The melodious sound of an accordion playing welcomes you to the home of Josphat Wanzala at Lutonyi, on the outskirts of Kakamega town.
We found the 68-year-old Anglican Church minister playing a song based on Psalms 23 on his accordion.
Once a very popular musical instrument, the accordion is rarely used by present-day musicians. It is in a family of box-shaped musical instruments that originated from Great Britain.
Mr Wanzala is perhaps among only a handful of individuals in Kakamega who still know how to play the instrument. Formerly a civil servant, Mr Wanzala dedicates his life to singing worship and praise songs.
“The accordion has become a rare musical instrument. I have been jealously guarding mine,” he says while gently caressing it.
Mr Wanzala, a father of four, recalls the day he played the instrument for the late President Daniel Moi at State House, Nairobi, in 1996.
“I was a member of Christ the King ACK Milimani Choir in Kakamega. We had performed at Kasarani Stadium on Madaraka Day before the president. Our impressive show opened State House doors for us,” he says.
The pastor recalls how State House orderlies made arrangements for their accommodation for three days in the city before the Madaraka Day event
Since then, the accordion has seen him travel far and wide to entertain and showcase his musical prowess. Mr Wanzala says he discovered his singing talent while in primary school in the early 1980s.
“I used to sing from primary school and by the time I reached secondary school, I was able to play some instruments. After finishing my O-Level education, I travelled to Butere to see my brother and that is how I came into contact with an accordion for the first time,” he says.
“I was lucky because my brother gifted me the instrument and told me to take it to an expert to fix it,” he adds, noting that his brother had two accordions.
Wanzala says the instrument was a product of a company in England that collapsed, and that it could only be repaired in the UK. However, he continued playing it as he planned on how to have it repaired.
“It was the old model accordion with six buttons, three of them functional. I continued playing it because it would have been costly to repair it. I needed Sh1,800 for repair.”
Before his brother died in 1984, he sold the new accordion, diminishing Wanzala’s hopes of ever playing it.
“I travelled to Nairobi to look for an expert who could fix my accordion but no one could fix it. Only the manufacturing company in the UK could do the job, but the firm had closed shop,” he says.
Lady luck smiled on him when one evening, the owner of a shop where he used to do minor repairs of the instrument called to inform that a visiting British soldier wanted to sell his accordion. “On arrival at the shop, the soldier told me to sing one stanza while playing his accordion. A crowd started forming. They were enthralled by the music and marvelled at my prowess,” recalls Mr Wanzala.
The soldier agreed to sell the accordion to him on credit after learning that he was a student and a civil servant at the same time.
Last year, the same shop owner reached out to him offering a new model accordion, which Mr Wanzala bought at Sh60,000.
The new model has 29 buttons, unlike the older one which has only 10 buttons. The price of one accordion ranges between Sh35,000 and Sh125,000 depending on the size and brand.
“Playing accordion is not for the fainthearted. One must develop interest and have passion. I train people to play it. It takes about four weeks to master everything,” he says. “It is possible to mint a lot of money from playing the accordion. However, I don’t do it for money but it is a passion that drives me. I cannot go far if I start charging money for my talent,” he adds.
Wanzala began performing in events and places of worship full throttle in 2005.
“I have traversed East Africa performing in Uganda, Tanzania and almost all parts of Kenya. People welcome me everywhere I go because they would like to listen to unique music.
“One time I used a wrong exit after performing at a public event in Butere and landed in the hands of army soldiers who released me after I played the accordion. Some gifted me with cash and I was escorted by others,” he says.
Mr Wanzala has become famous in Western where his fans have nicknamed him Mtu wa Kinanda. His wife, Emmah Makokha, says his melodies enticed her to join the church choir.
“I met my husband long before he acquired an accordion, but he was a talented singer. I was moved by his singing prowess,” she says. “This instrument has played a key role in cementing our relationship as husband and wife.”
Mr Wanzala holds a diploma in social sciences and conflict management from the University of Nairobi and sometimes spends his time resolving disputes in his home village.