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Joy to the world, but no cheer for Kenyans from our local artistes

By Abenea Ndago | December 20th 2014

Kenya: Barring the fact that Christmas is a secular ritual traceable to the Roman Empire, does Jesus Christ usually smile from ear to ear each time a Christmas carol is sung to celebrate his birth?

It is difficult to tell, but he probably cherishes those timeless songs. At any rate, he has never returned in an ambush and roughed people up the way he did at discovering that some of his followers had turned his father’s church into a bubbling market yard. If so, then there is a very important musical lesson that the modern Kenyan singer can learn from Jesus.

Consider the two songs, Joy to the World and Jingle Bells. Both are very uplifting American songs which nearly the whole world sings around this time of the year. Of course, here in our country, a few Kenyan gospel singers who usher in the festive season on a certain TV channel do so with the same sense of copycat entitlement which I have come to associate with many Kenyan singers. They almost create the impression that Silent Night – a third Christmas carol – was first composed by their very grandfathers here in East Africa.

Most of them do not know the following: that Joy to the World was first composed by the American, Isaac Watts, in 1719; that Jingle Bells was the work of another American, James Lord Pierpont, in 1857; and that Silent Night is an Austrian song, first composed by one Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

What immediately strikes you is the age of the carols themselves. Joy is 295 years old, Jingle is 157, and Silent is 196 solid years (independent Kenya is just 51 years old). The songs go as far back as the time of your grandfather’s grandfather. But they are still so fresh, so immediate, that a Kenyan gospel singer performing them on a TV channel is willing to shed tears. Partly because of the existence of Christianity as a religion, the songs have all refused to die.

But the truth is that there is not black magic about these three songs. The only secret is that, as the years go by, musicians from the Western world keep casting and recasting the melodies of the three carols so as to keep up with the mood of the times.

The following notable bands/singers have done their own versions of Joy to the World: Boney M (1984), John Rutter (1983), The Supremes (1965), Andy Williams (1974), Mariah Carey (1994), Charlotte Church (2000), The Jonas Brothers (2008), Whitney Houston (1996), Patty Loveless & Jon Randall (2002), Clay Aiken (2004), Faith Hill (2008). Similarly, Jingle Bells has been redone by a constellation of artistes, including The Beatles, Elvis Presley, John Denver, and even Don Carlos (reggae lovers must be smiling with glee).

If you do not know most of the names above, surely you must know Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. We should agree that no Kenyan singer has ever been to Kenya what Carey and Elvis are to America, and what The Beatles are to Britain. Knowing very well what cultural treasure music is, Britain and the US treat their three cultural icons like gods.


But these are the same venerated deities that recast a piece of music once sung in 1719. The question is: if these international artistes redo songs, then who are you not to? The answer is, you are a music parasite waiting for others to create, and then you steal.

No, the American and European singers are not alone. The same trend goes on in Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Benin, Ghana, Senegal, The Gambia, DR Congo, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda – everywhere else except Kenya. If you listen to a popular South African song which receives wonderful airplay in Kenya (Khona by Mafikizolo), you realize that it is a purely traditional song which has only been modernized. But here, people are content to mimic Rihanna and Bob Marley.

Every music historian will tell you that there is no short-cut to building national music other than the difficult path travelled by the countries I have named above: digging up what your pioneers did, and modernising it.

That is why Eric Wainaina and Sauti Sol must be commended because, even though they are neither Mijikenda nor Luo, you constantly hear the melodies of coastal chakacha and Luo benga running in their songs. They are doing what Mobutu Sese Seko once encouraged Luambo Makiadi to do in the then Zaire. You can be certain that the gods of music will not let them down. They must both proceed because even Jesus Christ nods to music that has been redone


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