Swimmer Dunford finding his feet in the music industry

Dunford did not see music becoming part of his life as a career.

In Summary

•His father, Martin Dunford was also a swimmer of no mean repute, representing Kenya in his youthful days.

•Now, Jason, stage name ‘Samaki Mkuu’ is looking to ruffle the waters in the music industry 

Jason Dunford of Kenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men's 50m butterfly finals during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi October 6, 2010
Jason Dunford of Kenya celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men's 50m butterfly finals during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi October 6, 2010
Image: /FILE

Jason Dunford is synonymous with swimming in Kenya, where the 33-year-old was the biggest fish in the pool for close to a decade.

Alongside his younger brother David, they went on from one triumph to another, winning multiple medals at the African swimming Championships, All African Games, Commonwealth Games and even for Jason breaking an Olympic record.

His father, Martin Dunford was also a swimmer of no mean repute, representing Kenya in his youthful days.

Now, Jason, stage name ‘Samaki Mkuu’ is looking to ruffle the waters in the music industry with two upcoming albums that will feature household names in the Kenyan music scene, Jabali Afrika, Nazizi and Sanaipei Tande among others.

To show just how eager Dunford is to succeed as an artist, it took him, Jabali Afrika and Stevie Gee just a few days to compose and release a song about the global Coronavirus Pandemic which has already attracted thousands of hits on YouTube.

Like his grandfathers, both of whom fought in the Second World War, Jason is determined to make a contribution to the success of the war against the ‘invisible enemy’—Covid19.

“My third album has songs of a serious nature addressing some of the topics afflicting the world. Things that are hard for the world to confront but that we have to deal with if we have to move forward as a global community. Of course, right now the covid19 is the main focus of everything we do but we must not forget about the other issues out there,” explained Dunford on the songs featuring in the yet to be released album ‘Unified-Un Ultimo Ulimwengu’ which features Mexican missionary turned artist Romantico (real name Edgar Gaegos), and Congolese singer Yawezekana Strong among others.

Despite having performed as part of a band singing and playing the clarinet in his school days, Dunford really did not see music becoming part of his life as a career. That was until he met Romantico who was his collaboration partner in his first album.

Dunford narrates: “I had actually heard him (Romantico) on the radio being interviewed by Shaffi Weru. I thought from a journalist (he was working for the BBC) perspective that it was a good story as to what he had been able to achieve coming to Kenya as a missionary from Mexico and how he was trying to spread the good word through music.”

Romantico, who had broken into the Kenyan music industry with his track ‘Mkora’ invited Dunford to do a song and the rest is history. “For me, the initial song I thought was going to be a bit of fun. I thought why not let me see if I can do this,” recalls Dunford.

Their first track together with Romantico, ‘Mbaya’ came out to very good acclaim across the nation, leading to a collaboration with legendary Genge rapper Jua Cali for the song ‘Baila Baila’.

Further collaborations ensued. ‘Chikicha’ with Munju Reh, ‘Tabasamu’ with his journalist colleague Peter Mwangangi and Tiki Tiki with Prince Amani among others.

However, according to Dunford, his greatest hit yet is ‘Namba Yako’ a collaboration with Zambian hitmaker Roberto, the artist behind the dancefloor hit ‘Amarula’.

“It’s our biggest hit to date. In the first month after release, it attracted 160k hits on YouTube. It really is the track that has gotten my music career to the next level and I am getting a lot of international interest from record labels,” enthused Dunford.

Born on November 28, 1986, at the Nairobi Hospital as the second son of Martin and Geraldine Dunford, Jason was always destined for greatness if he followed the path set out by his parents and grandparents.

His paternal grandfather Michael Dunford migrated to Kenya in 1946 after serving in the British Army across the Middle East during World War 2. His grandmother, Clere Dunford who was born in Alexandria, Egypt spent World War 2 in London as one of the first female chemistry students.

“She made her way to Nairobi after surviving the German blitz and bombings in London, where she married my grandfather and my dad was born,” said Jason. His maternal grandmother Ruth Abraham was the daughter of Abraham Block, who built Block Hotels. Block had fled the persecution of Jews to settle in Kenya. Jason’s older brother, Robert who is 18 months older, works in Johannesburg as a currency/bond trader while David the last born is a Financial Technology Expert in San Francisco, California.

Dunford’s parents set their children on their way to becoming independent by taking them to the best schools available.

“I went to Kenton College for my primary education between 1993 and 2000. Here, I had some great teachers like Maurice Ominde and Peter Orwa who taught me tennis. I, thereafter, attained a sporting and academic scholarship and proceeded to the Marlborough College in the South West of England where Kate Middleton, the wife of Prince William, attended.” recounted Dunford.

It was while in College in the United Kingdom, where Jason honed his skills in the pool. “While still in Kenton, Andrew Nderu urged me to take up swimming but it was Peter O’Sullivan who had been a swimmer for Great Britain who really made me focus seriously on swimming,” recalled Dunford.

As a 16-year-old student then, he studied Further Mathematics, Biology and Chemistry attaining top marks in all the subjects. By then, his swimming had improved a lot and he got a scholarship to study at Stanford University.

“Other top swimmers across the US had equally gotten scholarships to Stanford, so I was not the best swimmer. But it is while here that I broke out as an international level swimmer.

Dunford would first represent Kenya at the 2006 African Swimming Championships in Dakar, Senegal, becoming the first Kenyan swimmer to win a continental medal when he claimed gold in the 100m butterfly and the 50 m backstroke.

He became the first Kenyan swimmer to qualify for the Olympics as previous participants had done so through wildcards.

Three more gold medals followed at the All African Games in Algiers in 2007. At the Olympics in Beijing 2008, he set a record of 51.14 in the butterfly. The record was swiftly erased by Milorad Kavic and subsequently former holder Michael Phelps. It was at the Beijing games that he broke the national record at 100m freestyle (49.06).

“My father was the first Kenyan to break the one-minute barrier in the 100m freestyle. I was the first to break the 50-second barrier. I hope that one day my son or daughter will break the 40-seconds barrier. We will see how it progresses,” laughed Dunford, who married college sweetheart Lauren Finzer in 2014.

In 2009, he graduated with a BA in Human Biology and completed his MS in Earth Systems, and in 2016 he returned to the same campus, graduating with his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in June 2018.

Dunford retired from the pool in 2014 having won Commonwealth gold in New Delhi 2010, AAG gold in Maputo 2011 along with a host of accolades that culminated in him being honoured with the Order of the Golden Warrior (OGW) by Rtd. President Mwai Kibaki.

Dunford is now in the business of digital music distribution which has become a little more tricky due to the coronavirus pandemic that has made it impossible for gatherings to take place. He also partnered with a businessman in Ukambani for a farming project.

“It’s still early days in my farming project but I hope it will become a revenue generator in the long term,” he said.

His stage name ‘Samaki Mkuu’ was given to him by swimming team-mates from Mombasa.

“I got an opportunity to swim with guys from the Swahili coast, Ramadan Vyombo and Hamdan Bayusuf because Mombasa is the centre of Aquatic excellence in Kenya and through that culture, they nickname me ‘Samaki Mkuu,’ due to our experience in the pool,” relived Dunford.

Dunford considers Phelps, Cavic, Chad Le Clos, Ian Crocker, Andrew Lauterstein, Roland Schoeman and Geoff Huegill as some of his greatest rivals in the pool.

Danilo Rosario, Nobby Obuya and Rebecca Kamau are considered the greatest swimming prospects in the country. He keenly follows Kenyan swimming and cites the current break brought about the covid19 threat as an opportunity for everyone involved in the sport to take stock and realise that we are behind the curve when it comes to the development of swimming in Kenya.

“We have to look at other nations and see how they have developed their swimming programs, infrastructure and how it creates not only a tonne of jobs but it moulds children into world-class humans. Let’s face it, swimmers who get to their highest levels tend to do very well in life. There is a strong correlation there, especially from what you have seen because of the discipline that swimming teaches,” advised Dunford.

He further urged that the youth swimming culture that is emerging across the country should be tapped into and nurtured.

“We have to ensure our public facilities are accessible to everyone and well maintained. Someone has to sit down and think about the revenue model for a swimming pool and how to make it work.”

“Currently the facilities at Nyayo and Kasarani are not run in the optimal way they should be to generate revenue. If they are run in such a way, there will be no problems with cash flow to maintain them,” he added.

Dunford, who looks up to historical figures like Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Wangari Mathai and Barrack Obama added that for these projects to be gainful, government support will be required and corruption will have to be rooted out.

“Corruption is a killer. Corruption is killing everything if value. Without corruption, standards of living will improve and people will get what they deserve for what they have done. The key thing is corruption needs to stop now,” he asserted.

Dunford also delved into the current Kenyan music scene which has been chastised for lurid contents that encourage promiscuous behaviour.

“A balance needs to be struck between allowing artistic expression but also keeping society safe, especially more vulnerable people. So for me, some songs just talk about life for youth and highlight their very real issues and bring them to light so we can be made aware and work to make things better as a society. But others who condone any sort of violence, I stand very strongly against,” observed Dunford.

Dunford, who is currently based in California, revealed he is putting the release of his next two albums on hold due to the coronavirus threat but plans to return home for a music tour to show his compatriots that he can stay afloat in the cutthroat world of music.