MUSIC

Revisiting rhumba as artistic spirit of social commentary

No amount of artificial intelligence wrought by computers can replace human genius in music production.

In Summary
  • The genre is often apolitical in nature. Appealingly, it extols virtuous living and good human conduct.
  • Reciprocal love and other desirable human values are central themes in rhumba.
Abbeny Jachiga
Abbeny Jachiga

The recent demise of Abenny Jachiga, a popular ohangla maestro, brought to the fore the place of rhumba in Kenyan popular imagination. His popular love song Mano Kasinde has been riding high on the local charts for several weeks now.

His demise in the wake of corona has brought controversy over the cause of death. Youths risked their health and even lives as they protested his chaotic funeral under police guard. Legendary, he was without doubt according to his youthful fan base.

Many Kenyans did not understand the hullabaloo that ensued after his death. The power of the dead musician was both in his personality as an urban legend and in the type of music that made him a hero—rhumba. At 33, Jachiga had made his mark using a genre associated mostly with senior citizens in their sixties and above.

 
 

Variations of this music are locally named: Zilizopendwa, benga or ohangla. Rhumba roots lie in post-slavery culture of the mixed society of Havana, the capital of Cuba, faraway in the Caribbean Sea. Rhumba rose out of poor black communities of Cuba just as reggae did in the same region but in Jamaica.

Cuban society is hybrid. It fuses folk traditions brought by slaves from central and western Africa with aspects of European music. It is this cosmopolitanism that gives rhumba its broad magical tunes and magnetic beat. People enjoy it no matter the language in which it is composed or performed.

Many people, including myself, associate with Jachiga’s music not by the lyrics but by its rhumba tunes. Rhumba became a classic component of popular music in Central and East Africa from the 1960s. Even today it rules the airwaves in Kenya. Many follow the popular TV and Radio shows such as Roga Roga hosted by veteran presenter Fred Obachi Machoka.   

The genre is often apolitical in nature. Appealingly, it extols virtuous living and good human conduct. Reciprocal love and other desirable human values are central themes in rhumba. Love relations form the stage where rhumba crooners serenade their stories and social vision. Abbeny Jachiga was the epitome of this as seen in his hit Penzi Kama Yai.

Jachiga’s rhumba—epistles of reciprocal love are what we need to remember. We have entered a new phase of fighting the coronavirus where Kenyans must love and care about each other to survive.

At the helm of Africanisation movement in the early decades of post-colonial Africa, rhumba rose as a genre to become the vessel of national pride and Black aesthetics. At the helm of this musical season was the Tout Pouissant Orchestre Kinshasa (TP OK) Jazz band from Kinshasa headed by the great guitar master Franco Luambo Makiadi. His band existed in fierce rivalry with the Orchestra Afrisa International band led by Tabu Ley Rochereau also from the DRC.

Aged 51, Franco died in Belgium in 1989 and was given a presidential burial by President Mobutu Sese Seko. His songs such as Mario and Matata ya Mwasi na Mobali are anthems of an entire generation of Kenyans born in the 1940s and 1950s. His nemesis Tabu Ley outlived him by a decade but left behind two indelible monuments in the musical mind of Kenyans.

The first is his hit of all times called Maze. He launched it on his maiden visit to Kenya in 1980. Pundits claim that the Sheng’ exclamation ‘maze’ is a spark left after that fiery full-house performance staged by Tabu Ley. The second monument is his singer-wife Mbilia Bel - a household name in Kenya as are her albums.

 
 

Long after the two rhumba giants died their bands controlled music scenes from Kinshasa to Nairobi and Dar es Salaam for eons. Their protégés exported rhumba into this century and generated other styles such as soukouss. 

Nzele by Madillu System (Ya Jean), Maya by Lutumba Simarro Massiya who died last year and Chandra Dechade by Josky Kiambukuta are golden hits by musicians loved by Kenyans. All cut their musical teeth as members of Franco’s famous band in the 1970s and 1980s. No amount of artificial intelligence wrought by computers can replace human genius in music production even in the 21st Century.

The roots of rhumba are testaments to this view indeed. In Kenya, the Coast and the Lake regions are music mangers par excellence. These regions sired powerful local rhumba such as zilizopendwa and benga. This is the context that partially explains how Abenny Jachiga soared to the height of a colossus by his early thirties. Music is the language of the masses just as it is the aesthetic spirit of its era.

Jachiga’s rhumba—epistles of reciprocal love are what we need to remember. We have entered a new phase of fighting the coronavirus where Kenyans must love and care about each other to survive. On Monday, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s speech extolled this theme as he reopened the country and asked government officials to share the anti-corona campaign with the masses of Kenya themselves. 

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University