Ayub Ogada, traditional musician who was never recognised at home

Nyatiti player Ayub Ogada.

Nyatiti player Ayub Ogada during a past performance at the African Heritage concert at Alliance Francaise. Ogada, one of the most celebrated musicians in Kenya, died on February 1, 2019.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • It’s exactly three years and six months since the demise of his close friend and music associate Job Seda who was popularly known by his sobriquet Ayub Ogada.
  • Gem, who toured Europe for over a decade with the late singer, believes lack of recognition when they returned back home must have driven Ogada to his death.
  • The return was supposed to offer them peace and tranquillity but it did not to Ogada who ended up falling into depression. 

It’s a bright sunny Saturday morning at the Dunga Hill Camp, Kisumu.

Preparations for the inauguration of the newly-built performance space at the camp, by Creative Arts Space in Kenya (CASiK), a brainchild of the French Embassy, have just begun. 

Jagpal Sandhu, founder and owner of Dunga Hill Camp, is oscillating from one end of the stage to another, checking and ensuring everything is in order.

Stanely Ápesi’ Otieno, a promising traditional singer, is testing and tightening his guitar strings.

Pretty Lodenye and Diana Odhiambo's duet of the contemporary dance group Youths Accosted with Arts (YAWAH) are rehearsing their sync moves backstage. 

The nine-member Loko Band are at the front, busy setting up their instruments ahead of the launch later in the day.

Two of the country’s most experienced musicians have returned to their roots in Kisumu and are mentoring this new generation of artists from the lake region.

Dave Otieno, a one-time member of Them Mushrooms and a longtime lead guitarist for Suzanna Owinyo is on site. 

So is 48-year-old Isaac Gem, a bass player and producer best remembered for collaborating with Ayub Ogada on his last album before his demise.

Otieno and Gem are on the vanguard of this current rejuvenation of Kisumu’s music scene. 

“We have been supporting local musicians in the region. I run Gweng Studios in Kisumu where these local artistes and others record music freely. Currently, we have been engaging with Dunga Hill Camp to help build the capacity of artistes here.” Gem says after an exchange of pleasantries. 

Lack of recognition

It’s exactly three years and six months since the demise of his close friend and music associate Job Seda who was popularly known by his sobriquet Ayub Ogada.

Ogada, a poignant force of energy and a master of his principled instrument, the eight-stringed nyatiti lyre, was found dead on the family’s couch on February 1, 2019, while watching TV at his home in Nyahera Kisumu.

Gem, who toured Europe for over a decade with the late singer, believes lack of recognition when they returned back home must have driven Ogada to his death.

Seda did not get much play in Kenya and was rarely featured on radio or television music shows or interviews. He was neither a big international star nor belonged to celebrity cliques and did not seek notoriety.

Although his compositions made up of only two albums En Mano Kuoyo (1993) and Kodhi (2015), were categorised as World Music, he remained largely unrecognised and unacknowledged at home. 

Nevertheless, the nyatiti icon was until his death the most internationally acclaimed and widely travelled musician.

His audience remains globally as was proved when his songs topped the list of the most exported songs abroad on Spotify last year, with most streams coming from USA, Germany, Netherlands, and United Kingdom. 

Kenyan legendary music executive, Ketebul Music founder Tabu Osusa, who accompanied me on this Kisumu trip, described Ogada as ‘unique’.

“No other artist’s music felt like Ayub’s as he was utterly unique and impossible to imitate either vocally or lyrically. Without a doubt he was the master of his favoured traditional instrument nyatiti, which he popularized globally.”

In the eyes of Gem, Ogada was not only unique but a genius. 

“He is the biggest artist who took our traditional music to the world. I toured with him all over Europe, we performed together, and lived together. He was a genius.”

Born in 1956 in Mombasa, Ogada relocated to the US when he was six, where his father studied medicine. His parents toured college campuses performing Luo music.

Relearn vernacular

When Ogada came back, he had to relearn his vernacular.

In the 1970s, Kenya was awash in foreign music the Congolese rumba, soul and R&B, jazz and Latin pop.

Local benga and other guitar-based dance music styles had their following but the traditional music of the country’s ethnic groups, the likes of momboko from the Coast, mutibo from Western, Mugithi from the Central, among others, remained largely confined to villages and private settings.

Ayub was determined to change that. He moved to London in 1986 changed his name from Job Seda to Ayub Ogada and transformed himself into a skilled master of his adopted instrument nyatiti, popular in traditional Luo music.

With the exposure, he transformed African folk music into upbeat jazz.

In 1993, under Real World Records in London, Ogada recorded his debut album En Mana Kuoyo, which is known for such hit songs as Kothbiro (rain is coming), Obiero, 10%, Dala, and Thum Nyatiti.

With the album, Ogada toured Europe extensively with his African Heritage Band and appeared in a series of films notably the Oscars Award-winning Out Of Africa (1985) and The Kitchen Toto (1987).

Kothbiro was included in the soundtrack of the Mexican film La Habitacion Azul in 2002.

The hit was also sampled by famous American rapper Kanye West in 2018 for his song Ýikes’ of his Ye album.

After years of residing abroad, Gem and Ayub made the decision to return home in the early 2000s. 

Ogada had been out of Africa for over 15 years and wanted to reconnect with the audience back home.

Even when he resided at home, it was only in the cities of Nairobi or Mombasa.

Homesickness had finally caught up with him and this is well documented in his moving single Salimie which he composed after a very difficult period in Italy.

“We agreed to move back to build homes in Kisumu and continue doing music here. We had lived in Europe year in and year out moving from one place to another. Today you are in Denmark, tomorrow the UK, you have an eight months US tour and that was the life for years,” explains the former Kenge Kenge band tour manager.

Whereas touring abroad was adventurous and offered exposure, it was ‘strenuous’ in Gem’s words.


“The tour makes you money but at the same time gets you frustrated because you are playing the same music every time, for lack of time to record new ones.”

The return was supposed to offer them peace and tranquillity but it did not to Ogada who ended up falling into depression. 

“He was a very generous man but had a problem with alcohol. I think because when he came back to Kenya people did not recognise him. If you go to Europe with Ayub you are treated as a King. At the airport he would cause a stare, backstage you could see Sting bowing down to him. Now you come back here and nobody recognises you. It frustrated him.”

Gem recalls of an incident in 2012 when Ogada disappeared for two days during a recording session.

British guitarist and music producer Trevor Warren had visited Ogada to record his new album Kodhi, the last created during his lifetime. 

“We were recording his second album in Naivasha, we were there for a month in a cottage. You know how rock stars are, that’s how Ayub was. So we set up the studio and Trevor is ready for us to start recording. Then Ayub tells us he is going to buy cigarettes and leaves his phone behind. Then he disappears for two days and we start looking for him but we couldn’t find him,” Gem narrates.

With no success in finding him, Gem and Warren report to the police in Naivasha and return to their cottage.

“Ayub then appears on day three at 11 am with three taxis full of women and lots of alcohol. They were 12 women in the three cabs. He then says to us we can’t create music without a little bit of distraction, I am shocked and Warren is livid because the recording company he worked for had given him money to fund the project.”

Seda would continue indulging himself until he blacked out. 

“At the crack of dawn, 3 am, Ogada wakes everybody and says let’s record now. We set up again and nailed five songs back to back up to 5 am. That was Ayub for you.”

Kodhi: Trevor Warren Adventures with Ayub Ogada was released on April 20, 2015, by Long Tale Recordings. 

Following his death in 2019, Warren produced Omera, as a new posthumous double album which features unused recordings mostly made during the sessions of Kodhi production.

As a double album, Omera includes performances from the late Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy, Dudley Phillips, Toby Shippey and Marco Medido.

Now settled in Kisumu, Gem is heavily involved in the production of cultural documentaries which he sells to the world and the organisation of his annually founded art fare, Dala Fest.

The instrumentalist, who last composed his own original song in 2005, the Thumology album featuring Suzanna Owinyo and Moses Njuguna, says he wouldn’t wish to tour again abroad. 

“I wouldn’t want to tour again but I have no regrets. The exposure was an eye-opener, no school or any amount of money can expose you like that to the world of music. Being on these big stages performing with big bands was such an experience. That’s how we learnt to do these things and now we are giving back to the younger generations,” concludes the Dala Fest founder.


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