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Back in the late 1970s, I was an anthropology student living in the rural countryside of western Kenya. I was there to study the local farm economy but, in fact, I was by accident getting a brilliant education in East African and Congolese (then Zairean) music. I lived with a local family and anytime I was around the house from early morning until late at night, I got a constant diet of music from the Voice of Kenya's National Service, the Swahili language radio service (and occasionally we listened to the "vernacular" service in Luhya or Luo). It was at this same period that the Swahili rumba group Les Wanyika broke onto the scene. Their music was prominent on the radio and I quickly became a fan and snapped up their singles, Paulina, Sina Makosa, and Pamela. I had no idea who was singing the powerful lead parts in the group and wasn't much concerned with such things.
I returned to the USA with my vinyl and eventually finished up my anthropology degree. It wasn't until New Year's Day, 1985 that I next arrived in Kenya to teach and, this time, to learn all I could about the local pop music scene. One of my first discoveries was a new Wanyika group on the scene. Actually, they weren't new. Issa Juma, that dynamic, raspy vocalist from Les Wanyika formed his Super Wanyika group back in 1981 and I vaguely knew about it because of a British 12 inch vinyl EP called Djalenga that featured Issa and a couple of Zairean artists based in Nairobi. I made up for lost time buying as many singles, cassettes, and LPs as I could find of Issa's various groups. This guy was really something special and it was a great disappointment that I never got the chance to see him perform. I got part-way to the Super Wanyika experience hearing his whole band do a show in Luanda (western Kenya) but without him.
In my various CD projects, I have always wanted to feature something from Issa Juma but it never worked out. When the Stern's Music brain trust approached me about helping them put together some collections of East African pop music, Issa Juma and Super Wanyika was my first choice. The album, in CD format, is now available in both Europe and North America and the tracks are available as downloads on the major download services (iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon). The download sites also make available a bonus track, Ateka, which could not fit on the CD version. Below are the notes I wrote for the booklet in the CD release. Also in the booklet, I transcribed and translated into English all the Swahili lyrics. (You'll have to track down the CD for that). I hope you'll give it a listen and who knows, you may just come to love it as much as I do.
Doug Paterson, 16 May, 2010.
Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars
(See it at Amazon.com)
For nearly thirty years, the "Wanyika" bands were a sensation in Kenya. Institutions of renown they were a dominate presence in Nairobi's nightclubs and recording industry, and in their heyday there were three or four bands each simultaneously bearing a Wanyika name, together with several spinoff groups operating under different names. The rumba music these bands played had its stylistic origins in Tanzania but rather quickly took on a unique Kenyan identity. It was propelled by light percussion, the rhythm often on the high hat cymbals and conga drums and made sweet with a delicate interplay between rhythm and solo guitars. The sound was instrumentally sparse with a rich bass filling in the gaps in syncopated bursts. Trumpets and saxes were sometimes used in recordings but rarely in live performance. On top of this were simple two-part harmony melodies in Swahili that could be widely understood across East Africa. This was the defining sound of Kenyan Swahili rumba in the late 70s and early 80s. Issa Juma was a pivotal voice in creating that sound and taking it in new directions as the 80s progressed.
Like the other founding members of the Wanyika groups, Issa was born in Tanzania. Coming from the north coastal Tanga region, he started his music career age 15 singing for several groups in his home area, and was soon on tour in Uganda with one of those groups, the Green Guards. Over the two and half years he stayed in Uganda, he shuttled between several groups performing in Tanzanian, Congolese, and Ugandan styles before returning to Tanzania in 1970. He then made his way to Dar es Salaam and eventually joined up with the Police Jazz Band, but he was only with them for six months before they sent him back to Tanga to start a sister group. Issa was now well-known in the region for his vocal abilities, and this brought him to the attention of Kenyan music producer A.P. Chandarana, who invited Issa to join Kericho Jazz as their singer. Issa accepted and, in April 1971, he made the move to Kericho in the tea country of western Kenya. This group soon split up but Chandarana hired Issa as a recording assistant in the studio. During his time in Kericho, Issa married, started his family and even recorded a couple of not very successful numbers. By 1977, however, the urge to be a successful performing musician brought him to Nairobi where he worked with Orchestra Kumba Kumba and, in late 1978, he joined the first of his "Wanyika" bands: Simba wa Nyika (Lions of the wilderness). This group had begun as Arusha Jazz in the early 70s when Tanzanian musicians took up residence in Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa. It wasn't long before they changed their name to Simba wa Nyika, then Simba Wanyika, and, in 1975, they relocated to Nairobi. The band was well received and gained a considerable following, but not without some internal problems. Issa had been with the group for only a month when a number of members decided to leave and start a new group, Les Wanyika. Issa joined them as their lead vocalist, and Les Wanyika took off with a string of number one hits including Paulina, Sina Makosa, Pamela, and Kajituliza Kasuku. With Les Wanyika, Issa Juma finally attained the critical recognition and popular support he had been looking for in earlier years, and his powerful baritone voice was indisputably recognized as the best of the Wanyika clan. It's also clear he had an independent streak and wanted creative and entrepreneurial control of his music. In June 1981 Issa quit Les Wanyika to lead a new group formed with members of another Simba Wanyika offshoot, Orchestra Jobiso. This started off as Super Wanyika but quickly came to operate under a variety of names (often simultaneously) such as Wanyika Stars, Super Wanyika Stars, Waanyika, and Wanyika "Super Les Les". Super Wanyika got off to a brilliant start with a number of hits plus international exposure in a vinyl compilation called Djalenga (Swahili Records) released in 1983 in the UK .
Some of the earliest Super Wanyika recordings have a Congolese flavour in the guitar mix and the full horn section, and this is one of the interesting aspects of Issa Juma's music: his sound could change with each record producer and each session, even when with the same producers. One recording might suggest a Congolese influence, another (e.g. Mwanaidi), would have a rhythm and solo guitar interplay reminiscent of Les Wanyika, while yet another might merge elements of Kenya's benga style with Swahili rumba. Of the different Wanyika bands, Issa Juma's groups brought more variety from one recording to the next, and perhaps a greater willingness to challenge the boundaries of Kenyan Swahili rumba. Under Issa's leadership, his branch of the Wanyika lineage was perhaps the most innovative, adventuresome, and prolific of all.
The songs in this collection were recorded for AIT Records in Nairobi between 1982 and 1986 and represent no fewer than five different sessions with a different mix of band personnel for each session. His groups were always in flux with disputes over the ownership of the Super Wanyika name, band members coming and going en masse, plus guest musicians brought in for recording sessions. Yet the group performed long stints at Garden Square and Mumias Bar in Nairobi, and toured widely in other parts of Kenya. Despite the ever-changing personnel, Issa's music always had the powerful, raspy, pitch-perfect sound of his own voice and throughout all the many band members, he always carried the essence of Swahili rumba with brilliant rhythm guitarists providing that luscious, quietly active, quintessential rhythm sound. Kenyans, both urban and rural, seem to have been able to identify with Issa's lyrics whether it be humorously touching on shady business deals (as in his big hit Sigalame) or his continuing concern with social relationships and the many problems that stem from them, where a common theme is, "Don't blame me, you brought these problems on yourself, but I'll help you through them". Another element Kenyans enjoyed were the band's many 'shout outs' to various locations in Kenya (especially in a song like Mwanaidi where no less than a dozen areas across Kenya are mentioned). The shout outs for band members' names in the recording sessions is also a clue as to which musicians participated. Thus, when you hear the name "Chou Chou" mentioned, it's a reference to the high pitched backup voice that on most songs belonged to the late Betanga Mazinere. Likewise, the fabulous solo guitar work in Mony and Maria is by "Adamu", Adam Solomon (now in Canada) with superb rhythm guitar by "Abbu", Abbu Omar Prof. Jr., who played with Simba Wanyika for many years and currently lives and performs in Japan.
Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars performed in Kenya into 1987 but he was not always able to work because of difficulties with both his health and his immigration status. At one point in 1984, he actually spent a couple months in jail for working without a valid permit. His health suffered from that incarceration and it this slowed his reentry into music. Then, in 1988, he suffered a stroke which affected his mobility and speech. This effectively ended his musical career, and he finally passed away in the early 1990s. A brilliant vocalist and band-leader, an innovative and accomplished musician: today he is sadly missed.
CD notes by Douglas B. Paterson ©2010 Stern's Music.
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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.
Last updated 16 May, 2010.