Kassanga: My life as a gospel singer and dad

Japheth Kasanga and his wife Anne Kasanga at the studio in Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina]

The Kassangas were a fixture on our screens every Sunday morning.  Then they faded from the music scene. What happened? JACQUELINE MAHUGU catches up with Japheth Kassanga.

The earliest memories for most people are happy profound experiences in their childhood. But for the eccentric man seated with me, his earliest memory is the stuff of nightmares.

“Mum, why aren’t you talking?” the precocious toddler had asked his mother when he found her lying in bed. He tried waking her up, and even tried suckling, not knowing that she was dead. She had been helping people plough their shambas earlier in the day when she got ill. And had gone to lie down for a bit. She was never to wake up. And her youngest child, Kassanga, would be the one to find her dead.  When his father died two years later, the young boy finally grasped the concept of death. That once gone, you weren’t coming back. And he had to grow up fast. The little boy now only had his 10-year-old sister to care for him.

 “I would cry so hard when I remembered that I did not have parents. When I was older, I would work for our neighbours to earn a living. My sister eventually left to live with our eldest sister.”

It was a hard life for the orphaned child. His job was to till his employer’s garden. Later on, he was ‘promoted’ to come to Nairobi and take care of the family’s children. He did not go to school until he was 17, when he was able to pay for evening classes himself.

Today though, all that struggle is in the distant past. He is a picture of health and wealth; heavy set with a hearty disposition and sharply dressed in a well-pressed blue suit.

 “I consider myself a successful person. And I attribute it all to God.”

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Many others would consider him accomplished too. Besides his industrious career in music, he has his fingers in many other pies.

We are seated in one of the five music shops he owns. The peach-coloured walls are covered with all sorts of musical instruments.  The shops are ran by his wife Anne, and currently, two of his sons are behind the counters manning the business. He also has a music school. And a music studio ran by his daughter. He proudly chimes that his studio has recorded hits from musical heavyweights.

Like who? I ask.

“Well, let’s see. There is Angela Chibalonza, Reuben Kigame, Esther Wahome, Emmy Kosgei, Eunice Njeri, Mercy Wairei, Marion Shako…need I add more?” he asks with a smile.

“No, I get it,” I respond, to which he chuckles.

He is also now the chairman of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK).

Tough adjustment to marriage life

Not too shabby accomplishments for an orphan who thought he wouldn’t amount to much. But, he explains, his greatest accomplishment was getting married.

“Marrying her was the turning point of my life. It is still the happiest day of my life,” he says this with a big grin on his face, clearly a man in love with his wife 30 years later.

“I turned down an opportunity to go to the US because I wanted to marry her and start a family. I felt like I had gotten a mum. I had been doing things on my own but she began moulding me.”

Being a family man didn’t come naturally to the man who was used to calling all the shots his whole life.

“She tells me I was like a wild animal, someone who had no discipline of being in a family. She moulded me into a person who respects the family structure. She had come from a family where her father was a pastor and everyone Christians,while I had just been telling myself what was right and wrong. When I started getting the partnership thing right, or on the right track on something,  she would say, ‘You are doing well. Go for it.’ and those words would really encourage me.”

And together, they went on to make music for the masses. Regulars on the popular KBC Sunday TV shows, Joy Bringers and Sing and Shine and frequent performers during national holiday celebrations. Due to their immense popularity, they were one of the very first musicians to depend on music as their sole income for a long time.  But now we hardly hear them anywhere. They last recorded an album in 1994. What happened?

Now you see us, then you don’t

“One would think we don’t sing but we do; in churches. It is just that we do not record any more. We still sing, but the playing field in Kenya has changed. Media houses have young people who only want to play the music of their times. A number of media houses don’t appreciate the kind of music we did. Our last album, Volume 4, was in 1994.”

“I also got so busy helping young gospel musicians that I would use all my income to pay for their recordings and put them on air. I felt that it would not be good for me to be recording at the same time as they were,” he says.

They decided to focus on helping and recording other musicians instead. In addition, Kassanga was sent by the government to South Africa to study copyright law and the South African music industry to understand how they generated money for their musicians. When he came back, he got involved in the running of various music copyright bodies like PRISK, KAMP and KECOBO. He is currently the chairman of the board of MCSK, to which he was elected this year. However, 2020 might just be the year we see the return of  Kassangas, the musical duo.

“I have been thinking of making a comeback and most likely will in 2020, since I still write music. I have a recording studio and I think the young people who work for me wouldn’t be too comfortable recording their boss. So I have been wondering who will do it.”

As he ponders that, he continues to mentor musicians and try to clean up the chaos in the music industry.

When I ask him who he looks up to, his response is very unexpected.

“Ezekiel Mutua. He is younger than me and he is like a son to me.”

What does he like about him? I prod.

“I admire his charisma. He is always so aggressive. Despite all the names he has been called, his work speaks for itself. I like the way he takes life and I must say he is a role model. I admire the way he talks. I can’t talk like him. I am not quite so articulate,” he says, laughing.

Public speaking is something that continually breaks him out in hives.

“I am not eloquent at all. I am never sure I am speaking in the correct way. People used to call me the soft-spoken musician. I have always wanted to be more assertive.”

He tells a funny story of when he and his wife met former President Moi. “My voice started out fine but started diminishing as I continued speaking. Pretty soon I was whispering and my wife had to nudge me hard on the side to get me to raise my voice.

Should have been more affectionate...

I ask him if he has any regrets about the way he has lived. He mulls over the question for a while then quickly says, “ I have four kids, all between 21 and 29. I was a very strict father to them in their earlier years but I did not know it then. I was so serious with life because of what I had been through, and I did not want my children to get into any sort of trouble.  I later realised that I didn’t need to be that way. I am now trying to be their friend and be more loving. Sometimes I even try to make them laugh, creating humorous stories. They get surprised when they see me being like that with them. That doesn’t feel so good. I feel bad when people think I am unapproachable because I have suffered being unable to approach other people. I would never want to be that person” he says.

And this Christmas, he will be drawing out his compassionate side. It is what we have been doing every Christmas. We go home to Kitui with lots of clothes to give away; we buy around 20 goats and more food, enough to feed anyone who comes to the compound for about 10 days. We got Jesus as a gift for Christmas, we should also give to others, don’t you think? ” he says.

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