Tabu Osusa

Ketebul Music founding director Tabu Osusa at his studio in Nairobi on August 30, 2017. Osusa has been bestowed with the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. 

| File | Nation Media Group

French government bestows highest music honour to Kenya’s Tabu Osusa

What you need to know:

  • Tabu Osusa, the founder of Ketebul Music, has pretty much lived his entire adult life with music.
  • For a man who hardly speaks French, and with virtually no French connection, this award is a very significant recognition.

It is reported that Nelson Mandela once said this about music: “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music.”

This was a freedom fighter speaking about the worth of music. He thought music can redeem, unify and raise human beings to a different level of being.

One can only imagine what music did to Mandela and his fellow detainees in the apartheid era.

However, there is no doubt that people have used music for many purposes. Undoubtedly, all human societies anywhere in the world use music at one time or the other for a number of their everyday rituals.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is cited to have said: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Indeed, it would be difficult for some people to define their lives without music. Tabu Osusa is one such person. Why? Because he has pretty much lived his entire adult life with music. He has done all that one can do where music is concerned. He has written songs. He has played in a band. He has managed bands. He has produced music for different musicians. And today he is the leading Kenyan music archivist.

Tabu Osusa’s Ketebul Music is the only organisation in Kenya that is dedicated to recording, disseminating but most importantly archiving Kenyan music. To date, Ketebul (drum sticks in Dholuo) has produced some of the most insightful series of musical recordings accompanied with explanatory notes of the musical genres presented.

For his lifelong commitment to music – but specifically Kenyan music – the government of France, through The Alliance Francaise de Nairobi, bestowed the Order of Arts and Letters to Tabu Osusa for outstanding contribution to the promotion of Kenyan music.

The award was presented to Tabu Osusa at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi yesterday. 

Shades of Benga

This award is described as having been “… established in 1957 to recognise eminent artists and writers, as well as people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.”

For a man who hardly speaks French, and one whose only significant French connection is the time spent in Zaire between 1974 and 1977, and having managed Kenyan bands with Congolese musicians, this award is a very significant recognition. Indeed, Tabu Osusa’s involvement in Kenyan music is worth such a recognition.

Through Ketebul Music, Tabu Osusa was the leader of a team of researchers and writers who produced the most insightful book ever on Kenyan music to date. Shades of Benga, published in 2017, is unmatched in its coverage of Kenyan music, from the colonial times to the recent past.

This volume of more than 600 pages traces Kenyan music through the lives of different musicians and their managers and producers’. It examines the influences – local and foreign – that made and continue to make Kenyan music.

It examines genres such as benga, rumba, ohangla, mwomboko, Akorino, taarab, funk, gospel, hip-hop etc and introduces to the reader the men and women broadcasters who promoted the music on radio in the early days etc. This is the kind of work that, in another world, earns someone a PhD.

Yet, this major work is part of a larger ‘retracing’ of music project by Ketebul. This began with the Retracing the Benga Rhythm in 2008, which has a CD of 13 sample tracks and a DVD Documentary.

In this compilation, Ketebul describes benga in these words: “Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beats and the bouncy finger-picking guitar technique. Indeed, the core of benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals.”

Here is a definition of sound that is peculiarly Kenyan, and which has dominated Kenyan music for years. What follows is a discussion of the history of benga and its leading musicians from across the country.

Kenya’s Songs of Protest

After the Benga collection came Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music. This collection follows the previous script, but has 19 songs on a CD as well as a DVD. In this collection is not just a sample of the best of Kikuyu popular music, but also references that open a window to the entirety of Kikuyu music, from the traditional to the 21st century sound; from women and men musicians; from the countryside to the city, and so on. This collector’s item remains unmatched since its release in 2010.

Then there is the Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits, released in 2011. This collection has 15 select songs from diverse singers. Here Ketebul traces the lives and times of what they describe on the cover of the collection as the “Afro Boogies of the 70s and 80s”. These are Kenyan musicians, bands and producers of an era that was defined by the music and style of the American, James Brown. So, in a sense, the Kenyan funk was the local version of that James Brown-inspired global musical reinvention.

The latest of the ‘retracing’ series is Kenya’s Songs of Protest. Here Ketebul records 16 songs that capture the struggles of Kenyans for freedom and justice since the colonial times. This is not just a compilation of ‘songs of protest’, as the title suggests. This CD and DVD are records of the words and sounds from a younger generation of Kenyan musicians, the likes of Gidigidi Majimaji, Eric Wainaina, Makadem, Winyo, Juliani etc, entertaining the audience whilst provoking conversations on political, economic, social, cultural, class and ethnic relationships between the leaders and the led, and among ordinary Kenyans.

The range of Ketebul production is quite broad. For instance, Ketebul has partnered with Abubilla Music in the Singing Wells Project, which is a “… project dedicated to the preservation and promotion of traditional East African music.” In the aftermath of the 2007-2008 postelection crisis in Kenya, Ketebul produced the compilation, “Weapon of Mass Reconciliation”, which was part of its series, ‘Spotlight on Kenyan Music.’ In this project Ketebul travelled around the so-called hotspots of political violence, playing afro-fusion music. The hope was that through music, Kenyans from different ethnic groups would see the value of reconciliation and national unity.

All that is described above is the work of the collective, Ketebul Music. At the head of that collective is Tabu Osusa. He has been the initiator of most of these projects; he has directed their production; and he has been key in the dissemination of the music compilations by Ketebul to various audiences across the world, where he has often travelled to speak about Kenyan and African music.

The Kenyan journalist, Clay Muganda, described Tabu Osusa as an “… art institution”, as someone who is a significant representative of Kenya’s musical and cultural world.

On music and culture, Tabu Osusa argues that many Kenyans are “culturally literate but musically illiterate”, whereas Kenyan musicians seem to be “musically literate but culturally illiterate”. He is convinced that Kenyan musicians and artists need to produce sounds, images and texts that are “uniquely” Kenyan. He thinks Kenyans in general – but specially the government – need to work hard at forging and formatting a “Kenyan culture”, or else Kenyans will continue to imitate other cultures.

Tabu Osusa is not just a musician, music producer, song writer or director of Ketebul Music. This is an icon in the Kenyan music community. He is a memoirist, archivist and re-creator of the Kenyan sound, not just for a future generation, but also for the lovers of things refined in music. This is why the Government of France is honouring him with the ‘Order of Arts and Letters’ .

The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]