23 September 2006

Kenya: Joseph Kamaru: Fading King of Gikuyu Pop

music review

Nairobi — His debut into music was received in unique fashion. When Joseph Kamaru's 'Darling ya mwarimu 'was released in 1966, Knut called a nationwide teachers' strike, Parliament debated the controversial song and it took the intervention of the Head of State to cool down tempers. A musician of rare talent had been born

Joseph Kamaru's music may not currently be on top of the music charts. His once thriving River Road music shop may be no more. But one thing is without doubt: his lyrics, both original and remixes, still enjoy a good audience locally and even abroad.

Thirteen years after switching to gospel music when he became a born-again Christian, the man whose trademark box guitar evokes memories of the power of his lyrics still remains the biggest Gikuyu pop star ever.

His music, which is heavily laced with Gikuyu proverbs and often sprinkled with lurid commentaries, never fails to entertain his many fans who consider him a philosopher, political commentator, prophet, historian and even a purveyor of cultural practices.

His latest release, a political commentary after the Kanu regime was floored by Narc, borrows heavily from the Bible and Gikuyu oral traditions. Likening the Narc dispensation to the messianic role that God delegated to Moses, Kamaru advises the government to ignore its critics and work for the good of the nation.

The godfather of Kikuyu pop expresses the hope that the Narc government will not let greed overtake its ambitions.

Before this, Kamaru had come out of the gospel mould in the run up to the 1997 General Election with an album dedicated to the youth.

Named Message to the youth, it was a controversial commentary directed at a political elite that was supplying the youth with bullets to kick the ruling regime out of power.

Kamaru was born at a time when the judge's gravel was the butt of an assault rifle and the maturity of men was announced by a burst of gunfire. It was a period when the size and the sharpness of the machete determined whether a man ate or starved to death.

This was a time when might was right.

And like desert trees that must grow thorns to keep away nibbling goats from eating it to extinction, circumstances demanded that Kamaru pick up a few survival tactics from his early child hood.

Kamaru in a group photo with his family

This is a man who has been moulded by various political and social upheavals. They have all left a lasting impression on his works.

Kamaru's second name is controversy, as he has never shied away from speaking his mind no matter how unpopular the subject may turn out to be.

Recently, he disclosed that he was conceived and born under circumstances that were frowned upon by the society - out of wedlock.

Few were surprised he sparked off a controversy when the woman he had cherished and cared for all his life, Jane Njambi Wanjiru, passed away and was interred on June 14 this year at Ngooro village in Kangema.

Kamaru said he had no tears but only joy when his mother, who had been his greatest teacher, died.

"I know where she is gone she will never come back but one day, we will all meet under happier circumstances. I can only celebrate the years I had known her," Kamaru said.

Though Kamaru has quit the pop scene, his contributions to art and music remain engraved in the country's music history.

His works are faithful and factual records of some happenings such as the Mau Mau tumult, the aspirations of the people after independence, their disappointments as well as their struggle to break the yoke of dictatorship.

What he lacked in physique, he made up for with a razor sharp tongue that could whip the toughest of men into submission.

His tongue could, when he chose, belt out poetic lyrics that transformed the plainest maid into an instant beauty sought after by the most eligible bachelors.

Kamaru's journey to fame, and at times infamy, started immediately he was born as he recently revealed in a candid interview during which he disclosed one of his most guarded secrets.

"I was born out of wedlock. This was at a time when a woman getting pregnant before marriage was almost unheard of. Fortunately, my mother managed to overcome the pressure. Some puritanical elders wanted to get rid of me," Kamaru says.

He adds that as a young boy he grew very attached to his maternal grandmother, and this left a lifetime mark on him.

As per Kikuyu traditions, Kamaru was named after his mother's father and this endeared him to his granny, Wanjiru wa Ngunju.

It is perhaps this attachment that caused him to question most of the things that were happening around him and ultimately led him to the career in which he would distinguish himself.

"I was not very keen on going to school. My mother was very upset. We quarrelled a lot when she discovered that I had secretly dropped out of school to pursue a career in music. Later I went to Kangema Secondary School for her sake," he recalls.

This is before he moved to Nairobi where he scavenged to survive after his uncle threw him out of his house.

Kamaru took the music scene by storm in 1966 when he composed and sang his first song, 'Darling ya Mwarimu' (The teacher's darling) that became an instant hit.

There was one problem though. Teachers thought that he intended to depict them as sex pests. This got him into trouble with the Kenya National Union of Teachers, which called a strike over the song.

The controversial song was a candid confession by a female student who was questioning the morality of being wooed by her married mathematics teacher.

The song came out at a time when many over age girls were struggling with school while being preyed on by randy teachers, many of whom ended marrying their pupils after getting them in the family way.

Street demos were held while MPs debated the song in Parliament.

" When word reached Jomo Kenyatta at his residence in Ichaweri about my song, he came to my defence. He told the teachers who felt aggrieved to go to court. Nobody complained anymore," Kamaru recalls.

With a knack to pinpoint the problems afflicting the weak and the oppressed in the society, Kamaru became a social commentator.

In one of his most poignant songs, Kamaru sings of the suffering he went through as a student accommodated by a well-to-do family.

His easy to chant words tell of the misery and oppression he went through as he munched weevil infested beans while the children of his benefactor feasted on delicacies such as eggs.

His masterly of poetry and romance capable of tugging at the heartstring of the most hardened sceptics is evident in the many songs he sang.

It is the power exuded by hits such as 'Tugatigithanio ni gikuu' (Till death do us part) in which he stands out as a soldier for cupid.

In the song, he tells of the tribulations of getting married during Mau Mau uprising when he had to pacify the authorities to secure a permit to conduct a wedding.

The two-part song talks of the undying lovers who have to break the curfew to meet under cover of darkness.

This is where Kamaru outdoes himself as he compares himself to love-crazed bird while his lover is as bright as a mirror held up to the sun and as a sweet as an orange during the hot weather of January.

Kamaru recalls the strange happenings when bombers fly over the venue of the wedding in pursuit of the Mau Mau leading to the arrest of all the men attending the ceremony.

Unlike many of his peers, the maestro chooses to communicate in rich symbolic language, embellished with fast diminishing proverbs, riddles and other gems of wisdom.

But where does he get the captivating words and phrases that make his songs forever relevant?

"I think all my songs are composed with the guidance of God. Many times I have tried to use simple Kikuyu but I always find myself using words with deep meaning," he says.

Kamaru attributes his mastery of the language to his grandmother, who was his greatest teacher and friend, and acted as a fountain of knowledge.

When JM Kariuki was murdered, Kamaru took his guitar and released a tribute. His song, composed at a time when the country was on the brink of chaos, added fuel to the fire as it crystallised the outrage Kenyans felt at JM's death.

Kamaru lambasted the killers and warned that they too would one day be paraded in public as the whole country watched.

Predictably, his song rubbed the authorities the wrong way and it was proscribed. So bad was the situation that at one time in 1975, it was rumoured that he had actually been shot.

Kamaru reacted to this by composing yet another song saying that he was safe and sound and those talking about his death were idle rumourmongers.

When a few years later, a horse-driven carriage drove down the streets of Nairobi bearing the remains of President Jomo Kenyatta, Kamaru's fans saw this as a fulfilment of his prophesy.

When the next political turmoil gripped the country in 1982 in the form of an aborted coup, Kamaru got an opportunity to endear himself to the authorities.

He accompanied President Daniel arap Moi on a visit to Japan and composed his well-remembered 'Safari ya Japan' which for some years dominated the airwaves from the then Voice of Kenya (VoK).

To the religious moralists, Kamaru was the epitome of evil when he composed Adults Only songs and Marebeta Ma Wamucuthi, his most audacious yet, that had themes that were clearly labelled adult.

His collection of initiation songs, despite the explicit language, are full of teachings and endeared him to many people who after taking one too many in the bar could be heard chanting merrily to the wee hours of the morning.

One of his last political statements before he quit commentating on social and political issues was a 1992 composition recorded in the build up to the epic General Election.

In the cassette, he advised the political leaders of the Ford family about the dangers of squabbling over trivial things, likening them to chicks fighting over a centipede and in this way, providing an opportunity for the insect to be grabbed eaten by a cockerel (Kanu).

And just as he had prophesied in his song, the Opposition was floored by Kanu's artful scheming, to the disappointment of many of Kamaru's followers.

But why is Kamaru no longer churning out the exciting music of yore? Good question. Every age comes and goes. Could Kamaru's have finally come to an end?

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