Why do bands break up?

Emmanuel Mwendwa

When reggae icon Bob Nesta Marley passed on in 1981, music enthusiasts were quick to deduce the virtuoso’s death spelt doom for his band, The Wailers, which had dominated the global reggae music circuit for three decades. But 28 years later, the group remains intact, apart from the inevitable change of personnel.

Picking up pieces was not smooth sailing. The band, for instance, sought to find footing and chart new direction – weighed down from releasing own songs owing to legal entanglements.

The current Wailers comprises legendary bassist Aston Barrett aka Family Man (band leader), keyboardist Keith Sterling, drummer Anthony Watson, Everald Gayle (trombone), guitarist Audley Chisholm, Chico Chin (trumpet), vocalists Elan Atias, Brady Walters and Cegee Victory. Initial remnant members Earl ‘Wya’ Lindo, percussionist Alvin ‘Seeco’ Patterson, veteran guitarists Al Anderson, Junior Marvin often join in on performance tours.

Though the trademark Wailers creative peak could be long gone, their songs continue to flourish.

Their staying power earns the group distinction as one of the world’s longest surviving bands, having been formed in 1963. This is unlike other musical groups whose lifespan fizzles out as soon as core leader quits music or passes on.

"Successful bands hardly ever break up. In most instances, the founder members struggle to stay focused on working hard to keep the music playing on," says seasoned Nairobi-based bassist Dave Otieno.

Test of time

For over two decades, Otieno has performed alongside a string of musical groups like Black Masesa, Watume, Foreign Affairs, Vivita, Them Mushrooms, Musikly Speaking, Black Roots, Sevens Band, Kikwetu, Mwangaza Music Machine and currently Wakurugenzi Band.

"Forming a consistent band is not easy. Not many groups survive their formative years unscathed," notes the guitarist.

Closer home, only a handful of bands have endured the test of time with Maroon Commandos, The Forvics and Them Mushrooms, which gained footing in the 1970s, being the most prominent locally.

Them Mushrooms was conceptualised in the late 1960s as a close-knit family outfit. Its profile rose through the years, surviving various challenges to stay together.

"We started out as Avenida Success around 1969, before officially adopting the name Them Mushrooms in 1972," says founder member Billy Sarro.

Four brothers Teddy Kalanda, Sarro, George Zirro, John Katana alongside two non-family members made the inital line up. Two years later, younger sibling Dennis Kalume Harrison (now deceased) joined the band.

The fledgling group become one of the most sought after bands on Coastal region’s tourist entertainment scene, gaining popularity with the hit song Jambo Bwana in the 1980s.

"For most bands, the average lifespan tends to hinge on a hit song – gaining the group popularity, a brand identity – translating into more sales, concert performances or gigs as a source of income," notes Sarro.

He cites the success of UK’s reggae outfit UB40, who thrived on the strength of hit singles such as I Got You (Babe), Don’t Make Me Cry, Stick By Me, Don’t Break My Heart, Impossible Love, Here I Am, Tears From My Eyes and Sweet Cherrie among others. But after lead vocalist Ali Campbell, widely regarded as "the voice of UB40", opted to pursue a solo career last year, the band’s future seems precarious, hanging by a thread.

But it has not always been smooth sailing for Them Mushrooms. After drummer and songwriter Kalume died in 1992, the band almost broke up. Zirro, an all-round instrumentalist who was closest to the deceased, quit opting to pursue a solo career in Afro-Jazz.

New outfits

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), after Franco Luambo Makiadi’s death, his popular band, TPOK Jazz, suffered a mortal blow due to differences between musicians and Franco’s family. While some prominent members like Simaro Lutumba formed Bana OK, others like Madilu started their own outfit.

Other well-known bands in Congo that have split include Wenge Musica and Zaiko Langa Langa. After break ups, many bands choose to maintain a tag of the original name.

So what’s the secret code which keeps musicians together?

"A serious band requires extreme dedication from members, a near-fanatical rehearsal schedule and enough word-of-mouth advertising," quips guitarist Otieno.

Many bands fail the test owing to individual musicians falling out due to various reasons. These range from financial dissatisfaction, lack of team work, vested self-interest, infighting, petty wrangling and indiscipline besides striking balance between egos and abilities.

"At times musical tastes undergo change, and a particular member may decide to explore a different musical genre", says saxophonist Juma Tutu.

But in rare instances, an exceptional talent comes along – often so amazingly skilled any band gives anything to have them on board.

As soon as word on instrumentalist or lead singer’s extraordinary talent gets around, they are put under pressure to join other bands or pursue a solo career. Jealousy within the group may also lead to parting of ways.

It seems starting a band is no easy venture, but keeping it together is even tougher. "It is important for group members set priorities, numerous sacrifices have to be made in order to achieve success", asserts Tutu.











Bob Nesta Marley The Wailers reggae bands