13 years later, Rhumba legend Musa Juma's melodies live on

Rhumba legend Musa Juma. [File, Standard]

It’s slightly past midnight in Kenya. Thousands of miles away in the British town of Edinburgh, Ms Lydia Owuor is hosting a nightlong tribute show for late rhumba musician Musa Juma.

At this wee hour, Ms Owuor is in her element as close to 3,000 Kenyans spread across the globe log in to follow her ‘reincarnation’ of the musician’s compositions.

On her Facebook, TikTok and X handles, the internet sensation broadcasts several hits as she lip-syncs to them. She then recites profiles of Mr Juma’s Limpopo International  Band members and talks about fans and sponsors the musician ever mentioned in his songs.

“I am keeping the legend’s memory alive. He was a cut above the rest. I am glad to tell his story and to keep him in our hearts,” Ms Owuor, also known online as Lando Obera and a student in the UK, tells Sunday Standard

And as Ms Owuor embarks on her online charm offensive, ardent Benga enthusiasts in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and Western Kenya towns prepare for gigs in their local entertainment spots next week as they remember the fallen legend.

Next week – on March 15 – fans will mark the 13th anniversary of Mr Juma’s death. They say the charm of his music has refused to die down. The composer, lead singer and guitarist is believed to have changed Benga genre’s form to be more tantalising.

Observers say few today would match Mr Juma’s prowess. He adeptly blended Benga with Congolese rhumba – often lengthy, slow-paced, rich in tone variations but poetic – with many songs that exemplified a power of vocals and instrumentals.

Some fans consider him as Kenya’s version of Franco Makiadi of DR Congo. In previous interviews, he described his specialty as ‘benga internationale’ to imply a strategic fusion of ordinary Luo Benga with a magical touch of Congolese sensations.

Western Kenya has had many seasoned Luo benga musicians like Owino Misiani, Okatch Biggy, George Ramogi, Collela Mazee, Prince Jully, George Dume, Jerry Jalamo, Omondi Longlilo, Lady Morine and others. But fans admit that there was ‘something’ about Musa Juma.

His revered hits like ‘Maselina’, ‘Hera Mwandu (love is wealth)’ and ‘Hera Mudho (love is blind)’ to date put listeners on the edge of their seats. One would think the hit-maker who fans called ‘MJ’ is still alive and belting them out live on stage.

Mary Awino, a music scholar, says Mr Juma’s hits have not been wiped out by the evident popularity of Ohangla music over Benga. “Fans would listen to Prince Inda, Musa Jakadala and Emma Jalamo but would never drop Musa Juma. His songs have retained ‘good feel’ value,” says Ms Awino, who points to the online popularity of Mr Juma’s songs long after he died.  

Mr Wally Mayienga, a Benga musician, says: “Juma’s songs have retained their allure more than 10 years after the maestro died. It is proof that his talent was extraordinary. Next week’s anniversary should bring fans together in honouring a man who fought hard to make a name.”

“The musician combines grit with class and talent,” Mr David Opiyo who runs an entertainment spot in Homa Bay says. “We will be holding various events next Friday with local musicians to keep Musa Juma’s memory alive,” he added.

Many are called but few are chosen, you would say. Mr Juma defied odds to climb the charts. He never had much formal education.

Together with his brother and fellow musician Omondi Tony, they fought off shackles of poverty at home in Alego, Siaya, to launch their careers.

After many sore false-starts in Kisumu, Siaya and Muhoroni, Juma and Tony formed the Limpopo Band in 1990 and recorded their first album in 1992.

Almost giving up due to the rigours of the game, the two staged shows in backstreet clubs with little impact. It was until early 2000s that their efforts paid off.

Between 2001 and 2006, Mr Juma and his Limpopo Band bestrode the Benga scene like a colossus. His team had talents such as John Junior (now leader of BV band), Jose Mzungu, Sande Asweda, Frank Libe, Prof Azile, Salapata Salawowo and Ken Watenya.

The maestro had eight albums to his name, some on video, with tracks like JB Omwaga, Rosy, O’yoo Daktari, Rapar Owino, Ongolo, Pacheko, Clackson, Rikni nyombo, Fiance, Mayaka, Christina, Aggrey, Auma, Osiepe, Gidali, Ratego Baba, Siaya Kababa, Freddy and Saida.

Majority fans adored Fiance, Maselina, Siaya Kababa and Rapar Owino. In ‘Maselina’, he fears the tendency by some women to jump into affairs with rich men. He also chides men who tout money and property to win over women.

In Siaya Kababa, MJ celebrates Helena, an estranged childhood girlfriend whom he implores to “return to me even if you have given birth to 10 children.” Another favourite number is ‘Rikni Nyombo in which he advises the young never to rush into marriage.

Ahead of a six-month musical tour of Texas, Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the US, Juma released an album dubbed Lake Victoria. In one of the tracks, he thanks God and his family while explaining how he had become a laughing stock courtesy of a previous failed marriage and other life challenges. 

On March 15, 2011, Juma died in Mombasa, the very city where his brother Tony died in a car crash on June 6, 2008. Their sibling Milly Fedha inherited his band under the name Super Limpopo International. To MJ’s fans, the fallen legend is alive in his melodies and his memory will linger beyond imagination.

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