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Popular Kikuyu Benga musician ‘Mariru’ hitmaker Albert Gacheru dies of pneumonia

By Peter Muiruri | April 6th 2021
Albert Gacheru, musician and producer, during an interview with The Standard in Nairobi. [Photo: David Njaaga]

A dark cloud hangs over Kenya’s music scene following the death of yet another renowned Kikuyu musician, Albert Gacheru wa Wairimu.

The 59-year-old Benga musician died on Monday evening at Kenyatta National Hospital, Nairobi, after what his brother, Julius Ngunjiri, termed as “two difficult months with a bout of pneumonia.”

Gacheru’s death is a big blow to the local music fraternity as he was one of the few daring musicians who took on River Road-based music pirates and rogue producers at the risk of his life.

As director of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya and the Kenya Music Composer Association, Gacheru, on many occasions, led musicians and government officials on raids to music shops along River Road, in Nairobi, that were dealing in pirated music.

Sensing the heat, some dealers attempted to make a deal with him, offering him what he said were “hundreds of thousands of shillings just to drop my quest.”

Undeterred, the Mariru and Mumunya hitmaker refused to budge, and instead asked them to “repent” by returning all pirated music, becomes “upright” agents and sell original music. His pleas fell on deaf years, making him a marked man.

Between 1999 and 2003, Gacheru suffered several misfortunes. His Wamaitu Productions shop in the city was vandalised and equipment worth hundreds of thousands stolen by forces, he said, hoped to silence him and his zeal to run music pirates out of town.  

The studio would later go up in flames, an act that almost brought his music career to an end since he was servicing a loan worth half a million shillings.

In a previous interview with this writer, Gacheru narrated how these acts of arson brought him close to death.

“They told me to stop fighting for other musicians and concentrate on my own music. I received death threats more times than I care to remember. I told myself that I would have to die one day and if it was at the hands of pirates, so be it. When these failed, they resorted to crippling my businesses through arson attacks and stealing production machinery,” he stated in the interview.

So low was Gacheru financially that getting to the city centre from his Kasarani home became a challenge to the point that he had to wait for matatu fares to drop during off-peak hours and then get back home just before fares peaked up again during the evening rush hour. 

Ever a fighter for justice, Gacheru became impatient with court processes that saw unscrupulous producers get off the hook easily or cases adjourned unnecessarily.

Albert Gacheru (in a tie) speaks to members outside Milimani Court. [Photo: George Njunge]

Against the advice of the judge, Gacheru fired his lawyer and choose to represent himself. “I was the plaintiff and prosecutor all rolled into one,” he stated.

In 2012, aged 50, Gacheru went back to class, this time to pursue a law degree at Mount Kenya University to understand how copyright laws work.

“I realised that this country has enough laws, but few people, even those in business, understood the laws that relate to their businesses,” he said.

Sadly, he died without completing the fight he started as musicians continue to be exploited even by organisations that should champion their plight.

But if his father had his way, Gacheru would never have picked up the guitar and sing into people’s hearts. The father, says Ngunjiri, would not fathom the idea of any of his 13 children “wasting time with music while there were other things one could do with education.”

Ngunjiri recalls: “My brother started singing while in primary school. In fact, he had composed a song while in Class Four at Igwamiti Primary School. My father could not imagine that one of his sons would become a musician and play at local nightclubs. He (dad) did not even think the matter of music should even come up for debate in the family.”

In the early 1980s, Gacheru opened a hardware in Nairobi’s Duruma Road and used the proceeds to go into music, releasing the single, “Mumunya” in 1987. ‘Mumunya’ means chewing in Kiswahili, and Gacheru used this to show how the then political system had “chewed” on the citizens through unpopular economic policies.

Shaped the youth

Later, he released another hit, “Mwendwa Wakwa Mariru,” a love song that topped the charts in the 1990s and is still enjoys generous airtime on local vernacular radio and TV stations.

In his Wamaitu Productions studios, Gacheru produced music for other popular artistes including the late John De ‘Matthew, Queen Jane, Shari Martin and Mary Wambui.

“Kenya’s music industry has lost an icon who not only shaped the youth through music but also shaped the economy of the musicians through the Music Reform Association, a cooperative society that was his brainchild,” says Peterson Thuku, aka wa Njambi, a musician and MRA’s deputy secretary.

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