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'Kariobangi' hit maker dies coinless aged 102

By George Orido | Updated Tue, February 9th 2016 at 00:00 GMT +3
Mzee Mbwaya Abene Atieli at a past performance in Bunyore. The Kariobangi Chonjo Chonjo singer died in Emuhaya last Saturday at the age of 102.

'Kariobangi' hit maker dies coinless aged 102

Kila siku Kariobangi

Mwenye pombe anakuuzia

Lakiani anakuonya

Na wewe umelipia

Na polisi akitokea

Unamwaga pompe

Unatoroka ukitoa jasho

Kila mtu chonjo chonjo, Kariobangi’

You mostly likely have heard this once popular song being played on one of our many radio stations.

The song, ‘Kariobangi’, became an instant hit when it was released in the 1970s, hurling Mbwaya Abene Atieli, its singer, to instant celebrity status. The song went on to top the charts for a decade.

As a result, Mr Mbwaya became a common feature in social places where with his musical instrument, the Litungu, he belted out the song, narrating the tribulations that men in the sprawling slum of Kariobangi went through after imbibing chang’aa.

In the song, Mbwaya warns men against going to Karibangi to drink the killer brew.

In a powerful voice, backed by the shrill Litungu, the musician warns: “Beware of the chang’aa peddler who sells the drink to you, but warns you warns you (to drink it quickly) and yet you have paid for the drink with your hard-earned money.”

Powerful Voice

Sadly, the man who sang this popular song that caught the imagination of Kenyans in the 1970s and that still has relevance to date given the havoc that chang’aa and other such brews continues to wreak in our midst, is no more.

The cruel hand of death silenced his powerful voice on Saturday evening.

But the man who mentored the famed Jabali Afrika music group, which is currently based in the US, will remain in the hearts and minds of many a Kenyan, immortalised by his timeless music.

Mbwaya died at the age of 102 in his modest rural home of Itabalia in East Bunyore in Emuhaya, Vihiga County.

“I composed Kariobangi as way of stopping the consumption of illicit brews that in my view not only turned people into zombies but also deprived the family of all earnings from the man,” he told a KTN reporter 12 years ago.

Other than the Kariobangi hit, Mbwaya also recorded ‘Omurembo Akulwa Ling’ondo’ (A beautiful lady has to be bought with money), ‘Abashiele Bamanya Okhupima’ (Old women know better), ‘Nakula Ingubho Sotsia Ebuhwe’ (One cannot go where he is married) and ‘Orakula Skuta’ (Start a Scooter).

In his heyday, he sang alongside such greats as Fundi Konde and Fadhili Williams.

But at some point, the Government found his music to be too toxic and he was banned from performing for nearly eight years.

“They said my music was inciting people against higher authorities,” he told KTN in an interview in 2004.

Mbwaya, like many other musicians, died a pauper, thanks to music pirates who continue to feed on musicians’ blood like leaches.

“He died crying out loud that his birthright was stolen from him with people playing his music on the internet and selling his CD without paying him,” said Patlas Mankale who played music with the old man before forming his own band, Kaluoto Original.

After Kenyans failed to reward his artistic flair, Mbaya, who rose to stardom when he met a British producer, a Dr Johnson decades ago, settled on weaving baskets to earn his daily bread.

Following his death business came to a standstill at Itabalia village.

“We are so saddened by my grandfather’s demise. I pray that God almighty rest his soul in peace,” said Jackton Serenje, his grandson.

Women wailed uncontrollably and men chanted on receiving the news of the elderly man’s demise.

“He used to play for us the Litungu as he sang his songs, which were full of metaphors and proverbs,” said granddaughter Alice Kwando as she prepared seats for elders to start funeral arrangement meetings yesterday evening.

The director of the Nairobi Chambers Chorus, which performed for Queen Elizabeth at Windsor two years ago, praised the musician, terming him a pioneer of African and Kenyan music.

“He is one of the people who brought Kenyan creativity to the limelight and should be acknowledged for his commitment and achievement as a statesman,’ he said.

Rare Talent

Benson Abwao, who heads the Kenya Music Festival and also comes from Bunyore, termed the fallen hero a man with a rare artistic talent.

“He led by example. He was meticulous and enjoyed merging his lyrics with the instruments and I can’t recall anyone who has done it so well with the Litungu.

Head of Kenya Schools, Colleges and universities Drama Festival Sirengo Khaemba termed Mbwaya a thrifty cultural entrepreneur who did so much with very little resources.

“Rest in Peace Atieli chonjo Chonjo, you made a mark, Bunyore’s finest,” Jabali Afrika’s Joseck Asikoye said.

Standard Group Online Editor David Ohito, who met the fallen giant in 2002, said the man had a unique talent.

“It is unfortunate that his work is all over the place - on internet and media houses here and abroad - but I doubt he got paid for it,” he said, adding that when he visited him, the man was living in abject poverty.