Justo Otongo Asikoye is one of the founding members of Jabali Afrika who gave us Afro-fusion hits such as Aoko, Dedan Kimathi and Njelele.
Tell us more about Jabali Afrika
Jabali Afrika was founded at the Kenya National Theatre in 1996. We moved to the US and have lived there ever since, performing in different states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maryland before settling in Washington DC where we currently ply our trade.
You were in Kenya a few months ago?
Yes, I was here to open a production company, Culture Hub Live Entertainment. We have a label that we want to grow as a way of giving back to the community. We are keen to help make other Jabali Afrikas.
Are you still together as Jabali Afrika?
Jabali is firm and strong. What I have been doing is part of Jabali. The rest of the team will be coming home soon to perform and shoot the video for our latest songs.
Why did you leave Kenya where you had established following?
We wanted to achieve more. Kenya has a population of 40 million and we wanted our music to reach a wider audience. We wanted to be like the men we admire, such as Hugh Masekela, Manu Dibango and the Osibisa — which was a big band back in the 1970s and 1980s.
So we left with the normal visas, and then our agency used to renew our visas. Soon we were granted a Green Card under the privilege of aliens with extraordinary abilities.
Where did you start when you landed in the US?
We landed in New York. But we soon realised that New York was a different beast. Then we moved to Pennsylvania, which was more laid back. We also tried Michigan and but we settled in D.C.
Biggest challenge you had while in the US?
We had to start from scratch. Nobody knew who Jabali were. The world is big. We were just a drop in the ocean. We had to start cultivating, working hard, just the way we did here in Kenya.
Best thing to happen to you when you landed in the US?
We got an agent who for 18 years helped us record eight albums. We met new people, and we learned a lot about the music industry and business. We learnt about our intellectual and publishing rights.
Locally, musicians get ripped off, and they don’t know. They are being used to make other people rich. And these are the things that we want to come and teach the people who are going to be affiliated to us.
We already have 10 artistes that we want to teach these things. And we will get them good agents. Thing is, you don’t have to go to Europe or America for you to succeed. You can make it here. Because even out there when they realize that you don’t know your rights, you can be ripped off too.
Did you do any collabo with any big names?
Yeah, we did a lot of shows with several big names. The Marley family, Blues Traveller - which was a big rock band in the 1980s and ‘90s and the Taj Mahal, a blues maestro. We did a show with the Marleys, actually they are the people who brought us to the mainstream in the World Music Festival.
You back in Kenya 20 years later -- have things changed in your view?
The industry is pretty much rewarding to the people, but in terms of publishing, we need to straighten that part. Musicians have to be paid all their royalties from radio and TV whenever their music is played as it happens everywhere else.
It is sad when musicians have to rely on live music. Live music will not sustain you forever. You need to have other alternatives.
Anyone in Kenya you are keen to collabo with?
Oh yes, we have got a lot of young cats that we are working with. We got Kipsang Tobby, Esidindi, a great a cappella group, Rick na Marafiki. These are groups that are at least composing and playing music with a cultural link.
I want somebody who is purely Kenyan like Grandmaster Masese who plays Obokano. All these are coming up. I am looking up at people who are young and hungry, and want to grow. That is how you leave a legacy. I am happier doing a collabo with a young person than say with a Marley, because passion comes first before the money. Established stars can be problematic.
Do you think young musicians such as Esidindi can live off their music?
Oh sure. Now they can pay rent. But we want them to have more money so that they can do more like build a house, buy a car and still have something to save for the kids. Your kids must never inherit poverty.
That will demotivate them. Like the Marley had their father’s treasure trove of music rights that they still make millions from. We want such things to happen even here in Africa, let’s not even talk about their shows.
What does your music address?
We talk about social justice, life, motivation, spatiality. We want them to feel the rhythm, and digest our uplifting lyrics.
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