Growing up, Milly Mumbo Fedha looked up to her brothers, Rumba and Benga musicians Musa Juma and Omondi Tom, yearning to follow in their footsteps. But her parents had a different idea for her -- a more respectable career in engineering. Now an established musician, she tells Caroline Nyanga about going against the grain to pursue her dream
When Milly Mumbo Fedha announced to her family that she had decided to pursue music as a career, her parents, relatives and friends fiercely opposed her choice.
Music had been a big part of her ever since she was a child. Her two elder brothers Musa Juma Mumbo and Omondi Tony were renowned musicians who had launched a band together in Nairobi. The band, Orchestra Limpopo International, had helped them rise to national fame with their music, which borrowed elements from the popular Congolese rumba style.
Milly looked up to her brothers and dreamed of becoming a musician — but her family, especially her father, would hear none of it.
“Each time I brought up the topic, my father — Cleophas Mumbo, a policeman by profession — would strongly object to it with the support of my mother Anastacia Awuor,” Milly says adding that her mother was a second wife among her father’s three wives with 18 children.
“I received a lot of pressure from my family who strongly believed that by pursuing engineering, I would become a highly regarded person in society,” says Milly. “They believed I would be better able to assist our large polygamous family. They also believed that music was a career for hooligans. They associated it with social vices like irresponsible sex and drug and alcohol abuse.”
Milly confesses that the pressure to become an engineer did more harm than good to her. She joined New George’s College in Nairobi for a diploma in electrical engineering, but her heart was not in it.
“It was the worst time of my life. Being forced to do something contrary to my heart’s desire made me feel guilty and out of place. It really took a toll on me and led to depression and anxiety. I felt frustrated, powerless and overwhelmed. I couldn’t even concentrate on my studies,” she says.
Milly says she tried her best to stay in school and do what her parents wanted but after only a year, she couldn’t take it anymore. She quit college, taking her family completely by surprise. At some point, Milly narrates, her father chose to disassociate himself with her for a few months. It took the intervention of close family and friends for him to understand and start to speak to her again.
Looking back, Milly says that perhaps her parents were simply being overprotective of her, just like any parents would. “All in all, let’s just say parents, at their very best, are supportive and understanding of the choices their children make in life. But at their worst (or as we think is the worst), they are adamant about a specific way to live life,” she says.
Now out of school, Milly began her quest for a career in music. She began by frequenting joints where famous rumba musicians performed. Occasionally, her brother Musa would invite her to provide background vocals at his performances and, with time, she nurtured her talent and connections.
Over the next seven years, she performed for small audiences, often being forced to accept gigs in dingy establishments within Nairobi’s sprawling areas.
“The struggle was real. I recall sometimes performing to empty seats simply because I was unknown,” Milly narrates.
In 2008, Milly received news that her mother Anastacia Owuor Mumbo had died. Only three months after her mother’s burial, her brother Omondi died in a road accident.
“The deaths of my mother and brother were a reality check. I realised I had to change my life for the better,” says Milly, who says she had to take up the care of her younger siblings, even without a stable job or income.
With the help of her brother Musa, Milly continued to build her career. Musa’s band Orchestra Limpopo International gradually rose to fame and toured various countries with singers and guitarists from Congo, Tanzania, and Kenya.
As her brother’s popularity grew, Milly hung around, learning and growing from the exposure. In his career, Musa Juma released eight albums, with popular songs like Freddy, Hera Mudho, Mercelina and Ufisadi making him and his band household names.
Then in March 2011, tragedy stuck; Milly received news that Musa had fallen ill and that he had died. She had not only lost her brother, she was now also without a mentor and was all alone in her career. To make matters worse, with the deaths of her father, mother and brother having happened only a few years before, there were whispers by relatives that her family was “jinxed.”
Although local rumba lovers were of the opinion that the death of Musa Juma marked the end of local rumba and his band Limpopo International, Milly managed to perfectly fit in her brother’s shoes. She took over the band, made some changes to it and renamed it Super Limpopo.
Now with her own band, Milly continued to build her career. Still, she struggled to draw crowds to her performances. “The only thing that occasionally attracted revellers to the show was that they associated Super Limpopo with Limpopo International Band,” Milly says, recalling their first ever pay was Sh5000 for a performance. She used Sh2500 to pay for the musical equipment they had hired and split the rest among the band members.
“One lesson I have learnt is to accept the brutal realities in life. I have learned to use whatever situation I face to become a better version of myself. Sometimes, we just need a reality check to see how we are doing so we can change our lives for the better,” says Milly.
After several years in the musical backwaters, Milly is today a household name in local rumba circles. A mother, wife and bandleader, she has broken into new territory by shooting music videos in Nigeria’s Enugu State. The videos feature several Nollywood stars as dancers and actors.
Some of the videos are shot and directed by award winning Nollywood producer and director Jude Chukwuma Odoh. He also features in the video for one of Milly’s most popular songs, Najina Bata Dance.
Others are renowned Nigerian musician Halley Dee and actor O Justice Chidebere in the songs Yona and Jaherana respectively.
“I met director Odoh late last year, during a movie shoot in Kenya, courtesy of Conny Kabarry Productions. Upon expressing my interest to work with him among other Nollywood stars, I presented my project to him and he invited me to Nigeria’s Enugu State a few months later,” she says adding that from then on there was no looking back.
Led by director Odoh, it took the team one week to shoot her new album Najina Bata Dance which features Nollywood stars and professional dancers from Nigeria’s Ibo land, Congolese and Kenyan.
Sang in Dholuo, Kiswahili, a tinge of English, Ibo and Lingala, Milly’s latest album is popular with rumba fans both locally and abroad.
Nicknamed Amaka by her Nigerian fans, the ambitious musician says she is determined to succeed where her predecessors failed. She says that she is exhilarated that her friends in Nigeria are now dancing to Kenyan rumba beats.
“It was just a matter of time before I introduced something different from what other rumba musicians have done,” says Milly who admits the journey has not been easy.
Milly’s latest move has not only revived Kenyan rumba, previously viewed as ‘dead and buried,’ but also introduced her music to a whole new market in Nigeria.
Life without love
Love is main theme of Milly’s new release that has taken her close to eight months to write, shoot and record.
“Life without love is unbearable. You must be loved and love others to live a meaningful life,” says the soft-spoken musician, adding that people get deeply moved by love songs.
The musician says she is grateful to her fans, family and close friends for their unwavering support.
“They are my employer, they have made me who I am,” says Milly whose video shoot budget in Nigeria was sponsored by close friends and ardent fans at a cost of Sh2 million.
While in Nigeria, Milly also dipped her feet in the film industry pool by featuring in a Nollywood movie titled The Devil You Know, alongside Kenyan actress and producer Connie Kabarry. The movie, which features a number of Nollywood and Kenyan actors, was launched in Nairobi in early this year.
“I look forward to working more with Nigerian artists and actors in the near future. They are talented and I need to use the opportunity to tap their skills before I can stand on my own,” says Milly who hopes to establish her company in Kenya to nurture local talent in music and acting. She says it breaks her heart to see so many talented yet jobless youth engaging in crime. She hopes her contribution to the music and film industries will better the lives of young people, many of who are facing the struggles she has gone through.
To celebrate seven years of entertainment with Super Limpopo, Milly is set to launch her new album at Nairobi’s New Egesa East Villa, Umoja One, on Saturday November 3, and Havannas Club, Kisumu on November 10. Nigerian film director and producer Jude Odoh will lead a contingent of Nollywood stars who will grace the occasion.
In Nairobi, notable acts, among them Ohangla singer Musa Jakadalla and Benga musician Dola Kabarry are set to give fans curtain raising sessions before paving way for Milly.
In Kisumu, Abenny Jachiga, Freddy Jakadongo, and Kamongo Gir Kado will perform.
With gate charges pegged at Sh1000 VIP and Sh500 regular on both occasions, fans are expected to throng the events that Milly has assured them will be explosive.
“The grand launch is clear indication of my greatest achievement in music, something I will live to cherish. I hope to be a role model to many people including upcoming and aspiring musicians,” says Milly.
Milly says she is determined to work hard to, in the next five years, make Super Limpopo one of the best rumba music bands in East and Central Africa.
“One of the big lessons I have learned from my journey is that it requires courage to make that decisive step and make a change in your life.”
Today, Milly is convinced she has a role to play in educating the public through her music. This, in fact, is evident in her lyrics from real life experiences and how to cope.
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