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By Ngari Gituku

The passing on of Joseph Kamaru on Wednesday night triggered an enormous outpouring of rather telling tributes, mourning the man and celebrating his musical exploits spanning six decades.

As expected, leaders in the 2022 cavalcade—regardless of party affiliation—hurriedly eulogised Kamaru as a legend and musical icon, ostensibly to mine a share of political capital, which, no doubt, he commanded.

While such old chestnut obituaries are the stock in trade of our society’s code of decency (sigh!), I am persuaded that the real Kamaru was more elegantly acclaimed in social media.

Sampling random and folksy views of diverse social media audiences and commentators, one easily senses a consensus of what Kamaru represented to his admirers. He was extoled by some as a philosopher, king and prophet. Others regarded him as a griot while others saw in him an exemplary cultural crusader.

Well, to each his or her own, but that Kamaru was a talented genius is not in contention. But then again, was Kamaru a genius in musical composition, social commentary or as a cultural edifier?

In a space where the Benga routine musicians have had champions from across Kenyan communities over the decades, Kamaru may not qualify as the most well endowed inspirer of dance floor fanatics. Some musicians of Kamaru’s era and ilk are better known for working up dancers to greater frenzies. Daniel Kamau (DK), John Ndichu and Francis Rugwiti easily come to mind.

In fact, it is one-man-guitarists, top among them Paul Mwangi Salim, popular as Salim Junior, who have re-rendered many Kikuyu songs — including the late Kamaru’s — to make them more appealing for brisker twirls and whirls of the dance floor. 

Notably, one-man-guitar renditions are notorious for peppering lyrics with salacious excesses that Kamaru would only offer in cryptic euphemisms.

Kamaru’s musical mission, it may seem, was not primarily to incite impassioned dance gyrations judging from his melodic or rhythmic scores, choice of themes and words. His approach was more didactic and deliberately couched to influence thought and life’s purpose.

As a social commentator, Kamaru was oftentimes controversial. His mid-1960s ‘Ndari ya Mwalimu’ (The Teacher’s Darling) caused national furore, prompting the Kenya National Union of Teachers’ (Knut) to take castigate him.

The song chastised a randy teacher who favoured a female pupil because he had a secret — albeit morally inappropriate — relationship with his her.

What seemed the height of moral vacuity and decay back in the day is at the point of Kamaru’s demise quite prevalent in our schools and universities. Besides calling on people to shun morally inept behaviour, many of Kamaru’s songs underscore the importance of cultural consciousness as the centre pole of social decency.

Notably, Kamaru re-rendered folk music in honour of Mau Mau freedom fighters as well as popular traditional songs that celebrated the heritage of his community of origin. 

Still, in his music on the society and morality genre, Kamaru severally warned against indiscretion and indulgence. Good examples are ‘Chunga Marima’ (Beware of Pitfalls)/ ‘Chunga Rurimi’ (Watch tour Tongue) and ‘(Njohi) Ndiri Mwarimu’ (Alcohol is Deceptive).

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While Kamaru whined — perhaps more of philosophised — about possible marital infidelity in his famous song ‘Nuu Ucio?’ (Who’s that?), he came through as a levelheaded arbiter in appealing to his ‘Ndari’ (Darling), whom he urges to confess who the nightly stalker was. In this song, Kamaru acknowledges that it is not wrong to entertain strangers but “…surely not at 1am!”). 

In another song inspired by love gone sour, ‘Charia Ungi’ (Try Another), Kamaru accuses his lover of lying that she was headed to Mombasa for the Christmas holidays when she was actually on a totally different mission. Quite stung by the lover, Kamaru advises her to find a ‘Nding’oing’o’ (an idiot) to lie to.

When the flamboyant J.M. Kariuki was executed in mid 1970s, Kamaru composed a popular song, ‘J.M. Kariuki’, that thoroughly castigated those who committed the heinous crime. The song caused enough disquiet in certain corners.

Kamaru also made a musical commentary on the sidelining of Mwai Kibaki by the then Head of State, Daniel Moi, when he demoted the former from the vice-presidency to a cabinet minister in the mid-1980s. Clearly, Kamaru had his finger on the society’s pulse all the time.

Kamaru’s music was rendered predominantly in Kikuyu. Had he infused sing-along orts and dabs of English or Kiswahili in his music, he would have perhaps become an international star. Yet perhaps not! Not with Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhyia and Kisii Benga style remaining largely bucolic to each community and only anecdotally national.

While I may not know much about the mechanics of making music, a good and danceable song is itself universal lingo on the dance-floor. Lingala artists seem to acknowledge this fact while Kamaru and his Benga peers seem to have wrapped themselves in cocoons that did not think much of audiences outside their immediate communities. 

Unlike Kamaru’s music and that of his Kenyan contemporaries from other communities, Lingala music maestros — past and present — have a way with charming audiences from all corners of the earth without having to explain their leitmotifs. This they manage even without the occasional French smidgens that punctuate some Lingala tunes.

Had Kamaru’s music been as spellbinding as Lingala or its instrumentation as tantalising and markedly global as some western or southern African music, the emperor of Kikuyu song would have effortlessly joined such greats as Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Angélique Kidjo in the African hall of music fame.

Still, Kamaru bows out of the Kenyan music scene a maestro extraordinaire, Kikuyu griot and a Benga icon of note.

What set Kamaru apart from most of his contemporaries in the world of music are his artistic sense of metaphor and meter and where the two blend to entrance the hearts of his audience.

Mr Gituku is retired President Mwai Kibaki’s personal secretary and an occasional commentator on cultural issues and the arts.



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