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The Music Business in Kenya  

The following article appeared in Africa Beat in the Summer of 1986.   Although the details are far out of date, the broader themes are still relevant to Kenyan music today.

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Doug Paterson, in the first of two features looking at Kenyan pop today, examines the machinations, obstacles and opportunities facing the music business

the business of pleasure

Left: Joseph Kamaru, Kenyan pop star and musical entrepreneur

THE stunning success of the recent 20-show Franco tour in Kenya inevitably raises an old question in the Kenyan music newspaper columns, clubs and studios: Where are Kenya's own superstars?

It's a valid question. There is no single musician or band in Kenya which can command the sweep of nationwide support and this has left the field open for Tabu Ley, Mbilia Bel, South African disco diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka or even Kenny Rogers. Without such supernames, Kenya remains virtually anonymous on the international pop scene.

It is not lack of output. Kenyan bands continue to churn out a flood of seven-inch singles, yet that class of easily identifiable blockbuster hits which characterised the 1960's and 1970's remains an elusive target to the local musicians of the 1980's.

In the past year the biggest sellers have been foreign: Franco, Les Quatre Etoiles, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Sipho Mabuse, Billy Ocean and Madonna. Yet even these have sold less than they might a few years ago.

In the past, the top selling local singles hit the 30,000 mark with the occasional giants like Gabriel Omolo's 1974 100,000-seller 'Lunch Time'. Other big sellers of the era were Mbaraka Mwinshehe's 'Shida', Les Mangelepa's 'Nyako Konya', Les Wanyika's, ‘Sina Makosa,’ Slim Ali's 'You Can Do It' and Nguashi Ntimbo’s 'Shauri Yako', recently covered by Mbilia Bel. To be fair, we are also forced to add to this list Them Mushroom's 1977 bubblegum Swahili Jambo Bwana' which sold something in the order of 60,000 although no one will admit to owning it.

D.O. Misiani (top left) and Shirati Jazz Photo of D.O Misiani & Shirati Jazz
Today a local record is a 'hit' if it reaches anything between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. This covers such records as the Mbiri Stars' 'Mwana wa Ndigwa', 'Karubandika' by the Tanzanian-based Orchestra Maquis Original, Orchestra Super Alibabayo with 'Simba Mlofa' and 'Dunia Kigeugeu’ from Les Wanyika— although without any reliable published sales figures it is not possible to compile anything more accurate than a list of guesses.

Locally produced albums are a rarity in the current Kenyan market, possibly no more than a dozen out in the past year and most of these coming through Polygram's Polydor and ASL labels. CBS has recently entered the field with an offering from the Kenya Blue Stars and promises more to come.

But independent local productions are very rare. With the exception of some recent gospel productions, Issa Juma's 'Bwana Musa' LP for AIT and Zaiken's 'Loch Mit' among them, most of the independents have concentrated on LP compilations of singles from the 1960's and 1970’s. After quite a period of drought from south of the border, local producer Livingstone Amaumo and his Ahadi label is trying to bring some Tanzanian music back into the Kenyan market with new albums from Maquis Original and Mlimani Park.

Yet it is a risky business, with the production costs reaching perhaps 1300 for the first 500 LPs, not including studio time, and the return might be as little as five percent if and when all the albums are sold.

A much safer bet is cassette production, which requires a far lower initial investment—especially in cover design and packaging—and where production can be tied more closely to actual rather than projected sales.

The Kenyan home market offers a wider variety of locally produced cassette materials than for vinyl output and, with 10 to 14 tracks on each tape, they can be pretty good value at about 4 each. Sales of a successful independent tape will range between 200 and, in an exceptional case, 2000.

The obverse of this is the bush bootlegger who parasites off both local and international stars—although Michael Jackson is less hurt about it than the Blue Stars. Ron Andrews has told this magazine that the rise of cheap taping equipment is a major factor in the weakness of the local recording base.

But what producers lack in terms of sales of individual releases they seem to try and make up in the sheer volume of re-released material. In many ways they seem to have lost their grip on quality control, sight of what customers most want: innovative entertaining material that is polished and technically sound. The Kenyan labels, whether CBS or a River Road independent, simply do not have the resources to invest, to buy themselves out of the grip of the depression and bootleggers by setting higher standards and daring everyone else to follow or fall below. Falling sales figures have made them very conservative.

But they have not been helped by the Kenyan musicians who, as a group, do not command much respect or loyalty from the Kenyan public.

Kenyans expect their night club entertainers to play for them all night or at least between seven and eight hours. Gate fees may be low enough to ensure the punters arrive—the money is made on the beer—but as the musicians depend on these fees, they can find it hard to buy back the equipment which a club boss may have bought for them as part of the residency contract. Thus a band will stay at the same club for years, satisfying if not exciting the regulars, which hardly makes for innovation.

Nairobi's entertainment spots that do feature live African pop face exceedingly stiff competition from slick Euro-discos that blast out all the latest from the US. Clubs that have traditionally featured live bands such The Starlight—famous for Orchestra Virunga, now shattered by work permit hassles—and Hallian’s now find they are in a struggle for survival against more recent 'sophisticated' establishments such as Visions, Beat House, Florida 2000 and The Boomerang Club.

But the biggest problem that faces the Kenyan music industry, and maybe the oldest, is the basic nature of its market—its fragmentation.

The advantage that a Franco has over most of the local pretenders playing not so hot sub-soukous or anything else is that Kenyans do not resent not understanding his Lingala lyrics: they accept and expect that in a way one Kenyan will not enjoy or buy a record which is in the language and subtly shifted style of another Kenyan district maybe 100 miles down the road.

Each linguistic group, and there are many, has developed its distinct self-contained music and like an indifferent wine it will not travel.

The differences between them, to be looked at more closely next issued may not be obvious to the outsider but they are vitally important to the Luo or coast-dweller. The peculiar thing is, that overall, this sector completely outsells the Zairean imports on Genidia or whathaveyou, but individually they just don't make their mark. Only five discs have achieved Gold Disc status—more than 65,000 sales in Kenya—and vernacular records are not among them.

Shirati Jazz L'Orch. D.O. 7 Shirati Jazz, leader, DO Misiani, singing, second from left.
These recordings come out of the cluster of small studios around the River Road district of Nairobi, places like Andrew Crawford Productions’ Pioneer House studio where the independent producer-musician like Joseph Kamaru of the Kamaru Super Stars and Kakai Kilonzo of Les Kilimambogo work.

Kakai not only runs his own band and produces his own records, he also puts them out on his own stable of labels like Kilimambogo and Salulu. Unless they can get a foreign deal which is a dream only matched by the rarity of its realisation: Virunga and the sex-bomb Kalambya Sisters were very lucky as well as good— these singles, which are issued by the avalancheful and damn the Western concepts of pacing and quality control, the fans want them now, sell between a handful and a couple of thousand and may be brought together again at the end of the day on a compilation LP for a second revenue earning campaign.

In 1984 the biggest selling single in Kenya was 'Amour Cherche Amour’ by Manana Antoine, a record with a French title and Lingala lyrics sung by a Zairean working in Cote D'Ivoire. It sold 30,000 and got universal radio airplay while the biggest vernacular record got heard only on its local district radio and sold 8,000.

Of course some vernacular records will survive translation into at least another vernacular if not the nationwide Swahili, but usually the subtle musical difference in style shows and dampens its spirit.

It is the Zaireans who, until recently, dominated many of the Nairobi club bands, who tumbled to the trick of using Swahili among the Lingala songs. Many local bands feel they will lose the only guaranteed sales they have if they stoop to translate.

All these problems will have to be overcome by the Kenyan who would be king in his own country. If one Kenyan can do it then surely others will follow into the breach. We shall be looking at the contenders in the next issue.

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Part II of "Kenya:  The Business of Pleasure" continues in Issue 6, Winter 1986/7 of Africa Beat.

To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com

Last updated May 9, 1999.

East African Music - African Radio

Copyright 1998-99 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.