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How Western Commandoes weathered musical storms

Living

This is a joke: If you yesterday met a man from Western Kenya whistling his favourite tune after winning a certain midday battle (end of joke), then probably the song was ‘Tindikiti’ (Mulongo) by David Barasa, or ‘Mukangala’ by the late Jacob Luseno. But the former is a circumcision song, so its fame is restrictive.

On the contrary, the cheeky popularity of the latter song has received very warm reception even from communities that are alien to Idakho cultural music (the late Luseno’s community). Trust every Kenyan to suddenly stoop forward and jerk their shoulders whenever they catch the Mukangala fever.

“We have come a long way,” says the current band leader Mr Naphtali Shitoka. “Due to leadership disputes, the band had to change its name several times. We are now called ‘Western Commandoes Success Band’, and our benga beat does well in Kenya.”

Mr Shitoka says he joined the group in 2006 at the band’s historical home, Bora Bora Restaurant in Kawangware (that is also where the late Daudi Kabaka performed till his death in 2001). They were then under Jacob Luseno’s leadership, the singer who founded the band in the early 1970s. In its lifetime, Western Commandoes Success Band has several times changed from ‘Nabongo Success’, ‘Phoenix’, ‘Phonotex’, ‘Phonitex’, to its current name.

The band leader remembers, “The most trying moment for us was the period immediately after our leader’s death on January 3, 2006. We were performing at Bora Bora Restaurant. News would reach us that someone had gathered a small band somewhere, and they were claiming to be us, the original owners of the Mukangala song. It used to wear us down because they would collect all the money and disappear in the air”.

The band’s music has been produced by Zamalek Productions and Hia Productions. Mr Shitoka observes that even though the initial imposters were people unknown to them, the problem later worsened when a few band members started behaving in a similar way. “A band member would break away and find new singers. They then spread the lie that they were the people who had taken over after Luseno’s death”.

In the song ‘Mukangala’, the servant character by that name is being castigated by the wife of his Nairobi boss for cheating fellow servants that the boss’s house is his (Mukangala’s). The boss has gone abroad, and Mukangala cheats his friends that Mukangala is the woman’s husband. In the chorus, the boss’s wife humiliates Mukangala in the presence of his friends: Mukangala usunduli busi (Mukangala you are a bad liar)/Mukangala hamba (Mukangala come here)/Khurumi bumena bwi tsitsimbwa khusokoni (Now hurry to the market and buy omena for the dog).

The singer who acts Mukangala in the video is Sammy Ingosi, band member since 1997. The one who plays the wife’s role – Roselida – is Ruth Lutenyi (her voice is very distinctive in most of their songs). She joined the band in 1998. Even though the song is very popular in Kenya, Lutenyi and Ingosi both swear they have known only pain since 2004, the year ‘Mukangala’ was produced.

“I am still waiting to see”, says Ms Lutenyi. “When we came to record the song in Nairobi in 2004, I left the village and used my savings. After the recording, the producer gave each of us Sh2,000 only. And the producer was extremely harsh. We have never received any other money. For us, that was the first and last fruit we ever plucked from our ‘Mukangala’ tree.”

Shitoka regrets that piracy has been their biggest headache. He says the Government and the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) are both capable of doing more in helping musicians benefit from their sweat.

“Perhaps MCSK tries,” he observes, “that is why I see them driving cars. But I do not believe that what we experience today is their best”.

Western Commandoes Success Band comprises ten members. The other singers are Manoah Shipuoni, Ben Omwaka, James Kwendo, Boaz Ojango, Justus Akumali, George Makani, and Valentine Atema. The band has produced 8 albums since Luseno’s death in 2006. These include: Mukangala Part 2 (2006), Luchimili (2008), Mukangala Part 3 (2010), Khutsi Ingo (2011), Ipete Yanje (2012), Weco (2013), Mundu Khu Mundu (2014), and Ours For Ever (2014).

Shitoka says their songs are here to stay. He explains, “Co-operation and discipline has been our banner. We are inspired by the music of the late Jacob Luseno, John Nzenze, as well as the soccer wizardry of AFC Leopards”.

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