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The return of the ‘oldies’

PETER THATIAH explains why FM stations and clubs are falling over themselves to play zilizopendwa years after most of the composers took their last bow.

Daniel Owino Misiani and his band thrill fans at a Nairobi hotel. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

It was not just for grammatical reasons that they were called the swinging 60s and the rocking 70s. Musically speaking, it was an era whose foot on the space of time left an inerasable mark. And now after a lull of two decades, the swinging and the rocking is back in town, awakening the same spirit that evoked in its fans a lifelong commitment of longing.

Whether it was the Beetles or Mangelepa, John Lennon or Fadhili William, those who loved them loved them for life. It was a golden era for African music and when it was eventually scrapped out of the radio and TV screens, it remained deeply rooted in the people’s hearts. Today, River Road studios dealing exclusively in vernacular and Kiswahili music have turned the tables on local Western imitations to once again become the best sellers of musical CDs. But has the return of zilizopendwa heralded good tidings for local musicians? Is the boom in CD sales that has been occasioned by the return of the music genre reflecting in their earnings? Though there has not been a coordinated effort by the music fraternity to bring these old sounds back to life, there have been some notable victories.

The return of zilizopendwa is a pointer that it was the people who said they wanted the music back. It was the advent of the cultural nights, first experimented at Panafric Hotel in 1999, that opened the floodgates that showed both musicians and the broadcast media, especially FM radios, that there was a revolution taking place in the people’s musical preferences.

‘Roga Roga’

George Peter Kinyonga of Simba wa Nyika. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

Notably, it was at this time that Fred Machoka started his Roga Roga programme on Radio Citizen, playing exclusively old African tunes. Familiar names like Mangelepa, Simba wa Nyika, Owino Misiani and Uyoga made a comeback to rule the airwaves. Bringing the good old days to listeners who were either adolescent or babies in the 1970s and 1980s, the programme became an instant hit.

It wasn’t long before other FM radio entrepreneurs discovered this crucial segment of society had been marginalised. This was the segment with the money and also formed the bulk of the expanding middle class. Since then, FM stations have been in a race to redefine local music.

DJ Fello of Radio Simba, which only plays authentic African music, says there are more than seven radio stations battling it out for this succulent pie. Undoubtedly, the popularity of Radio Africa’s Classic FM has been its creed of sticking to music popular with the generation of baby boomers. Nation Media Group’s QFM is the latest station to join the fray.

Simba FM and Milele FM play exclusively African music, mostly zilizopendwa. Radio Citizen, Ghetto Radio and Radio Jambo have all dedicated more than 50 per cent of their airplay to African music. TV stations have also taken cue, with Citizen TV dedicating at least an hour to local music every day in its Tafrija programme. Others are following suit.

New exposure

Newton Karish is one of the top stars in Central Kenya. [PHOTO: FILE/STANDARD]

After a conspicuous absence in the 1990s, the live band phenomenon is back and all indications point to a golden era of live music. Many of these bands, most of them operating in clubs, play authentic African music.

But are the musicians benefiting from the new exposure? Noteworthy, it is this genre that takes centre stage and labelled African music at international festivals like the Mundial of The Netherlands, Cape Town International Festival, North Sea International Festival of The Netherlands and Johannesburg Jazz Festival.

Newton Karish, who plays Kikuyu music, says the increasing number of FM stations is giving them more exposure. "Our music is now reaching a wider audience and it may be the reason we are getting more fans. However, the radios pay a flat sum in royalties to Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK), who then forwards it to us on a flat basis. It doesn’t matter whether your music was played more times because the DJs don’t award play units."

DJ Fello says they pay over Sh1 million to the MCSK every year for music they play on air. He says the amount is a lot and it came with the liberalisation of airwaves.

Kariuki says even matatus have started paying Sh2,000 to MCSK in royalties.

Piracy threat

With the popularity of marketing facilities like YouTube gaining momentum, most of the zilizopendwa musicians are worried that unscrupulous dealers might trade their music without their consent. Kenya is yet to pass copyright cyber laws, leaving many local musicians exposed to pirates.

In the meantime, according to Joseph Gaitho of Rware Productions in Nairobi, the demand for zilizopendwa music by the likes of Daudi Kabaka, Fadhilli William, Okatch Biggy and John Ndichu continues to climb. But who is benefiting from their posthumous rewards?

"With no one to fight their battles, most of the benefits are going to pirates. Only the radio and a few producers are paying their families," Gaitho says.

He adds earnings or not, zilizopendwa is back with us for a second time and seemingly here to stay.

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