For two decades, Ken Ambani has never been able to shake off Baraza, the character he played in KBC’s cult classic Tausi, which aired its final episode sometime in 2000. He’s had great roles in several popular TV shows after that – Mali, Wingu la Moto, Makutano Junction, Cobra Squad, Sumu, Siri, Twisted, Noose of Gold, and so many more. He’s even won awards for some of them. And still, in the eyes of the many who continue to see him only as Baraza, no role can ever measure up. It doesn’t bother him, he says. “We did a splendid job on Tausi, which was a much-loved show, and for this reason, the name stuck.”
But while “Baraza” may not go away anytime soon, it’s slowly being overtaken by “Jaffar” – his latest role in the TV series Kovu, which airs on Maisha Magic Plus and Showmax.
Kovu, from Rashid Abdalla and Lulu Hassan (Maza, Maria), follows the wealthy Haze family – led by the patriarch Jaffar (Ambani) – whose bonds and picture-perfect lives are threatened by lies and secrets. Kovu is a show full of intrigues, and one that takes its time to unravel the mysteries that each character is entangled in, which Ambani says is a different kind of pace from what he is used to.
“Unlike many stories I’ve been involved in where my character’s story unfolds very fast, Jaffar’s story hasn’t opened up to the world yet, other than the daily family intrigues,” he says. “So far, the side of Jaffar that has hugely been depicted is a man who’s still stuck indoors dealing with family issues, and we are yet to see him fully embrace his other roles as a businessman or leader in society. As his story continues to unfold, viewers should expect a more grandiose Jaffar.”
In a show where most (if not all) characters have an agenda, even those with the best intentions, like Jaffar, are not to be trusted easily. Unlike his onscreen rival Carlos Santana, played by Patrick Owino, who Ambani praises as a “great actor who’s thoroughly doing justice to his role,” Jaffar is a man of honour. And yet, like those around him, he has his own secrets that could ruin everything he’s worked for. It’s the perfect role for an actor of Ambani’s caliber.
“This is the most interesting thing about Kovu,” Ambani says. “Because everyone in real life cannot confidently say they have strictly one side of the black or white. There’s that other side of our lives that might cause a stir when revealed. And that’s what Kovu is about. It’s a story that all of us can relate to.”
What attracted him to this role, he says, is the fact that Jaffar is “such a strong character with a mix of emotions, and who puts a lot of effort into bringing sanity into his family.”
Ambani himself is a family man, and even though he admits that being a father to teenagers in real life has made it easier to embrace his fatherhood as Jaffar, he says acting is about make-believe and owning the person your character is supposed to be. “There are instances where views may differ on how my character and I approach fatherhood, but this is Jaffar’s story, not Ken’s.”
Anyone who’s followed his work from Tausi until now would agree that there aren’t many actors in Kenya with Ambani’s diverse range; he moves with ease from Swahili telenovelas like Sumu to political thrillers like The System to poignant films like From a Whisper. From a Whisper, Wanuri Kahiu’s first feature film, featured Ambani as Abu, an intelligence officer struggling with loss and healing in the aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi. It was an unforgettable role for Ambani; in fact, it remains the biggest accomplishment of his acting career, twelve years since the film’s release.
“I’ve played many outstanding roles, like Francis in The System, which was an accomplishment in itself considering how demanding it was to execute. There’s Benjamin in Sumu, and I will never forget playing Baraza in Tausi, a role that literally catapulted my acting career. But Abu (From a Whisper) stands out as my biggest accomplishment. I got recognition and won many local and international awards from playing this role.”
“From the look of things, Jaffar might just surpass Abu someday,” he adds.