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Unsung heroes

By | Updated Fri, October 17th 2008 at 00:00 GMT +3

In death, like in life, the Government offers our musicians scant respect, write Emmanuel Mwendwa and Mike Owuor

On October 17, 1989, Franco Luambo Makiadi, one of Africa’s greatest musicians, was laid to rest at Gombe cemetery in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The state funeral, attended by Government representatives and thousands of fans, was the culmination of four days of national mourning declared by President Mobutu Sese Seko, after the TP OK Jazz band leader died in Belgium on October 12.

According to the musician’s biography, Congo Colossus: The life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz, by Graeme Ewens, when Franco’s coffin, draped in the national flag, arrived at Zaire’s Ndjili International Airport from Belgium, thousands of fans were waiting to pay tribute to their hero. The hearse, under police escort, was accompanied by top Government officials.

In the days that followed, Voix du Zaire (Voice of Zaire) radio played nothing but Franco’s music, and Mobutu (who was abroad then) announced the Government would offset funeral expenses. Like it did in the funeral of musician Grand Kalle Kabasele in 1983, the Zairean Government proved it regarded artistes highly. The trend continues to date.

The difference with Kenya, where only politicians seem guaranteed to receive State recognition in death, is stark. When pioneer and veteran musician Fadhili Williams Mdawida died on February 11, 2001, following an undisclosed illness, news of his death grabbed headlines in the international and local media.

Reputed as one of Kenya’s most prominent performing artistes, his illustrious career spanned 50 years. Fadhili’s rise to fame was meteoric and hinged on the runaway success of the evergreen, if controversial, classic, Malaika, first recorded in 1959.

Though he supposedly made considerable amounts of money from the song, it is widely believed popular stars like Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and Boney M sold much more than he did from their cover versions.

Because of his Muslim faith, Fadhili was promptly laid to rest on a chilly morning at the communal Kariokor Cemetery, after a low-key ceremony.

Despite having dedicatedly marketed Kenya as a cultural and musical icon, no Government officials attended the funeral.

Heroes

"Surely, is this how we should treat our heroes?" posed an evidently dejected and livid Daudi Kabaka, an accomplished veteran artiste and Fadhili’s peer. Kabaka died three years later.

His statement captured the anger and dismay, after nobody stepped forward when the MC invited an official or representative from the Ministry of Culture to pay respects.

A similar fate befell the lot of first generation pioneers like Paul Mazera Mwachupa, Mumba Charo, Daniel Katuga, Norman Warigi, Shinda Gikombe and George Mukabi, among others.

Their peers Fundi Konde, Isaiah Mwinamo Asibera and HM Kariuki also passed on quietly, without as much as Government involvement in funeral arrangements. Between them, these artistes had during 1950s to late 1970s earned Kenya a reputation as East and Central Africa’s music hub.

History

The unsung music icons only bounce back into national limelight temporarily, whenever one of their own dies. And in what is an all too familiar scenario, soon after sending glowing messages of condolences and belated praise, the artistes are accorded quiet burial ceremonies. The younger generation of musicians has not faired any better

In other countries, accomplished musicians and their contemporaries are ideally celebrated in death and even decorated with distinguished national honours.

History is replete with instances where whenever leading musicians die, Governments declare national day(s) of mourning while flags fly at half-mast.

Apart from the heroic State funerals, there have been instances where funeral proceedings are broadcast live on mainstream television. However, such elaborate send-offs are unheard of in the local music scene.

Early this week for instance, veteran Jamaican musician Alton Ellis, ranked among the innovators of the rock steady sub-genre, widely regarded as the ‘fore-runner’ of reggae music, died in London.

In recognition of his vital contribution to the island’s popular culture, the tiny Caribbean Government is reportedly working on according Ellis a state funeral.

Earlier in 1994, he was decorated with National Order of Distinction Award. Notably, the Jamaican Government has been at the forefront of a handful of countries known to decorate musicians.

A similar honour was also given to the late Bob Nesta Marley after his death on May 11, 1981. The artiste, who reportedly rivalled the Jamaican Government as a political force, earned a State funeral on May 21, attended by over 100,000 people.

Honours

Numerous other musicians have been privileged with an official State funeral. These include the late Andy Palacio – a renowned Central American state of Belize’s iconic musician and cultural activist, laid to rest at a heroic burial on January 19, this year.

Closer home, Malian desert blues virtuoso the late Ali Farka TourÈ was in March 2006 awarded a posthumous medal of honour and given a State funeral attended by the president, Government ministers and thousands of fans.

In Ghana, the death in 1996 of late ET Mensah hailed as the ‘king of highlife’ and credited as one of founding fathers of African pop music, was also marked by a State funeral.

After the death of Ustaad Bismillah Khan, an Indian shehnai musical genius, in August 2006, the Government declared a national day of mourning preceding a State funeral.

Funerals

Equally memorable is the unprecedented ‘state’ funeral of eccentric Nigerian artiste, musician, activist and self-proclaimed president of the Kalakuta Republic. He died on August 2, 1997, and an estimated one million people turned up at Kuti’s emotive burial.

In the West, Governments never shy from involvement in funerals of top musicians. For example, when Elvis Presley died in 1977, reports www.elvispresleynews.com, US President Jimmy Carter’s message to the nation was: "With Elvis Presley a part of our country died as well." Indeed Government involvement was noticeable throughout the funeral arrangement.

But in Kenya it seems our musicians will remain unsung in death, as in life.

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