Why Sabaot ‘string maestro’ is not about stop


Tony Ndiema needs no introduction in the districts around the slopes of Mt Elgon.

The Kitale-based artist better known as Tantan Areet, after the title of his hit song, is unquestionably the father the Sabaot gospel music. Tantan Areet in Saboat loosely translates to ‘narrow road’.

Tony, born in 1964 in Chesinende village in the present day Mt Elgon constituency, dabbled in music at a tender age. But unlike other gospel artists, his career did not begin at Sunday school. He says he owes his musical growth to traditional music ceremonies he attended as a child with his father. 

His father Jacob Ndiema Nyokie was a renowned Sabaot bukantiit (a six-stringed traditional instrument) player and soloist.

He says his father, on noticing his keen interest in the instrument, encouraged him to try and play it.

As a 10-year-old, he recalls accompanying his father to homesteads that brewed traditional brew, busaa, where Tony mesmerised the drinking wazees with his bukantiit strumming skills.

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He also attributes his musical career to cultural dancing ceremonies famously known as seeriet that he used to attend as a young man. He says during these ceremonies, which are no more, traditional music artistes used to compete.

Themes of the songs at the well-attended functions revolved around love, politics and patriotism. 

“The compositions done in Sabaot language had powerful and touching messages on anything that affected the community,” he says. 

His 2002 produced first album, Marching to the Lord, which is purely instrumental catapulted him to fame not only in Kenya but internationally. In the album he has improvised beats and melodies using a piano to produce an instrumental of 18 songs from the hymn book. Tracks from the album have been used by the Pathfinders Club of the Adventist Church Worldwide in their marching drills and played in the yearly camporees congress held for pathfinders at national or international levels.

Apart from performing locally he has been to Uganda and Tanzania, Zambia, Egypt and the United States. He has been to America twice, first in 1999 and 2004 and he performed in Oshkosh Wisconsin, St Louis, Missouri and Rangers Park in Oklahoma.

“So impressed were the directors of Pathfinders with my performance at Winsconsin that they proposed that my tracks be universally adopted by the Adventist Church and distributed worldwide,” says  Tony.

 He however adds that he has not heard a word from them and his subsequent follow-ups have been in vain.

For a man who credits traditional music as his inspiration, it is not surprising therefore that he has solely chosen to sing in his native language in his second a volume.

The musician who singles out Pastor Joel Kimmetto a celebrated Kalenjin musician as his role model, likes to remind his listeners that life has many challenges and they ought to be careful and tread carefully because there are thorns and holes in the way. The thorns and holes, he says, are symbolic of challenges in life journeys.

“Christianity is like any other journey and it is only those who persevere that will reach heaven, he says.

The singer, who has entertained retired President Mwai Kibaki, Uganda leader Yoweri Museveni, former President Moi and many other dignitaries that have visited North Rift and Westen Kenya, is not about to slow down anytime soon.

 Economic hard times

 He reveals that his fourth album, which he calls Maloo Miisin (it is not far), will soon be out. He says he has done a track, narrating his experiences in the US and his life after the trip.

“When I flew abroad, people expected me to come back with loads of cash or even a car, when I came without any of these, I was taunted and mocked.”

He relates his experience to the biblical dove in Noah’s story that was send out and came back with good news in the single.   He says it was the church that took him there and it was deserving that he comes back home.

 His other immediate plan is to shoot his first video before June this year.  He says this has been his major greatest challenge because of lack of finances and the prevailing hard economic times.

 The musician is married to Josephine Chepkwemoi and together they have been blessed with six children.

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string maestro Tony Ndiema