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Jamnazi legend Awillo Mike: I will sing until I die

By Jacqueline Mahugu | July 4th 2021
Awillo Mike and Orchestre Ja'mnazi Afrika Band [Courtesy]

Long before he and his band, Jamnazi, were known for hits such as I’m Not Sober, Awillo Mike says he was a Fanta Orange guy, and you would have found him leading the faithful as a tenor at the St Charles Lwanga Catholic Church choir in Njoro.

He joined a secular band after auditions in 1999.

“The choir was a blessing in disguise because it helped me train my voice so that I could now fit into the music that was coming. It was more like voice coaching,” he says.

“When I went for the audition I found out that I was going to move from A Cappella to a live band setup, which I had been seeing only in videos, so that was a dream come true.”

It was quite the changeover, and was not easy because he was known as a church person and was used to the church environment, so how did he manage?

“In that set up of the bar you end up taking one or two and then you become a regular. So these days I take Guinness.”

“Like in the song!” I exclaim as we burst into laughter.

“Yeah I take Guinness for power,” he says, tongue in cheek, in reference to the song’s lyrics.

Time really flies during our conversation due to how fun he makes it, and I have no doubt in my mind that he is indeed the free spirit he describes himself as. 

“You can equate me to somebody like Harry,“ he says. “I am one of those guys who, if I grew up in the Royal Family, I would actually walk out if I found out I was not free enough.”

That free spirit is a trait he must have gotten from his mother, if her reaction when he told her he wanted to be a musician is anything to go by — also given the fact that she got into trouble while in Second Form for running away from school to go and sing in a band.

“I remember in 1991 my brother was born in Cologne, Germany and I went to visit. I was in First Form and my mother asked me, ‘What do you think you want to do with your life?’ I did not hesitate. I told her I wanted to sing until I died. And she was like, ‘Wow, that’s wonderful! But you still have to go to school and finish.”

He was going to finish, he told her, but he just wanted to sing. 

This was at a time when music was hardly considered a career by most. He ran headlong into real problems because of his unconventional ambition. 

“Most people would look down on music. Starting a family was difficult because I was rejected almost seven times!” he says with a chuckle.

“Ladies thought that someone who was in music was not serious with life.”

Awillo Mike says he was a Fanta Orange guy [Courtesy]

Buy Kenyan

“Eventually, people came to appreciate musicians in Kenya and started consuming Kenyan music. I benefitted from that because Kenyans would buy Kenyan music and we got some money out of that.”

Awillo is an open book so the conversation flows freely, but his response to my next question still catches me off guard. 

He eventually did find someone. Is it that she was very open-minded about music or that by then people had started taking music seriously? This is where the conversation takes an unexpected turn.

“A neighbour advised me and asked me one question: Do you want to get married or do you want to fall in love? I told her, ‘I have tried falling in love and I have been disappointed. So this one you are calling getting married, what is it?’” he says.

“She told me, ‘This one is where you can just choose someone who has been a friend of yours and is ready to settle. down.’ There was a neighbour who was very close. So I asked her, ‘Can you live in a house with me?’ She asked if I wanted to marry her and I said, ‘Yeah that’s exactly what I am saying!’”

“She said, ‘Well I am ready if you are ready.’ So we hadn’t fallen in love but we decided to get married. That is how I got married. The best thing is that when you get into a union as friends, even if it gets tough, you guys are just friends and it can last forever. When you almost grew up together, sometimes there is still that bit of respect between you.”

They are separated now, but he says the respect between them is wonderful and strong. 

“Even if you fall out, you will still find that there is some respect left. You won’t have this situation where people insult each other afterwards, domestic violence and all, because you were friends first before you started getting your babies.”

They had three babies. Unfortunately, one of them was carried away by floods in 2017 at only six years old. “So there are only two left. My first born just cleared KCSE. He scored an A-. I am very proud of him. He is called Manfred Omondi. The second one is Derrick Odhiambo. He also scored well and is in Friends School Kamusinga,” says Awillo.

Back to the music, Awillo actually isn’t even his real name. It’s his stage name. Is it related to the one and only, Awilo Longomba? I ask.

“Yeah it’s actually related. I used to do a lot of cover songs by Awilo, so most people decided to call me Awillo and the name stuck; so I shortened my name, Michael to Mike, to make it Awillo Mike, with a double L.”

Two years after he had started live band music, having been in a Tanzanian band in Nyeri and then a Congolese band in Mombasa, Awillo went back to Eldoret, where he met his future Jamnazi bandmate, Milton Ongoro (Stage name: Ongoro Ja Karachuonyo) in 2001.

Ongoro had just quit his job at the Kenya Revenue Authority to focus on music and had just purchased music equipment to start a band.

“Then we brought in our band leader who is Peter Daliti. The band was formed in Eldoret town,” says Awillo. 

The band would go on to have mega hits like Riziki, Am Not Sober and Kendu Bay. They would eventually tour Europe in 2009, 2010 and 2011. After the 2011 tour, Awillo stayed back in Germany where his mother and brother were, before returning to Kenya.

Orchestre Jamnazi Afrika recently performed at the Madaraka Day celebrations. The band has grown and is split into four. 

“I have the team that is in Nairobi, and then my partner, Ongoro Jakarachuonyo is in Kisumu. Our band leader, Peter Daliti, is in Eldoret with the main team and then we have another composer who actually formed his own team in Kisumu. He is called Javo Kamika. But we still work together,” says Awillo. 

The musician is a history buff and would have been a teacher of History if he hadn’t been so drawn to music. His favourite of their songs is Kendu Bay, which was composed by Ongoro. 

Cultures and traditions

“It is a song that took us about three years to research and I am so happy it came out the way it did. It was like a collabo between me and him,” he says.

Why did it take so long to research? “Because the subject matter was not something you wanted to do in a hurry. We were talking about the exodus of Luos from Southern Sudan to here. We were also interrogating why so many African cultures and traditions have been left out of what we are doing today,” he says.

The music industry has become more challenging than it used to be when they started. “The big challenge right now is that the wave has turned. We used to enjoy a lot of airplay on radio and TV,” says Awillo.

“During that time there was no YouTube and other streaming platforms so we used to sell our music, but right now it is a bit hard for musicians because we do not have album sales. That is a big challenge for musicians in general.”

Awillo however has no regrets and says he is doing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He now has a new album out on YouTube, Mvi Album, and is encouraging musicians to keep at it despite challenges in the industry. “Everything will go back to normal,” he says.

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