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In my haphazard education in the music of East Africa, I was first drawn to the rumba sounds of the mid-70s Tanzanian dance bands. My summers of '74 and '75 in Dar es Salaam had me craving the sound of Mbaraka Mwenshehe and Super Volcano and other Tanzanian groups like Vijana Jazz. Let's just say, I developed a soft spot for the genre that lives within me even today. I was next back to East Africa in 1977, however, this time in Kenya to begin what turned out to be a three year anthropological research project studying adaptation to land scarcity in western Kenya. It was during this extended stay that I expanded my rumba horizons to become very familiar with rumba music coming from bands based in Kenya. Among my favorites were Simba Wanyika and Les Wanyika (with Tanzanian origins), Kenya Blue Stars, Maroon Commandos and some of the Congolese groups based in Kenya like Viva Makale, and Baba Gaston and his group.

It wasn't until I returned to Kenya in 1985 for another lengthy stay that I really started hearing and appreciating Kenya's benga music, a genre that is distinctive to Kenya (though appreciated and copied far beyond) since the mid-sixties. Since benga lyrics were most often in Kenya's indigenous languages, I usually had little idea about the meanings of songs. However, this didn't matter so much since the beauty of benga music (for Euro-American onlookers anyway) is in the guitar parts: intertwined, vigorous, driving, and infectious. When I put together my first compilation of Kenyan pop music for the American market, there was no doubt in my mind what song would lead off the CD. D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz had a current release, Jamoko Wange Tek, that had already played in my mind for days on end. It epitomized my ideal of benga at that moment, 1986. Misiani was the master, and remained the master, until his death 20 years later in 2006.

The King of History compilation, looks to a earlier time period, the 1970s; a period in benga music with I was far less familiar. It's been a fun learning experience to gain a better understanding of the D.O. Misiani, the man and his music. This CD is the latest to emerge from the Stern's Music collaboration with Nairobi's AI Records. Below are notes that I wrote for the CD booklet.

Doug Paterson, 5 July, 2010.

STCD1050 Issa Juma and Super Wanyika Stars

D.O. Misiani Shirati Jazz
(See it at Amazon.com)

As I entered Klub Oasis, I immediately noticed a large banner pinned to the back of the stage:

Klub Oasis Presents The King of History

This was July 2003 and I was in Kondele, just outside Kisumu (Kenya's port on Lake Victoria) in the midst of a whirlwind musical pilgrimage. A long time before, when resident in Kenya during the 70s and 80s, I had often heard people refer to Daniel Owino Misiani as "Mwalimu," meaning "teacher" in Swahili. But "The King of History" was new to me and, frankly, I didn't know what to make of it. Did it refer to his long career in the music business and his position as the most influential performer to help shape Kenya's benga style of pop music? Or perhaps it had another meaning? But whichever way you look at it, today D.O. Misiani is the embodiment of the near 40 year history of benga music.

I'd come to know his music in the mid-80s, first on radio and then in performance at the River Yala Club in Nairobi's Kariobangi Estate. The fact that I didn't understand any of his lyrics in Luo was of no concern to me. I was in it for the guitar and the great percussive and syncopated bass lines. Guitars had started gaining popularity in Kenya in the 1950s and it wasn't long before benga started taking form in the Luo speaking areas surrounding Lake Victoria in the early 60s. Misiani was actually born across Kenya's southern border in Tanganyika in 1940 in the Luo community of Shirati. His earliest years as a musician brought him numerous clashes with authority and several escapes to safer ground to avoid punishment. It seems he and his music were very popular with schoolgirls and young women, but the parents weren't too keen on his seductive love songs and the authorities didn't appreciate the fights among the young men over the girls. Misiani recounted several times that his guitars were seized and smashed, and that he had to leave the village quickly. He would disappear for a while, wait for things to settle down and then return.

He first landed in Nairobi in 1960 where he met Daudi Kabaka, a popular guitarist and vocalist from western Kenya already well-established in the local music scene and who mentored Misiani. In 1961, after returning home and failing again to reconcile with his family and the community in Shirati, Misiani went back to Nairobi and joined the Sokoto Band, with which he successfully toured Kenya's coast and hinterland for several years.

By 1965 he had patched up relations with his father in Shirati and married the first of his four wives. Back in Nairobi he linked up with Kabaka again and played in the Equator Sound Band through to 1967. He then set in motion the beginnings of what is perhaps Kenya's most successful band ever. It started as Luo Sweet Voice, became Shirati Luo Voice Jazz around 1972 and, in 1975, changed to Orchestra D.O. 7 Shirati Jazz, the '7' possibly signifying the number of letters in his name. The songs in this compilation focus on a relatively short time frame, 1973 to 1979, yet it is quite easy to hear the evolutionary trend in the music.

All of the songs have the trademarks of Luo benga: a catchy guitar riff to start off the song, followed by flowing verses sung in unison or simple two part harmonies and played over gentle guitar fingerings with a very active bass line while the percussion steadily pulses. As the verse finishes, the lead guitar follows approximating the melody just sung. In the second half of the song, the verses fade away and the song moves into elaborate guitar soloing, rhythmic jams, occasionally interspersed with a vocal chorus.

The songs of the early 70s have a lighter percussion with the beat kept by tapping on the rim of a snare drum. They also mastered a rhythmic clicking sound using the electric guitar pick-up that is heard in a number of pieces. From about 1976 this sound changes with the use of a full drum kit and the deeper sound of the kick drum, with now the high hat receiving most of the attention from the drummer's sticks. The saxophone heard in some of the earlier songs is gone. By the late 70s, we're into the mature benga sound exemplified by 'Wang'ni To Iringo' that propelled benga through the 80s and into the 90s.

While D.O. Misiani's lyrics might not be much of a factor to non-Luo speakers, in Kenya, his lyrics were of great interest to several million Luos and to the Kenya central government. Though Luos represent the third largest tribal group in Kenya, they were often at odds with, and felt excluded from, the Kenyatta and Moi governments. D.O. was a commentator on the state of the Luo universe, so the government was very interested in what he had to say… and in making sure he didn't say things that put the government in a bad light.

Misiani and Shjrati at Klub OasisMisiani wrote songs on all kinds of subjects; matters of the heart, social conduct, politics and exploitation, as well as praise songs for community leaders, politicians, and sports teams. He didn't live to see the election of President Barack Obama in the US, but we can only imagine that he would have had some fun with the fact that a Luo man's son could rise to become the US President while the Presidency in Kenya has so far eluded any Luo contenders.

Misiani was a composer without fear in an environment that threatened free speech and critical thought. In his early years, it was his love songs in his home village that had got him in trouble, and in the Shirati Jazz years (essentially the rest of his life after leaving the village), he was known for biting commentary on Kenya's political, social, and economic institutions. However such criticism was never direct. His songs convey meaning at a deeper level. He would use a theme such as a verse or parable in the Bible, a piece of African history, a prophecy, or an animal fable that would allow listeners to draw a meaning relevant to the current events of the day. Periodically, when one of his songs could be interpreted as presenting the government or a politician in an unflattering way, the authorities would pick up Misiani and take him off to jail. At one point he was deported to Tanzania. Another time he was arrested - though not convicted - of being an illegal Tanzanian immigrant. Nairobi's Nation newspaper quotes him in 2006 as saying: "Tell me, is there anything wrong with singing about what's going wrong in our society? I just sing about what is happening and if some people are not happy, I can do little about it."

It is in this arena, I think, where Misiani really merits his King of History title. With its multiple layers of meaning, it accurately portrays both the status and the mechanism by which he achieved that status: keep it sweet, keep it entertaining but, at all times, keep it relevant. And today, among his vast number of fans in both Kenya and abroad, I think we can still say we're "very happy" with his songs and the deep repertoire of music he has left us.

Daniel Owino Misiani died on May 17, 2006, the victim of a horrendous road accident just outside Kisumu. He was on his way home after a band rehearsal.

We miss him.

CD notes by Douglas B. Paterson ©2010 Stern's Music.

East African Music - African Radio

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Last updated 5 July, 2010.

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