By Bill Odidi and Joyce Nyairo – Source: Daily Nation
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.”
By John Kariuki – Source: The Star
Back in the mid-1990s, I was in Johannesburg doing an errand for a Kenyan producer who had requested me to deliver a batch of recordings to contacts in South Africa hoping to find distribution networks in that country. The music was the emerging Nairobi urban pop with a strong American influence but I had also carried others of older music of the late 1970s and 1980s as presents for friends in South Africa.
The all important contact was Peter Tladi, then director at the CCP-EMI record company, one of SA’s biggest record companies. So a listening session was arranged.
Tladi rushed through the songs and I could sense his disinterest grow as the tracks moved on. He said the music was not original and therefore had no reason to take it on. “Don’t you have music in Kenya,’’ he asked.
A bit embarrassed by his statement, I decided to try and salvage our country’s reputation by playing one of the CDs I had carried for friends which featured a compilation of the best of Kenyan songs. The first song was Charonyi Ni Wasi and Tladi sat up and half way through paused the disc and said: “This is what you should be offering me.”
Honestly, it would never have occurred that he would like it considering that the song is in Kitaita and a typical late 1970s genre that fused rumba and a bit of urban benga. In Kenya, it won a silver disc certification for sales exceeding 30,000 units –big in its time – and later won rave reviews overseas as a driving factor in the sales of the compilation CD Kenya Dancemania, which was a breakthrough release for Kenya music in the international market.
All to confirm the adage that a good song is a good song in any language, this Habel Kifoto’s original is a classic that resonates with freshness across time and cultures.
A week ago, Kifoto answered his trumpet call ending an illustrious music career that has produced a pedigree of great songs that will live on and on. He was in his mid-60s and leaves behind seven children.
A funeral committee is meeting daily from 6pm at the St Andrews Church in Nairobi with a burial date tentatively set for this week. “The committee includes family members, musicians, friends and the army,’’ said Major (Rtd) David Kibe, whose relationship with Kifoto goes back to 1969 when the two met.
The two had been working on what was to be Kifoto’s fifth solo album – his first in a decade since he retired from the army in 2002 and had planned to release it later in the year. Says Kibe: “We had spoken last Friday and planned a session this week to polish the tracks but the basic recording is complete and I will do the final touches and mix it in time for release in November as he had wanted it.”
He describes the departed friend as a true Kenya legend who leaves a legacy of great music and a reputation for humility and fine leadership skills that are not easy to find. “I knew Habel as an easily likeable, non-confrontational man who used his good sense of humour to navigate through tense moments and steer discussions and situations to safe waters,” Kibe says.
The two had a special relationship as musicians and friends and it was Kifoto who invited Kibe to the Strollers Band at Bamboo Nightclub in Nairobi in 1969 and from there the two later became founding members of the Maroon Commandoes Band.
News of his sudden death sent shockwaves within the music fraternity where he had made many friends and admirers. “To me it is a tragedy for such a person to die because he meant so much to so many of us,’’ said John Katana of Them Mushrooms.
The shock was also felt in Mombasa where he had acquired property and where his late wife Esther Kifoto was laid to rest eight years ago. When he got a call about the bad news, Safari Sounds bass player Juma Mzingo did the unthinkable and called the late Kifoto’s number. When it was answered by the wails and weeping of Kifoto’s daughter, Mzingo then knew for sure that Kifoto had passed on.
In his tribute, veteran musician Juma Toto, who met Kifoto in 1967, had fond memories of the departed artiste. Kifoto had absconded school to play music and joined Toto as a drummer and vocalist in the Stereophonics Band, which performed at the Small World Nightclub at Ambassadeur bus stop in Nairobi. He worked with them for four months before returning to school to complete his fourth form examinations.
After his examinations, he became a full-time musician, playing several instruments and most remarkably rising to become one of the greatest composers of his generation.
Over the years, he switched to guitar and later learnt the keyboard and saxophone.
Many others who knew Kifoto term him as a gentleman who handled success with humility and never allowed it to get to his head. “He was a decent man and I shall truly miss him as a musician and as a friend,’’ said radio personality Fred Machoka. As a leading composer and band leader of the Maroon Commandoes, Kifoto is remembered for withstanding the tide that threatened to drown Kenyan urban music in the 1970s and early 1980s with a dual assault by Tanzanian and Congolese music.
Significantly, this was also the era when Kenyan music was going regional with a strong surge in mainly Kikuyu and Luo music which though rich in their own way created a vacuum in the mainly urban segment, in effect creating an entry point for Tanzanian and DRC music. Both genres had their advantage with Tanzanians riding on their better command and use of Kiswahili to easily enter the market while the Congolese had a great sense of dance and display, which easily appealed.
At one time, Kenyan music was nearly being phased out of the map in the major urban market but Kifoto held steady and continued to turn out songs in Kiswahili that had urban appeal. He finally broke the juggernaut in 1972 when his Charonyi Ni Wasi cracked the urban market and became a major national hit with clear resonances in the international market.
The irony is noted by Kibe in that it took a song with a regional medium to break the stranglehold of the outsiders and create a new variety of Kenyan urban music. “It was a magical song that enforces the reality of power of music to transcend all barriers,’’ he says. The late Kifoto had other hits like Uvivu Ni Mbaya, Riziki Haivutwi Na Kamba and Christina.
Kibe feels that this rare achievement served a vital incentive to Kenyan musicians to be undeterred in looking to their own heritage and enforced the universal view that music knows no language. And above all, much thanks to Habel Kifoto for showing that greatness is a not a function of arrogance and for touching so many people in different ways.
To listen to some of Habel Kifoto’s music online for free, follow the link below:-