Fifty years of Them Mushrooms on show

Them Mushrooms

John Katana (with microphone) with other members of the band, Billy Sarro (second right), drummer Hassan Mandingo (right) and saxophonist Kalume Katana Harrisson (extreme left, John Katana’s son). With them is Billy’s daughter Mandi Sarro, second left.

Photo credit: Thomas Rajula | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The brothers have not only been in charge of their music, they also run the business side of things. 
  • Teddy Kalanda Harrison founded the group in 1968, then, the band was known as Avenida Success.

“Welcome to Mombasa,” says John Katana as he points to the gallery and “the assets” that talk about Them Mushroom’s journey over five decades of success, cultural impact and rich history of authentic Kenyan pop music.

The room is decked with colourful kangas, and, of course, there is a welcome drink of madafu.

Of course, the songs by Them Mushrooms band fill the air, the sounds largely influenced by Nzele and Chakacha sounds of the Coast.

“I want to start by saying ‘Thank You God, for this far you’ve brought us.”

He points to his son, Kalume Katana Harrison.

“He’s the next Mushroom because he plays saxophone in the band, taking up after the founder of the band; our eldest brother Teddy Kalanda Harrison.”

Teddy has been ailing and was not able to join John and their other brother Billy Sarro, as well as long time drummer from Mombasa Hassan Mandingo, at the launch of their “A Journey of Rhythm and Impact” exhibition at Goethe-Institut, Nairobi on November 23. Teddy founded the group in 1968, then, the band was known as Avenida Success.

“On December 12, 1972, the band was renamed The Mushrooms. A week later, Teddy came back and said, ‘All our peer bands are The Vikings, The Spartans, The Peacemakers, let’s call ourselves Them Mushrooms; everybody’s going to ask ‘Why?’, some will say ‘This is broken English’.’ And it’s worked! Wherever we go, in Kenya or abroad, people still ask ‘Why Them Mushrooms?’ We want to salute Teddy,” says John, fondly remembering his late brothers who were also part of the band, Dennis Kalume Harrison and George Zirro Harrison.

Their mother, Florence Mandi Harrison, affectionately referred to as Mother Mushroom, has been a rock for the band. She bought the band their first drum set back in 1973.

“We had hired some equipment for a gig. On the day of the concert, the guy told us ‘You know what, some other guys came with more money and I rented out the drums to them.’ It was too late, so we couldn’t do the gig. We went home and some of us were crying; we were kids,” remembers John.

When they got home, their mother, asked them why they had returned home early, and they explained what happened. The following day, she sent them out to the music store to find out how much a drum set cost. That is how they came to own their first set of drums. In their 1995 album Mama, they have a song that talks about this incident.

Them Mushrooms has pretty much been a family affair. The brothers have not only been in charge of their music over the years, they have also run the business side of things. Billy was always the “business machine” in the band, the finance manager of the band until they hired a team to manage them. Now, the management team is led by their manager, Biko Orlale.

Radio personality and “foodpreneur” Mandi Sarro, aka Miss Mandi, who is Billy’s daughter, says that she is proud of her parents for pushing the boundaries and creating an environment in which she and her siblings, as well as artistes, to also thrive.

On this night, she was the emcee at the event. Her sister, Mapenzi, and cousin Kache (John’s daughter) were playing host to the guests who had come to pay homage to the band’s legacy.

Them Mushrooms rose to fame with a distinct blend of Taarab and Sega/Benga folk music, before taking to Chakacha and spicing it up with rap and hip-hop beats.

Named after the mystical magic mushroom species that grows wildly across the Kenyan Coast in their hometown of Kilifi, the group is famous for hit songs such as “Jambo Bwana (Kenya)”, “Nyambura”, “Embe Dodo”, Itawezekanaje” and many others beloved by their fans. Their “Jambo Bwana” song has platinum disk award for having sold more than 60, 000 records back in 1987.

At the exhibition are photos from tours over the years, including some of their very first band performances and practice sessions. Also on exhibit are some of their first instruments, a keyboard, saxophones and guitars, curated Picture Perfect. The covers of all their albums, some which were illustrated by cartoonist Maddo, (Paul Kelemba), are also on their view for their fans.

Maddo is also the man behind Them Mushroom’s logo, the old and new ones. John refers to him as the ninth member of Them Mushrooms. He has done all of the band’s illustrations over the years. Maddo had been shadowing the band when of the brothers, George Zirro, was a football player. Maddo at the time worked at the Coast Week newspaper. Even though he left Mombasa in 1985 for Nairobi, he would go on to reunited with the band when they began performing at The Carnivore.

“That album, Going Places, has an illustration of a python. In the 1980s in Kisumu, there was a python called ‘Omieri’. The python was hurt in a bush fire and brought to Nairobi, but the community in Kisumu said, ‘Bring back our god.’ We were playing around with that idea,” says Maddo.

Dr Ezekiel Mutua, the CEO of Music Copyright Society of Kenya, was also at the launch. John is a director at the society.

“I’m more than delighted to celebrate 50 years of inspiration, beauty, encouragement, resilience, team work. Everything good you can find in humanity I think is exemplified in this band. We’re celebrating legends who redefined the musical landscape in the region and probably in Africa and beyond. To see a band composed of family members holding on for more than 50 years is phenomenal. This is historical,” said Dr Mutua.

He added that government should honour the band for modelling and mentoring many young musicians.

“If government is serious about supporting music, this is a band that should be supported and institutionalised in a way that they can continue to give their input and the historical memory that they have in pushing Kenyan music forward.”

Niklas Obermann, the Cultural Programme Officer at Goethe-Institut, Nairobi, said, “I’m honoured to have musical royalty here, I think it (the exhibition) tells the musical history of this country in a unique way. And maybe more so than that, the history of the nation. As we have heard, the country is only 10 years older than the band.”

Nafasi, the initiative under which the exhibition is taking place, is a space created by Goethe-Institut, Nairobi, for artists to create whatever they want. Niklas says he was surprised that Them Mushrooms made a formal application for the space whereas they could have simply made a request to the institution and they still would have gotten the space, adding that there was so much musical legacy that the next generation of artistes can pick from to push them for the next 50 years.

The exhibition continues at Goethe-Institut, Nairobi until December 9. Entry is free.