The legend: Kamaru bows out a maestro, griot, benga icon of note

Music icon Joseph Kamaru entertains guests during the Madaraka Day celebrations at Kabiruini grounds in Nyeri on June 1, 2017. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • What made Kamaru stand out among his Kikuyu benga contemporaries was the imagery he fused to his music.
  • Sometimes, he would dig deep to the Kikuyu culture to draw up analogies that fitted given circumstances in the country.

The death of music icon Joseph Kamaru on Wednesday brings down the curtains on a remarkable six-decade career of deeply thought out lyrics evenly tempered with controversy.

Born in Kangema, Murang’a County in 1939 Kamaru wa Wanjiru, as he loved to call himself, burst on the national stage in 1966 with the release of the hitNdari Ya Mwarimu, which translates into the teacher’s sweetheart.

The catch in Kamaru’s song is that the teacher’s sweetheart in this case happens to be his pupil. Teachers went nuclear with Knut threatening to call a national strike unless the song was banned.

The song resonated well with the public. Back then, just as it is today, love affairs between teachers and their students continue to be a national headache. Today, the song is still popular in entertainment spots.

What made Kamaru stand out among his Kikuyu benga contemporaries was the imagery he fused to his music to the extent that sometimes the messages in his songs were often subject of diametrically opposed interpretations.

Sometimes, he would dig deep to the Kikuyu culture to draw up analogies that fitted given circumstances in the country.

JUSTICE

For instance, in old days, the Kikuyus had a capital punishment reserved for killers. The culprit would be placed in a special purpose hive and rolled down a hill to crash to his death.

It was a vintage Kamaru who resorted to this analogy to express his outrage at the killing of J.M Kariuki in 1975.

In the ever green songJ.M Kariuki, the musician declared someday, the killer(s) of J.M would be placed in a hive at a gathering of all Kenyans.

The killers of the late politician were never brought to book but suspicions and investigations have variously placed blame at the doorstep of the government of first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

Significantly, the song spites the naked greed for power to extent of snuffing out human life. Poignantly, it underscores the futility of it all because in the end the killer will at some point follow the victim to the grave.

Kamaru was a teenager when the Mau Mau war for independence was raging. Indeed, some of his music was influenced by his experiences growing up in a central Kenya that was under the heel of a state of emergency.

In one Mau Mau themed song, Kamaru sings of the travails of a couple on the wedding day during the emergency when any kind of gathering was prohibited.

As expected, the marauding government soldiers invade the wedding party. The soldiers are mollified by a letter by the local white priest authorising the gathering.

Here Kamaru’s adds this liner,Gutiri Muthungu na Mubeameaning there is no difference between a white administrator and the white priest. In these simple words, the deep thinker takes a jab at Christianity for role it played in the colonisation of Africa.

MESSAGES IN HIS SONGS

Kamaru could spin some of the most captivating love stories. These would include such timeless hits likeMuhiki wa Mikosi, Nuu Ucio, GathoniandCharia Ungi.

Muhika wa Mikosiis not only a fantastic fusion of choice Kikuyu idioms, guitar wizardly but also a social commentary that speaks to the lethal combination of too much drinking and womanising.

In some of his songs, Kamaru comes across as a man who was deeply troubled by the socio-political situation in Africa. In one of his songs, thought to have been alluding to Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s, he warns that thirst for political power can send entire populations to premature graves.

Yet despite his popularity locally and particularly among the Kikuyu’s, it would appear that Kamaru remained frustrated by the fact that his music never caught attention beyond the borders.

He too never seemed to understand why Lingala and Congolese musicians had a huge following in Kenya as opposed to local artists.

Mistakenly, he attributed this fact to what he said was Kenya’s fascination with anything foreign and lack of exposure. It was this belief that led him to demand a contest between him and Congolese musician Kanda Bongoman in the 1980s.

He gave a good account of himself but Kenyans obviously had gone to Nyayo National Stadium to watch Kanda Bongoman and so Kamaru ended up as the curtain raiser.

In his long musical journey, Kamaru had warmed his way into the hearts of top leaders and due his proclivity for controversy, none of these friendships had a happy ending.

In the 1960s, he had attracted the attention of founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and he would regularly get invited to entertain the old man at his Gatundu home.

In an earlier interview, he revealed Mzee Kenyatta was so fascinated by his voice that he considered the musical instruments as an abstraction. He preferred that Kamaru sang for him without his band.

POWER AND LEADERSHIP

His friendship with Mzee Kenyatta came to an abrupt end after the gruesome murder of J.M when he released the sorrowful song mourning the murdered politician. When Daniel arap Moi took over presidency in 1978, Kamaru was among the prominent people from central Kenya that he befriended.

The musician would routinely accompany President Moi on foreign travels. It was after one such trip to Japan that he released the Kiswahili songSafari ya Japan.

Despite good air play on KBC radio,Safari ya Japannever captured the imagination of Kamaru’s fan base primarily because as a song in praise of President Moi, it reduced Kamaru to something of a court poet.

Kamaru's friendship with President Moi collapsed in the early 1990s at the height of agitation for the return of multi-party democracy. His access to the President was severed after he released a song titledMahoya ma Bururiin which he plainly stated the country had gone to the dogs.

In the mid-1990s, Kamaru declared he had become born again and switched to producing gospel music. None of the gospel songs made any impact while most of his earlier secular hits continued to enjoy huge following.

His keen mastery of the Kikuyu culture and tradition made him the first port of call for many researchers among them students and university professors. Even as he takes the final bow Kamaru’s music is certain to life long after his departure.

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