Every generation has its iconic artiste, singer, writer, griot or poet. Unfortunately, not many of the would-be-world’s greatest artists become recognised in their own lifetimes. Instead, for many, it takes the irony of the Grim Reaper’s call for their artistic genius to become universally acknowledged.
For the late Joseph Kamaru, one artiste who spoke truth to power, he at least was fortunate more often than is known to the public in that the powers-that-be listened to him.
In early March 1975, when the country was undergoing serious political turmoil following the assassination of the populist Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki, Kamaru composed a commemorative song for the late legislator. In the song, Kamaru gloomily crooned:
“Andu á Kenya tondu Kariùki ni akúa, arutítwe magego na maitho, na ti kuíya kana kùragana; mutigaíte thakame niundu wakè… rekeí Ngai arute wira waké …. rekeí Ngai arute wira wake”…
(The people of Kenya because Kariuki has died, with his teeth and eyes extracted, although he was neither a thief nor a killer, please don’t shed blood because of his death… please let God do His will… Let God do His will…”)
Ordinarily, after such a highly explosive song, the world and many Kenyans, would have expected that Kamaru would be arrested and detained without trial till Kingdom Come. Or alternatively, he would have been ‘obliged’, by the powers-that-be, to compose a 19-minute and 32 seconds praise song as happened in Zaire in regard to Franco Luanzo Makiadi & TP OK Jazz Band’s 1984 song Candidat na Biso Mobutu.
However, unlike in the case of Franco, Kamaru managed to use his prowess in the art of cryptic spoken/sang language to duck the bullet of political retaliation to the extent that despite anti-establishment songs he composed and sang during Kenya’s most trying political moments — the death of Tom Mboya and that of JM Kariuki — Kamaru somehow managed to effectively orbit the complex world of the post-independent African politics.
Indeed, nothing illustrates the enduring allure of Kamaru’s music better than an incident I witnessed at a State luncheon in State House, where Kamaru was one of the key live-performers.
As Kamaru was exiting the stage, Mama Ngina — Kenya’s original First Lady — quietly signalled the Master of Ceremony, then politely and unobtrusively requested that Kamaru go back on stage to perform another of his classical numbers. And as always, Kamaru did not disappoint.
Listening to Kamaru’s songs, one discerns an explicit message with an unmistakeable moral clarity on politics, marital life, human rights and all things we hold dear in today’s world. Clearly, Kamaru was an artist ahead of his time.
It was perhaps because of this unmistakable moral compass that Kamaru’s artistic prowess survived and thrived from the days of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta to his successor, President Daniel Moi, President Mwai Kibaki and now President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In his tribute to the late Kamaru, Uhuru said: “It was a blessing for us as a country to have had such a talented artiste who played a big role in promoting the Kenyan brand of music. Indeed, we will miss his educative music which was unique in many aspects.”
However, like many other prodigious artistes, Kamaru’s greatness was never recognised as much as it should have been in his lifetime. In retrospect, the complexity, intricacy and sophistication of Kamaru’s musical compositions can only be compared to artistic works of the likes of Wole Soyinka, Paulo Coelho, Kahlil Gibran among others.
Unlike these world renown artistes, Kamaru never gained worldwide fame. Yet, despite his genius with words — it is not for nothing that cultural expert and analyst Dr Joyce Nyairo described him as one of the best poets of our times.
He composed more songs than many of his contemporaries —locally and internationally — sang about social issues long before they became catch-phrases of the day for civil society groups here and abroad; trail-brazed political causes at a time when it was never prudent to take such risks.
However, Kamaru did not die a rich person in the convention sense of the word. His legacy is perhaps richer than his worldly gains. In his musical career spanning some two score and thirteen years — that is 53 years for the uninitiated — Kamaru recorded over 2,000 songs in numerous albums. To put his artistic output in perspective, consider the following statistics:
• Nigeria’s author, poet, essayist and playwright, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, one of Africa’s most renown and prolific artists better and simply known as Wole Soyinka, has penned 31 plays, 13 high-octane essays, five memoirs, three short stories, two novels and produced three movies in a career spanning three score and one year (61 years). He won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. He was the first African to be so honoured.
• Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has composed some 31-plus books over a period of two score and four years (44 years). Coelho’s artistic works have over the years won him over 30 different awards.
• Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist, Kahlil Gibran, who died in 1931 aged 48, had some of the most profound writings of all time but did not gain much recognition until decades after his death, when many countries, among them Lebanese, Americans and Canadians — countries of which he had inhabited at one time or another — were falling over each other to give awards, construct monuments and name streets in honour of the late Kahlil Gibran.
Yet, despite the fact that Kamaru did not gain worldwide fame or get his hands on untold riches, he made our lives much richer culturally, socially and politically. Fare thee well Joseph Kamaru. You came, you saw and conquered.
The writer works for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government