He wanted to be a tea picker, but ended up as the King of Kalenjin gospel music.
Despite his short stature — he stands barely 5ft —Pastor Joel Kimeto walks tall in the town and is frequently stopped by excited fans who shout in greeting ‘Kichigili!’, after one of his most popular albums, which hit the air waves in the 1990s and has refused to fade.
His nickname, which loosely translates as ‘Examine properly’, is used even by retired President Moi a fan of the musician.
Mr Moi would sometimes interject in a speech ‘Kichigili’ to drive home a point in many rallies in the vast Rift Valley.
“There was a time when people did not believe I was a mere musician as two police jeeps could be seen at my home and business premises at the same time. That was when the former President had decided we needed to go to a place on short notice,” said the 55-year-old father of five sons.
The director at Kericho-based Radio Injili, who has travelled the world thanks to his music, taught many Kalenjin musicians, including the gospel sensation Emmy Kosgei.
But Pastor Kimetto was not always a high-flier; his is a typical story of a rise from grass to glory.
He was born at Kipsabul in Chepalungu in 1956, before his struggling parents moved to Ilkerin, in the present day Transmara East district shortly after.
“While in standard seven I dropped out of school for lack of fees. It was then I decided to come to Kericho to look for work as a tea picker,” he said, adding that his lack of an identity card denied him the job.
It was then that he trekked home, a journey of three days to Bomet where his cousin nursed him back to health.
In 1972 he went to Nakuru where he was employed at a dairy firm. He later joined the then East African Railways Corporation and enrolled for his Certificate of Primary Education, which he passed.
“I then left the railways job and joined a Christian ministry called Campus Crusade for Christ where I trained as an evangelist,” he recalled.
In 1974, he married Agnes Kimeto and shortly after registered for the Kenya Junior Certificate of Secondary Education, KJSE, which he passed.
He later joined the Kenya Highlands Evangelical University, then known as Kenya Highlands Bible College where he trained in music.
After graduating from Daystar University where he studied for a certificate in Mass Communication, he joined Radio Injili where he deputised for the Rev Julius Tonui, who was the head of the firm until 2001 when Pastor Kimeto took over.
“People think that I sing full time yet I work full time. I also run a production company on the side,” he said.
He has borrowed heavily from the traditional Kispsigis style, with rhythm, costumes and metaphor producing unique songs which appeal to people of all ages and different religions.
Pastor Kimeto comes from a line of singers dating back to his grandfather, the late Kipkalya arap Mochogor and father Mr Moses Kalya who were renowned musicians.
“All my five sons as well as my other five adopted children have also taken to music and are doing very well,” said the evangelist.
So what is his secret? “I did not despise my humble background. Anyone who works hard will dine with kings,” he explained.
He shocked many when last year he released a hip hop album, ‘Rat Torosta’ in which he gave younger musicians a run for their money with his impeccable rap, complete with gestures and body movements.
“People thought I was overdoing it by emulating the youth, but I use it to hook them so that they can get my very serious message of fighting HIV and Aids. In the song I am asking if at home we cover the vital organs of our rams to prevent them from mating and spoiling our breeds, so why can’t we control ourselves when it comes to activities which take us to the grave early because of Aids?” he asked.
The musician has devoted at least a song in all his 18 albums to combating Aids.
Pastor Kimeto dispels the notion that music does not pay. “I don’t have a single bush of tea, but I have educated all my children and lead a comfortable life. Music pays well. We only urge the Government to clamp down on piracy and we shall develop this county and the country at large,” he commented.
Other popular gospel artistes from Kericho include Lilian Rotich of Inetkei Isomnyoet ab Kaat (Learn to seek forgiveness), Kapchi (Family) and Otinye garik, (I have arms).
Pastor Kimeto urges musicians to be good role models.
“Even a pop musician has a message to pass. But they must be role models and guard their reputations jealously,” he said.
But Kericho is also the undisputed source of Kalenjin pop music.