Jean Kidula: The Rise of the Religious Music Industry in Kenya
Jean Kidula is a Kenyan musician and professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles on topics in Kenyan music and history. For this program in the Hip Deep series, she shares her experiences researching the ways in which gospel music evolved from a missionary import, using foreign languages and musical systems and techniques, to become an indigenous Kenyan music. Dr. Kidula spoke with Afropop Worldwide’s Siddhartha Mitter on January 11, 2008.
Siddhartha Mitter: Tell me about your own personal and intellectual background, and what drew you to do this research on the development of gospel music in Kenya.
Jean Kidula: The actual research into this topic came more as a way to test a theory that I was interested in, regarding what people did in ethnomusicology and what people thought musicology was and thought ethnomusicology was. So most people who I was working with were very uncomfortable with the idea of ethnomusicology, because at that time I was on staff at Kenyatta University, but I was a student at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). When I was thinking about a topic for my dissertation I was most interested in music analysis, and so I was going to do something that was traditional music analysis: look at a regular composer, see how to work with that composer and the kind of music that he did. Then I started to think, most people who think about ethnomusicology where I come from think that it’s a really ugly word because they understood it as the study of the music of non-western cultures, and looking at the strangest things that you could find in those cultures. And that definition was being challenged by a lot of things, by people of non-Western origin saying, “Our music is not weird, it is regular music, just the same way as Western music is regular music.” So I decided, let me look at something that I am extremely familiar with the way a musicologist does. They usually work with material they are familiar with that maybe they have even grown up in, instruments that they have played, repertoire that they have played, and I grew up the daughter of an administrator, a church administrator – I think my father was a pastor too but he didn’t have a church. So I was growing up more around a lot of things that had to do with Christianity. And because of my father’s and my mother’s jobs as educators – both of them had started off as teachers before they got into working with Christian churches – before they got into that, they had worked with children, and they made up songs, and every time they made up songs, they would try them out on their nine children. And we would learn not just the words but different parts of the song, so we learned to sign in harmony a lot.
So when my father and my mother got involved in church work, they started to take us with them, demonstrate what they were doing, working with children and working with young people. Eventually my older sisters formed a singing group, they were called Kidula Sisters. My younger sister and I felt upset because they wouldn’t let us sing with them, because we were like 8 and 10. So one day I stole my father’s guitar and learned how to play some chords that I knew were like common chords, and learned to play them in different keys. So every time they would start a new song I would be there figuring out what key they were in and playing along. One of my sisters had a guitar from school that was little (because we are not very tall people), and so I taught my younger sister how to play that guitar, so there were two of us playing guitar while my three older sisters sang. After a while, it became inevitable that they had to go with us because we had made ourselves an indispensable part of the accompanying troupe. By that time I was 12 and my younger sister was 10. And the year I turned 14, we made our first recording that was broadcast on Kenya airwaves for many, many years. And that is part of how I got involved with that genre of music. That’s one side of it.
So when I decided to study it, I knew that I was studying something I was very familiar with, in terms of different kinds of songs that we had invoked in order to make a set for our recording, which included hymns, gospel songs, African songs, Swahili songs, songs in our language, just about anything, and that the public had embraced those songs – because the cassette we made didn’t really sell anything, it was just for the airwaves.
S.M.: Roughly what time period was this?
J.K.: That was in the mid-Seventies.
S.M.: And you were growing up in Nairobi?
J.K.: I actually wasn’t growing up in Nairobi which made it all the more interesting. I was born in a little village, in my father’s living room, and grew up there although I spent a lot of the year at a boarding school in other parts of Kenya.
S.M.: What part?
J.K.: In Western Kenya.
S.M.: Did you feel that music and worship were very deeply intertwined?
J.K.: It was what we did. It wasn’t about feeling it, that was what we did. It wasn’t even that music was a part of worship around Christianity–music was just a part of life. So it didn’t matter if it was Christian music or if we were singing songs in Maragooli (which was our language), or if we were involved in ceremonies with our neighbors across the street, who were from a different language group. They would have their ceremonies and we would learn their songs. We would get involved with them. It was not about music– it was just embedded in life.
S.M.: What kinds of songs were you performing?
J.K.: We performed anything from English anthems to regular Anglican hymns to Pentecostal Gospel songs to African spirituals to a genre called Makwaya which is like choral music. We performed anything that we could lay our hands on.
S.M.: Did that include secular music?
J.K.: Oh yeah. We did that too.
S.M.: What were the big musical influences that were around at that time in the culture, on the radio, and around you?
J.K.: Apart from the different music that was part of the ethnic and ritual life, there was Congolese music on radio, there was country music, there was R&B, Indian taraab, and Arabic taarab. At Christmas we would actually have whole programs that were like Hindu religious songs. That was so weird but that was part of Christmas music in Kenya at that time. South African kwela, benga, anything, you name it.
S.M.: So this was the milieu that you grew up in, and you wanted to test a hunch by applying these academic tools to the familiar.
J.K.: Yes. So that people would stop thinking that when you do ethnomusicology, you have to be a stranger to the music in order to actually study it. You can actually be extremely familiar with the music as a musicologist and explore it.
S.M.: This was at a time when you were doing your degree in the U.S but teaching at Kenyatta University.
J.K.: Yes. I was a member at Kenyatta University but I was on leave, on study leave doing my PhD.
S.M.: So as you began to do this research, what were the first things that you did to launch this program of applying these methodological tools to this very familiar musical world?
J.K.: When I started thinking about it, I went home to Nairobi every summer when I was in graduate school because I just got homesick. So I saved up all my money during the year and starved in order to go home. And one of the things that I always did when I would go home is I would sometimes teach at the University. I taught European classical music, but at the same time I was involved with one of the biggest churches in Nairobi at the time, the Nairobi Pentecostal Church, as their choral director. It was kind of a church that worked with a mixture of whatever was contemporary in Europe and the United States as well as whatever was contemporary in Africa anywhere. That was the kind of repertoire that I worked with there for the church. I also started talking to the producer, Karanja Kimwere, of a program called “Sing and Shine.” Since he had started this program in order to showcase African gospel musicians, I talked with him to see if this was a viable project. And so in talking to him, he introduced me to a set of gospel musicians who were working with his program, and actually told me who to talk to and who not to talk to in order to understand how the program worked.
So I did that for two summers and the next summer that I came, I had to do in-depth research with the people that I had been talking to over the last two summers. They also kept in touch with me while I was in school because they thought that it was interesting that anybody would be interested in this program. Since they kept in touch with me I had become very familiar with all of them. My familiarity and fascination was compounded by the fact that people were buying this music that was being showcased on Sing and Shine, and the people who were making it were just regular people who didn’t have much money. But then they started marketing it on the program and all of a sudden they were becoming millionaires. And that was unheard-of in the African situation– that people would actually make money out of music like that, because the secular popular musicians who had tried it had not succeeded very much. I was fascinated that people would decide to buy this religious product. I was trying to find out what makes people buy this product that some people think it’s not very African, but at the same time it is African. And it was confusing to even my professors. Why would people want to buy Christian music, especially Africans? But it was a fact that people were actually buying it! And when I went to do my interviews, instead of me taking care of the people I was interviewing, they would say “We know you work at the university so you have very little money. So let us treat you.” Although I did not have funding for the project, they actually funded me by taking care of me, literally because they were just shocked that anyone would want to study them…. and they were making four, five times more than I was making. That was funny.
S.M.: And this was the mid-90s?
J.K.: Yes, the mid-90s.
S.M.: So if I’m an American listener and I hear the term gospel music, I think about certain kinds of music. The word gospel music in the African context–the Kenyan context, how different is it from what my narrow imagination of gospel music is? What is called gospel in the African context?
J.K.: OK. Well just talking about the Kenyan and Tanzanian context. When I first started researching this music they used to tell me just that these are Christian songs. The term gospel just was applied to it when it started being marketed aggressively. So it was applied more as a marketing term than anything else. When you think about Christian music in the context of African understanding of Christianity, which is a very, very broad idea, then it opens up a different possibility, because you have to think about Christianity in the broader sense as the religion as portrayed as coming out of Jewish roots and the ways that it has been commodified by different communities as their own. So you have to think, how did Africans make Christianity their own? And from this, what are the kinds of musical expressions that result from doing that. So you have to start there. And one of the beginnings of it is a strong root in the Europeans and Americans that proselytized the Africans. There will be hymns, and any other kind of music that comes out of European and American traditions. So you have hymns, anthems, masses, name it, you will have that there. It’s bigger than thinking gospel the way it’s heard here. When you think about gospel here, as the American product that comes out of the Great Awakening, or the different Great Awakenings of the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, it’s a different feeling.
S.M.: So let’s trace that history. Let me ask you to situate the missionary encounter, the first phases in Kenya. What time period, what kinds of missionaries, who are they encountering?
J.K.: This is a long history. The first encounters were actually Catholic, by the Portuguese in the late 15th century. But the impact was not greatly felt because they couldn’t move inland. There was an Islamic sultanate that was set up in East Africa that kind of overruled the Portuguese influence until the 19th century. And that’s when the interior of Eastern Africa was really first approached, first by church missionary societies, of the African Inland Mission coming out of England and the States. German missionaries were actually in the forefront. There was a German called Kraft who is actually credited as being one of the first to open a door for East African Christianity. But he was affiliated with a British mission society, so you have a German with British backing. This is in the mid-19th century. But you also have to remember that there are people like Livingston and Stanley who are doing other work coming from down South. That’s another strain…. you are going to find different strains in East African Christianity. There are Lutheran and Anglican strains, but also Roman Catholic, because even though the Portuguese had come earlier, you also have other French and Germans… and you have Catholicism also established. So you have Catholics, Lutherans of different kinds: German Lutherans and Scandinavians and it was just a whole mixture of people coming in there.
S.M.: And you mentioned there were also missionaries coming from the United States?
J.K.: Yes there were missionaries from the United States; some of them came under the auspices of the British organizations. And some of them came because of the Great Awakenings that had happened in the States and people felt that they had to go out and evangelize. So you had Quakers and other groups coming in. You really have a hodge-podge of religious understandings and musical understandings as well. It’s really mixed.
S.M.: And these people established themselves all over inland Kenya?
J.K.: Yes. But at the beginning of the 20th century – at first when they came they assumed that all Africans spoke the same language. So they assumed that if you speak Swahili you will be able to get up anywhere. Then they started discovering that there are lots of different languages. And so in order to missionize properly they decided to divide themselves up so that different groups went to different parts of Eastern Africa. For example, American Assemblies of God went to Tanzania and the Canadian Assemblies of God went to Kenya. They divided themselves up like that. And so when they go to these different countries they just don’t go everywhere. The Canadian Pentecostals went to a particular part of Kenya to work with a particular ethnic group. But this came about because they met in 1905 or 1906 or earlier and decided to subdivide their endeavors that way. So if somebody had already gone to work with the Kikuyu in a particular part of Kenya, another missionizing organization was not supposed to go there. They were supposed to go somewhere else. So you find there are a lot of Anglicans among the Luo people; you find the Catholics didn’t care, they just went everywhere. You will also find Catholics everywhere; the Protestants divided themselves up. You will find the Methodists among the Meru; among the Kikuyu you have also Anglicans but more Presbyterians from Scotland. Among the Luyia (depending on which Luyia group you go to) you will find Quakers, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, depending on where they went. So when I go to a school in an area that is Luo, I will be exposed to Anglican repertoire. But where I grew up, I was exposed to Pentecostal repertoire. That’s why when we made our singing group were able to sing all kinds of songs, because depending on where my sisters went to boarding school, they learned different styles of music.
S.M.: Does Pentecostalism enter the picture later than some of these other denominations?
J.K.: The State church was Anglican of course. But the actual proselytization happens around the same period. But you have to imagine that some places are closer to the coast than others. Those that are closer to the coast will be evangelized first because you have to move through the Kenyan savannah to get to another side where you can settle, and that took some time.
When you read the history of those missionaries, it’s confusing, because one person could be a missionary with one organization, fight with another missionary and then move to another organization. So that history also confuses people because that happened. A lot of the time you have these things being established at the same time.
The visibility of the music will be different. Because the Anglican church is the state church, you hear a lot of Anglican music on the radio when there’s a broadcast during the colonial period. But as more people get involved in radio broadcast, more organizations get involved in radio broadcast, and it really diversified. But the Anglicans were the state church. They are not the ones who started the radio broadcast. It was started by the African Inland Mission. They are the ones who set up recording studios for Christian music. So while you might have a live Anglican service, the African Inland Mission studio who have a mixture of hymns and gospel songs will also have that on the airwaves.
S.M.: So let’s talk about the early repertoire. The very beginning of the transformation. The missionaries arrive with a certain repertoire and that music almost easily becomes adapted in response to the local setting.
J.K.: Let me use some examples. The African Inland Church set up recording studios in a place called Kijabe so that they could record sermons to reach different African groups. They tried to set up the studio in such a way that they broadcast not only in English or in Swahili – which they were trying to nationalize as a national language…
S.M.: And sorry to interrupt, but situate us in time again.
J.K.: OK, this is in the 1950s. Before that, whatever had been happening was mainly translated hymns. But even the translated hymns, if you can’t sing a certain note you would change it to fit what you were singing. That had already worked like that. But getting onto the commercial side or the mediated side a little bit more, because the other part was much more evangelistic, they would go to a place and teach people a hymn. The same hymn taught to a Masai -speaking congregation might sound very different to the hymn taught to a Kikuyu congregation, because they have different musical systems. So they will adjust them to fit their musical system. Those people are actually interesting pioneers because they set up the studio and wanted Africans themselves to preach and sing themselves. The missionaries would go out and record people wherever they found them. Having rehearsed them, or the people having rehearsed themselves. And then they would come back to the studio and make the program, send it to the main broadcasting house in Nairobi, the government-owned broadcasting station who would now air it.
The interesting part for me doing analysis and growing up is that sometimes I would listen to a hymn, and it would sound like something that I know, but it sounds different. Because it’s sung in a different language, they have intoned it in different ways from what I am used to intoning, in the way that it was translated into my language.
S.M.: So what medium were they working with? Were they pressing gramophone records?
J.K.: They had reels as far as I have understood. I have details of the actual machines they used because they were very careful to detail the kinds of machines they used when they were recording. By the 1960s they had 33s or 45s. I found those when I was doing my research. But before that they had 78s! Those I haven’t been able to play because nobody owns a 78 anywhere on this campus [UGA]!
S.M.: Where did you find those 78s?
J.K.: I found them in the studio. I went to the studio, I was trying to find earliest sources of music, and I was taken to this room, that they have put everything that they used to have before in one room. It’s a really, really dusty room and I was asked to go through it and take anything I wanted. In the old Kijabe studios that were set up in 1956.
S.M.: By the African Inland Mission? It’s fantastic.
J.K.: Yes it was.
S.M.: And you were probably the first person to dig around there in a long time?
J.K.: They were laughing at me because they were not understanding why someone would be interested in such a thing.
S.M.: So have you been able to listen to the 78s?
J.K.: I haven’t been able to listen to the 78s.
S.M.: So you don’t know what’s on them?
J.K.: I don’t know what’s on them, but they have headings like, this hymn is in Masai language, and it was pressed in 1935 in Los Angeles. That’s what’s on the reel itself, that’s what I have but I can’t play it.
S.M.: You said that before the 1960s it was much more evangelistic. We’re going to move to the commercial period but what should we know about the pre-commercial phases of the growth of this music. Did this repertoire upon arriving in Kenya and being transformed, did it grow through evangelization and take on new forms very rapidly? Or was there resistance? What kind of milieu did it grow in prior to commercialization?
J.K.: That history has many, many strains. There are some churches where you were not allowed to change the tune or text from what was written in the hymnbook. You did have some groups that did that. They just sang what they were taught by the missionaries, however they had interpreted it into their own intonational systems. It doesn’t mean that people didn’t sing exactly as the missionaries taught. There are some instances where they sang exactly as was taught. So there are things going on side by side. But as early as 1906, 1907 from the research that I’ve done, you have Pentecostal groups or breakaway African churches who in their understanding of Christianity begin to make their own songs in their own systems. These songs are sung by particular groups a lot, or they are sung by members of the ethnic groups when they have rituals or other things like that as part of the collective repertoire of that ethnic group.
And some of them, they are called Songs of the Spirit in some of the languages, because people would be praying and they would spontaneously break into song, and as they broke into song people would learn the song, and then there are many different avenues by which they were tested by church leaders or others before they were accepted into the collective repertoire of that church. And in my research I found interesting things that would happen. People would listen to it and try to find out if it was actually in line with what they believed. Or they would listen to whoever was singing it to find out if this person was a reputable person, or find out what the family of that person is.
Like one example of an instance that gave me great mirth was the story of a man who was from a family that in that culture was known as thieves. And so everybody knew this was a family of thieves. And so this guy converted to Christianity and during one of the church sessions, they would have evangelistic meetings, and during one of the sessions he got a song of the spirit. And he started singing and people listened to it, and they looked and they saw that it was the village thief! Now they didn’t know what to do with the song or the person. They were not sure if he was going to stop the family profession. Because if you lost anything in the village that was the first place that you would look. That was the village thief. So one of the ways that they resolved it was, the song had theological content that they felt was in line with what they did, so they adopted the tune of the song and they changed some of the words. But they didn’t fully accept the man into the membership of the church, because they decided to wait and see if he would go back to his thieving ways. So they compromised there somehow. They compromised with him, because they accepted his song but they altered the song a little bit.
S.M.: How did you find these stories that go back to the first half of the 20th century?
J.K.: I interviewed church members and they told me stories that they had heard, they had been told. Others, with some of the groups that I was researching, like I researched the Quakers and the Pentecostals, they had a publishing house, and so they had magazines that they produced, even AIC as early as 1912, 13, 14, they would produce readers. Missionaries were also educators, and they were trying to write the Bible in African languages, and educate the public so they would be literate. Because they were also educators, they wrote down all kinds of things in African languages, but they also wrote, reported to their sending agencies telling these stories. So there are journals, readers where these stories are, very, very interesting sources that I have found. One of the interesting places I have found resources was actually at the Library of Congress. I went there one day and they had this room. They didn’t know how to sort out the stuff but they said they had been given this stuff by people who had been working in Africa. I went looking through it and I found readers in my language from 1917. I was extremely shocked. Teaching people orthography, all that stuff, how to read and things like that.
S.M.: In your language which is…?
J.K.: Maragoli. So that was interesting for me, so I looked around there and then compared it with – a lot of churches and missionary organizations have archives. So I had been to some archives and found some things. And I also found some things in the Berlin archive, because during World War I and World War II there were POWs from different parts of the world, and some of them would be in Germany or in German East Africa. And they were recorded for reasons other than what you would think – they would try to mentally look at them – there are kinds of interesting stories about why people would interview them and record them – so I found stuff in the Berlin archives, it was very interesting, from prisoners of war who would say where they came from.
And then you have to remember that radio started in Kenya in 1928/1929, for the sake of the colonialists wanting to have contact with each other because of the spread of the country. But during World War II they recruited some other Africans, they formed carrier corps of Africans, and so in order to inform families where these people were, or for soldiers to send greetings to their families, they allowed them to have programs that targeted African populations.
S.M.: I was going to ask you whether the fact that Kenya was a settler colony and had a large number of European settlers contributed to the development of this infrastructure?
J.K.: It definitely did because it was supposed to be like South Africa initially. So the settlers intended to stay there for ever. So the African population sometimes were moved out into reserves, and you know about that Mau Mau stuff in central Kenya, but in other parts of Kenya they were contained in reservations. There’s a lot of talk about tribes, but one of the reasons there are these ethnic boundaries is because the colonists wouldn’t let them move beyond what they thought was not their land. They wouldn’t allow them to move around. So in order for these people to communicate with each other they set up radio. That’s why it was set up so early.
S.M.: It sounds like the Berlin Conference – was there any sense of competition among the different denominations, competing for souls, or does that happen much later?
J.K.: It was not so much competing for souls as it was competing for territories of influence. So in my reading it’s like, sometimes there would be a group that would come and establish themselves somewhere, and then they would discover that somebody has already been there. So they had to negotiate, and say this is our territory and you need to move. And sometimes they would move and sometimes they wouldn’t. But it was something that they actually sat down and talked about. So the equivalent of what was is now the National Christian Council of Kenya—actually the name was changed to the National Council of Churches of Kenya…but there was an association of churches that was formed in order to talk about things like that. And from my reading it was actually the Anglicans who didn’t want to be restricted in where they would go. And that would make sense because they were the state church, they were British. And because they were the state church they wanted to have the freedom to go anywhere and set up anywhere. But everybody else kind of agreed to that because there were few missionaries and there were many African languages, so it was easiest to concentrate on learning one African language and then proselytizing that group.
S.M.: In terms of cultural outcomes and musical outcomes that would produce a whole mosaic in which in each region, the music is influenced partly by the flexibility of the denomination and partly by the local musical traditions and systems in the communities in which they operated.
J.K.: That is exactly what happened before people started listening to each other on radio and moving around the country.
S.M.: Then urbanization must mix this whole picture up.
J.K.: I don’t know if it was so much urbanization as, actually, radio.
S.M.: OK, tell me about that.
J.K.: One of the things that radio was used for very early on was to nationalize the people. Because people were different ethnic groups, and they had been put into this country called Kenya. And they really didn’t share a language. The language that a lot of them are learning through school is English, although you also had to learn vernacular, like my parents had to learn to read vernacular first, and then English. But that was earlier on. But radio now brought in the use of Swahili which had been adopted by Germans in Tanzania as a trade language across the board. Germans had popularized it in Tanzania really, really early, when they colonized Tanzania. It was not only Germans who popularized it: It was a trade language in Mozambique, Malawi, parts of Zambia, Tanzania, parts of Congo, parts of Rwanda, Burundi, parts of Uganda, parts of Kenya, and parts of Somalia. So you can see that it was a language that could be understood in many places. And part of the broadcasting on radio allowed people to hear Swahili beyond the Kenyan coast where it was said to be the mother tongue of people along the coastal strip. There are actually people called Waswahili, and that’s their first language. So broadcasting in Swahili really reached more people than the other programs that had been set up that were targeting specific language groups like Kikuyu or Luo because that had also been set up.
When people started broadcasting in Swahili, which had been advocated more as a trade language, more people started understanding the Swahili lyrics and taking them up in their own languages. Radio allowed Swahili to proliferate to other parts of the country and beyond. In fact, in my research, these radio broadcasts were reaching Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Somalia, Comoros Islands. So it becomes a unifying medium, literally.
S.M.: So let’s talk about the musical implications.
J.K.: OK, originally people sang hymns, either in unison or four-part, because that’s what came with the missionaries from Europe and the Americas. Hymns or gospel songs in that kind of style in Swahili, or in whatever language they had been translated to. And the bigger influence begins to happen when on radio you start hearing popular music styles that incorporate the use of guitar. So by the beginning of the Sixties, people start to use the guitar for that kind of singing. The organ was there in some cathedrals or big churches, or the piano. But the guitar became the instrument of preference for these songs because of what was also happening at the same time in the secular world.
One of the earliest choirs that impacted East Africa was a group called Mwanza Town Choir. Mwanza Town Choir was formed in 1958 or 59. It was first formed in order to celebrate I think the 50 years of the beginning of the AIC movement. It was formed in a town in Tanzania called Mwanza. And it was made up of people who were considered the top [musicians] in different churches in that movement. And others who were grafted in because they were considered good singers. They started a cappella, singing without instruments. But by the beginning of the 60s, because of Tanzanian cultural policy, and a lot of immigrants from Congo – the Democratic Republic of Congo – who are well known for their popular music, they got into Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi anywhere, because of the political things that were happening in their country. That was also being heard on radio a lot. These [church] musicians started to adopt the guitar.
In my research this was actually quite interesting because it was not that they necessarily adopted the guitar as a guitar. They adopted a string instrument that could be plucked. It could be a regular guitar or it could be a homemade guitar that they would adopt but they wanted it to sound like a guitar. So they started accompanying themselves on guitar. And a lot of times it was not played like rhythm guitar. It actually picked the melody. A lot of times they would have two guitars, one would pick the melody and the other would play bass. Those are some of the beginnings of how they started having instruments in there.
In a lot of churches people are not allowed to have percussion instruments, but you could have a drum. They might have a drum, but playing drums in the studio because it’s loud, they didn’t like to do that. Since it was a live straight recording, and if you have a drum it’s really loud, it doesn’t sound good. They were interested in the text– in the lyrics. And the early lyrics that I found, if they were not hymns and gospel songs from the places where the missionaries came from, they were Bible stories: the story of Jonah, the story of Paul and Silas, the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Bible stories, because people were not literate, so part of the thing was to educate people what the Bible talks about. And then they would almost always come from that story and one of the verses would be evangelistic. Almost always the form would be a stanza with a refrain, or different stanzas like that. And in one of the stanzas there was almost always an evangelistic dimension, or an application so that you know, when Peter tried to walk on the water he couldn’t walk on the water until he called on Jesus to take hold of his hand. And when Peter called on Jesus he then safely crossed the water. So that’s one verse. Another verse might say, even you if you want to walk through the waters of this life, you have to call out and get hold of Jesus’ hand. You always had the story and then the application of the story, whether it was evangelistic or social.
So the original songs were usually in that form, almost always teaching people what the Bible actually says, because a lot of people who could not read, that’s the only way they knew the Bible. In my village a lot of the women knew Bible stories from song. It became the way in which people learned Bible stories. And a lot of the time they would tell you which part of the Bible it came from, so it would say Ezekiel 5: 6, this part of the story in the song.
S.M.: So this is the kind of material that groups like Mwanza Town Choir were initially working with. We’re talking early 60s, pre-Independence?
J.K.: Not even the early 60s. Starting in the 50s, when they start having these broadcasts, most of the songs are actually like that. Actual words of Jesus or actual Biblical stories with application. And this goes on all the way until the late 70s.
S.M.: Is there a rhythmic dimension?
J.K.: Yeah! That eventually changes of course. At first they do not allow people to play drums but after a while they allow you to play a drum. But you have to play it very carefully, in a controlled way so it doesn’t overwhelm the studio equipment or overwhelm the vocals or things like that. You have to be very careful how you perform it. Very little rattle or shakers or anything like that. Sometimes when I had conversations with some studio people in the late 60s and 70s, I was told that people would come to the studio as if they were coming to church, dressed up completely because they were thinking of the whole presentation. And they would start to sing, because in their church when they sang they would start to move. And of course when you move yourself from the mic there’s a change. And sometimes you can actually hear it in the recording, people would move left and then they moved right and then they stood straight. But these movements actually really start to gain ground in the seventies. But in the 50s and 60s, it was also sinful to move. You were dancing, and dancing for a lot of the cases was like sinful. So people stood straight, like how you stand in a choir that is not going to move.
S.M.: So we have Mwanza Town Choir. What are some of the other figures of that period?
J.K.: Most of that stage, the 50s into 60s, are choirs. So you will have Mwanza Town Choir. MTC is like a choir made up of the best musicians in Mwanza town. But then in the same Mwanza you might have Mwanza AIC choir, which is affiliated directly to the AIC church. And then you have Arusha town choir, and then Arusha Methodist choir. So you have choirs that are made up of individuals from different churches and then choirs that are made up of people from the same church. And one of the more famous choirs of people made up from the same church was AIC Makongoro choir from Tanzania. They used to record in Kenya because Kenya had the better facilities. But you also had Machakos Town Choir, that was pretty big in that time until 1975. So this is the era of the choirs. Whether they are made up of people from the same church or people that are considered the best from that town.
S.M.: It’s a regional market and Kenya had the production facilities.
J.K.: Yeah, and also Tanzania had better established Swahili singers. So you will have Kenyan choirs but they will not sing in Swahili necessarily. They will sing in English sometimes or they will sing in Luo, Kikuyu, Nandi, in Kenyan languages. So there is also that difference between the choirs that came out of Tanzania and Kenya. And because Swahili was more regional and nationalizing, that’s why these choirs gained prominence.
But at the same time you had a few individuals that emerged who were broadcast on the national language programs. And one of the famous Kikuyu singers from this era is a lady called Julia Lucy. She sang – the AIC Kijabe studio broadcast in Kikuyu language, but they also had a program in Kikuyu language, and they would encourage Kikuyu singers. At first she started solo, she would sing in the styles of solo Kikuyu singers who are well known in the fight for Independence. And they would sing in hymn style because that disguised what the song was, but the intonation was in Kikuyu idiom. So when the colonists listened to the political singers, they would think they were singing a hymn, but they were actually singing a revolutionary song. So that’s the style that Julia Lucy began in.
But by the 1950s and 1960s she starts being accompanied by a guitar, and into the 60s and 70s she’s accompanied at times in a Southern gospel style. So you can see that when instruments are introduced, the style changes. When she starts singing in a country style, because she has to adjust to country style.
S.M.: And so someone like her is interesting because she’s the first one you mention that’s an individual as opposed to a choir.
J.K.: Yes, because she was very famous as a singer on the Kikuyu programs.
S.M.: And I suppose she had a congregation that she belonged to?
S.M.: Would someone like her be starting to perform in concert settings?
J.K.: Not necessarily in concert settings but in religious types of events, which is not really a concert. It’s – you know, she would ask to start the song or lead the song, or she would sing out. And people would listen because maybe she has made up a song, and people would listen to it. And you have to remember that when she was being broadcast it was not live. It was pre-recorded in the Kijabe studios and then broadcast on the Kenyan national broadcasting service.
S.M.: So once Kenya achieves independence, independent rule under President Kenyatta, does that have an impact on the growth of this music? Was the government supportive of this kind of development?
J.K.: I don’t know if it was government support as much as the broadcasting station needing programs. From the statistics that I have, the government gave 22 hours in a week to religious broadcasting. Out of those you had Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In Kijabe alone, the AICs had seven hours a week so they filled them up with – they had at leat three totally music programs, whether it was music without any commentary, or music with greetings… Seven hours for one denomination.
S.M.: Do you have tape of those broadcasts?
J.K.: I don’t have them but I know they are available because I’ve talked to the studio managers. They haven’t kept all the tapes. They have kept some of the ones that they thought were amazing. I found footage of Billy Graham when he was in Kenya in 1960. They broadcast that live and talk about it. So they have some of that. There’s an African Inland Mission archive in New York, I have not gone there. So I don’t know what they have, I only dealt with the office in Nairobi.
S.M.: Is there a commercialization in terms of people getting recordings pressed and purchased?
J.K.: Well, most of the time people listened to the radio and learned off the radio. There were people who were pressing but there wasn’t a lot that people could buy. People were afraid to buy Christian music because they felt, how can you buy something that God has given us for free? They really didn’t make money. But there were recordings that were pressed and copies made. The archive that I am talking about where I went, I found boxes and boxes of LPs and 45s that they had pressed, hoping that people will buy. But people didn’t buy. So they were just sitting in boxes. They gave me some of them for free, but – you know, they are from a long time ago. But I also have to mention that in the same time in the 1960s you have a lot of country or southern gospel invading the Kenyan market.
S.M.: Tell me about that.
J.K.: One bookstore in Nairobi that was started in the late 1960s, when I was talking to the owners they said that before they became a bookstore there was another bookstore that was manned by the AIC people; and the people that they sold the most were Charlie Pride, Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, name them, singing those kinds of repertoire, not their secular repertoire but their religious repertoire.
So if you went to Nairobi at that time, because people listened to radio and maybe one person had a record player, they would be playing, like at Christmastime they would be playing Jim Reeves, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” that kind of thing. That was felt there. And I think it was because there were missionaries from the States who were fond of country gospel and maybe they were the ones in charge of the studios, and that’s the kind of repertoire that they found and brought.
And then because it’s gospel, and you also have people like Billy Graham coming in the 60s and others like Oral Roberts. The kind of music they sang were either hymns, or gospel songs. That reinforced the place of American gospel songs in the repertoire. So you start to have also visiting musicians who also come who work in that genre.
S.M.: One of the forces of Christian music is that it creates this motivation for people to visit one another in ways that the secular musicians from those countries might not.
J.K.: That’s true. But also the secular music was there. We were listening to Andy Williams and others on secular radio, because they were also popular at that time. You get into the 70s and Kenny Rodgers is standard fare as well. So it’s not just the sacred side of the country, it’s reinforced by the secular side as well, and put on top of it a ban by the Kenyan government on Kenyan secular musicians developing their product, which had started to gain ground in the 60s because of political reasons…
S.M.: Let’s talk about that – that sounds very significant.
J.K.: Well the ban was – part of the war of Independence was fought through song. So the power of music was such that the government understood that if you want to start a revolution in the country, just give those people air time and they will sing their thing. It was also part of some African worldviews that people spread their news and gossip and everything else through song. So in the 60s, 70s, and 80s the government has periodically banned Kenyan musicians from singing anything other than middle of the road lyrics. Or banned certain styles because the styles themselves suggest war, because people associate the styles with war.
S.M.: But if you were religious you could do your thing?
J.K.: Yes. That’s why I think the religious song found a place that was different than the secular artist. On top of that you have all these migrating Congolese musicians that are coming into Kenya. And we don’t understand Lingala but the music sounds good and we dance to it, so we like the music, not necessarily the lyrics; although when people start understanding the lyrics they’re kind of regular lyrics about love and things like that. So that doesn’t really matter. And then you have country singers who are singing about, you know, I’m going back to Tennessee: who cares where Tennessee is, but it sounds like an exotic place. So you also sing I’m going back to Tennessee, and you don’t know what you’re singing about but you don’t care, the government doesn’t care because they know you don’t know where Tennessee is and you don’t understand the significance of Tennessee in those lyrics. So they allow those on the airwaves. Because the radio was government owned, and there was only one licensed radio station, although it had different branches in different parts of the city [sic]. And the national broadcast had one branch in Swahili and one branch in English. So on the English side, we listened to all these American and European musicians mostly. Of course we heard the Beatles, and the American groups that were popular in the 1960s as well. And then on the Swahili side you heard a lot of these Lingala speaking musicians. The statistics I found was that the second most popularly listened-to program by Kenyans were religious programs, and particularly religious music programs. I think part of it was that that was the only music that was really Kenyan. Or East African. The rest of the programs were like these foreign musics. That’s my theory about it. That part of why people listened to it is because it was something that they understood musically, leave alone textually.
Although on radio you were also hearing these American country musicians and things like that. That may have been a factor in why people listened to it. But part of it was the close relationship between the educators and the church, or religious organizations and education, was such that the religious state was also used to socialize and educate people. So the songs were not necessarily just about the Bible. The songs might have been about how you treat your neighbor, or how you live, which might have been lost, or was in the process of transition from the ethnic group telling you what to do, to the national government teaching you how to become a Kenyan. So how do you live with Kenyans from other places? One of the ways you could go was to listen to the religious lyrics that would tell you, when you live with someone who is different, it’s OK. It’s just that they are different. You can’t get them to think the way you want to think, but love them anyway.
S.M.: Let’s turn the corner into the 1980s. What changes?
J.K.: The changes really start in the 70s, with the coming of our country we have people more comfortable singing in English to reach a wider audience of a large educated group who speak a lot of English before Swahili is nationalized. So you have from the end of the 60s a group called – Kenneth Owuor and the Beloved Moving Brethren. They sing country songs, and they compose in English in a country style. But the government is interested in nationalizing using a Kenyan language, and the preferred language is Swahili. So in the mid-70s you have a lot more groups coming up with Swahili songs. You have a mixture of English and Swahili but a lot more Swahili choirs coming up, like AIC Mulango Choir, and then by the end of the 70s, the Muungana national choir, which wasn’t really a religious group, but it was in the same spirit. A group of people from different institutions who are considered the best singers on the national stage and putting together a cassette – well they had a cassette and one of those LPs – you start having joint choirs like those who come together and sing in Swahili And that is part of the process of nationalizing the public. On top of that there was patronage by the government, because they would also sing political songs.
But the big breakthrough that really blends the secular and the religious together with the contemporary is a group called IFC choir. IFC choir is an interesting group because it’s an urban group. The church itself, IFC, International Fellowship Church, was made up of different ethnic groups, which was a move away from what used to happen in cities. Usually when you went to big towns people would congregate, people of the same ethnic group would congregate together, so they would just transfer membership of their church into the city. They might talk in Swahili or in English but most of them are speakers of the same language. But IFC brought together people of different ethnic groups in an area of Nairobi that was kind of middle-middle class. It was not high middle class and it was not lower middle class. It was just middle class like that. And the other thing that they really did, because some of the people had played in secular bands, they had musicians, instrumentalists who understood secular music very well, the styles. It was not so much that it was secular music but it was urban music. People did not think in terms of secular music, but urban music.
S.M.: Which means what in practice? Was it more rhythmic?
J.K.: It means that it was like a fusion of what is coming out of Kenyan popular styles with Lingala styles, with kwela and other South African styles, with Nigerian highlife and Ghanaian highlife, it’s that kind of fusion.
S.M.: But then the lyrical material is mostly religious?
J.K.: Yes. So what IFC took – a fusion of styles from different African countries with different Kenyan styles, which was OK because the people that they were talking to were groups of people who were thinking more nationally than ethnically. It’s that kind of age group that you are dealing with, that have moved away from the rural space into the urban space. They still have strong rural roots but they have transitioned into the urban space and they want to establish an identity as urbanites.
S.M.: So what kind of church is this? A big church?
J.K.: It was not a big church, but it was an ecumenical church, a lot more Pentecostal than anything else. So that meant that a lot of the Pentecostal churches in the early years were well known for the adoption of African types of styles into their congregational repertoire. So these people were doing the same types of things. They were invoking indigenous styles in congregational singing, but modernizing them, contemporizing them to whatever was happening in popular music across Africa.
S.M.: And are these charismatic churches where people are falling out and speaking in tongues as well?
J.K.: Yes, yes.
S.M.: That opens up the performativity even more so, a sense of performance or expression I should say, that’s there?
J.K.: Yes. And the other thing that really made a big difference is that they popularized the notion that the group itself will compose its own songs. A lot of the time people did covers. But they were working themselves to compose their own songs and sing them the way they wanted. So that sense of ownership is different from what happened before, where you are told, you need to tell people the story of Jonah, and you need to do it in a stanza-refrain form. They are moving away from that into their own identity and their own form of expression.
S.M.: Is it fair to say that the IFC Choir is the pioneer of this transition, at least in the Kenyan context?
J.K.: It is probably more correct to say that the person who recorded IFC and put them on Kenyan Radio is the person who recognized what was happening. And who, through IFC, legitimized what was happening in other assemblies. He recognized they had something, and he was actually an engineer at KBC and went to that church. He decided to record them as an engineer at KBC, he had access to ways to publicize the group. And that’s exactly what started happening around 1979, 80, 81.
He ended up starting his own studio because of the popularity of the group. But let me back it up a little bit. With that group, he recognized that the group was good. They had a very tight act that could work well recorded because there were a lot of groups that were not that tight. A lot of charismatic groups, you’ll record them one day and tomorrow they’ll come back completely different, because they improvise a lot. When I talked to the musicians they told me that they also improvise a lot, and whatever the final product was that he decided to do, they agreed with him that that was the best take.
But it was not recorded at KBC. It was recorded Nairobi Pentecostal Church Studios, which were manned by a Swedish guy called Carl Anderson, who had worked with radio in Rwanda and Burundi. So he kind of understood the dynamics of how to work with radio to make that recording, which would then be transferred to KBC. The live recordings that KBC normally did, we listened and watched them because by that time there was TV, the live recordings were not good. But Carl’s recording of IFC, the quality of the recording also sold the product. That’s why I was hesitant to say they pioneered it. Other groups we had seen on TV doing it…
Because he now taught them how to do a product that is marketable, he started getting a lot of people coming to the studio to record there, including secular musicians.
S.M.: What was Anderson doing there?
J.K.: The Nairobi Pentecostal Church started the Canadian Pentecostals had been in Kenya since 1906. And they had a publishing house, and published a lot of material and expanded it to radio in 1959. They also started recording in 1959. But they would record in not-very-good studios and then send the material over to KBC to be broadcast.
In the late 1960s they decided to build a studio at the church. Before that they would just go out to record groups in their own environment or in a classroom. Like when we did a recording with my sisters we were just in an open space that was not soundproof in any way, we were just standing with one mic.
When they decided to build a proper studio they invested in it because they thought it would give them some money. If you read the history of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada they are well known for the investments they make in that way. So it was an investment, and the equipment that they put in that studio was the best recording equipment of that time in Kenya. They were the first studio to have multi-track recording. So when they recorded IFC they had the possibility of having different instruments on different tracks. And that creates better control from what you had before when you weren’t allowed to have a drum, because you couldn’t isolate the drum. I think that’s why they now started to carve that. On top of that they started to build a huge church that was completed in 1986, and they extended the studio facilities into that auditorium, and people would have live takes on the stage, because you could multi-track it.
But in 1978, 79 they were the best studio in Nairobi, that’s why they were recording religious groups and secular groups.
S.M.: So in terms of the market we’re moving to a point where people are prepared to buy religious recordings?
J.K.: They are gradually starting to accept the fact that you can actually buy Christian music, but before that they were hesitant But part of that is because they are now getting products from the US and Europe that they are now buying. So the idea of buying and selling of the product is gaining momentum. And the people who have the means can now. A middle class is emerging who can afford it. Cassette is the big key here. Cassette is easier to afford and you can actually buy them in cassette format.
According to the IFC group, the people who actually started buying their product were the church members, and they were not buying for the sake of marketing, they were buying like a keepsake of the stuff that they do in the church. But they had friends and neighbors from elsewhere who now started buying to have the product.
S.M.: I imagine that at this point in the story there are more individual artists and group leaders who are manifesting themselves.
J.K.: Oh yeah. There are all kinds of groups in Nairobi now who can do that first of all because a need was created for that by these church organizations; there are more studios now, small or large, where people are recording, and they need people to record, so clearly there’s a need for musicians. The problem now is what is a good musical product. And how can you produce a good musical product. That becomes the big question going into the 80s. They are many groups.
S.M.: So what is the cream that rises to the top during the 80s and going forward?
J.K.: The big thing that happened in the 80s was the beginning of color TV in Kenya, I think it started in ‘84, and one of the inaugural programs that was a pilot project on that, was what eventually became the program “Sing and Shine.” That was started by Karanja Kimwere. And he started it, he had just converted to Christianity. He was one of the producers, a TV producer in Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, and that was the only TV [staion] in Kenya at that time. And he decided that he wanted to have a Christian program on TV that was different from the other Christian programs that were showing, because the other Christian programs that were showing were mostly just choirs and maybe schoolchildren groups; like when I was in high school we were on TV a lot, but we were just high school students and people didn’t buy our product a lot. Because the people who could buy our products had no money, our fellow students.
But with “Sing and Shine,” he was not really after creating a commercial product. He was more into how do you produce a good TV program that will educate the Kenyans on how to make good TV production and at the same time get evangelized.
S.M.: So was the model to tape a live performance, or people recording videos?
J.K.: When he first started he did live takes. In fact he collaborated with a religious institution in Nairobi called Youth for Christ. Youth for Christ almost always had groups of rotating young people every year who would go out singing. He liked what they did, so he invited members of Youth for Christ to be the pilot project. Usually they sang as a group. They had three to four singers and then instrumentalists. Usually they sang as a group. But he decided to feature them in different formats. He would have soloists, duets, and then the whole group. But it was a small unit.
And then he also looked for other people in Nairobi who were members of choirs, like Mary Atieno, who was in IFC. Or there was another man who was originally part of a secular group from Congo, but he had converted to Christianity, and everyone always looked for that man because he could play lead guitar as if the world was ending. It was fantastic. So he tried to recruit good instrumentalists to come and accompany the singers to sing a variety of pieces of music.
The original pilot program when I watched it had more numbers in English than in Swahili because his target group was this urban elite types who were the more likely to own TVs and who had been watching TV music programs from elsewhere. He wanted to appeal to that group because he knew if they can watch it then they’ll persuade their parents to watch it, because their parents will say it’s a Christian program, that’s OK, you can watch it, and then they can watch it too. That was the demographic that he targeted.
He also was coming from an offshoot program called Joybringers that was kind of a Christian educational program that didn’t just talk Christianity but politics, any issue would be discussed there. But part of the program included music, and the group that usually provided the music on that program, usually live takes, was the Youth for Christ group. So he just transferred them but reformatted the ensemble type to Sing and Shine. And because he was recruiting known gospel musicians from Nairobi, people watched it. He had a prime time like 6 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, sometimes he had 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon when nobody’s going anywhere after church, or he had 8 o’clock on Sunday night when people are home early because it’s Sunday night, you are in the house. He had these prime times that he showed this program. And then on top of that Nairobi Pentecostal had just built this huge auditorium that was carpeted, it really looked posh, and sometimes he would film his show from there, on the spot like that.
S.M.: So the show must have had a huge impact?
J.K.: It had a completely big impact, and on top of that people started asking for cassettes of the musicians. So people who didn’t have TV wanted the music. So that is how people started making cassettes, to market themselves to people who had no TVs. And that’s how they started now making money off it.
And one of the musicians who became a millionaire, the first gospel musician who became a millionaire was not even a Kenyan. It was a Tanzanian called [Faustin] Munishi. And Munishi’s popularity was partly because of his presentational style, he was very in-your-face about whatever it was that he was singing, but the topics that he sang about were also funny. For instance, he was not a rich man but he had been invited by different churches to sing at their events, the churches, or things that he was doing with evangelistic groups, they would invite him from Tanzania. So he did not have much money and they didn’t pay him very well. So he told me that sometimes he would be hungry for several days because the people forgot that they had not given him money to go back home. So he would just hang around – until he got some money, or visited his friends in Nakuru town or Nairobi town, or wherever he had gone to evangelize, until he got enough and he went home. And one of the songs was so popular that it was sung even in bars by drunk people; it was a song that said, even if you refuse to give me money or clothes, if you will just give me Jesus, I will be happy. Satisfied.
It was not so much if you don’t give me this or that, it was the items that he talked about that were so specific to certain ethnic groups. Like he would talk about, if you refuse to give me mutura – mutura is like a sausage that everybody associates with Kikuyus, when they have a meat roast, a goat roast, they make these sausages. So he would say, if you refuse to give me mutura, or if you refuse to give me fried chicken, which everybody knew in Kenya that the people who really treasure fried chicken are Luyias, he would say things like that. So of course he draws in a demographic, he drew that crowd in by the way he put together his lyrics.
S.M.: And over time, in fact, great riches did accrue to him.
J.K.: Yes. But I have to mention that it was not just that he was marketed on “Sing and Shine.” He became very savvy. He told me that he – a lot of people in Nairobi didn’t really have much money, and so during lunch hour a lot of people would go for a walk in Uhuru Park or Jeevanjee Gardens, which are just outdoor big parks in Nairobi, and he would go there with a cassette player and a bag of cassettes and he would set up shop, he would play his music out, people would gather around him, and he would tell them, “If you want to go home with some of this music, I have some copies for you to sell…”
S.M.: Take us through the next transition. That brings us into the current period. You’ve explained that rap and gospel kind of share the hegemony at this point. Is there an intermediate period?
J.K.: There is really not so much an intermediate period, because when people started seeing that gospel could be lucrative, you had a lot of people getting into gospel music. That’s the late 80s into the 90s. But at the same time you have some very unhappy people at KBC who feel that Karanja has promoted Christian music over any other music in the country. So the management at KBC asked him to create a similar secular program. But at the same time in 1990 a new TV station had been licensed in Kenya called KTN. And they were looking for acts as well, local musical acts. They broadcast CNN, MTV, stuff that was carried there. But they started trying to look for some Kenyan acts. So when Karanja is getting pressure to get a program going that is secular based and similar to the one he has for the Christian groups, the acts that he put together for some reason did not appeal to a larger demographic.
But another guy who was working for KTN decided to market some rap artists that were coming out of the States. Because of the connection with CNN, KTN really was being watched by more high middle class and high class people. So they want the music that is more global. So they start doing – he starts doing that, but most of what he markets is North American rap artists. He just has one or two Kenyans crews that are just starting to emerge. One of the people who was emerging is a guy called Hardstone. The problem was that they were trying so hard to imitate the American counterparts, rap was not resonating with the people they thought it would resonate with. Because first they didn’t identify with the ghetto life, because this was high-end Kenyans in Nairobi, and secondly the music was just too foreign. And thirdly, the general public that was buying gospel, the older people tend to not like new music groups. And rap had a bad reputation, the parents weren’t going to buy it for their kids even if the kids wanted it. The production quality was bad and people did not really identify with the ghetto stuff that was coming out of the States.
It’s only when you start getting rap artists who “Kenyanize” the genre in late late 1990s, that you start getting a breakthrough in rap. It really starts getting into the Christian market in 1999. And the person who made the transition credibly was a guy called Rufftone. And he didn’t really do rap rap. When you listen to his inaugural rap that made big in the market, it’s like a fusion of ragga and rap and stuff like that. So he brings that into the house, and other people start getting into the rap scene in that way.
The other problem is that rap artists aimed at a younger group of people who had no money. People were listening to it because by 1999 you have a lot of other radio stations, private radio stations, that provide an alternative to KBC – so people are listening to rap but they aren’t buying it. In fact when I first started listening to it, I must confess, I did not buy any records because there were no rap records to buy, one, and two, I just dubbed it off the radio if I wanted to listen to it some more. And the rap artists have like one or two songs and that’s all. The gospel musicians have a lot of material. People can make albums with 12 or 14 songs. The rap artists have just one or two numbers, who’s going to buy a whole album? It’s a waste of money. So people are not buying.
It’s only when rap artists start making compilations that they start making money, but they are not even making much money. They are making money more in live shows because they have interesting shows than they are making from the sale of their material. And they are subsidized heavily by the Kenyan Diaspora in the US, England Sweden, Denmark… So you also have that factored in, they are encouraged much more by that group, who also invite them to tour. You have rap artists who tour Europe and the States. And you have a lot of gospel musicians too who have been subsidized by Kenyans in the diaspora. And it’s good money, because you can’t make that kind of money in Kenya even if you tried.
S.M.: So give me a panorama, what is the spectrum of what would be considered Christian music in Kenya today?
J.K.: Christian music in Kenya defies definition. The only thing that anybody can say about it is that if the lyrics are in any way related to the Bible, or if the musicians claim to be Christians and they sing social lyrics, lyrics that are related to Christian theology, then it will be… It’s much more about lyrics than it is about style.
S.M.: So you’ve written that at this point even rap and gospel, the difference could simply be if the rapping is of a Christian nature…
J.K.: If the lyrics are considered Christian lyrics or not, that’s the difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s rap, if it’s country, if it’s house, if it’s ragga, it does not matter what the style is, of the international styles or even of the Kenyan indigenous styles. It doesn’t matter the style, what makes it gospel will probably be related to whether the lyrics are considered Christian religious, or relate to things that are considered rooted in Christian religion, or are social in terms of what is considered good or proper living, or the musicians themselves are people who are identified as Christian.
S.M.: So what are some key artists or groups that we should know about in this context?
J.K.: At the moment, Rufftone has a lot of different people who work with him, who work in the same market, like Gospel Fathers and others like that, you have that whole group who hang like that–who do that kind of thing. Then there are other people who bend more toward South African based styles. And one of the biggest acts in the last two years has been a Tanzanian girl called Rose Muhando. And the big Tanzanian link is always the language and there’s always been a link between Kenya and Tanzania anyway from the beginning, so it’s not really weird that she’s so popular like that. And the last three years also there’s a Kenyan girl called Esther Wahome that has made big money because she markets herself extremely well, she has good CDs and DVDs. I first met her in 95 at Karanja’s studios, KBC studios, in Karanja’s act. At that time she was composing her own songs but didn’t really have the means to market herself. But she has mastered that very, very well. When you look at her videos you can see how she has tried to draw the market by including indigenous Kenyan acts, including children and young people, just a large demography that he [sic] appeals to. She is one of the bigger things…
You also have several different kinds of groups where people come together from different churches and form a group. Some of the groups that are really marketed as gospel are like Voices United Choir: it has a lot of people from different churches and they do a mix of genres and evoke indigenous Kenyan music, songs in indigenous Kenyan languages, as well as English and Swahili, and then have very good studio production. It’s just a lot of different people right now, it just depends on what you like; you will look for what you like.
S.M.: So if you take the totality of what is heard in daily life in Kenya now, the music in the popular culture, how big is the presence of self-consciously Christian music in that?
J.K.: It is big. It is actually less big now than five years ago, because five years ago if you walked on any street in any town in Kenya, you would hear gospel booming out of speakers outside there. But now they have competition and also they have laws about not playing music out loud there. So people do that. There was a lot of music also in public service vehicles, although that has since been discontinued. Although sometimes you get in one of those things and they play. And they will play literally anything from anywhere in the world.
S.M.: This is in the matatus?
J.K.: Yeah, the matatus. They have tried to outlaw it, but some of my introduction to different artists actually used to happen in matatus. You would go there and they would have the latest of anything that was there. I think the people who are producing had certain matatus where they would try to sell certain products and they would give them CDs, cassettes, anything.
The other thing that has happened in the last 5 years is you have a lot of artists who are singing in Kenyan languages apart from English and Swahili. There’s a man who has a large following who performs in Nandi or Kipsigis and he has invoked the music of his heritage as a basis for his compositional style, and when you watch his act… Because most people are now not just producing audio, they’re also doing video. Video is really, really big. The most popular format is VCD. You can buy it anywhere on the street. So you’ll have – there are people who are targeting specific ethnic audiences in that sense.
Let me go back. The intermediary period between when rap became like more overt and when gospel was transitioning, there was a time when there was a format of performance that resembles what happens in a charismatic church, where you have a set of songs that runs for one hour without stopping. And there are people who legitimized this and put it on cassette, you could be in a matatu and that’s all that you would hear, as if you were in a church, in the first section of a church for half an hour, just singing one song after another. The most popular musicians who did that were from a town called Nakuru, and they are called the Mwauras. They are the lead act but they sing with other people. Their style was called Praise and Worship. But it’s subsumed under that Christian music umbrella.
And the other person who did Praise and Worship to become very popular is called Reuben Kigame. He also dapples in reggae and rap and in country and things like that. So between the popularity, the peak in popularity of gospel and the legitimization of rap, you had Praise and Worship taking over.
S.M.: That’s the case here too – we have Praise and Worship as a subgenre in American gospel too.
J.K.: Yes. But the other thing about the Kenyan Praise and Worship, how it was sold, is that you didn’t have songs in just one language. You could have songs in five different languages running one after another like that. So that meant a live take. They would record it like, if you ever go to one of these sessions where the way they are recording live, a huge artist live, like a worship session, they would record it like that. Whereas here, when they do a live thing they will go back to the studio and they will put overdubs. There they wouldn’t. Except there is a church in Nairobi called Nairobi Chapel, it’s probably the fastest growing church in Nairobi, full of upper-middle-class young people who went to that church, and there was a lady there called Mercy who was very well known as a worship leader; and she would have this live take and she would go through 4 or 5 songs – that’s in the mid-90s into the end of the 90s. She was the worship song leader for 2 or 3 years, she was there actually much earlier. She started putting it into a cassette. But as a commercial product the Mawuras upped the take.
So now you have a whole bunch of other people who now work in that medium. And they are also in other languages so you can have a totally English one, or a totally Swahili one, or a mixed one or one in other languages.
S.M.: You started some years ago to deliberately apply these methods of scholarship and study to that which was so familiar to you. This enables you to tell this artistic history and parallel social history. What are some of the big teachings that come out of this experience?
J.K.: I hope I have dismissed the myth that to study music you have to study something that is totally unfamiliar to you, especially when you come from non-Western cultures. When I started this work I had quite a bit of resistance from people who thought I should not study Christianity in Africa, because people did not think that people in Africa thought about Christianity as part of their religious understanding. But Christianity in Africa is like an indigenous religion now. Just as much as Islam or any other religion that exists there now. So people think of themselves as Christian first rather than anything else. That was one of the things that was disturbing for some of my colleagues, who had always assumed that people in Africa think about Christianity as a foreign religion. You can’t know what people think until you talk to them. And that part of the research helped me to understand that.
I also came away feeling like I had opened the door for several other Africans to work in this medium. And I have actually seen a lot more Africans in other countries writing about these kinds of movements that have happened elsewhere. In Zimbabwe, South African, in Ghana… That has opened that door for people to not just write about Christian music but any other music that is contemporary, that has been accommodated or become a part of the world view, has become a part of us. I cannot talk anymore about the synthesizer being a Western instrument, because the synthesizer has African rhythms on it. So I think more about it as a contemporary instrument rather than a Western instrument or an African instrument.
The guitar, I think about it the same way. While it has roots elsewhere it has become such an African instrument in a lot of ways, that people who go to Africa and are surprised to see Africans playing guitar, I usually think, which world do you think they live in? We all live in the same world and are exposed to a lot of similar things. But you have to look and see what do I do with my guitar that is different from someone born somewhere else or brought up in a different culture. How do they interpret what they use from that instrument?
So as an artist myself, I hope other artists from other places where they are not sure how to think about instruments that have become indigenous to them that came from elsewhere, will learn that we as artists are attracted to things that are different, that are maybe exotic, and it is not the privilege of any one culture to be attracted to the exotic. Any artist of any culture has the license to do that. And as mediators of our own cultures we also become the ones who introduce some of these things to our culture, and sometimes they are rejected, sometimes they are accepted. So it’s interesting to study what has been accepted and rejected of the music that goes around the world, by different musicians, and how they shape their understanding of whatever it is they get from other places.
S.M.: Are there dimensions of Kenyan culture and history that you have become attuned to thanks to approaching it through this research?
J.K.: Yes. I have learned that there are many things I don’t know.
S.M.: So that familiar world wasn’t so familiar after all?
J.K.: The familiar world was not as familiar as I thought it was. The assumptions that one goes out when you are doing research are just that– they are assumptions. But when you start trying to dig deeper and see how people think, sometimes you come out with very interesting results.
S.M.: Did you develop insights about how people use music in the practice of their spiritual life?
J.K.: One of the things that I found interesting was that a lot of the theology of the people and ways of living were written in the songs that they sang. And that was different from here [the U.S.] where the message of Christianity tends to be separated from other social messages. So it is a much closer relationship between – I don’t want to say secular and sacred, because those words are so often used as if they were opposite. The profane and the holy might be better words, where you can see this is profanity and this is completely holy. Those are completely different arenas and people recognize those. But the difference between the secular and the sacred in terms of thinking about theology and society, how you live, your life, and how you relate to the supernatural in order to live your life is much closer related in song with the people that I worked with in Kenya. So I found the people whose main goal in their gospel style was to teach people how to live, what to eat, what to do when you are in trouble, it was much closer to life than when I come here and there’s another level of theology and the application of it is much farther from me and more separate than that.
One of the things that I found in the African American gospel music that I studied – sometimes it had lyrics that talked about God and love that could be translated quite easily to talk about filial relationships or even romantic relationships, some people could transfer that kind of thing easily in that way. Whereas looking at what happens with some of the lyrics that I found with some of the Kenyan musicians, I found that the lyrics were more easily translatable to social and political action rather than those kinds of feelings. And I thought that was interesting, that it was easier to convert a Christian song into a political song there, rather than a love song about your mother or your lover. And it was very rare that you found even devotional songs pushing you into other kinds of devotional feelings. It became sacrilegious because of the way they put together the lyrics. It says something about what people think is important in their relationship with the supernatural.