He was once described as “a living encyclopaedia of the recording and music business in East Africa” by renowned music researcher, Rainer Lotz. Manasseh Omwoma was a pioneer Kenyan music producer and prominent promoter of local music.
An original River Road music maker, many leading musicians of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s owe their success to his production prowess. Alongside contemporaries such as Joseph Kamaru, Omwoma (or Diploma, as he was popularly known) produced some of the most loved sounds of that “golden” era.
Although his forte was omutibo , the catchy rhythm of finger-plucked guitars that mix mystically with three-part vocal harmonies , Omwoma also produced benga, rhumba, isikuti, mwomboko and litungu music. He also produced music by dozens of church choirs.
The omutibo beat was started by George Mukabi of Mtoto Si Nguo fame. The foremost omutibo artiste under the Diploma label was Shem Tube of Abana ba Nursery band. The band, whose membership included Justus Omufila and Enos Okola, dominated the Luhya music scene through the 1970s to the 1990s with hits such Atisa Wanje, Grace Mpenzi, Ebijana bie Ebbayi and Omukhana Mary.
Acoustic guitar riffs
Other notable omutibo artistes include Sukuma Bin Ongaro, Fanuel Amimo, George Akwabi, Jimmy Bongo, Zachariah Omufubwa, Johannas Kiunya (of Mungu Nisaidie fame) and Johnstone Mukabi. Most of these worked with Diploma label at some point.
The rootsy omutibo had emerged in the 1950s, with the likes of Mukabi storming the national music scene with their powerful acoustic guitar riffs and soothing harmonies that define the Luhya folk music. Tube and his contemporaries, such as Kiunya, carried on from where Mukabi left until the 1990s.
Another successful music group managed and produced by Omwoma under the Diploma label was the sensational Nairobi Matata Jazz Band, composed of Nairobi-based Tanzanian musicians led by Juma Muhina but also featuring Kenyans such as Moses Kayesa. The band stormed the Nairobi entertainment scene in the '70s, releasing chartbusting hits such Dada Mwajuma, Maisha ya Mjini, Zaina and Mpenzi Aisha, efforts that earned them a lot of airtime on the then VoK and gigs in various parts of Kenya.
For close to 40 years starting from the early 1960s, Omwoma was busy managing ensembles, groups and singers. At the same time, he organised recording sessions for other labels, while ensuring regular recordings for his Diploma Music Stores (or Box 10093) label. When tape cassettes replaced the vinyl record in the 1980s, he was quick to shift.
Omwoma also ran music shops in Nairobi and Kakamega, and helped popularise the music of both local and international stars such as Franco, Tabu Ley, Kiamangwana Mateta, Nicolas Kasaanda (Dr Nico) and Jean Bokelo, among others, whose music he distributed. His shop along Tiriki Lane, off River Road, Nairobi, was a popular joint for musicians from Tanzania, DRC Congo and Kenya, while the Kakamega store distributed music in the entire Western region. Among his buddies was Ilunga wa Ilunga, also called Baba Gaston, the man credited with bringing into Kenya most of the Congolese musicians of the 1970s, particularly the Super Mazembe team.
Born in the village of Ebbayi Musikulu in today’s Vihiga County 87 years ago, he was bitten by the music bug in his teens. The restless young man would run away from home to dance to the music by Bunyore Boys Band in which his cousin, Noah Omwoma, and clansman, Khabilutsi Otana, featured.
He would later move to Nairobi, and during the emergency, become an urban Mau Mau. With the police after him after he clobbered a white man, he fled Kenya and somehow ended up in Cairo, Egypt.
It was in Cairo that he went through a music production apprenticeship. He was so good at it that he was awarded a diploma, his humble education notwithstanding. He returned home and founded Diploma Music Stores, named after that diploma.
Business was good in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But with the advent of the CD technology, Omwoma, like fellow pioneer River Road producers, appeared to have been caught flat-footed as young techno-savvy producers emerged. By the late 1980s, signs that time was up for the old-school producers were all over the place.
While some of his peers such as Kamaru tried to adjust with mixed fortunes, by the turn of the millennium, Omwoma had all but folded his music venture, turning his studio and shop into a restaurant. The Food People - as he called the restaurant - continues to serve traditional Luhya delicacies.
He also founded a church, the Church of the Living God, a splinter from the Church of God, the dominant church in his Bunyore home.
A decade and a half ago, he suffered a stroke that later confined him to a wheelchair. He retreated to Ebbayi, where his story began. The trumpet call for Manasseh Elkanah Matende Omwoma came on Sunday, April 11. He took the final bow, and quietly exited, joining Tube, who preceded him in January this year.
His death comes at a time of renewed international interest in omutibo, with both local and foreign researchers visiting villages in Luhyaland in search of the golden beat.