It is nearly 40 years since a Bukusu musician Sichangi Wambilyianga recorded Saba Saba, a song that chronicles how the Tanzanian military overran Ugandan army, ran dictator Idi Amin out of town and reinstalled President Milton Obote.
Saba Saba, rendered in Kiswahili, Bukusu and Luganda is the epitome of how music immortalises important events in the history of Luhyia people, whose dominance in Kenya’s music and art industry has never in question.
Wambilianga, from Chwele in Bungoma, captured in the song what could only have been possible in film!
An ongoing study of the influence of Luhyia music and dance – and other cultural landmarks – delivers an interesting finding: Kenya is a “Luhyia cultural colony” by dint of acceptability of its music and dance. Other than song and dance, the influence spreads further through indigenous foods, film, sport and other aspects of performing arts.
Political scientist and former Masinde Muliro University in Kakamega, Mr Peter Waswa Mulesi, has been tracking the ebb and flow the region’s politics and observes that performing arts – music in particular – is a resilient and potent carrier of political messages more than political rallies.
The Luhyia community in western Kenya,, he explains, has distinguished itself as chroniclers of changing politics in the East African nation from the precolonial era through the current political antecedents, which analysts still struggle to define whether is a democracy or ‘ethnocracy.’
Mulesi points out that no political season in Kenya passes without a popular composition from the region that is used to drive political agenda for parties and individual politicians. The influence pervades national celebrations during which popular folk music renditions by military and police brass bands carry the day. The songs played by brass bands on Independence Day on June 1, Heroes Day on October 20 and Republican Day on December 12 reminds the country of the resilience of performing arts in western Kenya.
While Luhyia song and dance reverberate throughout political campaigns with catchy themes, Mulesi says it is ironical that political power has been changing hands between just two communities – the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, with Luhyia just slotting in as court poets – quite literally. Political power and its attendant trappings remain a mirage.
Since independence songs by harbingers of popular Mutivo, Twisti and Rumba genres such as Daudi Kabaka, John Nzenze, Reuben Shimbiro and George Mukabi at some point sounded like alternate national anthems. At some point Tuimbe Pamoja and Kenya Nchi Yetu were signature jingles of news for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (then, Voice of Kenya). This was besides Kenyatta Aliteswa Sana (Kenyatta was tortured), which highlights the tribulations of founding President Jomo Kenyatta went through at the hands of the British colonial government before independence in 1963.
Six decades later, Mulesi – a doctorate candidate – weighs in with an analysis of how the tradition gained traction during the struggle for constitutional reforms and clamour for political pluralism from mid-1980s to date. Mulesi focuses on the Tindikiti genre of the Bukusu subtribe that has now been adopted and modified by folk musicians from the Luo community and rendered as Ohangla.
Tindikiti is an offshoot of Lipala genre, which is universal among the Bantu of western Kenya. It is characterised by rhapsodic instrumentation that is controlled by a short-noted piercing solo guitar.
Mulesi explains, “Since independence, the music scene in Kenya and especially western region has witnessed exponential infiltration by music genres from neighbouring countries. Up to early 2000, Kenya was dominated by bands from Zaire and Tanzania who capitalised on the demand for their music that had found its way into Kenyan through channels that ranged from civil wars and pan-Africanism. Since foreign songs were guitar-based genres, competency on this instrument gave the foreign artists a distinctive advantage. Worse still, linguistic incompetence of the Lingala and Swahili language inhibited the competition and growth of local music in western Kenya.”
Rather than submerge it, the foreign influence did not interfere with the folk music, which has found expression and it is in demand.
The political scientist points out, “Unlike the guitar genre bands where Congo was the powerhouse of African finger styles, instrumentalism by the Bukusu relies on traditional tools such as litungu, silili, luengele, horn and traditional xylophone. A combination of these too have a quasi-rondoic structure whose output unlike the guitar is not static and varies according to the context and wishes of the soloist who packages and communicates to the audience by employing proverbs, idioms, symbolism, riddles and similes.”
Early political mobilisation songs among the Bukusu, he says, were oral historical narratives of the legendary, Elijah Wa Nameme, Masinde Muliro and Kijana Wamalwa that were mainly invoked during circumcision and initiation ceremonies.
“In the struggle for multi-partyism and second liberation in Kenya, the songs featured Moses Wetangula, Musikari Kombo, Mukhisa Kituyi among others. These were mainly natives of the defunct larger Bungoma district who operated within the ambits of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy in Kenya (Ford-K) party,” explains Mulesi.
Music and politics are never strange bedfellows, according to Nigerian researcher and phenomenologist Celestine Mbaegu Chikwuemeka. The researcher says music “plays an indispensable role in the being of Africans at work, in politics, in their socioeconomic engagements, in religious worship, integral development, in their moral life, etc.” Music, he adds, influences economic, social and political development.
“Africans are music lovers and that music features as an indispensable handmaid of any meaningful behaviour and sustainability of the being of any African person whether young or old,” Chikwuemeka says.
For Mulesi, during the 2013 presidential election that Bukusu artists expanded and exported their political mobilisation skills outside Bungoma by composing songs for Musalia Mudavadi’s presidential campaigns on United Democratic Forum Party (UDF) ticket. Webuye Jua Kali Band led by David Baraza in their song, Mudavadi Kovola, took the western Kenya music scene by storm and became the rallying call for the resident and diaspora populations to support Mudavadi’s presidential bid. Indeed, the main output was the region’s collective preference for Mudavadi, amidst the onslaught by major political formations of the time. Other notable popular hits included, Khuhambane – Khube sindu silala – a rallying call for Luhyia’s to unite towards a common destiny.
There were also other songs like Tano Tena, which rooted for the Jubilee party with Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as president and deputy president, respectively.
Political messaging via music is not unique to Luhyia. However, compared to other Kenya tribes, political mobilisation finds a lot of expression in compositions by artistes who have roots in western Kenya. For politicians it is a faster medium of connecting with their target audience and supporters.
In the electioneering period of 2022, there was a proliferation of political mobilisation songs with wide-ranging clientele from presidential, governor, woman representatives, members of parliament (National Assembly and Senate) and members of county assemblies (MCAs).
It was during this time that Opeta Musungu’s songs like Nefwe Wandindi and Khabusie emerged as greatest hits of the moment whose uptake was instant. The popularity off the songs, which enjoyed a lot of airplays on radio, television and social media inspired leading opposition party ODM to retain another Lipala artiste Emmanuel Musindi to do a remix of his folk song Lelo ni lelo (It’s now or never). The latter was so dominant that it became an anthem at all opposition political rallies countrywide. The underlying message was a call to supporters of veteran political leader Raila Odinga to propel him to the presidency – having previously missed out on the coveted perch four times before the 2022 poll.
Against this backdrop, Mulesi observes that Luhyia music is another area of the community’s great contribution to Kenya’s national culture and recreational facilities, and that the Luhyia “are notoriously music lovers and music permeates into all the various aspects of their lives.”
Mulesi has no qualms in stating that Kenya is a “Luhyia cultural colony” but the community does not realise to what levels they have influenced the county’s national character through music, indigenous foods, religious beliefs, film and other areas of humanities.
As a result, he adds, this cultural life of the Luhyia is rooted in their everyday life so much so that it has become part and parcel of their lifestyle. As attested to by television drama, comedy or skits, the Luhyia are by nature jovial, light-hearted, emotional and sensitive to music. Which explains why that during work on the farm or in the house, recreation or suffering moments are punctuated with music.
According to Mulesi Luhyia music is a distinctive cultural characteristic that makes it amenable to political messaging. It binds the community together in pursuit of collective agenda.
As a medium of expression, the don explains, Luhyia music presents an avenue for the understanding of the reality of life from a political perspective.
- A Tell report