Kenyan music built on talent (PART 1)


First published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine

Music makes up a large part of any culture, and Kenya is no exception.

But you’d never know it looking at our music industry. Helen Kinuthia explores the ups and downs, past and future and heart and soul of the music business in Kenya.

The streets of Kenya have a beat. Thumping base spills out from passing matatus, motorbikes blare melodies over the hum of their engines and storefronts and restaurants leak out the sounds of clear vocals. Music is everywhere. But until recently, there was no formalized music industry in Kenya. And even now it has barely come together. Throughout the years, music has been a constant but the styles have changed. Benga, one of the most popular genres in Kenya, was predominant from the 40s through the 70s. Incorporating the electric bass guitar, it produced melodies similar to those emanating from the Luo musical instrument, the Nyatiti. This rhythmic music was geared at telling stories that would depict society.

Kanjii Mbugua

Kanjii Mbugua

Jazz and Rumba, came later on and played a huge part in the style of numerous start-out bands in the 70s – it formed the entertainment scene in many parts of the country. Most Kenyan bands performed their music in vernacular languages, with notable lead musicians like the late Daudi Kabaka, Do Misiani and Kamaru. Music continued to evolve and more musical styles were realised from the 80s, including everything from Lingala, Soukous, Taarab, Reggae, Dancehall, Rhythm ‘n’ Blues and Gospel (whose popularity enjoyed a steady increase with the rise of Christianity) to the current reign of hip hop and rap. The acceptance of music influenced by cultures around the world has strongly created the need to carve a niche and define Kenyan music.

We’ve always had musicians, songwriters, composers, producers, promoters, music venues, recording studios and outlets, but that only makes up part of a music industry, and it is not until recently that one is starting to form in its entirety.

Financial Qualms

As with anywhere in the world, in Kenya, when a young artist decides to start a career in music the odds are stacked against him. On one hand, he may have the vocal skill, captivating lyrical content and an ear for catchy beats. Say he releases his first single and it’s a hit. Then his next two releases receive just as much hype and the songs are played in rotation on most local radio stations. But if he isn’t already registered with the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK), he does not get money for the airplay given. On the other hand, if he puts out his album in stores around the country, his music’s unlikely to get exposure – meaning sales will be poor – because of high promotional costs and lack of proper managerial representation. This is the environment fledgling artists are fighting to survive in.

“A lot of our music legends have died and many died poor,” says Michael Maganzo, the chairman of MCSK. Formulated in the early 80s, MCSK is responsible for collecting and distributing royalties to its members, but the music body just received its first license for royalties collection in 2007. For over 20 years, there was neither a copyright act nor a policy to regulate the running of the industry – meaning a frustrating lack of financial proceeds for those involved. But even with the new policies, a lot of musicians do not fully understand their rights, which leaves them shortchanged. The level of professionalism – whereby artists are paid their dues, have sufficient representation and follow the right channels – has not been productively instilled in the Kenyan music industry.

“Contracts are not honoured and people don’t get their money, which gets very frustrating,” says Julie Gill, director of A.I. Records. Gill has seen the ups and downs of the industry, with close to 30 years in the business. She was part of the team that drew up the Copyrights Act in 2011, a huge step in structuring the business side of Kenyan music.

For all intents and purposes, music hasn’t been the driving economical force that it ought to be. More than 90 percent of the music sold in Kenya is pirated. CD sales are extremely poor in part due to this, but also because Kenyans are not willing to pay upwards of KSH 1,000 to purchase a CD.

This is especially painful for local musicians as it is estimated that the industry could potentially bring in over KSH 11 billion yearly. “The basic truth about the music industry [in Kenya] is that it is capable of making a lot of money,” says Suzanne Gachukia, one of the directors of Kenya Association of Music Producers (KAMP). “However, it’s seen as an industry for charity as opposed to the economic pillar it ought to be. It must be accorded respect and given structure so that it succeeds.”

But things are improving – in the last couple of years, the music industry has afforded a few artists a livelihood, mainly because of the new Copyright Act. Jazz musician Aaron Rimbui has been in the industry for 12 years and he is living proof of its progress, saying, “Some of the laws

that have been incorporated are actually active now. For example, I live off royalties and they pay well.” Likewise, official music associations are actually encouraging artists to register and collect their dues. Nonetheless, there is still much to be done for the industry to become lucrative.

Airplay, Quotas and Tariffs

Kenyans love being out. There are nightspots crowded every day of the week, with big dance floors, bigger crowds and, of course, loud music. And local DJs have a great knack for – not to mention loyalty to – promoting local music, which draws large crowds to many nightclubs in town. The opening notes to popular songs like “I’m Coming Home” by Nameless, “Kigeugeu” by Jaguar, and “Moss Moss” by the late E-sir are heralded by dancing and singing along.

Kenyans do enjoy their local music. And the visual side of things is offering up exciting opportunities for local music as well. Music videos, though expensive to produce, are an entertaining way to spread an artist’s songs – and local TV stations are generally quite willing to promote Kenyan artists. As more producers and directors shift to this form of televised entertainment, the industry is likely to see more high quality productions coming up.

But it’s definitely not all good. Radio is music’s medium, but in Kenya only a small percentage of airtime goes to local artists. There are more than 90 FM radio stations, but most lean towards playing international music. However, many have questioned whether the quality of Kenyan music is up to par to be awarded prominent airplay and also have a market internationally. “As a musician I find that question truly offensive.

Great music has been made since the 50s,” says Gachukia fixedly. “That’s a story that was made up by media to move away from playing local music.” Typically, only 20 percent of airplay is devoted to regional artists. That is not to say that this is a bad thing. Radio stations, like any business, must base their decisions, in this case their playlists, on what their customers  want, and Kenyans are starting to demand an increased degree of excellence and professionalism in their entertainment. But local content is increasing and some stations pride themselves on showcasing Kenyan musicians.

However, Maganzo believes that the ratios should be reversed, and then some. At least 70 percent of radio airplay should be awarded to regional artists, while the other 30 percent can be assigned to international music. But a lot has to be considered before granting airplay, like who the station’s target market is. And though Kenya is diverse in its music genres, there are gaps in production consistency. “I feel that it’s a bit of a balancing act,” suggests Eric Wainaina, perhaps Kenya’s most renowned artist.

“Radio stations could do more [but] even artists like myself who are not getting heavy rotation, we need to rise to the challenge and give them a remix or something that fits their format.” While there’s still work to be done on both sides to increase local music’s airtime, steps are being taken to make the most of it. Earlier this year, new software called WIPOCOS was introduced in the industry to monitor radio stations’ airplay, meaning that musicians registered with relevant bodies will be paid. “People still don’t have a full comprehension to what their rights really are. But if [they] really want to know…all they need to do is visit the Internet,” declares Gill bluntly.

Recording Studios and Record Labels

Avenida Success started out as a small, local band on the Coast in 1969. Changing their name to Them Mushrooms in 1972, they’re a well-known Kenyan group, as evidenced by their longevity. Back when they started, record companies such as CBS, Polygram and RCA were prevalent in Kenya. As independent record studios started springing up in the late 80s and early 90s, many of these international corporations moved out due to lack of protective laws and rampant piracy. The independent recording houses gave Kenyan musicians – both producers and singers – the opportunity to explore, but as the number continued to increase, things became a free-for-all. The 90s introduced the computer age and recording studios were created anywhere from back rooms to cubesized offices with computer and production software. While the industry has been able to continually generate music and remain alive, there has not really been any significant breakthrough.

This is not to say there haven’t been talented musicians, there just hasn’t been the infrastructure to elevate them to international standards. Instead of a mainstream music industry, River Road, or ‘Riverwood’, has been the substitute production and distribution channel. Small, mostly illequipped and rushed studios have been the go-to for many singers – and some artists have made millions of shillings.


But more professional studios are cropping up. Sub Sahara Records (produced Abbi, Mercy Myra, Achieng Abura and Camp Mulla), Homeboyz Producshizzle (produced Juliani, Redsan, MOG and Wyre), Ogopa Deejays (produced Trapee, Amani, Jaguar and Kenzo) and Decimal Records (produced P-Unit, Just a Band, Nameless and Nonini) are among the notable ones. Artists such as Juliani and MOG are gospel musicians while Redsan and Wyre lean more towards dancehall and ragamuffin styles of music….

…Part 2 coming up soon…

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Destination Magazine, authored by Helen Kinuthia.

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