Collela Mazee

Legendary benga maestro the late 'Doctor' Collela Mazee.

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Collela Mazee: The man who popularised benga music

What you need to know:

  • Collela Mazee died on March 7, 2000 at Dr Momanyi's Masaba Hospital, Menelik Road, Nairobi.
  • He left behind a rich repertoire of what experts estimate to be 675 benga songs and at least five International music awards.

It's a huge task seeking to capture the life of a man who did his music with amazing consistency and quality for more than three decades as fans unveil his mausoleum this weekend. 'Doctor' Collela Mazee, sometimes simply known as Colly, was a towering figure in the benga music scene from the late 1960s and is considered a pioneer who popularised the genre and whose songs have remained influential 21 years after his death. 

So who is (not was!) Collela Mazee and what is unique about him? Collela Mazee was born in January 1950 (not in 1954 as some records online indicate) in Gem Aluor, within the Bar Ochiago sub-clan in present-day Siaya County. A polygamous man who had three wives and many children, his real name was Samwel Owino, but he somehow added the name ‘Richard’ while in primary school. His parents — Meshack Oyengo Ahoyo and Maritha Oyengo — moved from Siaya to Uriri-Nyamilu Kanyamkago, in present-day Migori County, just before 1970.

Young Richard Owino went to Aluor Primary School in Gem, Bidiii Primary School in Nakuru and Ngere Secondary School, before plunging into music in 1969/1970. In 1970/1971, Collela formally joined Victoria Jazz Band that was then owned by Phares Oluoch Kanindo, and worked with three founding benga guruses — Ochieng Nelly, Paul Orwa JaSolo and Opiyo Bwana Emma.

Upon entry in Victoria, Collela wanted to be a lead guitarist, but the founding trio confined him to the rhythms. He was so talented that he could not only sing the velvet soprano sound, he could also play all the instruments: lead guitar, rhythm, bass, drums, tumbas, trumpets and saxophone. He was leaning towards Congolese and Tanzanian rhumba. He kept pestering his three seniors to weave in the Congolese beat into benga. His incessant complaints, his restlessness and innovations in music made Ochieng Nelly to impulsively nickname him Collela Mazee in 1971 (‘Collela’ was derived from lingala word ‘kolela,’ meaning ‘to cry or to lament.’)

Collela's first song, a mega hit, was Rose Coyucho in 1971 followed by Isabela Mulla. Oluoch Kanindo, the band owner, who later became a well-known Moi-era politician, instantly noticed Collela’s immense talent and had him incorporated as among the four founders of Victoria Jazz Band, thus leading to the reference Victoria Kings Jazz (the 4 Kings now being Nelly, Orwa, Emma and Collela).

Once in, Collela rose within the band and soon toppled his three seniors, took charge of Victoria Kings in 1975, then broke off to form his own Victoria ‘B’ Kings Jazz Band in September 1977 — a group he led until his death in the year 2000. In between, Collela excelled as an enthralling composer, an arranger, a producer, a businessman, a distributor of music and mentor of dozens of benga musicians in Kenya.

If we seek to fully understand Collela Mazee’s music, it's helpful to divide his 30-year career into four phases:

Phase One: 1971 to 1974

This phase was about traditional benga; the authentic benga. 

In some songs of this period, Collela used tumbas from Congo and Tanzania instead of drum sets. Trumpets, flutes and saxophones were also being experimented. Drum sets were muted and, occasionally, completely absent.

Most of the songs climaxes featured only one rhythm guitar. The bass guitar was largely contained within the lyrical lines of the rhythm guitars. 

By then, Collela wanted to introduce the slower rhumba-phased approach and his wandering lead guitar during the climaxes. But his boss Ochieng Nelly was resistant and often dismissive of the young restless Colly. By then, Colly was oscillating between ‘rhythm one’ and lead guitar, depending on the moods of his three senior band leaders.

In this period, due to Ochieng Nelly's resistance, Collela hardly did rhumba compositions, except for the song Victoria Kings on the Ogal Mira label of 1974/1975. The hit song JackJack of 1973/74 (which had the attributes of salsa), was the first ever indicator that Collela had a bias for slow benga and would, with time, move onto rhumba-phased benga beats which Ochieng Nelly opposed rabidly. Key hits then were Rose Coyucho, Isabella Mula, Jack Jack, Paul Odera, and Victoria Kings, among others. The massive international success of these songs and the many international music awards that followed led to the epithet ‘Dr’ Collela Mazee — that is, ‘doctor’ of the guitar.

Phase 2:1975 to 1977

This phase saw the radicalisation of Collela's benga music. He began to overrule Ochieng Nelly, choosing to experiment with the slow rhumba phase in his own songs (for example, Rosa, Eunny, Mariene Atiesh) and songs without climaxes (for example, Hellena Nyaduse, Jey). Collela abandoned the saxophone and started entrenching his wandering lead guitar and the drum sets as main components of his climaxes in terms of pace control and transitions.

Collela committed two permanent rythmists (Oriro and Saoke) to serve him on rythms one and two. Ogutu Panga was being used sparingly on tumbas but the main man on the drum sets then was Oyona John. 

The songs were becoming faster, sexier, avant-garde and bolder, especially since the conservative Ochieng Nelly had already quit Victoria and went to Chandarana Studios in Kericho and Orwa ja Solo too was already bolting out, looking to link up again with George Ramogi and George Ojijo of Kilo International (later renamed C.K. Dumbe Dumbe). 

The songs of this era had a heavy influence from Congolese maestros Franco Luambo Makiadi’s (TPOK Jazz), ‘Dr’ Nico Kasanda, Tabuley, Verkys, and LipuaLipua. The Tanzanian influences included Vijana Jazz, Atomic Jazz, and Morogoro Jazz among others.

Key songs here include JackJack No.2, Oscar Obuogo, Jerry jakaDianga Nmb 2, Hellena Nyaduse Nmbs 1, 2, and 3, Otina Ogwel, Sam Oyugi, Andrew Ogol, Richard, Bolo, and Otiyo Abala.

Phase 3:1977 to 1987

This phase is largely referred to by diehard fans as the ‘Betty Phase.’ This was the most successful phase in Collela's musical journey, in terms of quality and quantity, commercial growth and mentorship of dozens of younger benga musicians. 

In this phase, Collela's lead guitar and John Otoi’s drums became the main transition signals and pacesetters in every song. In the vocals, Colly introduced 3 singers on soprano, alto and tenor. Indeed, there are some songs (for example, Paul Odongo Agwata’s Pongezi kwa Warembo Watatu) where four people sang in unison: Collela Mazee, Rabby, Apiyo Capela and Okeyo John MckAchayo. In the vocals, Collela successfully implemented in 1979 the echo technology in the recording studios.

Collela gave Odongo Agwata more room for a radically wandering bass guitar during the climaxes. The rhumba style became entrenched in Collela's personal compositions, starting with Tina Obera in April 1977, Dichol Kadhi Imosa, Tabitha Nyogenya, Presci, Jane Atieno, Beatrice, Pammy, Tinde Aluor, Sally/Yuca Totie, Molena, Donge An Koth Dhano, and Awuor Jatuka among others. 

This phase is commonly referred to as the ‘Betty Phase,’ by Colly's fans because in almost every production, there was a bestseller song dedicated to Betty Akinyi Okwaro kaJos; and, apart from being Colly's official third wife from 1985, Betty herself became almost a bona fide member of the VB Band: she acted as the de facto band administrator and sales supervisor. In fact, Betty was the ‘Deep State’ within the VB Band.

In those 10 years, the band grew like bushfire, well beyond Nyanza and even went continental into Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zaire (now DRC), Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, Angola and South Africa. In this phase alone, the band is estimated to have produced over 400 songs, all of which were bestsellers.

Phase 4: 1988 to 2000

This phase is variously referred to by diehard fans as ‘The Rebellion Years’, ‘The Years of Death’, ‘The Mombasa Years’ or ‘The Phase of Decline.’

Collela experienced massive decline, especially because he lost almost all of his original Mighty VB Band members through rebellions, defections and deaths. 

Apiyo died, Odongo died, Rabby, Otoi, Odol, Omoya, Okeyo kAchayo, Hellena, Jack Jack, Betty, among others, died in succession. 

Before his own death, Collela kept on bringing in new members into VB so as to keep the band going on, viz came in Owino Omo, Atomy jaSuba, Owuor jaMapera, Awill kaMusa, Oyuech Malago, Orego Rego, Ajuma JaGongo, Peter Odiwuor, Rich wuod Abandu, among others 

Collela moved his base from Migori to Mombasa City for nearly 10 of his final years. Those were 10 difficult and painful years in which Colly was often ill after he suffered a massive stroke; he became anxious, highly irritable, despondent and broke. 

The enthralling trademark rhumba style in Collela's own earlier compositions suddenly died out because all the main anchors of his complicated rhumba songs were now missing in action, either due to deaths, defections, or rebellions engineered by the restless Odongo Agwata and Ndugu Rabby.

Progressively, sales of VB music declined. To make it worse, a relatively unknown name by then — Okatch Biggy, a former drummer with Kiwiro Boys Jazz Band — was already coming up with his own increasingly popular brand of Luo benga music in Kisumu. The style was more appealing to the urban middle class since the songs were a lot longer, more danceable — and had naughty, haughty, and sexually provocative lyrics. And the two Nyadundo brothers of Kisumu (Tony and Jack) were also busy coming up with a redefinition of the ohangla genre. 

The time to bow out of music had finally come for Collela. The once mighty and invincible Collela Mazee and his VB Benga wizards were finally cornered. And, progressively, Collela was getting crowded out of his own market space. 

Key songs in this phase included Deborade, Owino ja Likowa, Apidi nyaJohn, Sylvans Omonge, Okoyo Makambo, Solea, Akeyo, Philo, Awuor nyathi joGombe, and Martin Winga among others.


Collela Mazee died on March 7, 2000 at Dr Momanyi's Masaba Hospital, Menelik Road, Nairobi, leaving behind a rich repertoire of what experts estimate to be 675 benga songs and at least five International music awards.

His last recording was the hit song Solea. Collela was buried on March 26, 2000. Since at the time of his death he had not set up his own home as per the Luo traditions, Collela's body was interred on his father's land, in his father's adopted homestead in Nyamilu Village, about 2 kilometres off Uriri Centre in present-day Migori County.

Today, after years of neglect, fans have rehabilitated his grave and built a mausoleum.

The writer is a fan of Collela Mazee and MCA for North Karachuonyo Ward in Homa Bay County


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