Curtains close on Gertrude Mwendo, a maestra of Mulembe music

Despite her great voice, she lived a life of hardship and obscurity

In Summary

• Her story underscores the need for advocacy to uplift and honour local musicians

Women perform African music
Women perform African music

Luhya music, deeply entrenched in the historical fabric of Western Kenya, resonates with the rituals, ceremonies and daily rhythms of its people.

Rooted in the traditions and society of the region, traditional Luhya music employs indigenous instruments, such as the Isukuti drums and litungu guitars, infusing its melodies with a distinctive Bantu rhythm.

These musical narratives often recount the community’s history, rites of passage and the contemporary challenges faced by its people in the wake of debilitating postcolonial economics.

Referred to as Mulembe music also, this vibrant musical genre has evolved, embracing various genres, like Benga and Afrofusion. Younger Luhya artistes, propelled by a globalised music industry, are exploring new sonic landscapes through digital technology and modern electronic equipment.

Despite these modern influences, the essence of Luhya music remains deeply rooted in cultural pride, community identity and storytelling, serving as a vehicle to preserve and transmit the rich heritage of the Mulembe nation to future generations.

Renowned singers from the Luhya community, including Jacob Luseno, Amos Barasa, David Barasa, Emmanuel Musindi, Pius Wafula, Vincent Ongidi, Sukuma Bin Ongaro and Sila wa Sila, have contributed significantly to the popular music scene in Western Kenya. Bands like Webuye Jua Kali continue to shape the contemporary sounds of the region.

Gertrude Mwendo
Gertrude Mwendo

In this rather masculine sonic landscape, female artistes such as the genuinely talented Gertrude Mwendo are rare. Regrettably, the lady of golden voice and talent bid farewell to us Kenyans forever last week, leaving behind a legacy etched in the notes of resilience, passion and cultural preservation.

Mwendo joined a band 44 years ago and never looked back. In the course of her career, she rubbed shoulders with great Kenyan veteran musicians, such as Isaya Mwinamo, Daudi Kabaka, Gabriel Omollo, Fanuel Amimo, Fundi Konde and John Nzenze.

She was passionate about music and nothing will keep her from it, not even age. Mwendo has always successfully juggled music, employment and family. She and the late Jacob Luseno jointly founded Phonotex Success Band in 1965. She was then aged 20.

What began as a hobby for her, where she was the soloist and Luseno the guitarist, turned serious one day when foreigners noticed their talent and promised to sponsor their production through their company called Philips. Isaya Mwinamo and Fadhili Williams were the producers then.

Peter Kibukosya and Hyslop, who composed the Kenyan national anthem, also spotted Mwendo’s talent early. They took her for training in music at Maseno Government Training Institute.

Among the first songs she and Luseno produced was Makatiani Wamala Khutsia (Makatiani has already left) about her father’s death.

Other songs were Mchanganyiko Maalumu (special mix), a partying and socialising song for young men and women, and Shikumba (bone), about a woman who loved butchers just for meat. Makuru (headmen) was a song criticising headmen for exploiting the populace in the name of colonial masters. Makuru has remained a hit to date.

Other evergreen hits include: Appointment and Mukangala. The latter is a famous anthem of Kenyan popular music to this day. By the time Luseno died in January 2006, they had recorded hundreds of songs.

She had recruited youths into the band to exploit their talents. They have recorded several songs, including Likhutsa lia Luseno (Luseno’s death) Speed Governor (about HIV and Aids) and Mukangala Part 2.  The band sings predominantly in Oluluhya but has a few Kiswahili songs.

Mwendo was born in 1945 in Emironje, Ilala village, in Shinyalu, Kakamega county. She attended Mukumu Primary School between 1953 and 1960. In 1961, she joined Mukumu Girls’ High School and later joined Kianda College, Nairobi, for business studies.

She studied computer programming and French at Nairobi University before joining Kenya Institute of Administration for a course on ICT management.

She has worked at several companies, including the Cotton Lint Seed Company Marketing Board and Transworld Airlines.

In 1977, she joined General Motors as a secretary and in 1985, she was employed by Shelter Afrique in the same capacity.

She joined Kenyatta University, where I first encountered her as personal secretary to the chairman of the Department of Early Childhood Education at the end of the century. She retired in 2006 to concentrate fully on music.

In her private life, Gertrude Mwendo married Alex Anyika in 1977, and together they nurtured a family of three children. In her departure, this great lady of songs, also known as Gertrude Anyika, leaves behind not only a grieving family but a nation mourning the loss of an artiste whose melodies resonated with the heartbeat of Kenya.

Despite her remarkable voice and contributions, she lived a life of financial hardship and obscurity. The stark reality is that an artiste who sang eloquently about culture and resilience faced the same challenges she sang about.

Her story underscores the urgent need for systemic change and increased advocacy to uplift and honour local musicians, who are the essence of Kenya's cultural identity.

In the face of her musical legacy, the plight of local musicians in Kenya is an alarming reflection of the systematic neglect and dwindling support from both the government and industry stakeholders.

Despite contributing to our national cultural richness, these artistes often find themselves navigating a landscape marked by underfunding, insufficient infrastructure and a lack of comprehensive policies to nurture and promote local talent.

The music industry, a cornerstone of our national identity, is fettered by the absence of robust financial backing and a dearth of mechanisms to protect artistes’ rights, stunting the growth and sustainability of the very voices that echo the nation's soul.

As we celebrate and mourn her in equal measure, let us remember her not only as a musician but as a custodian of culture, an advocate for societal awareness and a witness to the endurance of passion across the ambiguities of Kenyan life today.

May her melodies linger in our hearts, inspiring generations to come, and may the soul of Gertrude Anyika find eternal peace in the realm where music transcends earthly confines.

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