The enduring legacy of Queen Jane’s songs

Popular musician Queen Jane during one of her performances. Queen Jane died last week. Photo/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Fallen musician was a voice for the voiceless as well as a preacher for justice, and respect

The stub on Wikipedia about Queen Jane, is not representative of the space that this fallen heroine of Kikuyu popular music has occupied in the Kenyan social imaginary and the cultural scene.

Born Jane Nyambura 45 years ago, Queen Jane’s stature as the leading Kikuyu popular musician will remain etched in the memories of many a fan of her benga beat.

It is difficult from the various press reports to exactly verify her place of birth, but all are in agreement that she was born in the then Murang’a District.

When the national broadcaster’s website wrongfully stated that she was born in Gatanga, this aroused in me my earliest memories of Queen Jane.

In the mid 1980s to the 1990s, Queen Jane would accompany musicians from Gatanga, like Wamumbe and John Ndichu, in their tours in the constituency.

She performed in Gatura’s Chini Club, at the Tarmac End Inn. Anto Kamau of Houston, Texas, who hails from the area, remembers one day with nostalgia, when Queen Jane performed in Gatura, in the late 1980s.

“It was my first time ever to come face to face with a Kenyan celebrity,” he says.

I recall the excitement on my elder brothers’ faces whenever they would attend the regular live performances in my village, Gatura in the mid 1980s.

It is difficult to talk about Queen Jane and her music in isolation. From when she started with Simon Kihara, better known as Musaimo, to the time of her death, Queen Jane has commanded respect.

In fact, one musician, Timona Mburu of the Wi Sumu fame, composed a song in honour of Queen Jane after her marriage to James Kariuki in 2001.

Most of contemporary Kikuyu musicians have been products of Queen Jane’s magnanimity. Renowned mugithi one-man guitarists, Mike Murimi, Salim Junior and Mike Rua, started off with Queen Jane’s group Queen Ja Les Les Band.

Queen Jane also mentored her younger sisters, Lady Wanja and Princess Aggie, as well as Dr Michuki, her brother, who are now musicians in their own right.

Having launched her career at the tender age of 19 with Musaimo in 1984, Queen Jane will be remembered as the trendsetter of Kikuyu secular music by women.

Apart from the Nyakinyua dancers in the ’50s and the ’60s, the Kikuyu woman’s voice was largely muted.

Roman Warigi, a guru of Kikuyu music in the ’50s and ’60s used to record with the sister Muthoni, but he carried the by-line alone. Joseph Kamaru also used to sing with his sister Catherine, but Kamaru always got the credit.

It was only in the 1970s that gospel musicians Elizabeth Nyambene and Julia Lucy opened the way.

As things began to change in secular groups, it became increasingly common to hear of Kamaru Sisters, and Chania Sisters (in the case of Peter Kigia’s Chania River Boys Band). Others included Kihara Sisters (of the Mbiri Young Stars) and Karura Sisters (of Karura Brothers).

In the 1980s, Queen Jane entered the fray. She fused the old and the new, in terms of lyrics and tunes. In her initial recordings, she would include the traditional folk form mucungw’a within her contemporary benga.

On her album covers, she was dressed in traditional Gikuyu community attire; in muthuuru, which was a skirt made of skin, and huge earrings, known as hang’i.

In most of her songs, she has directly attacked patriarchal hegemony. Her song, Arume Majini (Men are Ghosts), was inspired by an increase in the number of rape and defilement cases in Kenya.

This is the same theme echoed in her hit song Muthuuri Teenager, and Guka Nindarega, (I refused to be married to an old man/grandfather).
Some men fans have felt that she has been too harsh in her condemnation of men.

But Queen Jane was never apologetic about this, as she once declared: “The fact that men are among my greatest fans simply means that I am telling the truth.”

However, her strong lyrics against men’s abuses have triggered a continuous dialogue and interplay in gender relations in the Kikuyu music.

Sam Muraya’s famous Mama Kiwinya attacks older women (better known as sugar mummies) who find comfort in young boys as their lovers.

The same is evident in Joseph Kariuki’s Nyina wa Turera, where he says that it’s wrong for a woman of 40 years to date a young boy of 20.

But far from the gender debate, her music has been well known for carrying social messages. She not only attacks men, but also wayward women, like the girls who are out to cause mayhem to the family institution.

In her song Tunua Baggy (loose mouths), she is not polite to gossips and rumour mongers.

Her songs on love are rather on unfulfilled love. Her songs Ndimunogu (I am tired of waiting), Mwendwa KK, Nduraga Ngwetereire (I have been Waiting for You) depict a lover who is running out of patience with a man who is taking forever to commit to the relationship.

In the song, Nyumburira, (Confess to me), she implores her lover to take a stand.

Some of her songs attest to the problems she has had to contend with in a career that is male-dominated, and where female musicians are easily mistaken for pros­titutes.

In the song above, Nyumburira, she laments that the friends of her lover are discouraging him from continuing with their relationship simply because she is a musician.

A running theme in all her music is the message to the youth to respect their parents. In the song John Bull, Queen Jane revisits the theme of rags-to-riches story of a young man, John Ndegwa, but who later rejects his parents and changes his name to John Bull.

Her music, however, has been most notable in depicting class consciousness. She didn’t only take the responsibility of being the voice of the women, but also the voice of the voiceless.

In one song, Ndereba cia Matatu, she valorises the work of matatu drivers.

She has also addressed the plight of orphans in her song Mwana wa Ndigwa, (The Orphan) and widows Mutumia wa Ndigwa.

But the most telling song was Hawkers, in which she lashes out at the Nairobi City Council askaris. A background to the song clearly shows that Queen Jane did not shy away from commenting on the then government’s injustices.

At the onset of the multi-party democracy in Kenya in the 1991, Kenyans used popular music and theatre to voice their discontent at the excesses of the one-party regime.

The Moi regime responded by being more stringent on cultural productions, banning plays and music. But artists and audiences alike found new avenues of expressing themselves. Music with political content was played in bars and matatus.

Hawkers became instrumental in the sale and distribution of the cassettes, but were met with brutality from state officials, who arrested them, demolished their kiosks, with some losing their lives.

Highlighting the plight of hawkers, Queen Jane in the song Hawkers offered a glimpse of these tribulations.

These thematic concerns are expressed in the musician’s mastery of the Kikuyu language, and her choice of words clearly captures the idioms of everyday life among Kenyans.

She doesn’t shy away from being caustic while commenting on vices in the community. In her song, John Bull, she calls the young man Kirimu g’k’ (you fool) for disrespecting his parents.

Despite having a relatively short entry on Wikipedia, the same cannot be said of her huge following on the video sharing network, You Tube.

Her song, Nduraga Ngwetereire (I have been waiting for you) has recorded over 122, 000 hits by the time of writing this article. This is the highest number of hits on any secular Kikuyu song on You Tube to date.

In death, Queen Jane’s music will continue to command a huge following.

Maina teaches African Studies at the El Colegio de Mexico, in Mexico and is a researcher on Kenyan popular culture, especially the popular music of the Kikuyu.