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How aping is diluting our music

By - | May 4th 2013

Each time the US produces a musical hit, the sun never sets before a Kenyan singer takes to the studio to redo the same song.

That is how a Kenyan from Nyanza’s southern hills recently copied a Nigerian song; the same way Hardstone ruined Keith Sweat’s Twisted (he called it Ohiki) in the early 1990s. The resultant, corrupted quality usually marks the end of my friendship with such songs.

This marionette curse appears to have again shown its dead face because a Kenyan born somewhere in the sweltering heat of Nakuru is now busy copying, not only the music, but even the mannerisms of a French Canadian rock singer called Avril Lavigne. But we can allow her to do it only in the absence of good advice. 

There is a limit to which we can blame the Western media for stunting Kenyan music. Why hasn’t it done the same to Congolese, South African, West African, North African, Tanzanian, and even Ugandan music? Why does a country as tiny as Gambia continue to surprise the world with her music? If I got the producer Tabu Osusa’s frustration right in a recent interview, then Kenyan singers must quit their obstinacy.

The facts disobey them. I have severally repeated that, in music, you either utilise what you have, or you import from elsewhere. But you do not just import; you raid from your own people who may have been separated from you by the winds of history. Thus the Congolese are wise to beg from Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other Caribbean countries where slavery scattered their kin. A Nigerian can rap in the same way an African-American does because only a few centuries stand between them. Do not be misled into thinking that the Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite is so called because he is a descendant of Kikuyu slaves. He is not. That middle name was given to him by Ngugi wa Thion’go’s grandmother.

Long before the Trans-Atlantic auction, another slavery had already carted away East Africa’s population to Southern Asia, from which Betty and Jock Leslie-Melville – in Elephant Have Right of Way (1973) – both tell us the Tanzanian town of ‘Bagamoyo’ derives its name. Before climbing into the ships, the East African slaves literally ‘bid farewell to their souls.’

Common sense

Thus common sense should tell any Kenyan singer that if she wants to enrich her music then the ingredient could possibly be found among the Sheedi of India’s Gujarat Province, baila rumba of Sri Lanka, or the Makrani people of Pakistan, of whom the most popular singer today is Younis Jani.

The connection is that of heritage (the Sheedi and Makrani are descendants of East African slaves), which is not as illogical as a simple Kenyan girl pretending to sing like Beyonce, or a whole sacred river of Rift Valley music flowing to South Africa. How does one justify such blind parasitism and theft?

Anyone with the slightest grasp of the evolution of Canadian rock music appreciates the agony, sweat, and layers of history through which such bands as Simple Plan, Theory of a Dead Man, The Barenaked Ladies, Arcade Fire, and Nickelback (a rock band I put third only to Bono’s U2 and America’s Creed) have had to go through.

The blend of soft rock for which that country is known (I think this is the input of Canada’s French population) has been globalised by the female voices of Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Nelly Furtado, Deborah Cox, and the young voice of Avril Lavigne which I love to listen to – but which is now being ruined for me.

Like every other country, which cares about culture, Canada’s musical achievement did not just happen. It came through arduous work. If we listen to Nickelback’s You Remind Me, Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, or Avril Lavigne’s Keep Holding On, then we should also be aware that this kind of music was realised through Canada’s creation of the Juno Awards for her musicians, the influence of the Songwriters Association of Canada (Socan), the FM radio stations there, protection from the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and the undying industriousness of such artistes as the American Ronnie Hawkins and the Canadian Paul Albert Anka.

Cross border borrowing between Canada and the US was the norm. Ronnie Hawkins invaded Canada in the same way that another American (Paul Simon) took over South Africa and influenced Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This is familiar because Kenya was once a music haven for the two Congolese guitar wizards Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Massengo. The lesson is this: cultural neighbours can easily share. But, in Kenya, we soon discover that even if you had the Kisima Awards, if Kopiken fought piracy to extinction, and our FM stations played local content twelve months a year, there is still no substitute for the easy realisation that you inflict cancerous wounds on your nation’s music by copying the Western style whose origins you do not understand, and which has completely nothing to do with you.

Which geographical border does Kenya share with Canada? Which Kenyan slaves were shipped to Ontario and Quebec? Why does the worship of the white skin go on in this manner, centuries after the end of slavery? Ramona Lavigne is a gifted Canadian singer. But a certain Kenyan must quit the habit of aping her because no history was ever made through copycat tricks.

    Writer teaches Literature at Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Bondo.

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