Princess Jully (real name Lilian Auma Aoko), is one of Kenya's leading musicians. When her husband died in 1997, she took over his band and propelled it to national fame. She spoke to CAROLINE NYANGA
I grew up in a remote village called Makalda in South Nyanza. Being the last born in a family of nine, I was the apple of my parents’ eye although we led a difficult life. Sometimes, we even went without food.
My mother lost three children at birth, reducing our number to six. To make matters worse, my father died when I was one week old, leaving my mother, a small-scale farmer, to fend for all of us.
Princess Jully at her home
I used to wake up as early as 5.30am, take a cup of porridge then head straight to the farm.
I began learning music during my free time. While at Gina Primary School in Ndhiwa Division, I became an active participant in school drama and music festivals. I often led the team to win several awards, which made me desire to venture more into serious music.
My grandmother, Benta Nyar Kanyamkago Nyagolima, was the first woman chief within Nyanza Province and one of the respected artistes within the community. I was ten years old then and used to enjoy listening to her music as it inspired me. Every time she sang, I got carried away with her melodious voice.
By the time I got to Form One, I had secured the blessings of the Legio Maria sect leader, Melkio Ondeto, to pursue music. He asked me to hold his golden cross in my hands then foretold that my star would one day shine brighter than I could ever imagine. But I dismissed his sentiments as mere words.
Then something unfortunate happened — my mother could not afford to pay my school fees. To make matters worse, most people within my community had the notion that educating a girl was like watering someone else’s field, so boys were given the first priority. I was lucky to go up to Form One at Bikira Girls’ High School as many girls in my village did not get the same opportunity, but deep down I remained frustrated. I had to do menial jobs within the village.
My life was that of a typical village girl. I had a boyfriend and I got pregnant. The baby’s father rejected me. He said I was not of his class as he was more educated than I. Later he left for the US, at which point I felt like the world had crushed around me.
Being pregnant outside marriage was an abomination in my community. It was considered a shame and a sign of bad omen so my friends and neighbours advised me to abort. I was against the idea at first and preferred to seek solace in church, but I found that was in vain.
My friends insisted I get the abortion so eventually I gave in. To my surprise, the doctor who did the operation made a mistake and I bled profusely. The pain brought me untold misery, which I guess was the price I had to pay for attempted murder. For a while, I thought I would die and regretted what I had done.
Luckily for me, Ondeto, the Legio Maria spiritual leader, came to my rescue at the eleventh hour. He gave me something similar to holy water and warned me sternly against ever terminating a pregnancy. When I went to the hospital, it was discovered, to my surprise, that the foetus was still viable. I decided to keep the baby even as everybody else shunned me. I knew life would be difficult but I chose to go on.
Fortunately, destiny had better plans for me. The love of my life was about to be revealed to me. In 1988 while in Migori town, I bumped into Julius Okumu. He was the famous Prince Jully. It was love at first sight. Most importantly, he accepted me with the pregnancy.
We lived together as husband and wife. When I gave birth to my son Felix, Prince Jully accepted him and loved him as his own. That was a great miracle for me.
But married life, like with most couples, was not a bed of roses. At some point in 1994, I had to fend for the family as my husband could not make enough money to support us. I moved to Kayole estate in Nairobi, while my husband did his shows in various parts of the country.
During a perfomance at City Cabanas [Photos by Maxwell Agwada and Evans Habil/Standard]
While in Kayole, I sold groundnuts and brown porridge in clubs within the estate. Fortunately, my husband and his band were able to land a contract at Kayole Club and I often joined him on stage to perform as his back-up singer.
Ironically, I gained more fans than he did despite his being a more established musician. I started to call myself Mbilia Bel because I thought my looks were similar to the Zairean singer. To my pleasant surprise, the prophecy made by Ondeto (he passed on in 1991) began to unfold.
As time went on, we landed more contracts in clubs within Dandora and Huruma estates. We also started to move around and, at some point, were based in Kisumu and Mombasa. Life became good the more we gained fame and money.
Being a beautiful woman, I had a hard time dealing with male customers everywhere we performed. I had to find a way of treating them well without necessarily getting personal because, at the end of the day, they were still our clients.
Prince Jully dies
One day, my husband fell sick after a concert in Kisumu. All had gone well during the performance. When we got down from stage, my husband shook hands with a musician he’d never seen eye to eye. People didn’t like this and I suppose they were right, because a few minutes later, my husband felt weak in his hands and could hardly play his guitar. He also complained of a slight headache.
I took him back to our house in Migori. A few days later, he died. I clearly recall my husband’s last words: "Piem ojemona," he said, which means; "the competition is too much for me to bear".
Despite my husband’s death, I did not lose hope in life. Even after friends and relatives deserted me, I moved on, took over the band and led us to fame. I achieved my goals. This was the only way I could maintain Prince Jully’s legacy.
I was also a member of Divas of The Nile group alongside Suzzana Owiyo, Achieng Abura and Mercy Myra. My dream is to redefine the Luo traditional music by bringing back the traditional instruments.