Retracing Kenya’s funky hits


If you grew up in the vibrant urban social scene of the 1970s or you are among the lovers of nostalgia, then a new documentary and CD package, released this week, is an essential item to while away the days after the New Year festivities.

Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits” is the third in a series of in-depth multi-media projects from Ketebul Music, an independent production house run by seasoned music producer Tabu Osusa. It follows the success of previous projects on the history of benga released in 2008 and last year’s “Retracing Kikuyu popular music.

Just like its predecessors, the current release consists of an attractively designed booklet, an audio CD featuring re-worked copies of classic recordings by Kenyan icons like Steele Beauttah, Kelly Brown, The Ashantis and Slim Ali.

The documentary, narrated by John Sibi-Okumu, takes us back to the beginning of the funk era in Kenyan music with the opening of the Starlight Club in the heart of Nairobi, on May 15th, 1965.

At least 12, 000 patrons went through the doors of the club every month and the late Robbie Armstrong, recruited some of the biggest bands of the time, The Ashantis, Air Fiesta Matata, The Cavaliers, to perform at the Starlight. Armstrong was a former British Army Officer who had settled in Kenya just after independence and opened what was to be the hottest club in Nairobi, located in the Milimani area (at what is now Integrity Centre).

Style and finesse

It was an era that is fondly remembered because Kenyan musicians played their variation of American soul and funk and did it with as much style and finesse as the originators of the genre. The biggest influence of funk came from the late James Brown, America’s “Godfather of soul” whose style and swagger was imitated by a whole generation of Kenyan artistes.

Perhaps the first of these was the Mombasa-born Salim Abdulla Salim, or Sal Davies, as he later came to be famously known.

Some of his biggest songs in the 60s included a cover version of the Ray Charles song “Unchain my heart”, and the timeless hit “Makini” which is featured in this audio compilation “Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits.”

In 1963, Sal Davies was invited by the Kenya Government to sing at the Civic Ball on the eve of Kenya’s Independence alongside his idol Harry Belafonte and South Africa’s Miriam Makeba.

The Sal Davies Night Spot in Nairobi rivaled The Starlight as the hottest club of the day in the late 60s and is what came to be known as the New Florida Night Club (Mad House) in Nairobi.

“Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits” is a journey through some of the glory days of Kenyan music, from the early international success of Sal Davies to the dashing flamboyance of Kelly Brown, who, for many years, until his death in the 1989, was based in Germany.

Besides Sal Davies who is now retired in Mombasa, this documentary also relies on the recollections of surviving musicians and producers from that period like Juma Toto and Geoffrey Ngao, both formerly with the Hodi Boys, Joe Omari who played with the Cavaliers and Mike Andrews of A.I Records.

Alongside the funk movement is the story of radio and the massive influence that the Voice of Kenya (now KBC) had on the social scene in Kenya. The musical trends were shaped by what the Voice of Kenya DJs played on air and American soul, which was a regular staple on the General Service radio.

There are juicy anecdotes in the documentary from legendary broadcasters like Abdul Haq, Nicola Miyawa and one time radio boss Oscar Beauttah, brother to the late soul singer Steele Beauttah Boogies.

 Another chapter of the story dwells on the daytime weekend dances known as “boogies” where most of the top bands played. As popular as the boogies were, they generated a great deal of concern among parents and the authorities.

The general view in official circles at the time was that they were ‘corrupting the morals of the youth.’ It was not just the music that kicked off a controversy, the outrageous fashion sense of the era also made officialdom very uncomfortable.

From the Afro hair dos to the bell-bottom trousers, platform shoes, the fashion of the funk era was every bit as bold as the music.

A major challenge when setting out to retrace Kenya’s social history on the video format is the sheer paucity of archival footage. Which demands innovative production to, for example, recreate the club scene at the once famous Starlight Club, in Nairobi.

With this third production, Ketebul Music seems to have developed a template that balances interviews and narration with enough music to rekindle memories of an era gone by.

This is also a story with a rather tragic end; the haggard figure of Slim Ali filmed a couple of years ago is a far cry from the dashing star who sold 25,000 copies of the single

“You can do it” in 1976. Stars like him enjoyed the fame and glory that came with their music until the hits dried up, disco took over from the bands and the musicians ended up in the all-too-familiar state of neglect, and in the case of Kelly Brown and Steele Beauttah, death.

Story by Bill Odidi for Business Daily Africa

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