Kenya: Albert Gacheru - How Fire and Music Pirates Consumed Promising 'Mariru' Singer

Had fire not stopped Albert Gacheru's rise as an indigenous music producer in February 1999, chances are that he could have emerged as one of the most prolific figures in the music business.

When his Cross Lane-based music shop and studio, near Nyamakima, Nairobi, burnt down together with all the repertoire and master tapes that he had recorded over the years, Mr Gacheru's career and business appeared to have hit a major drawback.

By then, and as the music industry went through the transformation from vinyl discs to the piracy-friendly tape cassettes, Gacheru, as one of the biggest producers in Nairobi, became an easier target.

At the moment his family is struggling to pay a Sh5.5 million hospital bill and are seeking help for a man who was impoverished as he struggled to help musicians in Kenya.

"We are seeking help from well-wishers," his brother Julius Kanyoro told the Nation.

Before the fire gutted his businesses, Gacheru had hunted the pirates and was the most vocal voice against music piracy in radio stations and in press conferences. He believed that he was personally targeted.

"My shops were deliberately burnt down by pirates," Gacheru once told this writer.

And they did not only burn the music shop but also his hardware shop that was adjacent.

The late Gacheru, who died this week at Kenyatta National Hospital, had entered the music scene as new technology was replacing the age-old vinyl disc records.

The closure of Polygram label and the sole vinyl disc factory in Nairobi's industrial area, and its handover to the short-lived Records Manufacturers Company (Remanco) brought in a new generation of music producers eager to tap on the growing interest in tape cassettes.

Targeted by music pirates

The problem was that tape cassettes were easily duplicated and a new pirate market was now emerging.

While international labels such as Polydor, CBS and the Lonhro-owned AIT recorded only a handful of local music bands such as Mombasa Roots, Them Mushrooms, and big stars such as Daudi Kabaka and Fadhili William, the Benga music industry had been left at the hands of local producers, mainly based along River Road, Sheikh Karume Road and adjacent lanes.

The only other important label was Associated Sound (East Africa) Ltd's ASL label which flooded the Kenyan music scene with DR Congo music. More so, some DR Congo musicians made Nairobi their home and most of them including Lovy Longomba, Moreno, Super Mazembe, and Shika Shika were produced in River Road.

But with piracy, big labels were not spared either and thousands of their cassettes flooded the market and a new hawking industry started forcing the international labels to close shop, too.

Their repertoire was handed over to Jared Kangwana's Tamasha Records which became the local distributor.

The late Gacheru had entered the music scene at the tail end of the vinyl dics era and River Road was by then dominated by four music producers: Joe Mwangi of Mercury Records - the man behind music stars such as John Ndichu - Joseph Kamaru's City Sounds, Julia Lucy's Photocopy and Babu Kanyotu's Studio Sawa, which had Kakai Kilonzo's Kilimambogo Brothers and various church choirs.

There were also big names such as Oluoch Kanindo, later an MP, who produced musicians from Nyanza and also brought big names such as Franco and TPOK Jazz to the local scene. Some of the Lingala musicians who found their way to Kenya owe it to Mr Kanindo who also brought in some Tanzanian musicians.

While most of the Kikuyu musicians hailed from Muranga, Gacheru hailed from Nyandarua - and did not go through the hands of the established producers. Instead, he established his own label, Wamaitu Productions and hit the market with songs such as Kanda ya Moko, Mwendwa wakwa Mariru, and Mumunya.

He then decided to enter into the league of producers and is today credited for recording John Demathews's first song, My Dear Nduku.

Hunting down pirates

Another big talent in his stable was Mary Wambui who entered the market with Ahadi Ya Bwana - a hot gospel single that dominated the airwaves in the mid-90s and Queen Jane, after she left Mbiri Young Stars to start her own Queenja Les Les. Gacheru produced Queen Jane's famous song Mwendwa KK under the Mwihoko label.

The emergence of Gacheru as a producer was now to rival the other new entrants in River Road and these included Simon Kihara (Musaimo)'s Mbiri Super Sound and Peter Kigia's Wa-Esther label which were dominating the benga music market in mid-1990s.

And that is when pirates ate into his business.

He would then take to court some local producers who had taken songs that he had recorded as vinyl discs and produced cassettes. Some of the producers included Nduti One Stop who had allegedly produced CDs by John Demathew and Mary Wambui's Ahadi ya Bwana.

"From the evidence before the court and the pleadings filed by the parties the defendant is clearly liable for infringing the copyrights of the songs pleaded which are held by the plaintiff. He was well aware of the plaintiff's rights as the same carried sufficient information to indicate the producer of the cassettes from where he converted the same to CDs. I hold him liable," ruled the High Court as Gacheru scored his first victory.

The hunt for more pirates of his songs took Gacheru to Uganda and Tanzania where managed to unearth the cartels involved in the multi-million shilling trade.

For years, Gacheru would camp at the Attorney General's office and write letters to the police seeking a crackdown on pirates. At best, he was ignored. Finally, he decided to take a law degree in order to take on the pirates in court - as he would later say.

By the time of his death, Gacheru was plotting a come back into the industry.

"I think the worst is now behind us," he had told a local radio station.

Gacheru will be buried on Saturday, in Boimani village, Silbwet in ol Jorolok.

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