Kemoli: the fallen music giant

By Egara Kabaji

Kimoli with his choir in his hey day [Photo: Standard]

“He who never saw his mother while she was still young thinks that the father wasted dowry”.

This popular Kenyan proverb floated into my consciousness when I received the sad news of the death of Arthur Mudogo Kemoli. It was only when the news had settled in that I unravelled the significance of this saying in relation to Kemoli’s life.

In his last days, Kemoli was visibly a pale shadow of the vibrant humorous man I knew. His battle with diabetes and renal complications had left him frail and exhausted. His situation degenerated further when he went blind.

What is, however, more heartrending is that despite all the pain, he never gave up on his passion. He continued to sing and compose songs. He only regretted that he could no longer see his choir members. It was even more humbling to see the old man struggle to learn Braille to enable him to communicate.

The ailments tormented the otherwise agile man and finally brought him down in pain. Those who saw Kemoli in his last days would never know that he was such an animated person in his youth

Generously humorous
Born in 1945, Kemoli went to Busali Union Intermediate School before proceeding to Kakamega High School. His contemporary at the Intermediate School is none other than Prof Henry Indangasi of the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi. Prof Indangasi has many kind words about his former colleague. “Dr Kemoli was simply a very brilliant man.

He passed his primary school examinations highly and proceeded to Kakamega High School for secondary education where he excelled in his “O” level examinations and was admitted to Alliance High School for his “A” level.

As a trailblazer, Kemoli did not disappoint while at Alliance High School. He passed his examinations and joined University of Nairobi, which was then the only university in Kenya where he studied literature.

“Kemoli was the first Kenyan student at the University of Nairobi to get a first class honours degree in literature,” says Prof Indangasi.

This, Indangasi notes, was no mean achievement. Kemoli proceeded to Durham University where he obtained a Master of Arts degree before taking his PhD studies at Sussex University. His PhD degree was on satire in African and Caribbean literature. It was no wonder that Kemoli, in his daily interaction, was not only highly satirical, but generously humorous.

There was another side of Kemoli that only those who were close to him knew. His outgoing nature and almost carefree attitude and love for good life often put him in trouble with his employers. Despite all these, he was, in every sense of the word, a man of nine lives.

He enjoyed all that goes with youthful passion for good life. He took his fair share of what my friend, the late Wahome Mutahi, often referred to as Jeremiah’s waters. It was during such moments that you would find Kemoli in his element. It is not farfetched to assume that these were the moments he got in touch with his muses that enabled him to compose enduring pieces. Those who often socialised with him acknowledge that such were the times to savour Kemoli’s generosity.

Creative energy
You may say anything about Kemoli, but one thing is certainly true. This is a man who knew how to harness his creative energy.
He defied societal norms that make it difficult for artists to get in touch or connect with their underlying creative resources.

True, we live in a society that trains us in various ways to wall off and suppress our primary creative processes. As a person, Kemoli operated independent of controls, taboos, and inhibitions. He was always in an excited mode. This seemed to move him closer to the raw experiences from which artists create. He was spontaneous and often had brain insightful waves about life. In his prime, Kemoli looked at his problems in unsullied and exciting ways.

This, I think, is very important for an artist. Kemoli had mastered the art of courting his instinctive creative aspects through his socialisation escapades. His success as a composer lay in his ability to poke around, experimenting and trying things. He looked for connections between things, however irrational or irrelevant they seemed.

Though his academic qualifications were in literary studies, Kemoli distinguished himself as a music composer. Many of his compositions became masterpieces. This endeared him so much to former President Moi. His association with Moi is a matter of conjecture.

Kemoli was awarded the Order of the Grand Warrior in 1998 for his artistic contribution. Among his notable pieces is the famous Fimbo ya Nyayo that every youngster sang at the height of Moi’s rule. Kemoli was also a member of the team of experts that composed the African Union anthem in 1986. He also helped compose the University of Nairobi’s anthem and directed both Kariokor Friends Choir and University of Nairobi choir.

What is however disturbing is that friends and well wishers had to come to Kemoli’s aid in paying medical bills despite his contribution and honour in music composition.

Isn’t it a high time we took care of our artists in old age?  If there is a place in what Ali Mazrui calls “After Africa” in his famous novel The Trial of Christopher Okigbo for those who contributed to African Music, a seat will definitely be reserved for Dr Kemoli. Fare thee well Mzee.

The writer is the Director of Public Communications and Publishing at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology

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