“This song is more ‘gospel’ than that” is a debate” that will never stop as long as there is diversity on earth. Just go online and see how Kenya’s gospel music is pilloried as “not serious” because someone released a song asking God to give him breast milk! In the midst of all these, the criticised videos get more airplay in mainstream media so they get popular and become the emblem of gospel music in Kenya. Sadly, Kenya has such amazing worship leaders who lack of promotional outfits such as System Unit, and so these deserving worship leaders get little or no play in mainstream media. Christian stations such as Hope FM or Hope TV may play them but they deserve more because of their brilliance. So I sampled some of these underrated gospel artistes. Let me explain the criteria that I used to arrive at these names. There is an artiste and a worship leader. Great difference, folks. A worship leader has two characteristics:
One, they are great musicians. They can play instruments, or if they do not, they know what keys they sing on, what vocal range they are comfortable on and what chords they would want in portion song. This makes it possible for them to work with instrumentalists as a team. My godfather, a pastor, always barks at people: “Don’t tell me to listen to the words and not the voice because if your voice is bad I will not even be interested in your words”. Since they are great performers, they are sensitive to the mood of the crowd they sing to and so they can interact with congregations well.
Two, they know the theology of their faith. They can preach just as well as pastors but they prefer to put their preaching in music. Their songs are usually downloaded from the bible or paraphrased from it. With this in mind, meet the following men.
1. Timothy Kaberia
If you have attended a Pentecostal church, there are 9 in ten chances that your choir has sung a number written by Timothy Kaberia. Let me jog your memory … “shangilia, ametenda mema, yesu bwana mfalme wa ajabu”… that is Shangilia. I met soft spoken and media shy Kaberia in May 2015 when he was curtain raising for Don Moen and Lenny Le Blanch when the two came to Kenya. You can read our interesting chat here .Kaberia and his friends from Daystar University, where he enrolled for his degree in 1994, formed Kaberia and Klan band. This band organises one of Africa’s largest worship concerts called Africa Lets Worship or just Aflewo. Kaberia’s only album, Sound of Kenya, sold out in less than three months after release despite the musician’s shyness from marketing it. Kaberia’s simplicity makes his lyrics short and memorable (good if you are introducing the song to a worship team or a church for the first time) and he leaves room for his band to sing along with the church as he leads you into the next portion of the song.
I have never met Frank but I would recognise his songs in my sleep. Mtakatifu or Juu Yako starts playing in a public service vehicle and everyone keeps quiet. I swear you can even see people close their eyes to listen. His songs are that profound. Frank’s strength is his vocals. The depth of his voice in Jehova will get you off your chair.
Like Kaberia, his backup—which represents the crowd he sings to— does most of the singing and you hear his soothing but powerful vocals in adlibs. His instrumentation is simple, keys mainly on major chords with transitions on minor chords, and a very simple drum. His lyrics are mainly from the book of Psalms.
3. George Dulo
A conversation about covers with musician Dan “Chizi” Aceda, resulted me in knowing about George Dulo, a baby faced nurse-musician. I was so shocked that George is the writer of the song “Wewe Watosha”, a common number sang in Kenyan churches without anybody knowing who wrote it. I had thought the song was vocalist Pete Odera’s or Reuben Kigame’s only to know that it is George. I met George who, like many brilliant musicians, is not concerned about marketing his music and probably does not comprehend the magnitude of the song. I have attended a church service that George was singing in and I cannot explain the pull I had to this guy’s music.
4. Israel Ezekia
First, let us get over how handsome Israel Ezekia is. I have played and performed his Wewe ni Mwema with a worship team and it was easy even for an amateur musician.For each verse, there are three simple lines before you all come to the line “Hakika wewe ni Mwema”. Then the chorus starts with the same words “Wewe ni Mwema”… to which we will add just two lines “Haufaninishwi” “Baba”. Israel mentions a word just one word before you begin singing the next line so you don’t have to memorise everything.
5. Marshall Dennis Wampayo
There is something about Congolese music: the multi-rhythmic nature of it. So, depending on how wild (or not), you can dance to the conga, the drums, the lead or rhythm guitar, the percussion. Oh my waist moves to the pulsating drum beat! I attended a Congolese run church for the first time in 1998, and then I met the late Angela Chibalonza, a year later and I swear I would never turn down an invite to a Congolese church. And all that is beautiful in the music is in Dennis Wampayo’s music. Favour ya God oh tickles me because of the accent therein as Lingala and French speaker Wampayo displays his crooked version of Swahili. What is available on the internet is very scant representation of Wampayo’s music, you must go out there and purchase his records to appreciate just how awesome his musicianship is. Congo’s music has influenced Kenya’s gospel scene (imagine that was one of my assignments in college) and churches and worship leaders like to use. One of the ease to sing to them is, sometimes, the song does not have a proper structure of lyrics so you can insert your own words there as long as the guitar and the dancing goes on and we can dance our hearts out!
6. Andy Mburu
Dreadlocked Andy Mburu reminds me of Tracy Chapman: the alluring guitar is such a dominant feature in his songs, his voice so calm and inviting. I heard Andy for the first time in 2012… I think. His song Ananijali is so personal that any person, believer or not, can relate to. Andy’s music sound to me like narrations out of personal experiences so I find myself attracted to that honest emotion there.
7. Kamau Karongo
I was introduced to Kamau Karongo’s music by my first music teacher Humphrey Onzere at Heart of School Music School in Naivasha when I got interested in music beyond the vocals. I cannot remember the song we tried playing, but he kept saying Karongo’s music would be best to learn the guitar with. My guitar skills are crap, to date. However, I followed Kamau Karongo’s songs. Mungu Yu Mwema is my favourite. Kamau’s voice has a deep voice, and does not cloud his music or his videos with detail. I do is even a love song , a kikuyu version of Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The 1967 oldie Love is all around So I never learnt Karongo’s I do kikuyu lyrics so as he sings it, I be like “You know I love you I always will…”
8. Dennis “DG” Gitonga
I met DG for the first time when I was producing my first album in 2011. Then he was sound engineer at Ageless Muzik, a music label run and owned by multi- talented Dominic Khaemba. DG is a trained engineer, knowledge that now comes in handy in his productions. His bass guitar skills, and vocals. I listened to his first album Dreamer those many years ago and I have watched DG’s performance morph into a mature worship leader. The Kikuyu single Nyita Guoko last year is evidence of a grown artiste. Apart from his good looks, vocals and ability to play instruments, DG’s strength is versatility. He is able to turn a lacklustre hymn into a reggae, rock or hip-hop bomb. No wonder his performances in schools are so highly attended. His audience is the young and hype.
9. Godwill Babette
Great artistes have a well of emotions in them founded on painful experiences that makes them easy to get lost in their songs. Did you see the crowd cry when Kelly Clarkson perform “Piece by piece”? Kelly was singing about her father who left her, and you cannot fake that brokenness. When it is real, the people you are singing to will connect to it. I heard Godwill Babette’s song Umenibeba when it was being mastered in the studio last year. From the first line “Umenibeba juu, aleluya” (You have [carried] me up, hallelujah)… my attention was caught. Producer Dominic Khaemba tones down instruments at the beginning to allow you listen to and feel Babette’s raw emotions. In the third line “Mungu umejaa wema na mapendo, nimeona uzuri wako ooo (God you are full of love, I have seen your goodness), you can literally touch Babette’s submission, like he is grateful to have survived something tragic in his life. When I called Babette early this year, I learnt he is an orphan whose survival cannot be attributed to anything except a supernatural being. The Nakuru-based worship leader was not even certain about the beauty of his song when he wrote it until a Good Samaritan (Peter Wesh), heard him singing it Acapella in church and scoured money to help him come to Nairobi to produce it. Babette’s strength is his ability to let himself go into his songs. Talking to Babette was personal for me too. I learnt that he is currently the student of my long lost music teacher Humphrey who I had not seen from 2006. Babette is a worthy investment. If you read this blog and can spare some coin, support him.
10. I have left this for you to fill… so tell me, please.