Them Mushrooms and the art of reinvention
By Stevens Muendo | July 18th 2021
It is a chilly Wednesday afternoon, John Katana, the leader of Kenya’s legendary band Them Mushrooms sips a cup of steaming tea as we sit for a rare interview.
It has been years since the band members sat down for a media interview. Almost six years, before one of the founding members George Zirro passed on five years ago.
It had been a busy day for the musician. Besides attending Music Copyright Society of Kenya board meetings, he had been busy piecing together the band’s new project. “Hakuna matata,” he says, echoing the Them Mushrooms slogan, loosely translated as ‘there is no trouble’ or simply ‘it is all right’.
“We have come a long way. Music is in our blood. Over the decades, we have done fairly well in promoting this African sound. We are getting into a new phase in our musical journey as we celebrate our golden jubilee,” he says, as his memory flashes back to 1972 when he and his brothers formed the band.
Katana sounds excited about the band’s new venture. It is a new sound, the highlight of a megaproject before the band turns 50 next year.
In a new quest to return to their roots, Them Mushrooms has now created Nzele music, which borrows its rhythmic beats from Mwanzele, a traditional beat from Kenya’s coast.
Nzele’s most distinct facet is the ‘call’ and ‘answer’ style. This involves the lead singer, who lyrically ‘calls’ out and backing vocals ‘answer’ in a chorus.
The instrumental accompaniment revolves around the bass guitar, drums, percussion, keyboards, flute, horns, trumpet, and what the band refers to as a ‘stringing’ guitar strum.
Now, that is Them Mushrooms, the new sound.
We sample some of the yet-to-be-released songs. The Nzele beat is unique owing to its indigenous influence, which is artistically creative and innovative. Fresh as they come.
“Our new Nzele style compositions reflect a whole new dimension for the group’s musical identity. The direction the band has adopted ushers in a new chapter for us, a group that maintains a tradition of recording evergreen and somewhat timeless productions with uncanny consistency.
“Like our slogan aptly proclaims, Them Mushrooms is indeed the heartbeat of Kenya’s showbiz scene,” says Katana.
Them Mushrooms have ruled the music industry for five decades, since their trademark and distinct 1980 hit, Jambo Bwana, introduced them to the world.
It was a new chakacha sound, a coastal Kenyan rhythm laced with a benga touch, that gave the group an edge over many other groups.
Besides its simple and catchy lyrics, Jambo Bwana’s beats and rhythm appeal stood out to fans globally.
Where it all started
Back in 1969, the Harrison brothers, Teddy Kalanda, Billy Sarro and George Zirro, had formed Avenida before calling it Them Mushrooms in 1972 when the rest of the brothers - John Katana and Dennis Kalume - got initiated into the band.
“When Avenida was formed, I was still very young; I enjoyed watching the rest of my brothers play. We would borrow drums whenever we got an invitation to perform as we did not have our own instruments.
“One day, the band that used to rent to us the drums declined and we were forced to shamefully cancel a performance for a wedding. That is when our mother bought us our first set of drums at about Sh1,000,” says Katana, as he recounts how elated they were when they walked into the then Assanand Music store in Mombasa.
At first, the brothers were just making music for their peers before coastal beach hotels began inviting them to play for their guests.
As their passion increased, they started to spread out, making trips to Nairobi where they could seek an audience with entertainment writers to get publicity.
Katana recalls how they would wait for presenters outside the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation by then called Voice of Kenya (VoK), gate to give their music so they could get airplay. Unlike today when musicians enjoy airplay from the over 300 FM radio stations in the country, VoK was their only stop.
“During the offseason when coastal beach hotels where we mostly used to perform, were not busy, we would travel to Nairobi for networking.
“In 1987, we moved to Nairobi and made connections that linked us to the rest of the world. I recall URTNA, a broadcasting agency under African Union, shooting our video and from there on, we became a mainstay on the airwaves,” says Katana.
Kalanda was the bandleader then. Sarro handled recording. Zirro and Katana were in charge of publicity and media. Basically, the brothers managed the group themselves unlike today when they have a management team.
The authentic chakacha sound stood out for the band. But now, having become a national outfit, Them Mushrooms moved to add more elements into their compositions so as to give it a diverse sound, one that would sell far and wide.
It was during this time when they met renowned Cameroon singer Manu Dibango, who had developed his style fusing Jazz, funk, and traditional Cameroon music.
Them Mushrooms borrowed and incorporated the saxophone, vibraphone, and horns into their music. The elements do stand out in a number of the projects they released around that time such as New Horizons (1985), At the Carnivore (1987), Going Places (1988) and Almost There (1989).
“We wanted to make chakacha popular across the Eastern part of Africa including the DRC, where Swahili is spoken. In Tanzania, they had Mduaru, Ethiopia had Eiskista and Seychelles had Sega, a sound that was subgenres related to chakacha. Using these sounds, we knew we would make our sound move beyond the Benga sound everyone knew,” says Katana.
“Slim Ali, one of the pioneer chakacha singers had been there 20 years before this but he had not popularised it beyond the Coast. For our Kisumu fans, we released Akumu Nyar Kisumu in 1987 and then Nyambura, a 1988 Kikuyu song that made us popular in Central Kenya. That way, with a number of big hits guaranteed of longevity, we positioned ourselves as the band to beat”.
Jambo Bwana, also known as Kenya Hakuna Matata, the band’s biggest hit earned the group silver, gold and platinum status for sales exceeding 200,000.
It also earned charts in seven different versions, the most notable done by Europe’s famous 1970s disco group Boney M. The band’s slogan Hakuna Matata was adopted in a recording by Jimmy Cliff, which was also used as a theme song on the box-office hit movie Lion King.
The group went ahead to record signature tunes for BBC radio (UK), VoK radio and also make jingles for many Kenyan corporates. A British film producer of a documentary on Kenyan athletes likewise featured the band’s composition Pongezi Wanariadha.
And there were more wins. Ndogo Ndogo, the strongest track on the 1985 album New Horizons was adapted as the soundtrack of a Kiswahili language film titled Mahari – produced by Paul Singh, a Kenyan filmmaker. Toys of Death, a single released in 1998 earned the group commendation from the International Coalition against Landmines.
However, it was not entirely a smooth ride. As Them Mushrooms begun to tour Europe, fans confused them for a Jamaican group due to their reggae touch. With pressure to get a Kenyan identity mounting, they switched their name to Uyoga, a move that affected Them Mushrooms brand negatively.
“The Uyoga name worked well for us in Europe, especially in Germany. But at home, we were hurting. We had to revert to Them Mushrooms almost immediately,” says Katana.
To date, Them Mushrooms is one of Kenya’s most successful bands. Their footprints are evident in every discipline that constitutes the music business in Kenya. Over the years, they have helped launch and relaunch recording careers for other local artistes.
Through 2005 and 2006, Them Mushrooms was involved in the Afro-fusion project Spotlight on Kenyan Music sponsored by the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise in Nairobi.
The band rehearsed with a backed-up concert that included 22 up-and-coming Kenyan musicians.
“Our vision has always been putting Kenyan music on the world map. We have also sought to pass this across to new generations of artistes, having initially started this by inviting the likes of Juacali to collaborate with us.
“However, the new crop of artistes need to learn the real basics of music. Something has been amiss in the industry in the last years,” says Katana.
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