Ketebul compiles songs of protest

What you need to know:

  • Both the CD and the book take Kenyans through the different political time frames starting with independence, the Kenyatta era all through to Nyayo era, and touches on Kibaki’s reign.

If you are keen lover of local music, then you must have realised Ketebul Music in general, and Tabu Osusa in particular, rarely get their notes wrong when it comes to telling the story of Kenyan music.

For close to a decade, Tabu and Ketebul — which is Dholuo for drum sticks in the real sense — have been working on projects aimed at retracing the roots of Kenyan music and telling the world not only how far it has come and transformed over the years, but the roles it played in shaping Kenya’s history.

Their latest release, which was launched on Friday at Alliance Francaise, accomplishes just that. It is a piece of art that is not about the history of Kenyan music per se, but the political history of the country — and how it changed or shaped the way Kenyans compose songs.

But what it does exhaustively is chronicling how the country’s musicians reacted during times of crisis or political upheavals.

Titled Kenya’s Protest Songs: Music as a Force for Social change in Kenya from 1963 to 2013, it is the fourth instalment in Ketebul Music’s retracing series, which takes Kenyans through the country’s musical journey, helps them understand that music played a big role in healing their wounds, helped them come to terms with certain misfortunes — or injustices — and brought the country together and to where it has come thus far.

There are songs which Kenyans danced to because of their beats and hummed their lyrics because they found them funny, without giving them much thought that actually they had deeper meanings.

Who would have thought that Gabriel Omolo’s 1972 release Lunchtime, or Osumba Rateng’s Baba Otonglo (Budget Imepanda) were, in essence, protest songs that were composed to express dissatisfaction at the high cost of living?

Kenya’s Protest Songs comes in the form of a 16-track CD, a DVD beautifully narrated by Kenya’s best baritone voice, John Sibi-Okumu, and a booklet which is edited by Bill Odidi, the multi-talented writer and radio and television presenter.

As the title suggests, it is about the music Kenyans composed and sung when the chips were down — when they had lost faith in the political system, but not their voices, so they got down to composing songs, singing and dancing to drive their point across.

The DVD, which has interviews with various musicians and even the Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga, anti-corruption crusader John Githongo and politician Koigi wa Wamwere, captures the reactions of Kenyans, and in some cases the songs that were composed, after the suspicious deaths of political figures such as Tom Mboya, Pio Gama Pinto, JM Kariuki, Argwings Kodhek, Kitili Mwendwa, Robert Ouko and Reverend Alexander Muge.

Both the CD and the book take Kenyans through the different political time frames starting with independence, the Kenyatta era all through to Nyayo era, and touches on Kibaki’s reign. The book has amazing photographs and a sprinkling of protests during the short life of the current administration.

The 16-track CD starts with GidiGidi MajiMaji’s hit single Unbwogable, which became the opposition’s anthem in 2002, and ends with Jabali Afrika’s People Voice.

Even though not composed as a protest song against the political system but to express their, and the youth’s inability to “make money any more”, Unbwogable became bigger than its composers, as GidiGidi explains in the DVD, and was used by opposition politicians to express defiance because its title loosely means “I am not afraid.”

In between Unbwogable and People’s Voice, there is Zingamoto Afrika’s Nindarona Njira, which “questions the alarming levels on insecurity and the loss of young lives that are supposed to take over the mantle of leadership, to drugs and crime.”

The voices of Nazizi and Wyre, who made the Necessary Noise, are loud and clear in Bwana Serikali, which expresses dismay at police excesses on the youth.

Dreadlocked Juliani

The dreadlocked Juliani makes the cut with Bahasha ya Ocampo and Utawala, Makadem proves that he is a major protester with three tracks of Weka Taya, Teachings and Mapambano and the late Poxi Presha resurrects in the 2002 Lunchtime remix, which was done by Nairobi City Ensemble.

Jabali Afrika’s Gangsters in Parliament adds to the voices of protest which are complemented by Kalamashaka’s Tafsiri Hii, Iddi Achieng’s Urithi, Sauti Sol’s earliest hits Nakuja and Winyo’s Rais Wangu.

It would have been sacrilegious if the country’s biggest anti-corruption hit missed out in this compilation. Yes, Eric Wainaina’s Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo is in the mix.

Often, the problem with this kind of compilations is that they tend to dwell on “old” history and ignore contemporary artistes.

The repertoire in Kenya’s Protest Songs breaks that myth as the country’s younger artistes receive as much — if not more — recognition and acknowledgement for speaking out against social and political injustices and in changing the way Kenyans tackle governance-related issues.

It speaks to and educates the young and the old and embraces contributions of the young artistes as they get to explain the inspiration behind their music.

Oh, it has very few female voices, a fact I would easily forget if either the DVD or the CD fitted tightly in the casing and I did not have to be putting it back all he time it fell out.