The lure of gospel is forever compelling but, even here, many are called but few are chosen. Or so it seems, going by the steady stream of new convertees to the genre over the past 20 years - first the masses, then the artistes. Naturally.
Commercially, too. For gospel's appeal to many musicians is more in its lucrative market than in a wish to praise the Lord or to win souls for Christ. A one-month investigation involving interviews with well-known producers like Japheth Kassanga, Joseph Kamaru, Kimani Thomas and Congolese Bwammy Walumona, as well as career reviews of musicians Emachichi, Mwalimu James Mbugua, Princess Farida Maria, Laban Ochuka, Tanzanian Yusto Onesmo and Congolese Angela Chibalonza, among other born-again Christians, reveals one thing - there is more money in gospel than in secular music.
What's more, the avenues for marketing and selling one's products are wider, from churches to open-air crusades to Christain TV and radio stations - over and above the normal, secular fora. Lure of vernacular renditions, too, is helping boost sales, with many artistes releasing replica copies in Kiswahili and local languages.
Songs like Yesu ni Muweza by Tanzanian singer Yusto Onesmo and Jina Lake Yesu by Congolese singer Angela Chibalonza are among those that have proved quite popular.
Kassanga, a leading gospel producer, blames the dilemma facing artistes on lack of commitment to spiritual fellowship prior to being saved. "I usually encourage singers to understand the Bible before rushing to record gospel songs." He adds that musicians who have not mastered the Good News should think twice before rushing to gospel studios.
Kassanga is among the leading producers in Kenya who exclusively sell gospel music in his outlets. "I choose to lay emphasis on gospel music as I want to have distinction," he says.
Among the local big-wigs who have in the past two decades switched from secular to gospel music are crooner Joseph Kamaru, Kimani Thomas, Emachichi, Mwalimu James Mbugua and Bwammy Walumona. Recent entries include Princess Farida Maria and former Ulinzi band chief composer and bassist Laban Ochuka.
Most attribute their shift to divine guidance. However, the bottom line for some is the cash windfall occasioned by swelling masses of the faithful in Kenya, disillusioned by years of political and economic regression.
Not all convertees are bounty seekers, however. A good number have managed to sustain their faith even as the majority have faltered. In the midst of these are the fence sitters, the neither-warm-nor-cold singers with a foot in each world. A walk into many music stores in Nairobi shows an equal number of secular and gospel cassettes and CDs by the same artiste. Apparently, they can't go wrong either way - can they?
Singer Kimani Thomas, a born-again Christian who quit secular music in 1991, credits a strong faith in the Bible for his steadfastness in gospel music, even when the chips are low.
"It has not been easy trying to keep my faith, particularly considering the financial temptations I have gone through ever since I got converted." He blames the on-going trend of backsliding to lack of spiritual commitment.
"Once one chooses to sing for the Lord, it is important to first groom oneself spiritually. This is so because it is what you sing that makes people understand the extent of your spiritual upbringing and understanding."
Kimani is best remembered for secular songs My Dear Kwaheri and Phyllis Nyaguthie, in which he teamed up with Simon Kihara (Musaimo). "I quit secular music on seeing that I was wasting my time and needed spiritual nourishment."
He recalls that rather than be seen to rush to produce gospel music, he chose to first build his spirituality. "Normally, when you cross over, it is a new beginning. Hence you cannot suddenly convince Christians that not only are you saved but are qualified to preach to them."
Among his popular gospel cassettes are his debut, Ngondu Ciake Irugaruge (1992), Njakiraa Nyumba Mwathani (1994) and Kenya Mwari wa Afrika (2001).
Kimani also produces and distributes music by other gospel artistes, among them Joseph Mwaura (Muthini wa Ngai), Paul Njoroge and Joseph Kinyanjui.
He says: "Those gospel musicians who are having spiritual problems are living in darkness. Worldly pride is taking a toll on them."
Ochuka, who swapped secular music for gospel last December, says life has so far proved to be a challenge. "It has been difficult but I'm confident that I will grow in the faith, having chosen to sing for the Lord." He adds that the greatest problem he faces is delinking himself from his secular music fame, particularly when fans request him to sing an old favourite.
Ochuka is best remembered for Bi Sophia No1 and Safari, which he composed with the Maroon Commandos. Later, while with Ulinzi Band, he produced heart-warming tunes such as Kache and Safari. He currently has a gospel cassette and CD, Yesu ni Mwamba. Tracks in it are a blend of contemporary dance and popular choruses. He says he has also incorporated own compositions. "I pray never to falter in my gospel quest and hope to get stronger by the day."
Princess Farida, who like Ochuka left secular music late last year, has also not had an easy time. "I have survived many temptations but I'm confident I will remain steadfast," she says.
Farida surprised many fans, colleagues and family members when she ditched a high-paying secular music career for gospel. She, like Ochuka, has already released a cassette, None Like Jesus, by Harvest Conquerors.
Kamaru, who until his conversion in 1993 was a leading Kikuyu pop singer, still shocks many by his conversion. The singer of old-time hits Ndari Mwalimu, Nyimbo cia Mau Mau and Kikuyu Folk Songs (backed by Kamaru Super Stars and, later, Njungwa Stars) to date leads his Campaign for Christ singers. He has lately released Kamaru's Testimony, Kimooee and Mundu ni Muritu and has produced tunes by Jane Muthoni (Giagai na Hinya) and Joseph Njenga (Ni njui Marua).
However, Kamaru is haunted by criticism that he never totally divorced himself from secular music as his earlier cassettes are still on sale, many alongside his current gospel ones.
Locally based Congolese musician Bwammy Walumona is also among those who have remained strong in the faith. The former Orch Les Mangelepa band leader and guitarist quit secular music after he became a born-again Christian in 1986. For many years now, he has closely associated with Life Ministry and Chrisco Church. His most popular cassette is Neno Lako Moyoni.
Occasionally he has led his group on gospel trips to Europe, particularly the Scandinavian countries. Counterparts from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have also crossed to gospel are Kinshasa-based singers Debaba El Shabab (formerly of Choc Stars), ex-Zaiko Langa Langa artiste Bimi Ombale and ex-TP OK Jazz singers Carlito Lassa and Jolie Detta.
Ultimately, mention must be made of outstanding singers who have all along been in the fold, never venturing into secular music. They include Mary Wambui (Ahadi ya Bwana), Mary Atieno Ominde, Faustin Munishi, Mary Nyaguthii (Haria Nyumite) and Rachel Mamoss (Tunasema Ahsante Yesu) . Others are songbirds Ruth Kimani, Molly Kimani and Peris Gichuki (Mambo Sawa Sawa), Rehema Lugose and Naomi Nyongesa.