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Ayub Ogada: Kenya’s unsung music star

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It is said that a prophet is never respected in his own land. This is certainly the case with renowned Kenyan musician Ayub Ogada, who passed on last Sunday.

Ogada’s audience is global although he only released two albums. His compositions, categorised as World Music, did not get much play in Kenya and he was rarely featured on television music shows. He was neither a big-name international star like Youssou Ndour or Hugh Masekela, nor belonged to celebrity cliques and he did not seek notoriety.

Nevertheless, Ogada was, until his death, the most internationally acclaimed and travelled Kenyan musician. Within an hour of the announcement of his demise at his home in Nyahera village, Kisumu County, tributes were pouring in from all over the world. Musician and friend Peter Gabriel has written a tribute on his website.

Born in the coastal city of Mombasa, he travelled to the US as a youngster, where his father was studying medicine. There, he immersed himself in the 1960s black consciousness ideology that helped form his outlook and his art.

It is said that he shook hands with the legend Muhammed Ali in Chicago. He also returned with cognisance of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Fela Kuti and a burning desire to make it as a musician.

Ogada once remarked that all true musicians build their portfolios on life experience.

Though he leaves an impressive musical legacy, his life tells the story of the myriad obstacles confronting talented artistes in Kenya. Ogada’s success provides one compass for those who want to follow their own paths and to build a future with traditional music instruments.

Ogada built his repertoire and reputation on live performance. When he played or held court in conversation, he stood out. In his early days, he established a name as Job Seda playing with a number of influential Nairobi pop bands but made his reputation with Black Savage band — where with Mbarak Achieng he produced the famous song Koth Biro (Rains are coming) — and later co-founded Heritage Band with Alan Donovan of the African Heritage cultural house.

He moved to London, changed his name to Ayub Ogada and transformed himself into a skilled master of his adopted instrument, the eight-stringed nyatiti, used in traditional Luo music.

I met Ogada in the mid-1980s, when he was playing with the Heritage Band and going by the name Job Seda. He was the band leader, and together with Jack Odongo, and encouraged by Donovan, set out to rejuvenate and transform “Kenyan traditional music.”

At the time, the genre was relegated to poorly paid tourist troupes in Mombasa and to sycophantic acts at State House functions. To change the perception of traditional music, Donovan injected fashion and the band added amplification and energy.

Mixing electric instruments with wooden flutes, lizard-skinned congas, thumb pianos, cowbells, and nyatitis, Seda and Odongo transformed African folk music into upbeat jazz for young Nairobi crowds, performing live at the African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue while models strutted walkways and bartenders served cocktails.

Heritage Band’s charismatic core members went on to make names for themselves: Wally Amalemba and Gido Kibokosya in the flamboyant rhythm section, Samite Mulondo, the Ugandan singer became a celebrated flute, kalimba, and litungu instrumentalist with Odongo as the to-go to organist and horn player.

Clockwise from front right: Ayub Ogada, Gido

Clockwise from front right: Ayub Ogada, Gido Kibukosya, Goro Kunii, Shabaan Onyango (centre) and Ali Magombeni. PHOTO | COURTESY OF ALAN DONOVAN | AFRICAN HERITAGE

Dozens of young musicians played with the Heritage Band. The African Heritage gallery was the place to be seen on Sunday afternoons. At the centre of this was Seda.

With a full baritone voice, he communicated with the audience, played percussion, strutted and worked his nyatiti as he took the band through traditional Luo ballads. His stage presence and charm cemented each set and grew the band’s reputation over five years.

Though they confirmed that “traditional” could be exciting, after two albums, Niko Saikini and Handas, and an unfortunate trip to a German jazz festival, the Heritage Band broke up and the jam sessions at the African Heritage gallery came to an end.

The band members moved on and Seda, working with Donovan’s African Heritage, went on to do musical productions for the French Cultural Centre, and gigs for the international films scene in Nairobi — he had cameo roles in Out of Africa and The Kitchen Toto but these projects did not serve his agenda, so he left Nairobi for the United Kingdom, eager to build a name as a solo artiste and with his own platform.

The emigrant who emerged in the UK a few years later, embracing a nyatiti, was Ayub Ogada.

The post-punk London scene in the late 1980s attracted many African artistes. Reggae was thriving. Following the success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and performance in South Africa, demand for “world music” was crystallising around DJ musicologists like Charlie Gillette and John Peel.

A West African diaspora in the UK supported such bands as Osibisa and Taxi Pata Pata. When Ogada arrived in the UK, he joined the latter, a Congolese soukous act, as drummer-percussionist and worked odd jobs to make ends meet.

He nurtured his nyatiti talent as a self-taught player. Without the guidance of a nyatiti mentor or the advantage of listening to recordings of master players, he spent hours plucking, practising and fashioning a distinctive style, famously busking on London’s Northern Line to get the expansive echo that only an underground space can provide. More than once, he spoke of a growing two-way spiritual affection with his nyatiti.

His busking in the London Underground brought him to the attention of Peter Gabriel and earned an invitation to the 1991 WOMAD festival in Cornwall.

The show was his lucky break. When another artiste went missing, the organisers requested him to extend his 10-minute cameo to a full hour. He capitalised on the opportunity. His performance so electrified Gabriel and the audience that they asked him to attend WOMAD recording sessions at the Real World Wiltshire studios.

The sessions led to a contract with Gabriel’s Real World Records and, eventually the album En Mana Kuoyo (A grain of sand). His 10-song masterpiece, released in 1993, showcased a mature, fully-formed singer with a confident quiet voice and an unconventional nyatiti style.

One album was all Ogada needed. Released at a time when international demand for world music was growing, it was a badly needed gem in the Real World catalogue.

The album sold enough for him to launch his personal brand and stimulated a demand for decades of live performances. He became a sought-after festival artiste, and, for the first time, had a considerable degree of financial success.

Ayub Ogada

Ayub Ogada nurtured his nyatiti talent as a self-taught player. PHOTO | COURTESY OF ALAN DONOVAN | AFRICAN HERITAGE

When he was at his peak in 1999, we met for lunch in London. He was fully booked out, he said, with tours in Europe, Japan and the United States.

Dressed in Nigerian traditional attire, he told me how he travelled with a small entourage — a bassist, percussionist and a guitarist. If he had to, he could play alone. He was doing the music he loved, being paid well. Mostly, he was playing in front of appreciative audiences.

His next break came in 2005 when the directors of The Constant Gardener, the movie of John le Carre thriller set in Kenya were looking for local music to soundscape the film. A local site manager happened to have on hand a cassette of En Mana Kuoyo. Hearing it, the producers immediately got in touch with Ogada’s agent and a sizeable deal was closed.

As celebrated as he was in Europe, Ogada was getting homesick. He had been out of Africa for over 15 years and he wanted to reconnect with audiences back home.

Moreover, he yearned to live in the places he sang about — especially rural Luoland. Even when he lived in Africa, it was only in Nairobi and Mombasa. The frustration of being stuck in Europe comes out poignantly in the moving single Salimie, which he wrote after a particularly trying period in Italy.

The Constant Gardener commission provided him with the resources to make the move back to Kenya in 2008. After a stint in Nairobi, Ogada moved his base to Kisumu where he set up a studio and partnered with bassist and engineer Isaac Gem.

His move to rural Kisumu allowed him to perform and record in the open spaces next to Lake Victoria, where his songs were set and where he thought the music sounded best.

Increasingly, and especially after his return, engagements with Ogada could be unpredictable. Impulsive and spiritual, he made space on stage and in his life for the unexpected. When spontaneity worked out, and it frequently did, the results were beautiful. But things didn’t always work out, especially when his volatile sentiments collided with alcohol overindulgence.

In 2015, he spent two weeks with Isaac Gem and British jazz guitarist Trever Warren recording his last album, Kodhi (seed). The mobile recordings started in the pool room of Donovan’s African Heritage House overlooking the Nairobi National Park and finished at the Fisherman’s Camp on the edge of Lake Naivasha, about 100km west of Nairobi.

Lacking the focused energy of En Manu Kuoyo, the tracks are travelogue sound sketches that nevertheless capture Ogada’s mature gravelly voice at the height of its power. He is having fun with a good band. You hear his spoken sing-song commentaries, his nyatiti, Warren’s guitar, and the energy and ambient sounds of rural Kenya. For Ogada fans, it is a must have album.

But 22 years had passed since his first album. The music industry had completely changed, world music was a competitive jungle and Ogada’s fans had moved on.

Lacking a plan to capitalise on his name, to promote the album with a tour or to use modern social media to reach his global market, the Kodhi project made little impact.

In an ironic twist, the album’s marketers were unable to reach the same appreciative international audiences who came to his shows in their thousands and who built him up two decades before.

Ogada died as an elder, rooted in the place from whence his music came, distant and disconnected from the noise of the city, finally home.

In his journey to get back to his roots and focus on what he was looking for, he turned away from many of the distractions and tools of the modern music industry. Unencumbered with this gear, he was surer of himself than ever and closer to the instrument he loved.

The music he left with us remains mystical, other-worldly, timeless and deeply traditional. It is fitting that, when he died, the social media he ignored was flooded with appreciative votes of confidence from the very artistes whose path he has trailblazed. This is his legacy.

Mark Hankins is a writer and engineer who, as a singer-songwriter, is also known as Markus Kamau.

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