19 January 2005

Kenya: 'Zilizopendwa' Crooner Takes His Final Bow

Nairobi — The death last weekend of veteran musician and producer Isaya Mwinamo Asiebera has robbed Kenya of one of the foremost artistes on the music scene.

Unlike most musicians of his time, Mwinamo preferred to keep a low profile, which is why perhaps his fame faded out as he grew older.

The singer, guitarist and composer had long given up music when he died but he was a major inspiration to many upcoming musicians in his brief and illustrious career.

He was best recognised in the late 1960s when he released the all time popular Kenya Inawaka Moto.

He also did the legendary hit song Kenyatta aliteswa sana, regularly played during Kenyatta Day celebrations in subsequent years.

Mwinamo, who died at 72, was in the league of musicians secretly involved in the independence struggle through song and dance.

Some of his contemporaries include John Muleli, John Wijenje, Charles Lichina of Nabongo Success fame and Jimmy Lasco.

Like most of the group's compositions, Mwinamo's were done in Kiswahili and touched on love and patriotism.

The Equator Sounds band, which featured Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili Williams and Peter Tsotsi, were among the groups which popularised Kiswahili lyrics.

But Mwinamo's beat was more closely associated with that of John Mwale, Jean Bosco and George Mukabi.

According to Mwinamo Junior, a son - who has also taken up music - most of Mwinamo's recorded music was done in the late '50s and early '60s.

"Looking through my father's collections one cannot fail to realise that most of his songs were composed between the late 1950s and 1964, when he took a break from stage performance," he said.

One of Mwinamo's most notable compilations, 16 Golden Hits of Isaya Mwinamo, contains popular songs like Julieta, Ndugu Wangu, Kenya Inawaka Moto and Mpenzi Josephina.

Mwinamo Junior recently did an album featuring a reworking of most of his father's songs, backed by various Nairobi session artistes.

"I realised the only way of popularising his music was through having to reproduce some of his songs, given that he had retired from active music," Mwinamo Junior said.

In a family of 14 children, Mwinamo Junior is the only one who has followed in his father's footsteps.

Notably, the elder Mwinamo was among the foremost recording engineers with the that era's Philips Record Company at Nairobi's the Shandarkass House on Government Road (now Moi Avenue).

Most of the leading Nairobi-based groups, like the then Hodi Boys, Air Fiesta and Hi-Five, often recorded their music at Philips' Studios.

Veteran Laban Juma Toto, the band leader of Toddy International and formerly of the Hodi Boys band, recalled it was Mwinamo who recorded his first song, Dory Mama, back in 1969. Toto is currently based at the Changes Club in Ngara, Nairobi.

"I was still very new in the recording industry and can recall the encouragement and support I got from Mwinamo. He not only gave me technical advice but helped me shape my compositions," Toto says.

The Hodi Boys Band, arguably among the best dance bands in Nairobi in the late '60s and early '70s, rivalled in popularity the Air Fiesta, which featured musicians such as John Nzenze.

As for Hodi Boys, some of the leading members included ace saxophone player Geoffrey Ngao, Nathaniel Mutu, Ebrahim Athuman, Gilbert Ong'ayo, and Nicholas Kimotho.

Other songs by Toto recorded by Mwinamo include Mwenzangu Rosy and Mary Anyango.

"We had confidence in Mwinamo's music productions, particularly his sound musical background," Toto adds.

Nzenze, among the few surviving grandmasters of Kenyan music, also worked closely with Mwinamo.

"News of his death last weekend has dealt a blow to those of us still in the field and it is a challenge for us to continue," Nzenze says.

Like Mwinamo, Nzenze, known for songs such as Anjelic Twist, has also been involved in music production.

The Philips Studios was associated with labels like ASL and Polydor. The group was to later change its name to Phonogram and then Polygram. It is now Tamasha Corporation.

In the '70s, Mwimano, who also worked with Justus Kasoya and Chris Mbindyo at Polygram, recorded and produced most of the popular songs by some of their high-riding groups then, such as Orch Simba Wanyika, Maroon Commandos, Orch Les Mangelepa, Nairobi Matata, Orch Super Volcano, Orch Viva Makale and Orch Super Mazembe.

According to Moses Kayesa of Nairobi Matata band fame, Mwinamo was the one who produced all the popular songs from 1977, such as Maisha ya Mjini, Mpenzi Asha and Dada Mwajuma. "Mwinamo gave us a lot of ideas on how to improve our recording skills."

Kayesa, who teamed up with Juma Muhina in Nairobi Matata, was also recently among the musicians who backed Mwinamo Junior in doing a remix album of some of Mwinamo's popular songs.

Similarly, Kasongo wa Kanema, the band leader of the Nairobi-based Orch Super Mazembe, described Mwinamo as the group's biggest source of inspiration ever.

"I remember when we were recording the Gold disc-winning song Viva Christmas while I was still with Baba Gaston's Baba Nationale band, it was Mwinamo who encouraged us to come up with a Christmas theme," Kasongo said.

According to Kasongo, Mwinamo is the only producer throughout his musical career who produced more than one Gold- winning albums.

"It was, in fact, Mwinamo who encouraged me in music production, particularly by the manner in which he produced some of the Orch Super Mazembe songs, such as Nabimakate, Shauri Yako and the remix of Kasongo," he said.

Besides involvement with the Orch Super Mazembe, Kasongo is involved with music production at a studio in Nairobi.

The one-time popular Orch Viva Makale band also produced some of their most popular songs, such as Bibi Mdogo and Kandolo, with Polygram Records where Mwinamo worked.

In the Viva Makale band were some leading musicians, like Kalombo Mwanza, singer Coco Zigo Mike and drummer Lava Machine.

Mwinamo retired from Polygram Records in 1985 to settle in his rural home in Shinyalu, Kakamega District.

His body will leave the Kakamega General Hospital mortuary this morning for burial on Saturday at his home Virhembe in Isukha Central.

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