Updated: Oct 20, 2020
“EPITAPH” OF MY MUSIC MAKERS.
I reject the unwritten inscription on the epitaph on my great musicians who died at poetic age. I refuse to accept that great musicians all die in their forties and it is taken as normal death from one scourge
Who and what killed Mpongo Love (36), Dr Nico (46), Luambo (51), Grand Kale (52) and swarm of artists around the great lake basin?
These artist all went down in a very short space of time and their deaths were conveniently accounted for on the opportunistic HIV/ AIDS which came right on time to take some of the blame. If covid19 had been around then surely covid19 was well placed to take some blame. What is never even discussed is where the opportunistic illnesses found the artists.
People die, that is what all people do but should 70 year old still be on stage in demanding stage repertoire with young ladies in the prime of their lives decades his junior? Would we accept if same age group boxers were still boxing? Or is something else the matter.
A simple illustration is in the era when cigarette was being blamed for all cancerous illnesses. There is this case of a mid-western American smoker who was craving for just a puff of his cigarette. Having located a gas (petrol) station with a cigarette dispenser, he rushed in only for the dispenser to swallow his coin without dispensing any cigarette. In rage he lifted the dispenser to smash on the wall and retrieve his packet of cigarette. But the dispenser was too heavy, it fell on him and killed him. Well the warning on the packet of every cigarette used to read, “Surgeon general’s warning: Cigarette smoking can be harmful to your health”. It did cause this Americans life so it is harmful. Or was it the dispenser to blame.
The pressing plant problems began to mount in Kinshasa steadily but surely after the economic miss-governance by the government of President Joseph Mobutu Sees Sseko started to kick in.
From the onset Kinshasa with a population of four million was producing too many singing artists which was good for a healthy competition. With the acute shortage of functional recording studios the artists started stumbling on to each other. It was normal that a stampede was sure to come like in any service or production where demand outweighs supply. The queues started growing longer and longer.
There was no foreign exchange reserves to import spare parts. And some plants started closing down. Soon there was only this one plant.
The alternative was to cross to Brazzaville or fly out to Lagos or Nairobi. The Brazzaville was a tiny plant in a communist state that most Bantus could not stand. For Lagos plant you were faced with horrific corrupt practices, menacing military and lack of business style or infrastructure. A very sleeping and introvert community which did not augur well for the entertainment industry.
Nairobi was efficient and organized with relatively zero tolerance on corrupt inefficient practices. However Nairobi was illiterate in music that you could even have a cow moo on the record and they would not notice. Sometimes they went about count down in a recording then start and still released it. Nairobi had state of the art recording equipment with limitless supply of recording material but the quality of the records that came out made you shudder. The personnel was half baked technicians with quack music experts that could not even spell the word stereo let alone know its meaning. The spare stand by recording musicians by then could not even rhythmically hand clap at the same tone for 3 minutes. It demanded that someone with clout who would command complete attention has to travel to Nairobi and oversee everything.
Franco Luambo Makiadi as the president of the musicians union had no preferential treatment in the only functional pressing plant in Kinshasa. If anything his position should have held him back to ensure that all artist take their place in queue for fairness. However somehow Franco like is normal of any big man in most parts of the world used to bully his way and just jump queue. The other artists would be too frightened to speak out. The matter was left to tiny man in station alone to put up or shut up.
For some reason on this day the diminutive production assistant arrived at the plant in a foul mood. He went about his work to continue with the pressing production from the previous day’s schedule. And schedule used to run late for months on end. Zaire as it was now called could not cope.
This morning Franco in his usual style walked into the studio flamboyantly receiving salutations from the waiting customers. As he approached the inner office, the diminutive pressing assistant stretched his hand in a stop sign and told him, “Today Fuala, you don’t screw my schedule. You are used to doing this all the time but today no!”
Franco, the president of the Union knew the man was in his rights to block him but how will Okanga Le pene back down in the gaze of witnesses. The whole president of the music union. It appears Franco wanted to gain a position in the studios then make the assistant negotiate from the weaker position. Franco then made his way by force and started dismounting the work in progress. By then he was already a huge man of girth.
The assistant screamed, “Fuala, I told you NO! To day you will know me”. He knew Franco from upcountry and used an ancestral name that only clan people from the rural area used. You had to be ancestral in the inner circle to use that name. Such names are used only in extreme seriousness or in extreme palling. I think my equivalent is Ojaro. It is because I was named after an ancestral wrestler who picked his female companions from a harem of beauties. And they were many. Older folks sometimes call me chot-Adhiambo, or chot-Were, or chot Agola or chot Ajwang’-nyar-Oduma or chot-Rambo or Chot-Aoko.
Before Franco could react to take a step back, he engaged Franco in a wrestling duel. It was a ferocious battle where the art was to floor the other opponent. Franco had the reach and weight. So he could not be lifted off the ground. However Franco was susceptible to an outside leg trip called Abam
It is a move where you set up your opponent to rest the weight on one foot, then you ease the upper body to one side and at the same time trapping the other leg so that he has no chance to a just the disadvantaged foot to receive the weight. The end result is that you fall down spectacularly like a log of wood. Apart from the falling down the legend of it runs and runs for generations. Women ululates at the achievement and songs are composed for you. You are a legend.
The wrestling went on for what seemed like eternity but was for no more than 5 minutes when Franco bailed and stood back. Heaving in heavy breathing he muttered something to the effect “ng’at ma tin ni keth iye rach! Or randere ochayo miero depending on which side of the Gulf you are from. In English it is simply “the little man packs so much strength!” Franco retreated never to cross his path ever again.
Spot of bother.
If the industry was normal, this fight was unnecessary. In fact Franco would just book a date that was very convenient, send an emissary to deliver the art work for pressing. However this was Zaire after the mismanagement set in and the west started to flex their muscle. As the pressing plants closed new problems set in like the above face off.
Musicians starved of a living started boot legging their own compositions by getting them recorded overseas. The nearest destination for this was Nairobi. This led to flare up with band owners and even break ups.
Like a vulture the music pirates had been watching this very closely. Lagos offered a better chance to do that more than Nairobi by then. Nairobi was still much disciplined city in Africa with endless support services.
Then technology poisoned itself in late 1970’s. Many people moved over to recorded music cassettes rather than the discs. That is when the pirates joined in the act. Everybody was stealing from everybody because anybody had access to the technology. From your living room in one day you could steal away a music composer’s rent money. Music piracy was in an all-time high. Even Nairobi that offered only big shot piracy was now struggling in the face of all-out war in piracy. Record stores could not compete with hawkers with a carton box at bus stops. They quickly nipped the disposable change
There was however a ray of hope. Artist who could not compete in music sales had long adopted public performance as a way to cut a living. Tabu Ley who was now Franco’s music rival had found himself a niche in public performance was surviving and actually moved an inch in publicity. And true Tabu Ley perfected the stage show performances to international standards. Then Tabu Ley started spawning off artist who understood the art of public performance more than record sales as a business. And most of them moved to other bands or abroad. All of a sudden a breed of musicians turned to public performance and stage show razzmatazz that my friend terms “kiaang’owa” as the only means of survival. However you can only have so many public performances in a country let alone a city. Something had to give and tragically it was my musicians who gave up not only music but their lives
In the aftermath of this economic fiasco was a trail of musicians whose lives were ruined and between the ages of 30-50 Nam-Lolwe lost more musicians in a short period preceding the economic collapse more than any other region in the world.
As much as these deaths could be placed on the doorstep of HIV/AIDS sweep, the migration and abject poverty that these musicians left their families cannot be the work of the dreaded killer alone.
Piracy in the world of music has taken new proportion due to mass availability of the music technology. The artists of the world also have learned to reposition themselves very fast.
The no 1 realization has been that the music is a product for sale at a very short space of time. And to sell your product you must stay relevant, repackage it and continually keep on being afloat. In the absence of that, a musician can do all the fun they want today and tomorrow they will not be there forever. Continuous re invention is the answer. Dholuo sayings like “jathuma-a-thuma to ioma ang’o kuome” never came from spite but from years of observation of the life cycle of an artist.
In other parts of the world most artists have learned to cover themselves with accountants, wealth managers, lawyers, even bankers. This enables musicians to engineer their wealth and move it a long when the music stops. Like a high riding Ohangla performance artist was telling me last week a property purchase here and there even if it is a mortgage is better than state of the art mobile telephone. In Luo Nyanza, I would stick my neck out and say that even a plot near a school with a semi-permanent house like this artist is doing is a better wealth engineering than consumerism of a Scottish whisky.
I am familiar with a generation of young men and women who have deliberately chosen entertainment industry and specifically Events Management after college. They tell me a few shocking things. The hardest to take was that “Uncle, no matter how you are good, you are past sell by date in Events Management. So don’t even think of entering in to this industry to generate wealth to buy properties back in Kenya. The reality here is that the entertainment Industry has shelf life. You are past it and in case you will not be here forever. This is the very reason why it pays very highly in the short run. So you have to manage your exit and leave in your own time or you will at least be pushed out'.
During my time far better artists did not have this privilege of being pushed out. They were dumped in the dustbins of life. Others were dumped in the graveyards or cemeteries of life too early all over the world.
Which has brought us to the full circle of who is killing my musicians? The Grand Kalle died at 52. The great Franco started ailing in late 40’s and died by 51. For your information he did not even own the premises the business was sat on. After his death, the politician came for his property. Mpongo Love died in the 30s. Nowhere are musicians dying at such an early age and in such great numbers as if it was some exodus than in my lake basin.
The departure of the artists is easily explained as HIV/AIDS. I can accept that. But why only in this region and why are the musicians who relied on traditional recording more hard hit than those who took the path of public performance (kia ang’owa). Has this got anything to do with piracy? Did pirates kill my musicians or at least drove them to that path? Or was it the realization of the shelf life of music as a product? Was it the lack of wealth management or financial engineering?
All these disciplines are now available even in rudimentary cooperative economics in the form Mary-Go-Round by women groups in the village
I spoke to a young upcoming young Ohangla entertainer, who explained that without his wife in partnership to do the bookkeeping, his earning would have been fritted away. The first thing he does when he gets home is hand over all his earnings to his wife, then say hallo.
Another one told of how he decided to join the women’s table banking in the wife’s name.
This means that the younger artist have seen the writing on the epitaph of the yester my yester year musicians and are not awaiting similar epitaph. They have decided to write their own epitaph here and now
The passing on of the grandfather of Congo Music went on without fanfare. Grand Kalle had been on and off to France for treatment of a chronic hypertension.
He stayed again in 1977 but came back after the end of 1978. He appeared well enough and even sang at his own testimonials. Then slipped under the radar. He did not even show up for a nostalgic reunion that had the full cast of the original African Jazz including Manu Dibbing in 1980. As if in self-imposed seclusion he just disappeared in Kinshasa. Nobody saw him again and no photos appeared until the announcement on 12th Feb 1983 that he had passed on.
Kalle's death at 52 was attributed to effects of hypertension but cause of death unknown. On the final morning his left leg became paralyzed. In the afternoon he lost his hearing. He was rushed to hospital but there was nothing anybody could do. It was too late.
2. KWAMY MUNSIE who had probably had the most cankerous open warfare with Franco had recently passed on after a "long” bout with malaria.
3. DR NICO
Nico gallantly fought of alcoholism that set on after the depression when his wife left him. In 1980/1, Tabu Ley brought him and Kwamy to his band Afrisa and they recorded several hits. Then he just let go to try things on his own even though he had no instruments.
After years of hard work where shaking hands now held steady with, Nico announced that he wanted to tour US to seek medical attention and further this new project. This surprised everybody as he had appeared healthy. He called the sickness blood intoxication that had been in his body since the 60s. For the time he stayed in Washington from March to May 1985 they "removed two bags per day" of blood, he had said.
Indeed when he came back he looked very healthy. He decided to leave his base in Togo to see his folks in Zaire since he had been away for over 2 years. While on holiday in August 1985 after celebrating his 46th birthday, Nico met with his manager from Togo who was in transit from Nairobi. And Dr Nico looked terrible.
Something had ravaged his body so quickly since he came back from Washington. In September Mobutu flew him to Belgium for urgent medical attention.
On 22nd September Dr Nico aka Kasanda Wa Mikolayi passed on.
4. FRANCO LUAMBO
Luambo was too much of a giant to go with a whimper. In Kimpa Kisangameni he was in denial and took on a siege mentality of the impending death. When the dust had settled and reality set in he took the elders position in Attention Na SIDA. Educating the world about AIDS, assuring the fans that OK will always be there; crisscrossing East African collecting his royalties and restructuring his property back in Kinshasa to take care of his mother. Then he surrendered to his fate away from his mother. Parents are not supposed to bury their children.
His only retort was, “stop talking too much about my illness. You will all get to know my illness after I die". Note the eventuality.
5. MPONGO LANDU LOVE and EMPOPO LOWAY.
With the removal of the sorcerer, death now upped the tempo. Mpongo Love came back home to Zaire after long absence battling his manager to be set free of the contract and inequitable royalty share in a fall record sales
When she appeared in public after Franco death she introduced a 7 month old Mpongo-let. In reality Mpongo Love Land came to Kinshasa say goodbye. Kinshasa Mboka ya Makambo had it that she too was sick. She was admitted in December 1989 and died on 15 Jan 1990. At just 36 Mpongo died of a 'strong attack’ but the brother did not say "of what attack".
6. EMPOPO LOWAY
Six days later Mpongo "close personal mentor” and former OK Jazz member and subject of the hit NDAYA died at a clinic. Empopo Loway appearance at public function had worried Bana Kin. He was reported to be suffering TB that he had neglected to manage. One thing is for sure. Their "partnership" produced the most beautiful and powerful romantic songs inside, outside and around the studios especially "Living with you and Masikini"
7. &8. DOUBLE' DOUBLE.
Now death was taking in pairs. Loyalist Isaac Musekwa could not go on without Franco. Within two weeks he died from some disease that had killed his left leg. And another OK Jazzer followed. Conga player, Dessoin Mosuma followed in the same week.
9 & 10. SOKI BROTHERS.
In May 4, 1990, the child prodigy and fickle adult Soki Dianzenza died. Two weeks later, and exactly to the hour the brother Soki Vangu followed in Europe.
11. BOTEKU BOHOMBA
Death had now become a permanent fixture at OK Jazz. And was striking at anything on site. Boteku who had replaced Franco as the lead guitarist was not given even a chance to have a seat. In less than 24 months in August 1991 since joining, he was OFF.
12. LOLA mwana Wa DJANGIS:
If there was a singer in OK Jazz, I would have asked to file a stay of execution for then it was Checain. More than great composers Simon Lutumba Simaro, more than Bavon Marie and definitely more than Franco, his compositions had a special place in my ears. Strangely enough decades after his death when involved in a discussion to list OK Jazz's personal top 5 is when I noticed that all my top 5 OK Jazz hits were his compositions. Checain went through the departure lounge in 1992.
13. AIME KIWAKANA KIALA:
The lessor known vocalist of Frances’s OK Jazz was not spared either. He was so unassuming he did not even earn the right to die, but death dragged him through the departure lounge in 1992.
14. DJO MPOYI:
The pin up boy of OK Jazz and a fluid vocalist joined the departure lot in 1993 after falling sick for some time. Like in the case of Muhammad Ali, George Benson and Denzel Washington I have my personal beef with pretty boys. But I prefer to fight them when they are alive.
15. RONDOT KASONGO:
The OK Jazz saxophonist and closest confidant to Franco Luambo died in Brussels like his dear friend, in 1994 after some illness. He took with him the briefcase of Franco secrets. We will never know whether Franco really was a despiser of women or the character of women being vilified was symbolism for government. In the song 'Nakobala ngai ata Mbwa' (I will marry even a dog), the howling dogs in the background seem to be symbolise the Belgian dogs. It's appears he is just saying that the Belgians were more organised than the independent African government of Mobutu. Maybe Franco was fed up with bitchy Independent African government/dogs. We will never know. When he sings Mario, was he really talking of a human being or was just that a symbol for our non-delivering governments funding and foreign debts. Of course we will never really decipher African folklore of double speak.
16. NTESA DALIENST NZITSNI:
OK Jazz alumni whose voice dominated many songs including chart buster 'Bina Na Ngai na respect'. Not that it bears any evidence of the course of his death but he preceded Franco's second visit and lived in Kisumu for some time until when Franco came to Kenya. Franco was very angry that a prominent son of OK was struggling among stingy Kenyans. Maybe if Franco had allowed him to live in Kisumu, he would not have died of a most unusual death among musicians in Kinshasa and Kisumu. In 1996 he died after battling brain tumor.
I thought he had a small head for such a consummate singer. I am not speaking for myself when defending big heads. I watched a documentary in 2000 millennium years that claim that African heads are small because the African women have tight Pelvis. That this has the evolutionary impact of breading low intelligence unlike say Asians who have very loose and wide pelvis yielding children with big heads and very intelligent. In case you wanted to know, Europeans are number two in head and pelvis side. I don't care what the evolution theorists say. Ntesa Dalient was a great singer and it does not mater whether he came through small tight African pelvis.
17. ABETI MASIKINI:
SIZE did not matter in this death business. Her death on September 24, 1994 was even more deceptively prominent than Franco passing away. The grand dame of Congo music cast a larger than life shadow that cruelly amplified the shock of her death. Abet the authentic international star succumbed to 'some' cancer.
18. RINGO MOYA:
The perennially slender former drummer of Afrisa International, African All Stars and WASSA was especially gaunt in 1991. On the eve of a joint Kanda Bongo man's tour to Kenya he checked into a Paris hospital. Kanda Bongoman went ahead with the Nairobi tour and checked into a senior politician’s hospitality in Nairobi. And was 'rightly' cornered at the New Stanley Thorn Tree and checked out of Kenya hospitality. As Kanda Bongoman continued with his tour elsewhere except Kenyan reach, Ringo Moya also returned to work. But his liver was not in shape and his lungs were weakening. The failing organs gave up in April 1993 when Ringo was barely 40.
19. PETER TUMBA AYILA 'EMORO':
The dancing dwarf was hunted down in Botswana tour, Not Brussels, while on tour. The cause of his death was very rare among dwarfs. Heart attack. ? Dwarfs don't die of heart attack. Surely the Botswana doctor must have been watching the other famous reed dance in the region. Heart attack my foot!
20, PEPE KALLE:
The leader of BIG Empire was rushed to hospital on November 29, 1998. Efforts to revive him failed. Like Emoro, the pacifist was said to have been felled by a big heart attack. Of course it had to be big. The guy was so massive a small heart attack could not affect him. A great singer and great composer. Lets take a minutes pause for this great human being.
21. ZAIKO NKOLO MBOKA:
There was no safety in numbers either. In fact the larger the group the easier the target. Nkolo Mboka was killed by death not the usual delinquent defections of musicians. Two of the longest serving guitarists died in a space of two years. Enoch Zamuangana and Matimo Mpioso Kinuani passed on after a short illness bravely borne in 1994 and 1996.
22. ANTI CHOC of Bozi Boziana:
Anti-Choc ran off to Paris but not before losing singer Fifi Mofude and Wally Ng'onda in 1995 to unspecified illnesses
23. WENGE MUSICA BCBG:
BCBG did not get a pass either. Blaise Kombo had been unwell but not too unwell to die in a tragic accident in 1990, the year Mpongo Lunda was also being mourned.
24. HENRI BOWANE.
The man who can rightfully be called the father of OK Jazz passed on in 1992. He was never a founder member of OK, but without him there would be no OK Jazz in whatever name. In fact BOWANE can rightly claim the title of the father of Congo music.
25. PAMELO MOUNK.
And there was no boundaries either. (I will stay off Kenya for fear of endless litigation). Sporadic treatments of diabetes in France staved of the disease for a while for Congolese Pamelo. Then in 1993, Pamelo Mounks' lower limb was swollen to the point where he found it impossible to walk let alone perform. Afraid that western doctors would want to amputate his leg, Pamelo chose to escape back to Congo Brazzaville and fight back the Alego tat yien way with 'manyasi' from the local 'Alego' wise men. It was as futile attempt as it would have been in Siaya Alego.
26. PHIL LUTAAYA BONGOLEY
I said I don't want to mess around with Kenya. Kenya is a dangerous place to mess around with in matters money. But I will touch Uganda.
Phillip as he was known first visited Kenya with Mathew Kukas Le Noirs and headed direct to Mombasa port city. Les Noirs was part of a team that originally was slated to perform only in Uganda as part of Dr Nicolas Kasandas African Fiesta Sukisa. For whatever reason they decided to try their luck in Kenya than go back into the traffic jam of Kinshasa. They stopped over in Nairobi to do a fortnight's show on TV programs of 'Salamu Zenu' on Saturday at Jamhuri Park and 'Jibrudisheni' at VoK studios. With his Afro Coiffure he did impressive belly dancing when out of his station as a Bongo player. In fact Les Noirs is the band that chalked off the earlier Lubumbashi diaspora of HI FIVES at JaGem Otieno Ambala’s Bird Cage nest.
Phillip Lutaaya is special because it's only him and Brenda Fassie that accepted that they were unfortunate to fall victim of the dreaded AIDS. Luutaya in the process raised a lot of AIDS campaign awareness money. By coming out he helped Uganda stem of infection much better than Kenya despite their reputed permissiveness and underhand tactics. Lutaaya passed on in 1989. At the tender age of 38 Lutaaya bravery saved many in East Africa. Prophetically his composition with Les Noirs was titled 'Dawa ya Mganga' (Medicine for the doctor) and partly sung in Luganda.