Legendary gospel songs in Kenya; what they tell us about gospel music today

Today I was looking at my friend musician Douglas Jiveti’s picture and I was laughing at how digital he has become, a growth so parallel to the gospel music industry in Kenya. Who remembers Nduti Onestop video productions where people were floated on a mountain when they were singing that God created the mountains? My goodness! If you had a Gratewall Black and white TV – with that detachable colour screen looooool— you must have watched Joy Bringers on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation(KBC), just a few minutes before Juma Mdudu’s Burudani was off screen. Due to my age, my memory does not take me so far but I guess I would credit Reuben Kigame and Douglas Jiveti – by the way they are great friends— as the fathers of contemporary music. The permission to choreograph songs that was so popularised by Maximum Melodies was a right those two fought for. Coincidentally Jiveti’s Yesu aliyesulubiwa was the opening song for Kuna Nuru gizani programme by Pr Pius Muiru from where the Maximum melodies.

It is sad Kenya has little or no culture of documenting our art. What can music tell us really? A lot, like the change in cultural, perceptions, attitudes on gender and politics around us. Take arrangement and writing for instance. Composers are breaking some rules on the use of compositions— like major chords being for happy songs as minor ones being for sad songs— and becoming emotional ambiguous as is the world today, and there is a study that shows this has been changing since 1960s. Dr Nyairo’s Kenya@50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging shows you how- from Maroon Commandos to Esir—songs’ lyrics is a testimony of the temperature of the politics in our country. Y’all should read that book, I highly recommend it. So, let me sample a few gospel songs, which by the way are not exhaustive. I talk from the few pieces that I have listened to.

Mary Atieno Adamu and Eva

You cannot fail to fail to recognise Mary Atieno Ominde’s steady voice… and that leader guitar in her songs. What stands out for me in Mary’s songs is how she chooses the themes. In Adamu na Eva, she starts with narrating the fall of man in Adam and Eve  and goes on to the third verse to carry out some evangelism role asking you “where will you go after you die?”. That can be seen in Sodoma and Gomora and Sauli mbona wanitesa (Saul why are you persecuting me?),a song inspired by Saul’s encounter with Jesus on his way to Damascus.  I don’t know what the dominant social issues in Mary’s time – I was not paying my own bills then for sure— but I know now the issues young people are facing want to talk about hope and the ability of God to grant you your earth’s desires, more than the hit-hard are-you-going-to-hell? stuff. Let’s us Sample Bahati’s songs: after his opening “Bahati tena”, comes Machoz of how God picked him from poverty, then he and Deno with Story Yangu  on the same topic.

Godwin Ngosso siku ya Kufa Kwangu

I do not know where Godwin went, but he had this song—Siku ya Kufa Kwangu — that was so profound on matter of life and death that it would be played before death announcements on radio. What I noticed in Godwin’s music was the people singing the backup and playing instruments. Notice the keyoboardist is Abedi Ngoso , a musician and a producer of his own right but there is no mention of “Godwin featuring Abeddy”. Today, there are collabos, and the only thing we can talk about them is whether one musician outshone the other or not. Today’s gospel artistes collaborate with one another, pooling different styles into a song. Look at Gospel Fathers, Jogg C and Mr Vee Fundi wa Mbao

Reuben Kigame Mshukuruni Bwana is a Pentecostal anthem, a masterpiece.  Well what would you expect of Reuben Kigame who has studied music to the highest echelons in terms of performance and the theology behind it? You would notice the song is downloaded word by word from Psalms 136. Now the gospel musicians today take their songs from the bible but they are paraphrased in a way to include Sheng’ but still inspired from the bible and sampled from many verses. Let’s take Owen “Daddy Owen” Mwatia Kazi ya Msalaba” from Psalms 146, 59 and other parts.

We cannot fail to notice how today’s musician does not stress being affiliated to any particular church. They can perform in various places, unlike their older generation would be in one church. What have you noticed of Kenya’s music, not just gospel.

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