7 March 2005

Kenya: Robbie Armstrong: Pioneer Promoter of Local Music


Nairobi — Robert William Fisher Armstrong was born in Whitley Bay, England, in 1940 and, although he was proud to eventually become a Kenyan, he never forgot his working class roots or English heritage.

Robbie Armstrong first came to Kenya as a fresh-faced 19-year-old electronics engineer with the British Army in 1960.

As he told it himself once, he fell in love twice with the girl who was to become his wife, Jean, after whom Nairobi West's most famous watering hole is named. Robbie and Jean owned the bar, which was opened in 1963. Jean died in 1980.

It would be impossible to write about Robbie Armstrong without mentioning the Starlight Club, to which he was so closely linked for more than 20 years when the club reigned supreme as one of East and Central Africa's most popular night spots.

While Jean's Bar, already a popular meeting spot, kept Robbie busy for a while, it was not long before the idea of a low-priced, well run nightclub, such as he had known back in his home country, started running through his mind.

Finally, 40 years ago, in mid February, his dream came true and his baby, the Starlight Club, opened its doors to Nairobi's party crowd, led by then finance minister James Gichuru and a galaxy of ministers and other socialites.

The nightclub was situated at the upper end of Kenyatta Avenue, on the same plot where, ironically, Integrity House stands.

The focal point of Nairobi nightlife for many years, The Starlight became famous for its live bands and eclectic clientele, which included at one time or another, Hollywood stars James Stewart and William Holden, legendary singer Bing Crosby, jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and at least two African presidents (although not on the same night!)

The meeting with Gillespie lent itself to one of Robbie's stories. Robbie told of how one night he was in his office behind the club's stage when he heard the strains of a sweet and mellow trumpet drift above the beat of the resident band. The music drew him out on to the stage where a well-dressed man was playing along with the Starlight musicians.

When he had finished his set, Robbie went up to him and offered him Ksh50 (60 US cents) a night to play with the band (this was in the days when there was less than seven shillings to the dollar). The mysterious trumpeter was shaking his head when a very agitated man in a business suit walked up and said to Robbie: "Don't you know who that is? That's Dizzy Gillespie, and I'm his manager."

Robbie responded, "Ok. Let's make it 60 bob a night..."

Robbie was greatly respected and liked by the staff of all the establishments with which he was linked. Kipling's phrase "to walk with kings, nor lose the common touch" might have been written with him in mind.

During the Starlight years, Robbie also pioneered the promoting of local bands, some, such as Air Fiesta, the Cavaliers and Orchestre Virunga to international fame.

Robbie Armstrong's contribution to cricket in Kenya was also immense. He served on the Kenya Cricket Association for many years and at the time of his death was a national selector.

He ran the secretariat when Kenya successfully hosted the 1994 ICC trophy and later managed the Kenyan team on their tour of India in 1998. He was also Kenya's representative to the annual ICC meeting for many years and was largely responsible for Kenya gaining one-day international status. He also created his own side, the Starlight Stragglers. Robbie was also an umpire who enjoyed the respect of all players and he went on to become chairman of the Kenya Cricket Umpires Association.

A condolence book is open at the Nairobi Club of which he was secretary for a number of years.

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