In all fairness, this is a project I would like to claim as one of my own but, in fact, apart from a little advice along the way to the crew, I was on the sideline cheering. In 2013, I had the pleasure of writing the introductory booklet notes for the Soundway Records compilation: Kenya Special. Now, in 2016, the crew at Soundway is back at it again with Volume 2. This time it was my colleague in African music, Thomas Gesthuizen, who was called upon to research and write the detailed and graphic-rich booklet that accompanies the discs.Various Artists: Kenya Special: Volume Two from Soundway Records.
Here are the introductory notes written by Thomas Gesthuizen, with the kind permission of the author and Soundways Records:
To many outside of East Africa, the Kenya Special Soundway compilation released in 2013 was their introduction to the full spectrum of the musical landscape of 1970s and '80s Kenya. The promotion of Kenyan music on an international level from the mid-eighties onwards had often been within a narrative of 'otherness', where releases were marketed as world music, focusing on a few genres with clearly defined sounds, such as benga and Swahili rumba. Kenya Special did more or less the opposite by highlighting songs and bands that couldn't easily be categorized. Many of the featured songs seemed to bend the rules, break away from existing genres and sometimes borrow from foreign music trends. Whereas the world music campaigns of the 1980s were moderately successful in drawing in young audiences, the more recent wave of reissues has caught on with a demographic that's one or two generations younger than those listeners that were originally interested in the music that was recorded in Kenya from the 1960s to the 1980s. The approach to musical rediscovery that is behind Kenya Special has its origins in a youthful movement of vinyl collecting (and to some extent club culture), which has, in the past decade and a half, carved out its own niche alongside the established music industry.
In Kenya by the early 1990s, when the cassette and compact disc seemed to have won their battle with vinyl, used records were often thrown away and burned with the rubbish. Almost three decades later, the worldwide renewed interest in musical heritage has extended to Nairobi, where a monthly We Love Vinyl event has been held since 2014, and where new and used turntables have enjoyed a (albeit modest) spike in sales. Young hip hop and dance acts such as Just A Band and Octopizzo even sampled Kenyan grooves from the '70s in their songs ("Dunia Ina Mambo" by Cavaliers Band and "You Can Do It" by Slim Ali, respectively).
Considering the fact that Kenyan music on vinyl reached peak sales in the late 1970s and early '80s, it's remarkable that thirty years later some of the important players in the industry are still actively selling music, and their catalogues have been preserved. One of them is AI Records (founded by Mike Andrews and previously named AIT), which ran a host of sub-labels specialising in different languages and styles. Polygram, one of the most active labels throughout the 1980s and '90s, sold its musical archive to Tamasha, a company that sells CD compilations and albums through renewed licenses with the original artists or their heirs. In downtown Nairobi there's Assanand music store, a name that goes back more than sixty years, though the original owner retired and the shop was taken over by former employees (a second shop carrying the name was opened just down the block).
Perhaps the most resilient of them all is Melodica, a music store located a stone's throw from River Road, the heart of independent music production in downtown Nairobi. Surrounded by stores converted into 'galleries' housing up to ten tiny shops selling DVDs, mobile phones and clothes, Melodica has been in the same spot for over 45 years. Opened in 1971 by P.L. Daudia, a businessman from Eldoret of Indian heritage, management was taken over by his sons after Daudia passed away in 1981. Everything about the shop breathes an era long forgotten by the fast life of downtown Nairobi surrounding it, from the Melodica logo to record label branding decorating the wall, the Millie Jackson sticker on the door, a vinyl listening booth now used for storage and a notice board with photos of celebrities visiting Melodica in the mid-seventies.
The third floor of the building was originally home to a recording studio where bands used to practice and record for release on Melodica or one of its distributed labels specialising in Luo and Kikuyu benga, rumba, taarab and Congolese music. Today, to many musicians who were around during the heyday of live music in Kenya, Melodica remains a landmark where they can drop in at any time during the week or weekend for a chat with the owners, Abdul Karim and his mother. The sales team has become something akin to an offline version of the Shazam mobile app, deciphering whistled melodies of '80s Congolese songs the clientele have been searching for.
CD or USB compilations of songs from the Melodica back catalogue, as well as other distributed releases, are created on-demand from a giant hard disk. The fact that the building housing the (rented) shop has become prime real estate in Kenya's fast-growing economy is a threat to its continued existence, and music sales alone would hardly suffice to keep it going.
Today the shop inventory consists of not only CDs and tapes but also musical instruments, portable turntables and original 45s from the label stock that had been sitting in storage for decades until a new, international clientele found its way there. The vinyl stock has come to be at the centre of a myth surrounding Melodica, since the records haven't all been accessible to the general public in recent years. Still, more than a few foreign and local diggers - among them Dj Shadow - have spent hours in the dim vinyl attic flipping through hundreds of boxes of 45s covered in black dust.
More than a salesman, Abdul Karim has become a music archivist and a fighter for pride in Kenyan cultural heritage, with an impressive private collection, and a willingness to share with those prepared to do their homework. Nowadays he gives away digitized highlights of the Melodica catalogue online and ships to buyers as far away as Colombia. He confirms that there's a renewed local interest in vinyl, too - from people who inherited their parents' record collection and who are now looking for a turntable, to the occasional young DJ looking for a change from playing foreign hits. Another trend, suggesting that the era of live music in Kenya is not over, is the recent influx of teens coming into the store buying guitars and other instruments.
It's places like Melodica, or the market stall run by vinyl vendor James 'Jimmy' Rugami (at this time the sole business in Nairobi exclusively dedicated to used records, and set amidst butchers selling roast meat) that have been essential elements in the rediscovery of many of the tracks on Kenya Special 2. The compilation features songs recorded between 1963 and 1988, spanning almost the entire era of 45-rpm releases in Kenya. Half of these were released in the late 1970s, a golden era in terms of music sales, live performances and creativity among Kenyan musicians. One thing that most of the songs have in common is that they have enjoyed little to no airplay in the four decades that have passed, and only a few were reissued (digitally).
Since the Kenya Special series compiles many genre-defying songs, one way to cluster them is by language or region of origin. Kikuyu and Luo songs are well represented on this volume, as is music from the coastal region - often sung in Giriama. As with Kenya Special Volume 1 the story of Kenyan Music in this era would not be complete without including a handful of tracks by bands that didn't hail from Kenya but were very much part of the Kenyan music scene at the time.
Afro 70 & Kilwa Jazz were both from neighbouring Tanzania but both recorded, played and released music (on Kenyan labels) in Nairobi and other Kenyan cities as did many other Tanzanian bands. To Tanzanian musicians during much of the 1970s, recording and releasing their music required a trip to Nairobi. The other Afro 70 track "Nina" is the exception here, since it was both recorded and released in Mozambique. Once again the massive influence of Congolese bands and musicians on East African music in this era is represented here by Orchestre Les Mangelepa and Johnny Bokelo's Orchestre Conga Internationale. Both are tracks sung mostly in the East African language of Swahili by bands led by, and predominantly made up of Congolese musicians based in Kenya.
Across all language or genre boundaries, love remained a favourite theme in Kenyan songs of the 1970s and '80s; indeed, only a handful of the songs on Kenya Special Volume 2 are not about relationships or infatuations. "I Can Feel It" by The Lulus Band delivers social and political commentary not often heard on songs from that era. "Shirikisho" also has a political message, albeit to educate the public about Tanzanian government policy relating to the newly instated East African Community. "Harambe" by Mac & Party, although its title refers to a political concept, may have been one of the first of many Kenyan songs addressing foreign tourists.
Despite the renewed interest in music from Kenya's past, finding these tracks and their rights holders hasn't become any easier. Apart from the industry players mentioned above (some of whom have started to revisit their catalogues), only a handful of music archives around the world harbour collections of Kenyan music, and just a few private collectors in Kenya and abroad have been sharing catalogue info online or privately. One of the problems with East African music of this era is that much of it was originally released only on 45 rpm, seven-inch vinyl singles, many of which were only ever produced in tiny runs of a few hundred. 45s with their thin, paper sleeves do not age as well as LPs and are often far more susceptible to the elements. The compilers of Kenya Special 2 have gone to great lengths to disclose a small part of what is slowly being accepted as an essential element of East Africa's cultural heritage: the history of recorded popular music. We hope you enjoy it.
Thomas Gesthuizen, Nairobi, May, 2016.
The PDF verison of the Kenya Special Volume Two booklet contains even more graphics and extensive details on each track and each of the performers. PDF copy of Kenya Special Volume 2 booklet.
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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to dbpaterson(at)eastafricanmusic.com.
Last updated 25 October, 2016.