Tabu Osusa: How Kenya lost rhumba music to DR Congo

Ketebul Music founding director Tabu Osusa

Ketebul Music founding director Tabu Osusa at his studio. In his research of a lifetime, Osusa believes Swahili rhumba would still have been the Kenyan soul sound identity to date, had it been safeguarded just like Nigerians did with Afrobeats. 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Osusa wouldn’t be sitting here today to discuss world music, had he pursued his abandoned career in the 70s.
  • His desk tells a story of a man obsessed with music history and culture. A pile of books here, another pile there, just books everywhere, all about music.
  • To date, Kenyan music continues to struggle to appeal to the international market.

You do not know the true meaning of the expression ‘ahead of time’ until you meet altitudinous Tabu Osusa.

He arrives 45 minutes early at the pickup point for this purposeful three-day trip to Kisumu, organised by Alliance Française.

At 68 years of age, Osusa is made to wait for journalists half his age to join the team departing for the Dunga Hill Camp cultural event.

And when the rest of the team settles for breakfast served between 8 am and 10 am at Vittoria Suites at around 9 am, Osusa’s already has had his fill and is now waiting for the next itinerary of the day.

“You guys are still young but can’t keep time.” He mocks with a smile. We meet again, two days later this time at his Ketebul Music Studios situated at the GoDown Arts Center, Kilimani area, Nairobi.

At precisely 2 pm as agreed, I walk in, Osusa is already seated, swinging in his black leather seat donning a black blazer, a blue denim shirt that matches his pants jeans and just like every other time you will see him, he isn’t missing one of his signature peaked flat caps.

This time he is donning a black one complimented with a pair of round-rimmed glasses.

I tease him that at his age, he is super stylish compared to many of his peers that I know. He smiles.

Osusa wouldn’t be sitting here today to discuss world music, had he pursued his abandoned career in the 70s.

“I joined St Peters Seminary after high school in Mukumu but I quit the priesthood and went to Congo to explore and understand music. Even though right now, I harbour a different view on religion, seminary did instil discipline values in me and keeping time is one of them.” Says the founder of Orchestra Virunga famed for the 80s hits such as Vunja Mifupa and Nyama Choma.

His desk tells a story of a man obsessed with music history and culture. A pile of books here, another pile there, just books everywhere, all about music.

A gigantic Panasonic radio cassette also shares the desk with the books. “I have had this radio for 20 years now,” he beams.

The four walls of his small office honour Africa’s greats. There is an artwork of Nigeria's Fela Kuti, the king of Afrobeat, a picture of veteran Congolese producer and former member of TPOK jazz, Verckys Kiamungana. 

Another frame captures South African Afropop Jazz legend Mariam Makeba, then there is one he is with Cameroonian Manu Dibango and yet in another Osusa poses with his book Shades of Benga alongside Ethiopian jazzist Mulatu Astatke.

“That one we took in 2019, he is the father of Ethio-jazz and he is still alive,” Osusa says.

As our conservation gains momentum, Osusa’s demeanour comes to play again. He is calm, attentive, witty, articulate, candid and does not mince his words. 

Music identity

For four decades the avid French speaker and a board member at Alliance Française has dedicated his life to regaining Kenya’s music identity that he says died in the 80s. 

This is still his biggest burden, one that clearly seems to weigh him down. This is even after researching and authoring several books on Kenyan music history since World War II as well as executing projects such as Shining Spotlight on Kenyan Music which led to the discovery of talents such as Sauti Sol, Makadem, Juma Tutu just to mention a few notable names.

To date, Kenyan music continues to struggle to appeal to the international market.

I inform him that Spotify's recently released list of top 20 most streamed music in Kenya in the last three months are mostly Nigerians and that the only Kenyan song to make the list is the popular ‘Subaru ya Mambaru’ by Geri Inengi at number 17.

He cuts the face of a dejected man but he is not surprised.

“I don’t think Kenyan music will ever beat Nigerians even at the international level. Their music is global. It’s not that they are better musicians than Kenyans, they just have a better identity and uniqueness.

They sound more original, more themselves but also they put in the work making it appeal to the outside world just like Ayub Ogada did with his music.

In Kenya, we don’t have that. We are copycats. I mean when you do hip-hop where are you going to sell it?

You can’t do Hip-hop more than the Americans, that’s like selling oil to the Arabs,” Osusa says.

“If you listen to Nigerian or South African music, you will realise that they borrow heavily from the past, be it Fiji Music, Juju music, Bakanga or Kwaito you name it.

They are heavily rooted in their music of yore. It’s that cultural uniqueness that makes people across the world appreciate these sounds.” Having been a judge at the AFRIMA awards (All Africa Music Awards) for eight years until this year, the music producer speaks from a point of experience.

“But how have Nigerians been able to achieve this and not Kenyans?” I pose.

“AFRIMA gave me an opportunity to see the overview of African music where it was heading and where it was from. It made me realize Nigerians and South Africans are very strong in their culture and that’s why they have an identity. In the 60s, world music like juju from the Yoruba was popular. In the 70s, Fella Kuti came up with Afrobeat fusing juju music and James Brown’s American funk. Now the Burna Boys and Wizkids of these days have improved on the same sound. It’s the same case with South African sound which started with bakanga, morphed to kwela then kwaito which has now evolved to amapiano.” Osusa explains.

To trace the roots of Kenyan sound identity, Osusa takes me back to the musical world of World War II.

In his research of a lifetime, Osusa believes Swahili rhumba would still have been the Kenyan soul sound identity to date, had it been safeguarded just like Nigerians did with Afrobeats. 

Osusa credits the Swahili rhumba, which he argues is the oldest, to popular Congolese rhumba, to one legendary guitarist and singer, Fundi Konde who died on June 29, 2000, aged 76. 

Konde was the first East African to not only record music but music that consisted of the electric guitar. On October 3, 1930, a bus returning from a wedding ceremony in Tanga, Tanzania, plunged into the Indian Ocean at the Mombasa’s Likoni ferry crossing, drowning an entire family of 15 members, a nanny and driver named Kombo.

Six-year-old Konde then would later memorialise the tragic event that sent shock waves to the entire nation through his song Dereva Kombo (Ajali Haikingiki). To date, the song remains one of his greatest classic hits. 

Before Konde began his musical journey of producing timeless music, he was a young boy named Kenga Mbogo. 

Born in August 1924 in Mwamba wa Nyundo, Kilifi county, Mbogo’s love for music was established at an early age since his childhood was filled with traditional Giriama songs.

When he joined Waa Catholic Mission School in Kwale county, he quickly learnt to read music, and play the flute, guitar, clarinet, Waltzes and foxtrots.

It was during this time that one of the missionaries christened him Fundi and later he added Konde, his father’s name, adopting the two as his stage name upon completing his studies in 1940.

Fundi Konde formed a band and started composing, infusing popular foreign sounds at the time; calypso an Afro-Caribbean sound and Afro-Cuban sound with traditional sengenya music and dance style of the Giriama community, giving birth to ‘Swahili rhumba’. 

Konde would end up joining the King’s African Rifle’s entertainment unit in 1944 with World War II in full effect.

For the remainder of the war, he travelled to different countries to entertain fellow troops. By 1945, together with the unit, he had already performed in 350 shows and recorded 10 songs at Dum Dum Studios in Calcutta, India. 

“Where Congo got their rhumba is where we got ours from, but we were the first. We didn’t get it from them. In fact, the rhumba sound was first created in Kenya but we lost it to them. Kenya’s (Swahili) rhumba is older than the popular Congolese. Here is why. The father of Congolese rhumba is Antoine Wendo Kolosy. He was born in 1925 and his first hit was in 1948. Our very own father of Swahili rhumba Fundi Konde was born in 1924 and his first hits songs such as Olivia Leo, Mama sowera were in 1944 which were recorded in India. He was the first Eastern African to ever record, fusing the Afro Cuban music of World War II with the local Coast traditional songs. Swahili rhumba became so popular beyond our Kenya borders it got to Congo and was huge there,” Osusa said.

But how did the Congolese rhumba end up overshadowing Kenyan rhumba? “We got the sound, Afro Cuban from the same source but Congolese were strong with their culture and a few of them infiltrated our market to popularize it.

What made their sound popular was the fact that the Congolese rhumba was a bit faster and more danceable than our Swahili rhumba. That’s how our Kenyan rhumba started to suffocate.”

Kolosy created Congolese rhumba fusing the Afro-Cuban sound with Soukous, a genre of dance music known for its fast dance rhythm and intricate guitar improvisation.

 “When Congolese rhumba started gaining popularity in Kenya, more Congolese musicians started trickling into Kenya influencing our musicians and that’s how the Benga sound came about. Benga became so popular eventually killing Kenyan rhumba.”

Tabu says that these were the days when other African countries started taking their African tunes to the world.

The legendary producer also believes the closing of shops by several multi-national record labels in the 1980s also contributed to Kenya losing its music identity for good.

“Most multinational record labels with expertise in the music business and management the likes of EMI and Polygram, among others, all left by 1985 citing piracy which made the Kenyan market not marketable anymore. All these multinationals supported our local music and with their departure came independent music producers who took over. They were not very smart in marketing. They just wanted to make quick money without laying proper structures for the future.”

Besides that, Osusa says the generation gap is another mishap that led to Kenyan music losing its identity.

“There was a generation gap that also played a part in the killing of our rhumba.

The youth of the time didn’t take up the mantle at the time to continue and revolutionize the sound.

The same thing happened to benga which was so huge that it even spread to Zimbabwe where they call it Kanindo or sungura after music producer Olouch Kanindo who used to push our music in Southern Africa.”

For Kenyan music to find an identity once again, Osusa says the current generation of Kenyan artistes should quit being lazy and not focus on creating a new sound.

“There is nothing like creating a new sound. For a long time, generations of Kenyan artistes have been made to think like that. We have our own sound mutibo from Western, mwomboko, ohangla, mwanzele, taarab and many other folk sub-genres that we need to develop and modernise to make our own unique tune. Pick benga from where the likes of Daniel Kamaru left it and modernise it to fit the times.

This is what Nigerians have done with Fela Kuti’s sound."

“We should also stop being in denial of our culture and sound. I am not saying we shouldn’t do hip hop but let's add our touch to it to make it different. also. Lucky Dube took reggae and owned it with a South African touch. Alpha Blondy isn’t doing the reggae Jamaicans do. Our taarab can be made into our own jazz tune, where people can say this is Kenyan,”.

As I stop my recorder, Tabu lets out a cheeky smile and says, “Next time we will go out and have some cold beer as I tell you how I sell my music abroad.”