More than a decade since the curtains fell on prominent Luo Benga musician Musa Juma, the charm of his music has refused to die down.
Each time Benga enthusiasts in Nairobi, Mombasa and Western Kenya gather for a gig, they fondly remember the fallen legend who belted his way from rags to stardom.
Next Wednesday – on March 15 – fans will be marking the 12th anniversary of Mr Juma’s death.
The singer, composer and guitarist was the founder of Limpopo International Band, an outfit that is widely credited with changing Benga genre’s feel and form to make it even more fascinating.
He adeptly blended Benga with Congolese rhumba – often lengthy, slow-paced but poetic – with songs that exemplified a magnificent power of instrumentals. Juma was his band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. His peers say he was Kenya’s version of Franco Luambo Makiadi of DR Congo.
Rags to riches
his household songs like ‘Maselina’, ‘Hera Mwandu (love is wealth)’ and ‘Hera Mudho (love is blind)’ have retained their grind to the extent that listening to them today, you would think the hitmaker is belting them out live on stage.
Mr James Odhiambo, a Benga fan who spends his weekends listening to replays of Juma’s Luo and Swahili songs in entertainments spots in Eastlands, Nairobi, says it could take decades before the entertainment industry gets Juma’s match in musical prowess.
“I am a Benga fan who enjoys Juma’s songs. He was one fellow who had heaps of talent. The power of his compositions was unmatched. Wuod Usonga (the man from Usonga) knew how to use words and instrumentals to jazz up his music,” Mr Odhiambo tells The Saturday Standard.
The life story of Juma, also fondly known by fans as MJ, was that of rags to riches. Together with his younger brother Omondi Tony, he defied great odds at their Usonga Village of Siaya County to make a grand mark in the entertainment scene.
Those who knew him say the Limpopo Band leader did not pursue much of formal education. He came from a polygamous family that had no luxury of resources. His father had 18 children and could hardly feed and pay school fees for them. But these never deterred his passion.
After many sore false-starts, Juma and his brother Tony formed the Limpopo Band in 1990 and recorded their first album in 1992. Broke and almost giving up due to the rigours of the game, the two staged shows in backstreet clubs but not many people gave a hoot. It was until early 2000’s that their resilience and ability earned them national fame.
In the subsequent years, his Limpopo Band bestrode Benga scenes like a colossus. It had household talents such as John Junior (now leader of BV band), Jose Mzungu, Sande Asweda, Frank Libe, Prof Azile, Salapata Salawowo and Ken Watenya.
The rhumba enigma recorded eight albums, some on video, with popular tracks such as JB Omwaga, Rosy, O’yoo Daktari, Rapar Owino, Ongolo, Pacheko, Clackson, Rikni nyombo, Fiance, Mayaka, Christina, Aggrey, Auma, Osiepe, Gidali, Ratego Baba, Siaya Kababa, Freddy and Saida. Of the hits, ‘Maselina’, ‘Siaya Kababa’ and ‘Rapar Owino’ may have found much favour in the hearts of thousands of his fans, especially in his Nyanza backyard. In ‘Maselina’, he detests the tendency by some women to jump into affairs with men on account of wealth. He also chides men who tout money and property, empty promises and ‘corruption’ to win over women.
A musical genius
Siaya Kababa is a powerful love song in which MJ celebrates Helena, an estranged childhood girlfriend whom he implores to “return to me even if you have given birth to 10 children.” Another favourite number is ‘Fiancée’ in which the musician recalls his love for Sabena, a woman of many firsts whom he had wanted to spend life with him in the city.
In a song in praise of politician Raila Odinga, the musician predicted the doom and gloom that has come to characterize Kenya’s elections, with the chorus that ‘Kenya will still be in trouble going to elections. He had another hit celebrating the independence of Southern Sudan.
“The musician oozed class and was a stylish stickler who played by the rules. We miss him,” another fan Paul Okinyi says. Some critics in the industry, however, claim Juma was dismissive and proud. He mingled with the high and mighty, including rich businessmen and politicians.
Ms Land Obera, who resides in the United Kingdom, called on MJ fans online to honour the fallen legend. “We should have a Twitter Space for just listening to Musa Juma and chiming in on what we think or feel about his songs,” she tweeted.
Just before his six-month musical sojourn to the United State in 2010 where he thrilled ardent Diaspora Kenyans in Texas, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Juma released an album dubbed Lake Victoria. In one of the tracks, he glorifies wife Winnie and daughter Amanda and narrates how he had become a laughing stock courtesy of a previous failed marriage and other life challenges.
On March 15, 2011 shortly after jetting back home from the US, Juma died in Mombasa, the very city where his brother Tony of the ‘Akinyi Judy’ and ‘Jacky wa Tony’ fame with whom he founded Limpopo Band, but later went separate ways, died in a car crash on June 6, 2008.
Benga musicians who knew Juma speak fondly of him. Wally Mayienga Ja Suba, who says he had learnt a lot from the Limpopo Band leader, described him as go-getter who was never distracted by the difficult terrain of Kenya’s intricate music industry. “He simply loved his work and he was good at it,” Mayienga, who is among the remaining Benga musicians of Juma’s ilk, told The Saturday Standard. “We looked up to him as grew up in the game.”
A semblance of Juma’s band is now in the hands of his sister Milly Fedha under the name Super Limpopo International.
Top Luo benga musicians who have since died include Owino Misiani, Okatch Biggy, George Ramogi, Collela Mazee, Prince Jully, George Dume, Jerry Jalamo, Omondi Longlilo, Lady Morine, among others.