By Amos Kareithi
Back in the days when Sh3,000 was enough to out rightly purchase all the rights of a chart bursting hit song, a lanky youth entered unannounced in Nairobi.
He had come armed with a grade mechanic certificate but there was nowhere for him to ply his newly learned trade and he had to do the next best thing.
Julius Kang’ethe Mathenge, went to Machakos Country Bus terminus in Nairobi where he started off as a hawker.
Kang’ethe burst his way into fame in 1981, when teaming with his cousin Simon Kihara (Musaimo) he joined the grandfather of pop music, Joseph Kamaru.
Three years earlier, Kang’ethe had tasted the glamour when he composed songs in praise of John Njoroge Michuki who was gunning for Kangema parliamentary seat.
His first composition, Ngai Teithia Mihuni (God help young men) produced by Kamaru Super Sound was a flop but he later released, Nyina wa Kiune—the song whose rights he sold for a paltry Sh3,000 to Kamaru was an instant hit. The novice introduced dialogue in Kikuyu pop music, something unheard before.
Kang’ethe, also known as Bylaw, recalls the glorious days in nostalgia.
He has been caught in a time warp as he last performed on stage almost 20 years ago.
It takes him more than five minutes to descend the flight of stairs from his studio to the floor below.
As he leans back in his armchair at his improvised studio situated just next to OTC area in Nairobi, Kang’ethe describes the nightmare that has been his life since 1989.
The 51-year-old musician now sits like a caged animal as he watches budding artiste through a tiny window in his studio as he records their ambition.
"I cannot stand on my own. My fingers can no longer strum the guitars like I used some time back. Now the best I can do is to record and edit," he says with resignation.
His studio is a testimony of what he was in his younger days. The room is littered with box guitars recording, which are equipment gathering dust.
His tribulations started in 1989 when for no apparent reason Bylaw started feeling weak in the legs and could not stand or walk for long.
Since then the musician has been in and out of hospital for long spells and can no longer remember the number of diseases real and imagined afflicting him
"When at first I went to hospital I was told that I had a problem with nerves. Scans were done on my head and spine but nothing major was discovered," he adds.
After 10 years of trial and error in Kenyan hospitals, Kang’ethe fundraised from friends and relatives and flew to South Africa.
Here his back was operated and some discs from his spinal column removed as they had been "lying on some nerves".
For eight months, the musician took TB dose but when he went to his doctor for review, the problem still persisted.
By this time, the problem with the legs grew worse. I could not stand or walk unsupported. A doctor then told me that I had no TB and the medication had adversely affected my condition,"
Despite being handicapped, Bylaw has not hang his boots yet. He has transformed the residential house once occupied by the late Sam Muraya in 1992 into a studio.
Besides recording such artistes as Ken wa Maria who came to him earlier in their career, Bylaw has released 10 albums and three VCDs.
He is now looking forward to 40 weeks of electronic treatment by a clinic in Nairobi, which hopes to correct his nerve problem.
"Every week I will be treated three days and the doctor is charging Sh3,000 per visit. That is why I need your assistance," he adds
Back on stage
It is against this background that musicians like Musaimo, Timona Mburu, Hezeh Ndung’u, Mike Murimi, Wahome Maingi, Jimmy Githinji Wayuni, and Kamande Wa Kioi are planning to fundraise on April 4 at Silver Mine Hotel, in Nairobi
The man who captivated the country when he belted out Mumbi two decades ago hopes that one day, he will stand in front of a microphone and perform for his fans.