How power men helped choir rise and warm heart of State House

St Stephens Choir led by Rahab Mwangi (centre, grey hair ) sing a hymn as they paid their last respects to former President Daniel arap Moi at Parliament Buildings, Nairobi, February 8, 2020. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

The St Stephen’s Choir traces its history to the 1950s when the church relocated to Jogoo Road.

The choir, which sang in the Swahili Service, started with a handful of members from Makongeni, Kaloleni, Bahati and Maringo estates. In 1954, George Senoga-Zake, a Ugandan, began training St. Stephen’s Church Choir.

Senoga-Zake had a close relationship with Graham Hyslop, who possibly introduced him to St. Stephen’s Church. Graham Hyslop was the organist and choirmaster at the All Saints’ Cathedral in Nairobi, training a mostly White Congregation.

Hyslop was also an Inspector of Music and Drama at the Ministry of Education and Senoga-Zake was a teacher at St. Paul’s Primary School in Mbotela Estate. Hyslop and Senoga-Zake were great friends and often Hyslop would join him at St. Stephen’s Church to assist in training the choir.

Senoga Zake had worked as a lay composer at King’s College Budo in Uganda before being recruited to the King’s African Rifles. He was sent to Burma as part of the entertainment unit during World War II where he improved his music skills.

In 1956, Senoga-Zake became the first East African to enrol in the Licentiate of Royal Schools of Music (LRSM), a diploma that qualified one to become a music teacher. At the time, only Europeans pursued this diploma.

He became the first trained professional composer in East Africa and the first to pass the LRSM and subsequently used his music prowess to improve St. Stephen’s Choir.

Sister Daisy Martin from Church Army Training College assisted Senoga-Zake in training the Choir in the 1950s. Sister Daisy Martin also served as the organist at the Church.

In 1963, Senoga-Zake was commissioned to compose the Kenya National anthem alongside Hyslop, Peter Kibukosya, Thomas Kalume and Washington Omondi. He also trained the choir that performed the national anthem for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet during the celebration of Kenya’s independence.

Afterwards, Senoga-Zake left St. Stephen’s Choir and went abroad for further studies in music. He later became a professor of music at the Kenyatta University, an accomplished singer and a distinguished author. Naftali Kitetu trained the choir briefly after Senoga-Zake left.

In 1965, Darius Mbela took over the mantle of training St. Stephen’s Choir. Mbela ushered in the golden era of music at St. Stephen’s Church. He is credited with taking St. Stephen’s Choir to record-breaking heights in the Kenyan choral music scene.

Mbela started his career in civil service as a District Officer 1 in Machakos before becoming an administrator at Kenyatta National Hospital. It is while at Kenyatta National Hospital that Mbela began training the St. Stephen’s Choir.

He later rose to become Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. From 1988-2002 he served as the Member of Parliament of Wundanyi Constituency. Mbela was appointed as Minister in various dockets including Lands and Housing, Agriculture, Livestock Development and Marketing.

Even as he rose in rank, he continued training St. Stephen’s Choir. He was very kind and assisted many choir members to secure jobs in the civil service and in government parastatals. Mbela, who hailed from Wundanyi in Taita Taveta County, had close relationships with influential figures such as the then Attorney General, Charles Njonjo.

Using his networks among the rank and file of government, Mbela created a strong link between St. Stephen’s Church, the choir and the state. As a result, St. Stephen’s Choir was invited to perform in many state functions with Mbela as its director.

The Choir performed during national and public holidays and Agricultural Society of Kenya shows. The choir also enjoyed A cordial relationship with the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta liked religious music very much and would often sit for long hours listening to St. Stephen’s Choir without losing interest or showing fatigue.

Mbela was a renowned musician who was widely respected for his directing and conducting prowess. As a choirmaster, Mbela composed numerous songs for the church and the state. One remarkable song associated with Mbela was “Pokea Moyo Wangu” (Receive My Heart) which became a Christian standard and gained interdenominational acceptance. It is a standard hymn that is often sung at Catholic requiem masses and Protestant funeral services alike.

St Stephen's Choir members receive the Guiness Stout Effort Award from Former Attorney General Sir Charles Njonjo (centre) as then PS for Culture Darius Mbel looks on in 1978. [File, Standard]

Mbela led the choir to make several choral recordings. The first choral recording was done in 1976 and the albums “Mzabibu wa Kweli” and “Heri Maziwa Uliyonyonya” were produced. In 1978, Kenyatta passed on and the St. Stephen’s Choir was called upon to lead the nation in mourning.

Mbela led the choir in a week-long singing marathon at State House as Mzee Jomo Kenyatta lay in state in 1978. The writing of the music for the requiem mass, rehearsals and recording took a record two days. Thereafter Mbela led St. Stephen’s Choir in recording a 12-song album, “Tribute to Mzee” at the Voice of Kenya studio.

The album demonstrated the dedication and team spirit that characterised the choir. Shortly after, the choir received the Guinness Stout Award for leading the nation through the mourning period. Presenting the award, Njonjo praised the Choir for making the tragic loss of the Head of State more bearable and for unifying the country.

George Masumbuko, a police officer, was the assistant to Mbela. Individuals who assisted the choir director were Christopher Sikukuu, Geoffrey Mwamrizi and George Kidenda. Sikukuu’s contribution was significant and he was appointed as assistant choirmaster. Sikukuu acquired his music skills from Hon. Mbela and Dr Arthur M. Kemoli who was the choir director of Kariokor Friends Church Choir. He supplemented his apprenticeship by studying music through correspondence and received a diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM).

JJ Kimani, a talented scriptwriter, also played a crucial role in the choir. He joined the choir while in primary school in 1955 as a soprano and later left to join Harambee Africa (later known as Sing Out Africa) and The Eagles band. Kimani re-joined the choir and contributed to the composition and lyrics of notable songs, some of which were political songs, one of his famous composition is “Chombo cha Shetani,” which advises Christians not to be Satan’s vessel.

Lay Canon Blasto Ooko is another composer whose music was sung not only in St. Stephen’s Church but also in other churches. The Choir had a committee that ensured members followed set rules and standards, promoting healthy functioning for the choir as a whole. 

When Mr Mbela joined politics in 1988, Mr Christopher Sikukuu took over the directorship of the St. Stephen’s Choir. Chris, as he was fondly called, also trained the Postal Corporation of Kenya Choir in the 1990s. The choir frequently entertained President Daniel arap Moi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) upon his return from foreign trips. Sikukuu was to later receive a Head of State Commendation (HSC) on 12 December 2008 from President Mwai Kibaki for his service.

Senoga-Zake, Mbela and Sikukuu developed a tradition of taking cultural tunes and adapting them for church music. This made their songs resonate with the audience because they had a rich African flavour.

The incorporation of African tunes and traditional musical instruments did not resonate well with some church leaders who felt that the move secularised church music. Although Mbela was put to task about it, he was firm and the Choir continued to use African elements in its compositions. 

The St. Stephen’s Choir was not only famous but also the most sought-after music group in the country. It became a household name, popularised by radio and television. The success of the St. Stephen’s Choir was attributed to teamwork and the members’ willingness to support each other to realise their talents.

In May 1980, both the Swahili Choir and the English Choir were suspended due to what the Parish Council referred to as anti-Christian behaviour. Rev. Peter Mjomba Mwakio who was the Vicar said that when a snake entered a gourd you needed to break the gourd to remove it.

The suspension of the choir found its way into the media. The popularity of the choir was cited, as well as issue of access to the choir’s accounts which were managed by the church leadership at that time. The matter of African tunes and rhythms also cropped up. Archbishop Manases Kuria held some consultative meetings between church officials and the choirs were reinstated without any conditions.  

The St. Stephen’s Choir also collaborated with other choirs outside Nairobi, such as Namirembe Cathedral Choir from Kampala, Uganda, and the St. Lukes Makupa Church Choir from Mombasa. The collaboration with Namirembe Cathedral Choir was particularly special as it was an exchange between two choirs from different countries with similar musical backgrounds.

At the turn of the millennium, Charles Omondi (Cerelac) trained the Swahili Choir briefly. In 2002, Eric Wesonga took over from Omondi and gave the choir a new lease of life. The choir began singing at the 11am Swahili Service and Wesonga established a strict practice regimen. Members held practice sessions on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays after church service.

The Swahili Choir continues to perform at local and national events. Some of the functions at which it performs are church events, concerts and weddings in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. Members of the Swahili and English Choirs founded the One Song International Hymn Festival which attracted participants from the East African region.

Over the years, St. Stephen’s Church expanded its music ministry by establishing several other choirs. In the 1950s, the original choir which is recognised as the Swahili Choir was established. In the 1960s, the English Choir was established. In 2002, the Kathydral Crooners Choir was established after St. Stephen’s became a Cathedral. Much later in 2017, the Youth Choir was formed. The four choirs have a combined force of over 200 members with diverse skills and a wide repertoire of songs.

The writer is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Humanities Department at Murang’a University