Memories of a melodious past 

Tina Turner

Singer Tina Turner performs onstage during the 50th annual Grammy Awards held at the Staples Center on February 10, 2008, in Los Angeles, California. 

Photo credit: Getty Images North America | AFP

By the time this rather unusual article is published, music diva Tina Turner’s funeral may already be an anecdote in history because the rites will be so low-key that only a handful of family members and retainers will be at hand to bid farewell to the icon, which is ironic because she spent half her life on stage entertaining thousands.

Why the organisers chose to make the funeral private is not clear, but most likely it was her wish, as was indeed, her desire to be cremated at her adopted home, Switzerland. But what concerns us here is not Turner’s life and death. What matters is her legacy, and in this case, the kind of impact she had on the life of a youth of the early 1980s.

No one could claim that Tina Turner was the greatest musician of the 1970s and 1980s; such labels are useless when it comes to the performing arts because music, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the ear of the listener.

As intimated above, this is purely a personal journey of remembrance by a chap who grew up in the age of the vinyl record and the eight-song album played on the gramophone. As such, three-quarters of the people reading this have no idea what I am talking about — so rapid have been innovations in recorded music that young folks cannot understand how their seniors survived without music-streaming apps.

Anyway, back to Tina Turner. To many people of a certain age, in her time, she was one of “the best”. However, she was not alone in this notable feat, and she certainly didn’t invent the Rock ‘n’ Roll music genre, for it preceded her by more than three or even four decades. But to her credit, she popularised the style in a uniquely robust fashion on stage, for she was not afraid to show her beautiful legs and more than a bit of thigh.

My age-mates and I discovered her while in secondary school after escaping the confines of poverty and rigid religious mores at home. Even if I could have accessed the device, I cannot imagine playing her music on the gramophone anywhere close to my revered dad.

In fact, he didn’t even allow my siblings and I to listen to much music on radio except gospel featured in the programme, Wimbo Niupendao, and presented by the Rev Timothy Kamau of the then Kijabe-based Biblia Husema Studio. Any other type of music was, in my dad’s view, intolerable noise, and since he controlled when and how we used the radio, what could we do?

Rock ‘n’ roll

Anyway, it was not until I went for my A-Levels that I appreciated the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll music. The senior boys were allowed to own gramophones so long as they did not play loud music or after dark, and we invaded their cubicles. In any case, by then, my taste for music had graduated from a little Lingala, some hits by the inimitable Mbaraka Mwinshehe, and a few Kenyan beats from Daudi Kabaka, John Nzenze, and Fadhili William, as well as the likes of Peter Tsotsi and Nashil Pichen, the transplanted Zambians who popularised the Twist.

By then, we had become so deculturalised that our music heroes were mostly Americans and a few bands from Britain. In the 1970s, we had the likes of Elton John — the amazing artiste who has defied time and is still producing hits at 75 — Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, ABBA, Madonna, Otis Redding, Prince, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Percy Sledge, guitar maestro Jimi Hendrix, Gladys Maria Knight, Elvis Presley, and of course, Tina Turner. The 1980s were even better with some of these folk traversing the decade and new acts coming up including Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross.

There is no attempt here to compile an exhaustive list of the most influential musicians of the two decades, mainly because my personal experience may not necessarily match those of other fans. 

For instance, at one time, I could not get enough of Everly Brothers’ ‘Take a Message to Mary’, but today, I wouldn’t waste time on it if Mapopo was playing. In another example, although the group, Queen, led by Zanzibar-born Freddie Mercury released the epic Bohemian Rhapsody back in 1975, it was only recently that I stumbled upon it. I am still trying to decipher the sheer genius that fused opera, pop and hard rock in one song, and I am convinced it will live long after me.

This has been a personal odyssey of melodies long eclipsed by changes in music taste, beats, lyrics and styles. It has been a self-indulgence of sorts, and though I cannot sing, the time has not dulled my appreciation of the fine note, the peerless guitar-work, or the drumming that mimics the heartbeat. In the end, the only fitting encomium for artistes like Tina Turner from people of my generation can only be this kind of epitaph, in the hope that the yawns from my dear readers will not be too loud.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]