What you need to know:
- John Junior draws inspiration from Ochieng Kabaselleh, who carried the torch for rumba in the 1970s at a time when the exciting dance beat of benga was the dominant music in Kenya.
- His career started under the tutelage of rumba great, Otieno Jagausi. He later joined Orchestra Limpopo International headed by the rumba great, Musa Juma.
- John Junior has proved to be an aggressive self-promoter.
With his well-groomed beard, dark glasses and gold chain, John Odhiambo Orondo, or ‘J.J’ to his fans, cuts the image of a modern music star. John Junior the ‘King of rumba’ is arguably the biggest name in the genre at the moment, at least in Kenya, and an artist who recognises that the music is as important as the swagger and style of the performer.
The slow guitar rhythms, the romantic lyrics of his music, usually in Luo, with the occasional Swahili, and Lingala, have earned the flamboyant artist a fanatical following across the country. “Rumba has broad appeal because I may be singing in Dholuo but the fan base is very diverse, just as people enjoy Congolese rumba without necessarily understanding Lingala,” says Junior.
He draws inspiration from Ochieng Kabaselleh, who carried the torch for rumba in the 1970s at a time when the exciting dance beat of benga was the dominant music in Kenya.
“I never met Kabaselleh but his music had a major influence on me,” says Junior.
His career started under the tutelage of another rumba great, Otieno Jagausi, who recruited him as a vocalist and drummer in his Hill Sound Band in 2003. He performed with the group for two years and released his debut solo album “Jackie” while still in the band in 2005.
He then joined Orchestra Limpopo International headed by the rumba great, Musa Juma, which is an experience that he says prepared him to finally step out on his own. “I developed my skills as a composer and performer during my time playing with Musa Juma,” says Junior.
His second album “Julie Pt. 2” released while he was with Limpopo, received muted reception in rumba circles. That stint ended in July 2009 when he formed his own group Brilliant Voices Band. The release of the album “Kalisto Baba” in 2009 heralded the arrival of the new rumba super star. The second album “Adang Joshua” in 2011 and “Nyoremo” in 2014 raised Junior’s profile among fans of a genre that needed someone to step into the shoes of Musa Juma, after his death in 2011. What better musician to step into this role than one who had sang on some of the greatest hits by the rumba maestro! Junior downplays any comparison with his mentor: “Musa played rumba but had his unique identity. I also play the same genre in my own style,” he says.
While Musa Juma was a well-rounded bandleader who wrote and arranged music, sang and played the guitar, à la Congo’s Franco, Junior’s strength lies in his outstanding vocals.
George Odhiambo founder of Jojo Records, who has associated with benga and rumba artists in Nairobi’s River Road music hub for decades, says Musa Juma was far more “polished” than any of the musicians who aspire for his mantle.
He explains that Musa had experienced the rough and tumble of the music business, playing rumba covers in small clubs and had stints with some of the best Congolese bands based in Nairobi.
“He had worked for years, learnt from the best and seen the downside of the business so by the time he became a star, he had earned that right,” says Odhiambo.
Veteran music producer Tabu Osusa says that while there is no denying Musa was a cut above everyone else, Junior has proved to be an aggressive self-promoter. “I have to give it to him because I have attended his shows and watched fans treat him as a demi-god,” says Osusa. “He makes up for any limitations that he may have as a musician, by packaging his product attractively and connecting with the fans.” It was at the Osusa’s Ketebul Studio that Junior recorded his latest album.
That new album titled “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye” (human behaviour has defied God’s wishes) contains six songs. “The last album was a great success and so I have taken a long period composing new songs that can meet the high expectations of the fans,” says Junior. “I have been recording in the studio since July 2017,” According to Junior, the title track is a message for people to shun evil and hatred and to instead embrace humility and love.
Three songs, “Steve Odidi”, “George Jakoyugi” and “Chris Budo”, are dedicated to his close friends while “Vanny” is a revamped version of a song originally released in 2005. “We have reworked the song with enhanced instrumentation and a new vocal arrangement,” says Junior. The last song on the album, “Generic”, is a dance track featuring rap vocals by Kataliko, a member of his band.
This is the fifth album with the Brilliant Voices Band, which is fashioned in the classic set-up of the big rumba bands. “This is an orchestra!” says Junior. “I have 20 members in the group, 4 guitarists, 5 vocalists, piano, saxophone, drums and dancers,” he adds.
As he gears up for a highly anticipated album launch at the Carnivore on Saturday night, Junior is already setting new targets for himself in a dynamic music market.
His ambition is to create the most successful rumba band in East and Central Africa to rival the best musicians from the home of rumba in the DRC. Tabu Osusa is impressed by the artist’s ambition: “He has come up the ranks to become the top dog in the Kenyan rumba circles and if he stays with the right focus, he can go places.”
Just like his mentor Musa Juma who in his last days took his shows to the US, Junior has also tapped into social media to market himself to the rumba fan base in other parts of the world. Last’s year tour of the US that included shows in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Houston and Maryland was very well received and he plans to use the new album as a launch pad into other markets.
The album is available on ITunes, CD Baby, and physical copies distributed countrywide through retailers. Junior will soon embark on a national tour beginning with a show in Kisumu on April 14.
JOHN JUNIOR'S MUSIC: WRITTEN IN LOVE ABOUT LOVE
By Barack Oduor
John Junior’s first performed with Hit Sound International Band headed by Otieno Jagwasi. He later joined Musa Juma’s Limpopo International Band for four years as a vocalist.
John Junior released his debut album in 2005. In 2009, he launched his solo career and formed the Brilliant Voices (BV) Band, focussing on music about love and passion.
During his first years in music, he mainly played drum sets and drums. With time, he developed the desire to sing. “I draw my inspiration from good music. There are several artistes who are known for good music, they include (rumba artiste) Ochieng’ Kabaselleh,” says John Junior.
When he launched his BV Band, he released the "Herana" album that ruled airwaves.
In 2014, when he celebrated the fifth anniversary of his band, he launched his "Nyoremo" album. The album is also known as “Triple 5” for three reasons: it was released to celebrate the fifth anniversary of BV Band; its release coincided with John Junior’s birthday; and it contained five tracks – "Nyoremo", "Ja-Nyamwere", "Amour Spécial", "Mashabiki" and "Sweet Love". Johnny Junior’s other albums include "Jacky", "Sweet Love" and "Kalisto Baba".
He says he sings about love as it is an integral part and duty of human life. “We cannot exist without love. This is the reason why I dedicate almost of my songs to love,” he said.
John Junior and his BV Band have staged several shows locally and abroad. He attributes his success to hard work and discipline. “To succeed as a musician, discipline, dedication and loyalty to your fans is not negotiable.”