Benga music is Kenya’s priceless gift to the world. Benga, an African musical gem, rose from the pleasant guitar melodies strung from the shores of Lake Victoria, and has dominated airwaves and jolly scenes for many decades. The first generation of benga musicians were influenced by Cuban rumba, which found its way to East Africa through a Congolese guitarist and his cousin who were profound pioneer musicians. While benga artistes are celebrated for their immense contribution to global musical cultures; the life of the late Musa Juma, a rumba legend, has never been captured vividly by reviewers who continue to gloss over the early beginnings and tribulations that shaped his music.

This is the story of Musa Juma’s struggle to find identity and acceptance of his music before he became one of the most sought-after musicians. His early beginnings were tumultuous. Uncertainty followed his every move which became a fascination, episodic, packed with anecdotes and gossip.

Musa blended benga with rumba, a unique output to a traditionally fast paced genre. Although hailed as an astute Luo rumba artiste by music reviewers in newspapers and magazines, few are aware of the musician’s first compositions that were in pure paced benga and why he chose to do almost all his songs again with tunes of rumba. Most of what is known about Musa Juma and his music is post-2000 after he delved into rumba. The travails that dogged his life in the beginning of his musical career shaped his later compositions, social life and friendships.

Musa Juma began his musical career around 1988 when Hosea Songa — a composer and singer of benga music with Solar Africa Band, which was in those days performing live music in Bondo Township, Siaya County — moved to Rabango in Mamboleo Showground in Kisumu in 1989. It is here that Hosea courted Musa and they played together until Mzee Randa, a life loving expatriate Kenyan man who married a Swedish, opened a new bar in Nyalenda in Kisumu town.

According to benga music historian Gordon Ondiek, Mzee Randa asked Musa Juma to come and perform music in his new bar through the help of an artiste known as Akushe after he purchased music instruments. Benga live bands in bars were fashionable those days to attract revelers. Together with Solar Africa Band members like Odhiambo Kalawi, Arif Jaseme, Onyango Andhoga and Lomboto Banja, they moved to the new joint to start a new band.

“Musa Juma’s talent was evident from his youthful days when he was courted to play with Solar Africa Band at a time when music rivalry was at its peak,” narrates Ondiek during an interview with this writer.

Juma’s new band was called Limpopo International Band, a name derived from the drinking joint they were hosted. The host, Mzee Randa named his bar Limpopo because of his love for a music composition called Sherry River Limpopo by the defunct Kendu Original Band that also played benga music those days.

Around 1992 under the newly created band, Musa released his first two albums purely in fast paced benga. The songs included Hera Mudho, Omwaga J.B, Maselina, Oyoo Daktari, Siaya Kababa and Hera Mwandu.

However, the strong wave of benga that was being catapulted at that time by benga wizards Collela Mazee, Awino Lawi and even Owino Misiani dominated Musa’s efforts, making his first attempt on albums look like a child’s play. He developed his song Siaya Kababa from the lyrics of a composition titled Mary by a 1970s benga musician Juma Odundo who in the song soothed a lady called Mary to join him in Siaya Kababa (Siaya, my father’s place).

Musa Juma’s band disintegrated briefly in 1994 when the joint that hosted him closed, making him move out with the instruments, and leaving band members like Lomboto Banja stranded behind. Mzee Randa, the proprietor of Limpopo Bar also passed away in 1996 shortly after a bitter divorce with his Swedish wife over infidelity.

In 1996 after a long search for a base for their now “stranded” band, he briefly got stationed at Junction Inn Bar in Mamboleo in Kisumu where he called his younger brother Omondi Tony to join his band as a drummist. Junction Inn Bar being the late musician Okatch Biggy’s base, Musa was driven back to showground where they were also denied space and had their music instruments confiscated because “they never sought permission ” to be hosted.

After series of setbacks that saw him lose a section of his band members to rival music outfits, his brother Omondi Tony also temporarily left Limpopo band and teamed up with Solar Africa Band to release tracks such as Ogolla Kadir and Wuod Kajimbo. Stranded, beaten and almost giving up on music after near collapse of his band, Musa through a friend called Melitus Otieno Apiyo moved to Mombasa before relocating back to Motherland Club located in Nairobi’s Ngong’ Road. In 1997, he once again joined the Hosea Songa led Solar Africa Band while hosted at Migori Bar that was located in Nairobi’s Dandora Estate.

Musa’s relationship with Hosea Songa was strange. It could be described as that of hate and love because disagreements made them part ways again, this time round making him shift base to Muhoroni Settlement Scheme where Gidali, a local businessman bought him new music instruments to begin afresh. It is around this period and up to early 2000s that he recruited skilled artistes into the band to give it a fresh look. The artistes were, Mopero, Sande Asweda, Josse Musungu and Salapata Salawowo. There was also the mercurial Vasco Dagama of the Congolese descent who earned notoriety for his high waist fashion and mellow pitched voice.

Here, still in fast paced benga, he released tracks such as Papa Andrew, Gidali, Rikni NyomboOngolo and Clerkson. Just like other legendary African music maestros like Franco or Tabu Ley who went with the adage of a priest eateth in the shrine, his track Rikni Nyombo (marrying hurriedly) or Tabu ashe referred to it is dedicated to problems he underwent after Andrew, his host at Friends Corner Bar in Muhoroni kicked him out for flirting with his daughter Sabena. Andrew’s fury saw him send the love smitten daughter on a scholarship abroad to study; to distract her from the musician. In a heartfelt love ballad in form of a song called Fiancée, Musa recalls with nostalgia the time they spent together with Sabena, as he hopes that she will visit him in Nairobi. The song with Swahili choruses is a darling of Musa’s fans. The chorus of the ballad goes:     

Siboeki nikiwa na wewe nyumbani kwetu mama ah!

                                    Nafurahi nikiwa nawewe nyumbani kwetu Sabby

                                    Weche gi to ne ochako chon ndalo Adam gi Hawa,

                                    Nakupenda mamaaa, Baby aheri owadaa.

                                    Baby hera wachako gi kinda mama ah,

                                    Baby ngima Nyasaye emamachano mamaa eh

                                    (I am never bored whenever you are with me at our home!

                                    I am happy whenever I am with you at our home Sabby

                                    These matters began long time ago in the days of Adam and Eve

                                    I love you my love, I really love you

                                    My baby we began this our love with a lot of industry

                                    My love it is God who plans life)

After tumultuous years that brought him little to count on, he was at crossroads on whether to drop the guitar or not. He however, picked an advice he got from the late musician Ochieng’ Kabaselleh of Lunar Kidi Band who was also in his own right an astute composer and singer of Luo benga songs such as Sikul Agulu, Zainabu, Achi Maria and Millicento in 1990s (Kabaselleh passed away in 1998). In a change of tact, Musa decided to release new songs with a touch of rumba here and there in their renditions. He also redid the old ones with the same convenience, earning him the much needed airplay at the debut of Ramogi FM radio station in 2003.

Between the year 2002 and 2004, Owacha Willy, another baritone voiced rhythmist of Benina fame called on Musa to have his band hosted at Mayaka International Club in Kariobangi South where musician Igwe Bandason was an in-house regular performer.

It is also around this period that he worked with artistes such as Ansino Osundwa of Mazadijo Band, Prince Kassam, and Ken Watenya of Butere (a shrewd vocalist) whose compositions included Ayaki Mayaka, Hellena and Pacheko. Musa Juma passionately sung about love, friendships and industry. His brother Omondi Tonny, joined him once more and was received well under Musa’s tutelage in Limpopo through his Akinyi Juddy album that had songs like Vicky, Nyoremo and Sussy Sussana before he went solo again (but still under Musa’s Limpopo) around 2006 to release tracks such as Amunga, Jackie, Auma J and others. He died in a road accident while travelling to Mombasa for shows.

Many artistes who honed their skills under Musa’s stewardship have since gained prominence. They include John Junior whose love ballads in a rendition referred to as “dengo” or passionate praise sweeps his fans off their feet.

Among Musa’s best known songs which earned him acclaim in rumba circles are FiancéeAggrey, Utanikumbuka, Starehe, Saida, Christiana and his last album Lake Victoria. Upon his death on 15 March in 2011, his band disintegrated after his sister Milly Fedha took over and renamed it to Super Limpopo International.

Musa’s compositions have since been a subject of scholarly works. In a research article published in the International Journal of Innovative Research and Development in March 2017 titled “A conceptual Analysis of Love Metaphors in Selected Popular Dholuo Music,” by scholars Dr Benard Kodak and Cellyne Nelly Anudo, Musa’s song Hera Mudho (Love is Darkness) is examined and figurative language employed in its construction laid bare. The song cautions those who venture into relationships because of the material benefit and points out how love blinds.

close

Sign up to receive the most diverting fiction, essays, analyses and news across Africa in your inbox, on Monday every week.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.