rachar related to me the trend in international entertainment. I, just like Peter was so surprised that bands don’t play mpaka chee which by the way they still do in Kenya. When Peter Owino Rachar told me that he used to play for 2 hours a day 3 times a week, it never made sense to me. Much later I understood how entertainment business had moved on in some parts of the world.
As fate would have it there was a coup in Liberia which disorganised the promoter and Peter Owino Rachar retreated back to Kenya. It was a bloody coup that resulted in deaths to a member of the senior politician’s family.
By this time Peter Owino Rachar had risen beyond the Benga circuit even if his wealth did not show it. He teamed up with promoter Phares Oluoch Kanindo to exploit the central African market of Malawi, Zambia and Southern Rhodesia in a new joint label known KANINDO. In 1978 he collaborated with local artists from Southern Rhodesia to produce an album. I distinctly remember the hit record, “Mudiwa diwa” which was aptly translated to me by a Rudo, a commonwealth sponsored student at Kenyan Polytechnic University. Mudiwa is my love in Shona.
There is something that the whole of Africa do not know about central and southern Africa. There is a big bigotry that anything north of Victoria Falls on Zambezi River is primitive. And when I say anything, I mean everything. This is a sense of superiority complex bestowed on the South is apparent up to today. It is the hard truth that Robert Mugabe knew very well that even people like Archbishop Tutu harboured their disdain of north of the Victoria Falls, and Robert Mugabe never needed a second invitation to confront it. He countered by despising their hapless disjointed liberation struggle, their capital to capital liberation hoping. And even as recently their xenophobia that "it is only in South Africa that a labourer believes that a north of the Victoria Falls doctor wants to take the job of the labourer". In other words, no matter your education if you are from the north of the Victoria falls you are still beneath the next south of Victoria Falls African. All doctors from Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana Kenya etc helping South Africa are only there to take the illiterate labourers job. And you know President Mugabe, he could not stand for that foolishness. Well this is pretty much the case until Luo Benga is being played that the glass ceiling is smashed to smithereens.
The Luo Benga success in central Africa stuck up to today but the sales is dead due to piracy. As soon as Peter Owino Rachar left after delivering the latest wares for sale, another brief case of the same records had been pressed in Nairobi and unleashed in the market to compete their own stock. It got so bad that the company that had undertaken this venture, AIT records just closed shop, dumped the stock near Nairobi City stadium and left Africa never to return. If a multinational like AIT can be driven away what chance did Peter Owino Rachar and co have to make this venture a success?
The only vestiges of this venture is the new name of Benga in central Africa as KANINDO and the lilting of Peter Owino solo guitar play by then used in Safari to Sierra Leone, and the whistling and chanting of Kawere Boys band, Kiwiro Boys Band, Kasongo Polo Menya and the Benga of that generation.
PETER OWINO RACHAR STYLE
As mentioned above, Peter Owino Rachar are the pioneer musicians who broke away from the one box guitar minstrel musician and some crude fanta soda bottle percussionist and they also refused to embrace everything coming out of the music. This type of musicians only pay was a sumptuous meal, showering of praises and the satisfation that they can see joy on the face of the audience. They did not play in the belief it was a business.
To a Luo musician the musical instrument was only to help jathum, never to replace the singing which was worship (dhum). The instrument was never meant to replace the lyrics. Actually in all of Africa, with good lyricist a song had to express. The departure of this trend only came in when the Belgian Congo wanted to undercut Latin American rumba in the Amercias market. According to Thierry Antha in book ‘The Crimes Of Rumba’ Congolese musicians Kabaselle, Franco, Nico Leon Bokasa etc were all made to do covers of Latin American songs in French under dubious titles and these were sold to North America and Europe as authentic Latin America sound. To fill up the translation the Congolese musicians struggling to find the words and dragged the last known words or just used sounds to complete the lyrical gaps. With sounds like vowels. It soon developed into a singing style.
A good example in Luo songs was the 1996 eulogy for D O Makasembo, the senator who died in a road accident in December 1965 in Kisumu. I cannot remember the band. I just remember that there used to be great arguments with bands and mimicking youngsters taking very vociferous arguments. What was really the opening lines, Was it?
1. Ooo Ooh, ooo, waparo makasembo
Or was it?
2. Boo Boo Boo waparo masembo
Or was it?
3. Woo Woo Woo waparo makasembo.
All these three are not Luo expressions like uwii, ululu mayo. So their use to replace serious lyrics in a eulogy is fashionable but colloquial. Are these relevant in authentic dholuo music? I was once an official of a football club in Nairobi. Gor Mahia FC through international exposure had introduced to Kenyan Football clubs the team huddle at the centre of the pitch before a game for prayers. One residential team, Mamba of Kaloleni, Nairobi had this prayer line.
Hii game ngumu joe,
vijana wa…. etc”
Now what type of God listens to such a prayer? And this is exactly the type of instrumentation that Franco Luambo, the Congo colossus rejected when fashioning Odemba away from rumba. Speaking to interviewers in London in his last shows he reiterated the superiority of African music over western music which by then was taken as a weak and defensive line of argument.
It is the same with Luo Music and that is why old guards like Peter Owino Rachar would never use such a filler to complete a verse. He would look for the synonyms to rhyme and it had to be friendly to the tongue. Pick any song by Peter Owino Rachar and you will notice that the last word is carefully chosen to complete the song otherwise that line has to be deleted or be rewritten even if it meant a whole verse will be abandoned. This structure made his songs very superior and easy on the ears of the listeners whether they were Luos or not.
Peter Owino Rachar preferred softer instrumentation and very blunt percussion. I want to believe that this was selfishness like the way a football striker wants the game to fit his style. Since he played the lead guitar and enjoyed gently picking the rather than the violent attacking of the play, he never wanted a heavy metal percussion to overshadow everything that he was doing.
My favourite is Orido ja Kathomo because the only other competitor hit is about ladies of Alego kanying’we and I am biased there. I liked the earlier hits like Richard Otioeno K’Adala wuod Bao Odongo, Hera Orumo Koso for sentiments because I was too young and just got attracted to his powerful melodies which were much more superior to anybody in the lake basin.
That a weaker record of his of 1974 like Rosi PII mama no 3 has stood the test of time just proves that musician Kabaselleh Ochieng was not so wrong to have lifted Switi Monica for the release of Nyar Kanyamuot.
On the international scene records that were being sold at Shs 5.50 in 1973 are now being sold at 104 Euros on the internet and in Franco and Anglophone Africa far much removed from Lufunga Kobiero where his remains lie.
Peter Owino Rachar was truly the Impetus to International Benga as we know it today.
PETER OWINO RACHAR ESSENTIALS:
Rose PII mama 3
Orido Ja Kathomo
Argy Akongo NyaKano
Safari to Sierra Leone
Richard Otieno K’adala
Dr George Osia
Adhiambo Toto NyaYenga