As the coronavirus curbs took toll, many people found the going difficult. One of the worst-hit was the entertainment industry, and Kenyan based foreign bands bore the brunt of it. Take the case of the many Congolese bands that have over time become entertainment staple for many a club. Most of these musicians depend on income from club performance to make ends meet, so when bars were shut, they found themselves swinging in the wind without an anchor.
Disco Longwa Ngoi, the bandleader of Bana Mazembe, an affiliate of Super Mazembe, says the going has been tough. He says the 12-member band “has been forced to live from hand to mouth due to low payments and a number of them have been kicked out of their houses due to non-payment of rent. We have been struggling to survive with occasional handouts from a section of Kenyan friends, well-wishers and fans, among them,” says Ngoi.
He says lack of valid passports and work permits has denied many such bands and musicians opportunities available to local artists. He says prior to the pandemic, they earned enough money to sustain them. “We had four shows every week, during which we entertained fans all night, at Office Park and Karen clubs. At the moment, it’s a nightmare for most Congolese musicians who have no jobs or earn too little to sustain their families,” he says, adding that Congolese living and working abroad are also unable to assist them, with many having lost their jobs.
Kisumu-based Sita Makasi band, led by Paluku Sono Henry, is another story of woe. Having lost all their shows, the band that performed three times a week (Friday, Saturday and Sundays) at Acacia Club, Ciala Resort and Budis Tuskies, resorted to doing odd jobs to fend for their families. “It breaks my heart to watch some of my talented band members resort to doing small scale jobs such as tailoring in remote areas and washing cars,” says Paluku.
He says those who are unable to get menial jobs go hungry for days or resort to begging, most of them having lost their local female or male companions, popularly known as sugar mummies and daddies. JB Ngandu, the bandleader of Senza Muzika, says with the limited time following the curfew, the few clubs in operation are not willing to spend more on live performances. “We only perform twice... starting 5pm to 8.30 pm following the new curfew regulations by the government,” he says. The band has been in existence since 1996. “Most clubs not willing to offer good contracts to musicians like they used to do before. It’s either you accept their terms or go,” he says, adding that only a few clubs are willing to pay slightly more as long as one has good equipment.
Most of the bands lack good equipment. Ngandu says four of his band members were forced to move with their families into one house. “Only for the few who have lived long enough in their premises and have an understanding with their landlords can consider themselves lucky, but only for a while.” Darze Khalend, the bandleader of Bilenge Musica Du Congo, echoes similar sentiments. “Before the pandemic, we used to stage three shows a week which used to earn us 70,000. But the pay has reduced to Sh15,000 per show.”
The 16-member band performed at clubs like Dream Village in Nairobi’s South B, Benelix Lounge in Greenspan, Donholm estate and Pussare Garden. Darze says some of their fans have been supportive during their time of need. He says unlike Kenyan musicians, Congolese musicians living in Kenya are overlooked despite Bilenge Musica having been registered by the government. Darze considers himself a Kenyan having lived here since 1993. Elvis Lola, the bandleader of Afro Sound Moja, says before the pandemic, they performed in several clubs in Nairobi where they were paid well.
TBM band leader Washington Libango says following the last curfew regulations, his band has been staging only two shows a week for three hours. And the limited performance time means little pay. “It feels like living in hell,” says International Rumba du Congo band leader Blaise Kava. He says three of his band members were evicted from their houses. Rumba Japan’s Gobi Lokoni hopes everything will be back to normal soon. The band has the highest number of musicians among locally-based Congolese bands.