In the last decade, music has become omnipresent. The convenience and portability of music devices as well as the iteration of recording and distribution has enabled, literally, anyone to stay in tune with formats that appeal to their individual tastes.
But that has not always been the case.
Before the world grew fond of streaming, listening to music through phones and downloaded songs over the internet, consumers in the Gilded Era had to contend with experimental music mechanisms. Top of the range was Thomas Edison’s phonograph, a tinfoil-coated device that the American inventor introduced in 1877 that could record music and play it back.
Though scratchy and recordings could only be played once, the phonograph unimaginably paved the way for the future of music. Before, people made instruments and enjoyed music live.
In comparison, new-age Benga sensation, Alex Kasau alias Katombi of Pewa Pewa fame showcased via his YouTube channel that he recorded the 2020 hit song in slightly over an hour before it was mastered to seven minutes. The enchantingly repetitive tune, with the hook, Iwe na thenga niwe mana, kana ni mbeca nondu nasya, pewa pewa kila mundu wakitumila, was not a one-shot deal for the fast-rising Kamba music star.
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The guitar strumming perfectionist redid parts of the song severally during the recording, a near-impossible feat during the gramophone era, in the hunt for uncompromising quality, proof of which was in the song’s grand reception as it currently boasts over 2.4 million views on YouTube.
Enter the gramophone. Patented by Emile Berliner in 1887, the gramophone was the first commercially available record player that utilized flat disks, which were later created out of vinyl or as commonly known in Kenya as santuri, rather than Edison’s tinfoil phonograph cylinders. Negatives made from a flat master disc were used as moulds for making copies.
Considering that gramophones recorded on a 10-inch 78 RPM santuri that could hold about three minutes of sound per side, Bahati Bukuku’s 13-minute genius in Waraka wa Amani could have been lost or unsuitably truncated had the device been the industry standard today, robbing the gospel singer, considered by some as the voice of a generation, of her gift of storytelling.
Franco Luambo Makiadi’s blissful 21-minute masterpiece, Na Lingaka Yo Yo Te – a track, which a Mbukinya passenger can comfortably enjoy from start to finish when travelling the length of Wote to Kathonzweni by road - could also not have seen the light of day during the advent of the device.
Lucky for Franco, the 1950s rolled in; a golden era of extended sound time. During this period, the ‘Grand Maître of Zairean Music’ transformed into a cult Rhumba figure and roared under T.P. O.K. Jazz such that by 1961, he had reportedly recorded 320 songs in the 78 RPM music format with the legendary band. Oldies lovers swear the ‘60s was the golden era of music and revel at the idea that Franco’s and Daudi Kabaka’s hits, among them African Twist, sound better on vinyl than over the foldable headphones.
Decades earlier, Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi had taken out the first wireless telegraphy patent, inventing the radio in 1896, but its usage had primarily been limited mostly for military use despite Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen, developing the first continuous-wave radio transmitter in 1904. The advancements led to the birth of radio broadcasting in 1906 when Reginald Fessenden transmitted music from Massachusetts to the general public; driving interest for the ownership of personal radios, especially after the First World War.
Inexpensive and free, entertainment and music soon became a mainstay of radio programming, making its way into Kenya when Voice of Kenya (VoK) was launched in 1928. Then-owned by the colonial government, but now state-run and renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), VoK was the sole broadcaster. It targeted white settlers and started catering to locals in 1953 through the African Broadcasting Services. Due to colonialism and inequality, however, access remained a challenge. Gatherings in front of radio sets thus became a common occurrence in households that had permits to own one.
Unsurprisingly, the invention of the headphones in Utah, USA, 1910, by Nathaniel Baldwin, went in tandem with the spontaneous growth of radio. Baldwin’s headphones consisted of padded ear cups and a radio jack pin to allow users to plug in and listen to the radio. By 1958 the invention had gone through development and opened the way for the creation of the first wireless headphones by John Koss.
Koss’ wireless pieces were a game-changer, portable, and comfortable, specifically made for music listening and received a signal through a transmitter. It reenergized that generation’s bell-bottom fancying lovers who intricately reimagined Afro-hairdos as nations freed themselves from their former colonial masters at the turn of the century.
That same year, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) introduced the RCA tape cartridge, a much-welcome option for personal users compared to AEG’s junky first reel-to-reel tape recorder of 1935 and an improvement to Fritz Pfleumer’s 1928 magnetic tape invention. With this, music lovers could enjoy 60 minutes of high-quality music and when Dutch corporation Phillips consolidated the reels in 1963 to a cassette, sounds become more fluid and allowed for the rise of the mixtape culture in the USA. A cassette trend Nduti One-Stop Music Shop, famed for its music collection in the 1990s, cashed in on, among others, along Latema Road in Nairobi.
Music enthusiasts united around the 8-track tape that was fitted into cars in 1964, but it, too, would be replaced by the Walkman, a Sony invention released in 1979 and discontinued in 2010, that was famously portable and could accept tapes. Thanks to the Walkman’s innovative tools such as auto-reverse, bass boost functionalities and compatibility with Baldwin’s headphones, cassettes outsold vinyls for the first time in 1983.
The last nail in the coffin for vinyls was Sony and Philips’ move to work together to create the compact disc (CD) for audio players in 1982. While not their invention, as it had been created in the late ‘60s by American physicist James Russell, the two companies realized its potential and standardized it after Swedish pop group, Abba successfully pressed their highly acclaimed album The Visitors to CD. Sony would double down on the trend by introducing a portable CD player, the D-50, in 1984.
The compression of music ushered in further file compaction leading to the introduction of the MP3 player courtesy of a collaborative effort between German audio engineer, Karlheinz Bradenburg and Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) in 1998.
When the new millennium clocked zero, a new era of digital music consumption, streaming, began. It was propelled by evolving media habits following the proliferation of the internet with the rollout of Pandora in the year 2000, opening the field gates wide open.
Apple would take advantage of the lull in 2001 to roll out the iPod and cement its market share with the release of iPod Classic in 2002 and take a bite at the streaming trend with Apple Music in 2015. Amazon swung in on February 2, 2005, followed by SoundCloud in 2007, then Spotify (2008). As of 2022, there is a prevalence of online streaming across households in the country.