By Dann Okoth
A melodious, almost glorious, sound dissects the sweltering ambience at the basement of Nairobi’s French Cultural Centre, as Odhi Mak’Anyengo and his Duol (Village Social Club) troupe belt out their latest tune, Pikipikina (my motorcycle). Although the band is playing the popular benga music, the tunes are distinctly different from the sensual, often aggressive contemporary benga styles.
These ones are definitive, pulsating and unique. Doha, as the musician is popularly referred to, says the troupe is on a mission to redefine benga because "people have lost touch with the benga concept".
As part of this mission, Odhi intends to critically study the music and understand its background — where the predecessors got their inspiration from and what direction they wanted to go.
"Benga was originally based on the principle of a mirror to society, but artistes have resorted to simply picking on a few styles or codes from the likes of Colela Mazee and Owino Misiani, but somewhere along the line, everything seems to fizzle out into thin air," laments Odhi.
"No one seems to pursue the music to its fullest."
Interestingly, only a few months back, Odhi, whose official name is Colonel (Retired) Dr
Kepher Odhiambo Mak’Anyengo was the chief surgeon at the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital along Mbagathi Road, Nairobi, a position he held for 10 years. He joined the Forces in 1985, three years after the 1982 aborted coup de tat.
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Mak’Anyengo obtained a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree from the University of Nairobi in 1983 and Masters degree in Medicine (Surgery) in 1995 before he proceeded to Leighpig, Germany in 2006 where he obtained a Masters degree in Surgery with a specialisation in Orthopaedics.
He was instrumental in the search and rescue operation during the 1997 bomb blast incident at the American Embassy, Nairobi.
Music in veins
Surgery and music seem unlikely companions.
"Music runs through my veins. I started playing music in high school using any rudimentary instruments I lay my hands on," says Mak’Anyengo who is also the son of former long serving MP for Ndhiwa Constituency, Ochola Mak’Anyengo.
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While at the university, Mak’Anyengo and his wife released a blockbuster single titled, I Believe in Me, which was produced by then world-renowned CBS records.
However, after joining the forces Mak’Anyengo’s music career took a break, albeit superficially since he continued to quietly develop his skills.
"You know when you are in the Forces you cannot afford to be too visible or vocal," he says.
It is difficult to imagine the amount of enthusiasm that compels a seasoned surgeon to give up medicine for a less fancied career in music.
Instructively, Mak’Anyengo has taken it upon himself to develop benga music and to equal or surpass its forerunners.
"I want to look at the music, not as a single entity but a whole concept that includes sub-styles of benga and suit them appropriately to different styles and messages," he says.
"A mourning song, for example, played in a style that forces one to dance vigorously is simply out of place."
Mak’Anyengo has released two singles that have taken the market by storm — Onyo (warning) and Onyale (serves him right).
Onyale mirrors society and warns evil people that their deeds will soon come to haunt them. Onyo is a warning and critique of the concept of love. The musician questions albeit figuratively, why his parents did not teach him the dangerous tenets of love.
The fact that the Duol Band brings together members with diverse skills and social backgrounds make it unique and a fertile ground for creativity.
He notes that although the group has diverse social and education backgrounds, the underlying common interest is their passion for music.
Other band members include Johnny, the bandleader who plays all instruments, Charles — base guitar, Rotich — keyboard, Jacob — traditional African instruments, Guillen — drums, and singers Janet and Jackline (or Wilbroda of the TV comic series Papa Shirandula).
But all has not been smooth for Mak’Anyengo and his troupe.
"To come up with a quality product for instance, you must have resources," Mak’Anyengo says. "We had to invest heavily in quality musical instrument, and to achieve impeccable results, we went for quality production which was equally costly," he says.
But Mak’Anyengo insists that the bottom line is the exceptional talent, quality and dedication of the individual musicians.
"I have more than 100 songs that are yet to be released. But I resisted the temptation for quick money by flooding the market with the songs because I know what that can do to a musician," he says.
In fact, the two songs he has released are only available at selected radio stations.
Looking back, Mak’Anyengo has no regrets for joining the music industry.
"I want to leave behind a long lasting legacy similar to that which maestros such as Franco and Bob Marley left behind," he says.
He notes that the bane of many musicians has been the clamour for instant fame and riches.
"I have seen potentially good musicians lose direction because of greed. They rush their careers but end up in the gutters after being exploited and dumped."
He advises them to be patient and nurture their careers.
He recognises that the local music scene is still characterised by uneven playing ground and issues such as piracy need to be addressed urgently.