Kifoto influenced Kenyan music for the last 40 years

Maroon Commandos founder Habel Kifoto during a past performance. Kifoto died at a Nairobi hotel early this week. Photo/FILE

Whenever one thinks of the army, one pictures camouflage tanks and men in combat boots.

But that harsh image of the armed forces has always been overturned and softened by the melodious voices of Maroon Commandos.

The band was formed in October 1970 at the 7th Kenya Rifles, Gilgil Barracks, and by the end of the decade it was gracing the New Year’s Ball, introducing urban guitar music to the otherwise staid presidential functions.

In its 1970s and 1980s heyday, Maroon Commandos was synonymous with its founder, Habel Kifoto.

He was an imposing figure who juggled the keyboard, sax, lead and solo guitars while singing vocals with consummate ease.

The band fitted the mould of the rhumba outfits from Kinshasa or Dar es Salaam, with a long line up of musicians revolving around this charismatic leader.

“We envied the arrangements of giants like Mbaraka Mwinshehe and Franco’s T.P.O.K Jazz because you could identify their sound even before hearing any vocals,” says Maroon Commandos co-founder David Kibe.

And Kibe might not be aware that many Kenyan music lovers can identify a Maroon Commandos tune long before the song gets to the second verse, for the rhythmic harmony of this army band is so distinct.

There is an often-repeated story on album liner notes and on music websites about an accident that is said to have claimed the lives of several members of the band in the early 1970s, forcing Kifoto to reconstitute the group from the scratch.

But Kibe clarifies that only one band member - Peter Masheti - died in that road accident from a performance at Egerton College in 1972.

The other fatalities were two servicemen who were travelling as fans of the band.

A lean spell was to follow during which the soldiers relocated from Gilgil to the Langata Barracks in Nairobi.

But their fortunes changed dramatically in 1977 when Kifoto wrote a song that was to become one of the biggest sellers of all time in Kenya, earning him a silver disc award.

Written in his native Taita language, Charonyi ni Wasi, literally means “life is hard”.

It was a powerful arrangement with Kifoto’s soaring vocals accompanied by Kibe’s distinctive saxophone and Joshua Ogoma’s trumpet.

The song’s message was much in the tradition of the 1960s, drawing the links between city dwellers who were keen not to forget their rural homes.

“We are fine but we do not know about you; we are in the city but do not forget us… we will write you a letter,” Kifoto promised.

But like Gabriel Omolo in Lunch Time, Kifoto’s Charonyi also demystified the idea that the city was a place of endless good times.

Both songs decry the high cost of living and introduce the idea of urban poverty at a time when many naively thought of the city as a place of easy employment, endless laughter, dance and wine!

What makes Charonyi ni Wasi irresistible on the dance floor is the strong drum and percussion sequence and the trumpet blaring fatigue with urban expenses and a longing for the comforts of the rural home.

“From the experience of listening to the Congolese and Tanzanians in the early days, we developed a style of rhumba which made use of the rhythm guitar and drums,” says Kibe.

In 2000, reggae artiste Jahkey Malle made a bold move and recorded a cover version of Charonyi ni Wasi.

“I remember the first time I heard the song, it just stuck on my mind,” Malle recalls.

A chance meeting with Habel Kifoto at a fund-raiser was the opportunity Malle needed to seek the approval of the song’s composer.

The first person to hear the new song was Kifoto himself and though impressed he had some reservations.

“He was just worried about my pronunciation of certain Taita words in the song,” says Malle.

And this was a really important link since back in the days before we surrendered the nation-building project to lawyers and commissions, Kifoto was among those social commentators who used cultural texts like songs and fiction to call this nation to order and to define the markers of our common destiny.

In those days before FM radio, breakfast show presenters on the Voice of Kenya (now KBC) woke the nation with the words of Uvivu ni Mbaya, another great Kifoto composition with a wake-up call for all to build the nation.

Ewe Ndugu yangu wee/ Amka kumekucha/ Kamata jembe and panga/ Twende shamba.

Prior to his death, Kifoto had just completed recording a new album with producer Bruce Odhiambo in Nairobi.

The yet-to-be released album of 10 songs rekindles memories of the glory days of Maroon Commandos.

Kifoto was his usual jolly self throughout these last recording sessions and often teased musicians he was working with if they failed to get their cues right.

“He was humorous but also spoke his mind and knew how to bring out the best in everyone he worked with,” recalls Kibe who joined his old friend on this new album.

Kifoto was influential in Kenyan music for over 40 years as a musician, writer, instructor and, finally, as chairman of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya.

Kibe firmly accords him a place in the galaxy of powerful Kenyan artistes: “He was as influential as the great guitarist George Mukabi because he shaped the musical tastes of an entire generation by writing and performing tunes that will be heard by generations.”


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