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Lost tunes: Why live bands are fading away from wedding events

Members of Ruhia Cultural Group.

Glamorous attire, good food, a serene venue, and pleasant company are key ingredients of a beautiful wedding reception. Still, most of these will amount to nothing without riveting entertainment to match.

In fact, apart from choosing their wedding garments and the type of food to be served, few other things command more attention by the couple or a wedding planner than the type of music to be played and by whom.

In years past, however, it was fashionable to have a live band at these events. For the older generation, a live band playing in a wedding ceremony today brings nostalgic memories to the group that was weaned on music played by popular bands such as Kayamba Africa, Les Wanyika, Maroon Commandos, and Them Mushrooms among others.

The latter two have been in the field since the 1970s and command a faithful coterie of followers that still identifies with them.

Today though, mixed tunes are playing at wedding receptions. While there are instances where such live bands perform, they are slowly ceding part of their turf to disc jockeys (DJs) playing well-selected, recorded music.

Julian Wanjiru,  a digital media practitioner says she held back contracting a live band due to perceived high costs, opting for a splinter group from a former popular band to perform at her wedding.

The group, she says, only played their music through the system and did not need to come with drums, guitars, pianos, and such-like equipment.

“I just assumed that it was expensive to hire a band,” she says. “In fact, the thought of such a band never came up during our wedding preparations. Actually, I thought that such bands were only for rich people.

The package we got came together with a master of ceremonies and a public address system. We paid Sh35,000, and only after quite some bargaining.”

Peterson Thuku, alias Wa Njambi, who leads Ruhia Cultural Group that performs Kikuyu folk songs at weddings and other traditional ceremonies say the decline of live band performances at weddings and similar ceremonies is due to similar financial considerations by the parties involved.

He says the old music bands may have worked themselves out of such performances as remuneration could not match the realities of modern living.
“Performing as a DJ seemed to be the easy way out,” he says “It is hard to maintain these bands since individual members earn little money.

You can imagine sharing, say Sh20,000 among 10 or more members. A DJ on the other hand will pocket all the amount meant for entertainment.”

Thuku says another key reason why there are few old bands playing at weddings is that most of their members have failed to upskill themselves, relying on the pieces of music they composed during their formative stages and shortly thereafter.

One day in 2004, Thuku says his group was called upon to perform at a wedding where another band that was popular in the day had also been invited.

Thuku’s group did their performance and left the stage to the other team. What happened next left the couple and invited guests disappointed.
“A few minutes into their performance, there was a power glitch and the music came to a halt,” he recalls.

Electrical hitch

“Sadly, their machine malfunctioned due to the electrical hitch. The organisers told the group to improvise by going vocal without the instruments but they could not because all along they had been lip-syncing, shouting behind the tracks.

The bride was in tears. My team was called back on stage for further performances and of course more money.

They were not willing to invest in flesh and blood, to do the hard work.”
Thuku still operates with the original dancers ever since he formed the group in 2000.

Interestingly, some members of the other group that had been contracted to perform at that wedding have been visiting his premises in order to learn how to do live performances.

Other challenges associated with contracting a live band for important events such as weddings include the feeling that a band could pull out at the last minute, offering no recourse as calls go unanswered while taking off with paid deposits.
Some, too, may have signed multiple bookings on the same day and thus fail to give full dedication to any particular gig.
Still, there are those who would not compare a live band to anything else during social events.

For example, one M’Arachi says most of those aged 30 years and over grew up with parents who listened to oldies performed by people like Daudi Kabaka and his ilk.
They also frequented restaurants with bands playing, as kids. That influence made them appreciate bands more than playback music.
“To some, just having a live band enhances the image of the event.

There are some brides who just want their photos with a band set up in the background,” says M’Arachi.
M’Arachi began playing the guitar while in college and never knew people would be interested in his new vocation as they started inviting him for gigs and got paid for it.

Later, in 2010, he formed a company known as The Booth that manages music bands and connects them to clients.
He says most bands of yesteryears may have fizzled out as a result of general mismanagement and misuse of funds.

“Back then, they made good money because there were fewer bands thus demand was higher than supply.

Things have changed

Now things have changed and there are many bands, thus the pay is not as good,” he says.

And what about their affordability? M’Arachi concurs that most people looking for a wedding entertainer considers the cost before any other consideration such as the band’s proficiency.

Costs, he says, depend on the setup and can range between Sh40,000 to a high of Sh800,000.
“Some who opt for a band do it with the expectation that the cost of a band is the same as a DJ.

However, in reality, because a band has many individuals in it, and requires more equipment and labour, the cost is much higher,” he says.
So will bands fizzle out of weddings? “Unlikely.

As more young people opt to learn DJying with the thinking that it’s easier, instrumentalists become rare. And as they become rare, they become more valuable.”