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Daudi Kabaka: King of the Kenyan Twist

by Douglas Paterson 

Above: Daudi Kabaka posing with guitar at Melodica Music Store, Nairobi, August, 2000.

Photo © 2000 Douglas B Paterson

The following article appears in the February-March, 2002 issue of The Beat.

One of the musical architects of Kenya's burgeoning recording industry of the 1960s, Daudi Kabaka, passed away on November 26, 2001, two days short of his 62nd birthday. Kabaka's music and lyrics captured the spirit of a newly independent Kenya and chronicled daily life and the changing social environment. His music would be instantly recognizable to most Kenyans and those in the larger Swahili speaking region within Eastern Africa. Sadly, very little of Kabaka's music is known outside of Africa today. However, fans of Kenyan music may actually have some of his work without knowing it.

Throughout the 60s, he was one of the salaried musicians to work at Equator Sound Studio in Nairobi alongside other well-known musicians of the time: Gabriel Omolo, George Agade, David Amunga, Nashil Pichen, Peter Tsotsi, and Charles and Frida Songo, and Fadhili William. Daudi's guitar or voice is heard in such hits as Fadhili William's Malaika, Pole Musa by Peter Tsotsi and Nashil Pichen, Taxi Driver with Fadhili, and Gabriel Omolo's Lunch Time. For more than a generation, one of Kabaka's compositions, Harambee Harambee, was played hourly on the Voice of Kenya (now KBC). It was a signature tune, played at the end of every news broadcast.

While the use of Harambee Harambee was undoubtedly a source of pride if not income for Kabaka, he was perhaps even more pleased by his status as "King of Twist." That is, "twist" in the Chubby Checker sense. In 2000, he described to me how was he was inspired by Checker's Let's Twist Again:

… but when Chubby Checker sang Twist Again, 1961… he was international… I thought, how this man challenge people to twist again [sings a little twist refrain] I said no. I should compose mine to challenge this man.[mp3]

Over the next few years, Kabaka composed a series of songs with references to "twist" in the lyrics and titles, a number of which became big hits throughout East Africa: African Twist, Bachelor Boy Twist, Bush Baby Twist, Taita Twist, etc. For Kabaka and his fans, however, it wasn't the lyrics or the titles that made it twist. It was the beat. Daudi based his twist style on the South African kwela beat. In essence, it was a fast "wemoweh" rhythm. Yet, each of his songs had something unique or innovative about them. Even his Harambee Harambee is a version of twist. The melody, however, sounds like the old American chain gang song, Worried Man Blues (popularized by the Kingston Trio as, A Worried Man). While the strumming rhythm guitar provides the twist beat, the bass is walking up and down the scale on the beat, the tambourine is on the backbeat, and the lead guitar is off doing rockabilly solos. While African Twist is, as its name suggests, a twist song, it has a much different sound than Harambee. It is a more "unplugged" sound reminiscent of other finger-picking guitarists of Western Kenya. In this case, one guitar strums chords in twist rhythm and plays a bass part on the 1st and 3rd beats; a second fills-in, for the most part, in a picking style during the verses and in solos imitating the melody. That melody is in two part vocal harmony with the twist beat also being maintained by a shaker and a timing stick.

Another of Kabaka's twist tunes, Helule Helule, caught the attention of the British pop group, The Tremeloes. They borrowed the chorus, added some English verses and made it to number 14 in the British charts in May, 1967. For its use, Kabaka did share a substantial licensing fee with his Equator Sound producer, Charles Worrod, though Daudi questioned why he never received any further royalties. Twist was certainly not Kabaka's only style. Kilio Kwetu has the same unplugged sound as African Twist but its beat is more like a rumba. One of my favorite songs is Western Shilo, shilo being a traditional Luhya dance rhythm. This one is an interesting mix of electric and acoustic instruments in a rhythm that is something like that of a fast trot. There is a lovely acoustic cover of this same tune spelled Chiro on Ayub Ogada's En Mana Kuoyo CD.

Although Kabaka's ancestral home was Tiriki in Western Kenya, he actually spent little of his childhood or adult life there. He was born in Kyambogo Uganda (near Kampala) in 1939 (and named after Kabaka Daudi Chwa, the Buganda king who died that same year). By 1950, his father, a railway worker, had been transferred to Nairobi and Daudi came to join him and to enter St. Peter Clavers Primary School. At the age of twelve, his father found new accommodations for him with some young men who had guitars and a phonograph. This exposed him to the music of Jean Bosco, Losta Abelo, and Léon Bukasa, among others.

I was listening and when I see that record playing 78 speed, I thought that I will talk and sing on this. So I was very interested to play guitar and, to do [these records], I have to be like these people and I have to sing myself.[mp3]

It was only two years later, in 1954, that fourteen year old Daudi Kabaka recorded his own composition, Nie Kabaka Naimba, for the CMS label (Capitol Music Stores). He continued with music and school up to 1957 when he took a job with a hotel and catering company. However, his career as a food and beverage manager was short lived. In 1959, he began working with Equator Sound Studio and soon became a salaried member of the Equator Sound Boys. As suggested above, it was a time of close cooperation and collaboration between some of Africa's most gifted musicians. While owner/producer Charles Worrod was certainly looking after his interests in registering himself as the composer/arranger of Equator label songs, he also provided a fruitful atmosphere where his salaried staff could experiment, learn, and develop. In the late 60s, he enrolled six of his core musicians including Daudi in a two-year course at the Conservatory of Music in Nairobi to learn music notation and theory.

That goodwill soon ended however for Daudi when Worrod learned of Daudi's membership in the PRS (Performing Right Society) in London. He resigned from Equator Sound and, in 1972, with some of his old Equator colleagues, they launched their own production company, African Eagles Recording, Ltd. The studio band worked under the name African Eagles Lupopo and had a number of successful releases through the mid-70s and tours through Zambia, Malawi, and Uganda. Following the demise of African Eagles Recording, Ltd., Daudi continued to record, collaborating from time to time with old colleagues and new partners like the Maroon Commandos, though during this period, the big hits eluded him. The late 80s and early 90s was a period of semi-retirement.

In 1993, URTNA (the Union of Radio and Television Networks in Africa) recognized Kabaka's achievements with an honorary title of "Kenyan Cultural Ambassador." This was followed in 1995 by Kenyatta University's Distinguished Service Award. With his background as a musician and his training from the music conservatory, Kabaka later taught for several years as a Creative Arts instructor at Kenyatta University.

Over the last couple of years, he started performing regularly with other veteran musicians of his generation such as Fadhili William, George Agade, and John Nzenze in Oldies Nite performances. With the passing of Fadhili and George, Kabaka had brought together a new band of younger musicians he called Wazalendo Eagles Band.

Daudi Kabaka Masika was buried at his home in Muhudu, Tiriki in western Kenya on December 15th. Kenyatta University Band entertained the large congregation of mourners, playing Kabaka's own compositions. He leaves behind a reported 47 children.


Primary Sources:

Daudi Kabaka, inteviewed by Douglas Paterson in Nairobi on August 14, 2001.

Various articles in Nairobi's daily newspapers: The Nation and East African Standard.


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

Last updated February 23, 2002.

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Copyright ©2002 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.