‘Play it again, Sam, play it for old times’ sake. Play ‘As Time Goes By …’ a line from the movie, ‘Casablanca.’ This article could well begin this way. ‘Once upon a time, Bruce Odhiambo took a bunch of us on an unforgettable trip to Casablanca.’
But this is a musical piece, a bit of recording - no pun intended - about a Colossus who bestrode both the world of regional music, and across the lives of many musicians, and left a lasting impression that even his death (at 54, in a Nairobi hospital) can never erase.
And it is telling how the tributes to Bruce Odhiambo poured in - from President Uhuru Kenyatta, right down to the chefs who worked for the man at his plush house on Brookside Drive; and served the president himself once-in-a-while, as they spoke with Bruce Odhiambo over a meal and bottle of Glenlivet.
Their buddy-ship went back decades when they both were high school mates in Saint Mary’s. It is also where the origins of Bruce Odhiambo’s deep passion for and interest in music began. If his mother had not transferred him from Eastleigh High School to the elite Saint Mary’s as a teenager, it is likely that Bruce (with his broad built) would have instead of the double bass and violin, picked up trouble, playing ‘boss’ and violence in its place.
As has now been told and retold, Bruce was the only boy in his years from the wrong side of Uhuru Highway - Jericho - a world which to the ‘barbies’ in his class, may well have been as far away as the Jericho in the Middle East or even Babylonia (modern-day Baghdad).
And if then VP’s VIP son David Kibaki had foreseen the places the motorcycle he lend broke Bruce would take him, he might have paraphrased the quote from the movie Casablanca: ‘Of all the abandoned motorcycles in all the towns in all the world, you, Bruce, borrow mine?’
That Kibaki motorbike would literally begin Bruce Odhiambo’s journey into music. Parking it for safekeeping in neighbouring Harambee estate with a young man called Philip Mwakia would lead to Bruce ‘jamming’ with the man on River road after he completed high school.
Becoming a session guitarist, and crisscrossing the worlds of rhumba would lead Odhiambo to working with the likes of Ochieng Kabaselleh and Joseph Kamaru (who passed away last year, and on whom we did an expansive piece on this space).
He became a regular band bit member in the land of disco, at clubs like Starlight and Halians. He would later be an investor in the nightclub Toys, and when that closed, in the notorious but lucrative Club Casablanca down in Mombasa. (For some years, this writer would also be an in-law of Odhiambo, through his daughter Simeone, but that’s a story for no other day). As President Uhuru recalled, Bruce was also a member of Safari Sounds & The Spartans in his twenties, and they recorded popular songs like ‘Mama Lea Mtoto’ and the bestselling ‘Jambo Bwana.’
An incident in South Africa, combined with his humble roots in Eastlando, would lead Bruce into being a lifelong ‘philanthropist,’ especially with down-on-their-luck musicians. A rogue promoter left the band stranded in a hotel room in S.A. way back when, forcing them to live on bread and water (like Chinese prisoners) for weeks. In later life, Odhiambo would run what was literally a ‘chef and whiskey’ kitchen off his house on Brookside Drive in Westlands, which was open to every bypassing local artist, by bwana Bruce Odhiambo.
It was here in the ‘naughty aughties,’ during our early years as entertainment journalists, that we first met and socialized with the likes of Mercy Myra, Kanji Mbugua, Kayamba Afrika and, most memorably, members of K-South (Kariobangi crew), from Doobeeez aka Abbas Kubaff (with whom we’d have a crazy ole time on that Odhiambo-sponsored trip to Mombasa); as well as Bamboo - who would be the course of my personal paparazzi ‘persona non grata’ from the Bruce House for years.
Bruce Odhiambo was also a major character in a pioneering film called ‘Project Daddy.’ And it was at his house that we’d begin a ‘frenemy’ relationship with one Nini Wacera, as well as a long association with the fabulous film (and documentary) maker, Judy Kibinge.
In short, Bruce brought all sorts of folks, from all walks of life, together, in his lifetime. He was that persona from the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If.’ ‘… if you can talk with crowds and not lose yourself to the mob, or dine with Kings and not lose the common tough …’ Bruce was yule msee! (And we’ll not delve further into his musical career, except to say he even got to produce Koffi Olomide).