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Living beyond the grave



As mourners paid their last respects to Kenya’ s music maestro Habel Kifoto, his fans still yearn to hear his music hoping the family will release the album he had just completed, writes CAROLINE NYANGA


Even though the Amka Kumekucha composer will never wake up, the legacy of his music lives forever.

Habel Kifoto, one of Kenya’s most accomplished musicians was interred last Saturday in Taita Taveta County, in a ceremony where tears and praise flowed in equal measure.

Kifoto during his heydays.  [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

The legendary artiste is known for the evergreen song Amka kumekucha, played on national broadcaster VoK (now KBC) for years to urge Kenyans to rise up early and build the nation.

His career spanning more than three decades saw him record and lead one of the most popular bands, Maroon Commados.

Born in Taita District, Coast Province, Kifoto ventured in music in the 1960s by playing bass guitar before horning his skills in solo lead guitar.

For four years from 1967, he performed with the Strollers Band at the famous Bamboo nightclub in Nairobi’s River Road, which was managed by an Iranian businessman.

Within no time, they became popular across East Africa.

During one of their concerts, an ardent fan known as Lieutenant Colonel Muchemi (now retired) approached Kifoto together with fellow musician David Kibe.

He had watched them perform regularly on television and admired their skills. But little did they know that the small talk would transform their lives for the better. They were recruited in the army.


After six months of training in Gilgil, the two civilians graduated into army men. During his time in the armed forces, Kifoto served as an accounts clerk for regimental funds before moving to store keeping and finally as a senior sergeant until his retirement in 2002.

In the meantime Kifoto and a few others formed Maroon Commandos band and were based in Gilgil where they practised three times a week.

In 1971, the Seventh Battalion band found its way to PolyGram Studios and recorded two songs. The song Emily, composed by Kifoto, soon topped the charts edging out groups like Jamhuri Jazz Band and Morogoro Band who were then dominant.

Their success prompted them to perform beyond the confines of the military and travelled to major towns in the country and entertained people in various institutions and private events.

In 1972, during one of their performance trips up country, their car overturned and claimed their saxophonist – Peter Masheti.

Original Maroon Commandos comprised 11 musicians.

To date, only seven members are alive with four others having died after leaving the band.

Those alive include David Kibe who worked as Kifoto’s assistant, lead singer, composer and saxophonist.

Among the founding members who are alive include Ringo Ibrahim lead singer, Tony Karanja, bass guitarists Juma Kizito and Jared Otieno, lead guitarist Joel Muchiri and Joshua Ogoma. They have since quit the group for other businesses.

The devastation saw the group stall for almost five years eliciting suggestions they had quit music for other careers. But Kifoto proved doubters wrong when in 1977, he released the chartbuster Mama yu Wapi to make a grand comeback.

The song became a must listen besides selling thousands of copies across East Africa. There was no stopping Kifoto who followed up with Charonyi ni Wasi which also sold millions of copies.

Other titles composed by Kifoto include Amka Kumekucha, Uvivu ni Mbaya, Riziki, Christina, Pesa Maradhi ya Moyo and Bila Jasho.

Even in death Kifoto remains a hero for his leadership skills, singing and playing bass and solo guitars. He was also a great saxophonist and keyboardist.

Posthumous Release

Prior to his death, Kifoto had completed working on a 10 track album, Wanamarana, done in various styles.

The album is recorded by Bruce Odhiambo who describes Kifoto as a brilliant, creative artiste and composer.

 “He was a sober minded fellow with a vision to make things happen the right way. His simple and humble nature made him a favourite among many besides being the voice of Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK),” he said.

Bruce reveals that Kifoto’s last album will be released soon depending on the decision of his family.

“I intend to give it to his next of kin since I believe that would be his wish.” 

Kifoto had planned for a major concert in Mombasa’s Car Park but it was not to be.

He served as the chairman of MCSK for almost a decade. He leaves seven children – two boys and five girls.  His wife Esther Catherine Jazzy died two years ago. 

Kifoto, a burly guitarist, composer and no nonsense bandleader, is credited with guiding Maroon Commandos to the pinnacle, giving competition to Kenya-based Congolese and Tanzanian bands.

His death is a blow to the music fraternity, which is still mourning the death of Musa Juma of Limpopo International Band and Boniface Mghanga of Muungano Choir.

His albums include Raziki Haivatu, Dawan Nimuone Hani, Pesa Maradhi Ya Moyo (with Daudi Kabaka), Hasiri na Hasara, Bila Jasho, Mwakaribishwa na Maroon, Bonya Kutché, Shikamoo, Shika Kamba, Kenya Unite, Habel Kifoto and Maroon Commandoes – Greatest Hits.

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