Excerpt for When You Sing To The Fishes by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


 

Copyright © Okang’a Ooko 2018


 


The right of Okang’a Ooko to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em-bodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

 

Available in trade paperback.

info@obakunta.co.ke

 

 

This book is for my wife

MUKAMI

who has stood the turbulence

Of my rocking boat.

 

 

Table of contents

Chapter One§

Chapter Two§

Chapter Three§

Chapter Four§

Chapter Five§

Chapter Six§

Chapter Seven§

Chapter Eight§

Chapter Nine§

Chapter Ten§

Chapter Eleven§

Chapter Twelve§

Chapter Thirteen§

Chapter Fourteen§

Chapter Fifteen§

Chapter Sixteen§

Chapter Seventeen§

Chapter Eighteen§

Chapter Nineteen§

Chapter Twenty§

About the Author §

Other Books by Okang’a Ooko§

 

 

 

 

ONE

Shakespeare was right: death is a necessary evil.”

 

UNEXPECTED expectation, it was

It came as a powerful and relentless beginning that was as limber as kamongo wriggling through your hands. Agwenge, my nogoodnik brother, finally died. Mama went to church and asked the pastor to pray for his soul.




Mama nyar gi nera announced that she now felt ready to die too, herself. The real reason; however, was she began to find herself plagued by Agwenge’s terrifying ayaki.

“He’s free at last,” she said. “Free, yawa. Thu! Let him go and rest. I’m happy for him.” Amazing how Agwenge’s death quickly dissipated her concerns and worries.

Seriously; Agwenge’s death sent me into a tizzy. Well, I cannot say I grieved but I was appropriately solemn for all my twenty years in the land of white souls. I decided to kill myself to stop blaming myself for my kid brother’s death. People blamed me, I knew. My family, especially. I knew better. Like an average artist, I was not smart. Didn’t I do yeasty things that made me run amok out of town? Yeah, that nifty faux pas against Tosha Party in 1991? Admittedly so maybe people did have a point after all. I wasn’t the best band leader. Maybe I wasn’t smart but I always dreamt I would reach my life-peak as a guitarist and a band leader standing outside a 48-track studio with my name on it in Kisumu one day. But when you’re busy forging the future there’s always going to be some collateral damage. I had been blessed with a stout creative mind and an unyielding spirit… more than sufficient to see me through this life.

I was smart enough to survive. In Kisumu I was counted as one of the privileged few. I was chosen along with a selection of benga masters of the guitar like Collela and Owino Ja Shirati. In that long flowering of benga creativity from the early 1970s down through the 1980s, the Nyanza benga scene had thrown up a host of angry young bands and associated benga acts that captured a generation’s yearning to escape the troubles and poverty and the tribal placards placed around their necks. My brother who followed my footsteps with no foresight of his own was not smart enough. He followed me to damnation and disease and death. A year after I left Kisumu for UK (via Uganda in a leaking canoe through Lake Victoria in the dead of the night), my brother was sicker than ondong’ chodha and they took him to Russia. Not that other Russia, not that old cold country up there in the atlas of the world: no, not that one. It’s our own Russia in our Kisumu. It’s really our biggest hospital.

Come the end of that year I got the grief: my brother was dead. It was horrendous. I didn’t take it too good. I tipped over. Tried to get a grip of myself but tipped over. A sickness welled up in the pit of my stomach; the same sickness I used to get when out on fishing boats at Rusinga-Kaksingri passage near Takawiri. Er, I come from one of the islands of Lake Victoria in matters of ancestry. That makes me a natural lakeman, you know. My mind and my head swam in a tumultuous tide of pounding waves and thundering throws.

Getting a grip was elusive, at least for the time the news of my brother’s death hang close. I felt awful. Didn’t really grieve, just felt rotten and awful.

There were ways to deal with such happenings. A calmness was first and foremost necessary then, thereafter, everything else would fall into place. Bile stung my throat and something warm trickled down my face. But I refused to break down. The calmness I sought after was being a little elusive; my vision was blurred as was my memory.

I spent the next twenty years of my life learning various aspects of self control, defense against adversaries and elements; seeking my inner being and so on and so forth.

Twenty years seemingly rolled over me like an avalanche of hot charcoals. Twenty long years that can turn a man into a totally different person.

Can we say Oops? (thought you could).

I was going to kill myself. This all adds up to one fantastic, forward-looking benga record. Urban Benga, that is.

For the next twenty years, it remained in my head and it grew bigger. I knew how I was going to kill myself. I was going to dunk in and swim away from Mbita Point passage and drown myself inside Lake Victoria. But first I was going to do one last great album. I was going to gather the best benga musicians still alive in Kisumu and do one last great album capable of uniting benga diehards, stringing up my ‘80s and ‘90s fans, zilizopendwa-old-music-diggers plus boat-rocking enthusiasts. A tale of how Otis Dundos made it in the ‘80s was going to be told in a pricey production that was going to give Attamaxx Records their first new millennium East Africa No. 1, buying them another twenty years’ shelf life after my death.

Then I was going to die. I was going to die before the album came out into the market. This way my name was going to be immortalized and my music was going to be alive after I was dead. My treasure was going to be tied up in nifty package, a startling posthumous recognition as yours truly. You know that thing about art being above ordinary mortality, don’t you? You heard of it, probably. About that paranoid fantasy we artists have about dying and living after we are dead. About art continuing to be alive and to function long after the artist is dead?

Art, once you create it, does live longer than you. Just look around you and see all the music that is alive whose creators are dead. Start with Le Grand Maître L’Okanga L’Ndju Pene Luambo ‘Lwanzo’ Makiadi aka Franco and Le Tout Pouissant OK Jazz (the All-Powerful Kinshasa Orchestra).

My name was going to be immortalized in the hearts of people and on vinyl, and in my vanishing flashes; I was looking forward to an exciting rendezvous with all my dead siblings: big bro Keya, big sis Akong’o, bro Agwenge and small bro Hawi. Or the dead singers and instrumentalists of my band Victoria. Or I was going to whirl away and meet my uncle, Brigadier Ratego Kwer. In death I was going to live and as the Nile perch and the crocs were going to make a meal with my leftovers, I was going to toss myself with the great tides and wriggle myself inside the currents and create music as I wait for Final Death to come get me under the lake in a place where there is no night and day when you sing to the fishes.




So as I walk with you in this journey, before I begin to take you into my colourful past (really? Yes, you will soon find out, hahaha…). It might be in order to introduce myself now. My name is Otieno. Yeah. Ordinarily. Otieno. Quite common too, nothing special. Well, it’s just my default Luo name, anyway. I was born at night. But if you call me Otieno then you’ll learn very fast how much I hate it. My father’s name is Mbaja Odundo son of Nyangao. My name is Otis O. Dundos. You can call me Dino too… My name is Dinosus Otieno Owiro. My real name is Otieno Owiro Odundo. That’s what they have in my ID and passport.

I’m Dino or Dinos to everyone, only my mama calls me Owiro. And I’ve heard just about every Owiro twist there is. Wire or Wyrie or Weir-D or Owii or Owish. Or Owaya! There had been maybe two or three women who called me Otii or Otis. The rest of them just called me Dino. Angelou used to call me Dinos while Mary-Goretti used to call me Didi. In high school in Kisumu Day I was Owinye or Owaye. In the phone directory my name is Dinosus. Dinosus Otieno Odundo; but don’t bother to look me up in the phone book. Even in the local directory there are five ‘Dinosus Otieno’ entries, and three ‘D. Odundos’. And, I’m telling you what town, county, city, I live in. Kisumu. Kenya. East Africa. Africa. The World.

Name issues aside, I’m a down-to-earth person. Currently I’m in forced retirement here in Kisumu, and I’ve been trying to keep myself busy and sane and reminiscing about Riana, the woman who still haunts my dreams.

If I can remember I’m about 5ft 10” with wide swimmer’s shoulders. In my twenties I had a pretty even build, and I was working out a lot during stage dances but Leeds stashed so much fat in my back for the twenty years, so I have no waist. I’m starting to get the makings of a pretty good six-pack.

Well, I am the man, the musician, the guitarist. The solo-lead guitarist and the leader of this once-famous seminal benga band that stuck with this name I hated: Victoria. Yeah, join me as I reminisce how I started out and got welcomed into upstart underground rat holes like Olindas Bar in Kondele; how I tried to wrestle this juvenile band called KDF (no, not the other KDF; Kisumu Delta Force, really) out of the hands of the feeble-minded first class idiot (add pathological womaniser and fine singer), Nicholas Opija, to turn it into a successful story. The wacky disappointing thing is that my blossoming career was cut short when I went to prison at the age of twenty-nine at the peak of my career.

Then I got out of prison and stole away to Britain to waste the best twenty years of my life.

Hm. This bit bores me stiff as well, so; maybe, I will tell you something else.

See, back in the day, I was a benga legend. In guitar. It was loud, it was not disco. There was a culture surrounding it and the cult-like following for the Victoria ODW Band in Western Kenya was intense. Vending a commercially potent mix of hard benga and glossy rumba, Victoria’s brand of music fell flat with the critics, but ignited an entire generation of budding music fans. This was in the ‘80s. I ran the gauntlet and emerged on the other side with good music in my hands called Urban Benga.

Now; even if you didn’t share my affinity for the Urban Benga ethos, most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try.

I did try.

I really DID try.

Not sure if I’m a winner.

Now; today I can ask: what is your song? Those who may have thought I went underground and got burned out have missed my song. Nobody is going to steal my songs again; I am not going to play any. I am no longer young. I’m forty-seven and I’m going to do other things here in Kisumu.

So…

Folks, before I go to sleep I want to wish all a good night and may the Lord bring sleep into your eyes. May He protect all of you from evil and bad people who walk through life hatching schemes of robbing hardworking men and women of art.

The best advice my father, Mbaja Odundo son of Nyangao, gave me was to tell the truth always. People will always react more positively if you bring your mistake to their attention as opposed to them finding it out on their own. For my dear good father, actions spoke louder than words. He taught me how to swing a hammer, how to cast a net and toe the line, how to swim, how to treat a woman like a lady the same way you tame a boat in strong wind. And that when you have talent… any talent, use it to make money. He also told me that matters between us, as father and son, stayed between us. We were brothers. Women were devils who were always going to confuse you, rearrange you. Listen to what my father told me: that all women except your mother are devils. But even your mother is your father’s devil. Funny, don’t you think? After all, don’t we boys all want to protect our mothers?

So I will tell you the truth. My story may be a chilling grotesque drama and may even be frightening as a remorseless mimic of human frailty but it’s a true story. Victoria ended in tragedy. One cannot understand it; the whole bloody raucous story of Victoria. You go through something and it changes you. So, I’ll slot in any random accounts as I go on giving you a series of Kodachrome-sharp snapshots of my life in different stages and I beg you to see me as more an archetype than a flesh-and-blood guy.

My mind is too bamboozled to even think. Here are some accounts, not in any particular order since I can’t remember well. The devil is in the detail.




Mama says what a normal Luo mother will say to express profound shock and disbelief: “Wuololo. Mama yoo!” She says she always heard of the victims of this terrible disease being thin, but not that thin. It must be the most painful way to die, she says. Mama still appears essentially gentle, able for much of the time to cope with everyday realities and even hold on to my little sister, Akinyi. Despite being married and having two children of her own, Mama still refers to Akinyi as her baby. As nyare matin. Akinyi has grown into a strong young woman, a wife and a mother; very strong Adventist. She sings in the church choir, wears sensible clothing, tithes weekly, gives offerings every Sabbath, donates to charity and donates her time at Mama Ngina Orphanage near Kibuye. Akinyi’s good-for-nothing husband always wants to fork her money to go for beer rounds and to watch English Premier League as if he’s a… damn. He long stopped caring for his family, Akinyi’s had to work. So, she inherited Mama’s shop (our family Rusinga Island General Store on the corner of Kendu Lane and Odera Street in downtown Kisumu).

Mama reacts with frightening paranoia to everything that colligate to Agwenge’s death and I don’t understand. Anxiety somehow makes her unnaturally polite and differential that she appears frightened and; thus, provokes fear.

My father retired from Ogongo Fishing, gave up drinking and opened a curio shop cum art gallery in a brownstone edifice at the end of Oginga Odinga Street near Obote Road, near the Lake. From here he waddles around in slippers reading newspapers, arguing with artists, talking on phone and piling cash in the tiller. The shop is neat and quiet, and occasionally a tourist who loses his bearing sneaks in to glare at the objets d’art. Perhaps it is the sullen mood of this little shop that has changed my father. In a subdued way, he appears an alienated man, prepared for vertigo and dislocations, seemingly asking himself, “How much long do I keep living in this boring world?” But whatever my personal feelings about him, like all sons, I’m held on to the fascination by my father as a symbolic figure. Just that and nothing else. Not the role model, no.

My parents seem to relax in the art shop as they get older, and I agree with Akinyi, that they are fairly relaxed near the end. Of course my father still gets time to paint his queer acrylics and sit next to the huge gramophone singing along with Rochereau. He has all the odd vinyls in 45s and LPs including Kallé’s Afrikan Jazz, Nico’s African Fiesta, OK Jazz, Vox Africa, Maquisards, Bantous, Le Négro Succès and Trio Madjesi (Orchestre Sosoliso). He still wants to surprise me all the time with facts I don’t know regarding Zairean (I mean, Congolese) rumba. The latest? That Dibango, Brazzos and Longomba also played with African Jazz. And his favourite topic: the greatest brothers in music. Dewayon and Johnny Bokelo Isenge. Dechaud and Docteur Nico Kassanda wa Mikalayi. Franco and Tchongo Bavon Marie Marie. Faugus and Roger Izeidi Mokoy. Soki Vangu and Soki Dianzenza. To my father, music is always Zairean (arrggh, Congolese) music. Whenever my father talks about music, he means Congolese music.

One thing I didn’t know for all my years in music is that (really) the brothers Nico and Dechaud set the standard for Congolese-style solo and rhythm guitar interplay that we enjoy and play all the time. That guitar god Nico actually created it! I (like most musicians who play rumbastic styles) take it all for granted, like somebody just came up with it. And after that disclosure, I have begun to really look... to really listen to the old music and I begin to see a pattern.

Like my father, I am a huge-huge fan of 1960s and 1970s Congolese rumba. They are old fashioned and of a time I cherished. I have been known to go well out of my way in pursuit of some combination or other of these things. My current worst bad habit is sleeping and brooding. And feeling rotten about my imperfections. So rotten I long for self-flagellation and even death to wake again renewed. Like those nightmarish computer games my son Daudi used to play in UK where you play hard and sometimes survive but most times you get yourself killed. Then you resurrect yourself and start over again. I long for a Bible-like revelation that explains to me why I’m a musician and not a professional athlete. And it keeps me humble. Very humble.

Mama’s life; however, appears to be pressed down by sad memories than the real world. Along with Agwenge’s long illness and death, three other tragedies had made unwelcome visitations to the family. In 1987 our big bro, Keya committed suicide. In 1997 my sister Akong’o died of AIDS. She had been married to ‘The Poet’ Willy Wilbarforce Opiyo, a composer and singer in my band, who died two years before her. In 2005 our last born brother, Hawi Odhiambo died. He had gone to the University to study law, and that was going to be another celebrated achievement for the family, but the brilliant glitter of his career was ended by a stray bullet. They shot him down during a student riot in his final year. He was only twenty-two. It was the most shattering experience for Mama. I think it’s because Hawi had been her favourite, and she greatly adored him. Agwenge (I’m I supposed to say RIP), like our eldest bro, booze-addled Keya (okay, RIP), had been a simpler case. An amiable drifter with a licentious moral fiber, and I was not sympathetic to them. Agwenge had married a loose woman whose love were many and scruples few. He had married my ex-girlfriend, Mary-Goretti against my wishes and Keya had messed up his own family and ruined his life. I had not been so close to the two of them as I had been to Hawi. But… I greatly mourned over the death of Akong’o, a very strong-willed girl who fell into the hands of a low level crafty poet who gave her “the disease”.

Poor Mama, she can’t understand that the fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world. As an artist I see it. I feel it. In fact I’m ready for it. Soon and very soon, we will whisk away to some unknown place. Shakespeare was right: death is a necessary evil. Amazing how we spend all our lives waiting for death… the way we do our stuff so-so quick in a race against time so that when death finally gets us we won’t be so badly off. Yet when Mr. Death finally knocks, we cannot accept it. Just cannot. We tense up and make a run for it.

I think the reason Death has to force us to die tragically through bizarre means like deliberate poisoning, murder, boats capsizing or motor vehicles running us down or illness consuming us in hospitals is because we defy his will. I just don’t know why death brings loss and sadness yet we know well it is inevitable. I wish we always had an appointment with death (like Tutuola imagined or like Sura Mbaya reckoned) so that we will know the day it comes so that we get ready to meet him (after running the full gamut of life and raising a family and putting stuff in place) and just walk away and disappear instead of being hit by a bus or a bullet. It’s a hell of a thought, I know. I mean even if Death is in the business of killing people, he wouldn’t need to find ugly and in-human ways to kill us like (imagine!) inventing incurable diseases like AIDS or paying fellow men to kill us on his behalf. If we just cooperated with him.

I look back at my family and I feel sad. I look back at how hard Mama worked to bring us up straight by ripping us off bad company in Pandpieri and trimming us with her iron fist and keeping us strictly focused on school and I feel sad. Sad because I now see how terribly I let her down. I worry that Mama is losing her mind the same way I’m losing my grip.

Mama’s face clouds and grows wary as she struggles to tell me about Agwenge’s last moments. “His last words were, “Set me free! Open the windows and let me go!” And his soul is indeed free now to continue his work of creating music in the winds. Welcoming him are his brothers Keya and Hawi and his sister Akong’o with open arms and other family members and friends who went before. Agwenge’s reunion with his loved ones in the land of souls is a joyous event, and I can just imagine how beautiful it is.”

With sadness, I feel awful that it really got me nowhere, that I had strayed from an acceptable course that my life went in the wrong direction. That I was a headstrong narcissist who went against Mama’s wishes and took matters into my own hands spinning my life into a kind of performance-art thing that I called Orchestra Victoria and through which I made some records and got fame. And also through which I messed people up, especially women. I was a mean-spirited bad man and a celebrated womaniser. I never married, not in the proper way. I never had a family… not a real one. Really it brings genuine tears into my eyes, my understanding of my inner life fuel-injects me with genuine emotion.

Nashikitika.

This is something deeper and sadder: not just alienation, but a hard-won awareness of mortality and passing time. I’m worried that I’m now forty-seven and I’m unaccomplished. I’m worried that I have tumbled deep into a full-blown, existential crisis: frightened over my aging mother’s slippage into arthritis and hypertension. I’m deeply sorrowful over the toll that my exile-life, mistakes and misplaced dreams have taken on my life. I worked and made a name, alright, but what’s the meaning of it. Hakuna maana yoyote. I lost twenty years doing nothing. Just doing nothing.

What do I do now?

Folks, where do I start now?

Walimwengu, where do I start now?

What do I do now? Folks, where do I start now? My worry and my sense of unworthiness now happens more often; some part of my brain is sign-posting its distress. Time to do something. Time to make get my flimsy story get the hell out.

 

 

 

TWO

You only realize you’re black when you’re fed up of  being told you’re a black asshole and you only get told you’re a black asshole in UK.”

 

HOO—OME sweet home!

I came back home to Kenya a clogged-up chucklehead. Like all the other African who had lived and worked many years in the West (Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Banda etc) I came back penniless. In the precocious English Kingdom I found myself in a harrowing predicament. I came close to becoming insane. To say the least I was freaky freaked out, deranged, and just how long I was going to be suspended in the unknown, many-many miles away from home only God knew. I tried to be normal. I tried repeatedly day after day, month after month, year after year sometimes allowing a couple of years to pass before trying and each succeeding time I found the same clouds in my mind. I determined at length that the clouds would be there for a long, long time.

It was sure for some certainty that I was a long way from being myself. Memories flooded my frapped mind lambasting me until at length I screamed out in my mind and went hurtling into the so-so forest of mindless delusion longing to find a quiet place in which to try and gather myself.

That quiet place was none other than Kisumu.

In Kenya, East Africa.

In my mind.

A scene of a fresh water lake, a harbour with fishing boats, a great pier spanning some huge bay inlet, a great vast land with vegetation and rolling hills covered with villages and homesteads was in my mind as I remembered Nyanza. A city where no skyscrapers but happy folks would be seen in my mind when I thought of Kisumu. My thoughts formed short verses such as this one:


My fair and lovely, I long and thirst for you

I long for sunlight in the waters of Nam Lolwe

Surrounded by Nandi Hills and Nyabondo plateau.

Take me to the lake, to the beach, to the deep waters,

And some quiet places to brood and reflect

Nifty Nyando river running amok down through the

villages and farmlands, thousands of feet long winding

Snake through a small town and the BIG lake.

Find for me quiet beaches for naked skinny dipping

For making consummation under water, your first time.

Find me choice spots along the shores in quiet

place where Peace and Tranquility lasts


This was a piece I wrote for Kisumu. Yeah, Kisumo always filled my mind! There was no ticket to go home. Home? Kisumu had turned into a dream, no doubt. And I cherished it. And I was going to return to it by all means. That was for sure. Sure as an oasis that could well be a mirage.

The following years it was certain that traipsing out in the no-man’s-land of indecision was a bad idea. I had to settle, somewhat. I had to live. Finally with concord finding its place in my mind, I got accustomed to making my way back to the house in Western Yorkshire I was calling home. New friend, Dod Teddington, was deeply involved in trying to make me English. No, Scottish. He said he understood my sense of loss in the English country and that he felt very much the same. He was Scottish. Of course he was Scottish, he rubbed it in... finished every sentence with, “...but you see I’m Scottish.” Now there’s a thing about being Scottish, Irish and English just the same way there’s a thing being Kalenjin, Kikuyu and Luo. Pam, who was English, had taken a lot of trouble to make me comfortable in the English country reminding me all the time that I was Otis Dundos the big name and she was English.

Rank has advantages. And tribes exist everywhere.

The sun rose, the sun set. The moon came, moon went. Days rolled by languidly, turned into weeks, into months. Years. Seasons came and went, many Christmases and many holidays rolled on. Winters turned into hot summers. Thoughts of dread were inescapable. There was nothing to do, though, but wait. The contemplation of making for “home” filled me, but I knew that I was in no state of mind to seek Salvation. I changed gradually. I became a new person. In pursuit for “home” I sought peace and comfort in my Christianity. I sought peace in the SDA heritage fondly tucked away in my memory of childhood. I bought a KJV Bible and read and prayed. I prayed for redemption to come to me. I gave up smoking weed, drinking and all other indescribable bad behavior you pick along the dream- come-true road of life as a musician and an artist. And prayed. My prayer was simple: I wanted a regime change in Kenya so that I would go back home. The desire to be home in Kisumu was infuriating. The feeling of being stretched too thin was overwhelming. Where would it end? I wanted Tosha Party out of power.

But changed I am still. Now that I’m home, I no longer want to be a good person anymore. I guess being holed up in the cold Europe too long can dampen you right down to skin. Because many of the personal pledges I had seriously made appeared to have fizzled out once I hit the real world in the African soil.

I think I am sober, more sober and calm.

Just seem so.

I’ve learned better.

As a result of it I am trying hard to forgive the Brits for almost driving me mad with their mean and shitty racist mindset which has a way reminding you that you are a hapless black asshole and you need to go back to your miserable country. Fellow Kisumuans, don’t be fooled by good stories you hear about living abroad. The reality is for a time the gooey feeling of new experience extends you into a level of exaltation that is almost impossible to describe.

Then you realize you’re black.

You realize you’re black because you’re told you are black! Sample this: you only realize you’re black when you’re fed up of being told you’re a black asshole and you only get told you’re a black asshole in UK.

I find the sense of loss I experienced hard to explain to my “black” brothers and sisters who are yearning to migrate to Britain in search of “better life”. Seriously, come to think of it: we are so comfortable in our lovable Kisumu that we think the rest of humanity thinks, acts and feels like we do. Then we go abroad and realize that our way of living is not necessarily understood or appreciated elsewhere. Which is not necessarily a bad thing (although painful to realize too). And when we realize that the way Britons or Americans live has so many nice and wonderful things about it too, we can’t help but come to terms with the fact that there is no one right way to live.

Then time takes us through the years and we realize there are simply many right ways to live an African life in the West!

But the fact that you’re black remains. You look at your hands and see that, yes, it really is a black skin. Ah, really. Sort of makes you feel all the time you’re second class.

I already knew (from Pam’s stories) that England was a dull place but living in such a vibrant town like Kisumu with such an amazing culture with human warmth, jeer and carefree laughter abounding all around really brought it home that England is an extremely boring place to live in even if you have lived there all your life.

But alas!

Forget about the place being boring and start to see how those people treat you. That being black is bad is something we are not used to… we don’t know it. I mean suddenly you realize you are black and you are reminded over and over that being black is such an awful thing. For twenty years I lived and worked in that country and acquired citizenship and all the rights that went with it. I even married one of their women. Yet I was reminded over and again that I was a black guy from Kenyan and not British. I was only seen and regarded like a foreigner.

The question in those cold sneering looks was the same: when are you going back to Kenya? I never knew what to say. I think, in a way, the pink-skins were jealous of my African lifestyle, and I was jealous of their stability and routine. Yes, my life had many advantages as a famous musician, but it didn’t help kick the mucky muck because my asylum condition required me never to engage in music.

I felt stuck, and that’s why I was always making plans to return home. I was uncomfortable and my sense of “not-belonging” was balanced with international and personal unsatisfactions. There were many ups and downs.

Let me tell you… more people need to understand this feeling of being suspended between cultures. Home is where the heart is, we all know. Long enough, I got used to the house in Western Yorkshire with my English wife and my half-black half-white son. Daudi was growing up and watching him grow kept me busy. He was okay; lanky, goofy face, goofy face, lanky. Whenever the feelings of being a lonely black man began to rise in me, I looked at Daudi and they were suddenly obliterated to be replaced by calmness. In my mind I smelled wild flowers in South Nyanza countrysides. I smelled fish, and I sang to the fishes. I was in DreamScape, mid-December, and fishes were about to start breeding and I sang to them.

Surprise is why then did Nairobi culture-shock me, eh? Why? Reverse culture shock, they call it.

I think it’s because while I was wasting away in the Kingdom of England all these twenty years, I had somehow gotten myself sucked into European high-society living and the customary benefits that came with it in the name of lifestyle. Somewhere between my tenth or eleventh year there, I reached a “point of no return”, where I began to feel more at home in Leeds. Thatcherism was on the brink and Britain had opened up to private enterprise. The Berlin wall had come down and other eastern bloc countries craved western culture and liberation. I saw shopping malls springing up throughout Britain and good roads (called motorways) with winding flyovers being built and people were flung on a consumeration binge. Pam wanted me to study music because I needed a makeover and music was the only thing I could do naturally. She always said that one should strive to achieve excellence in what they are naturally good in because it’s what they love doing. She wanted me to teach African music to the pink-skins. I tried it, joined a small natty college in Leeds teaching classical music and stuff. But I soon dropped out because I realized I was a better guitarist than their guitar teacher. Besides I had no money; my records were not selling much in UK due to my tarnished name and my money was running thin and there were other priorities. Daudi was in school.

What happened over the next long years is best described as a smorgasbord of odd jobs and survival tips. My catchword was “whatever it takes.” Instead I did odd jobs here and there. I took on some film work in front and behind the camera. I composed jingles and soundtracks. I drove a garbage truck, worked part-time in an African record store owned by Sterns, and a handful of other non-musical odd jobs. I worked nights in a McDonald store and did security jobs.

And everywhere I turned up for work people remembered the name Otis Dundos. I was already famous in UK following Victoria’s spectacular performances here in 1987 when African Dawn brought the band over. And thanks to African Dawn too, my records were available here. They loved Opiyo Willy’s high-riding ‘There’s No Mathematics In Love’ mainly because it had been covered by Eric Clapton. They were eager to hear my story. But part of my fame is that Tosha Party had succeeded in branding me a revolutionist element and called me a musician with dangerous messages. Here they put me in the class of Fela Kuti and Bob Marley and the British press wrote unfunny stories about me.

Years earlier, the British Special Branch had questioned me for days on end in smoke-filled cubicles and I convinced them that if they extradited me back to Kenya, I would be maimed and castrated in Nyayo House dungeons and thrown in prison to rot there. In the end they believed my story and decided to give me political asylum and let me rust in peace in UK. The deal was simple: I will not engage in music. I wanted to protest this but my Indian lawyer shouted me down and reasoned that it was the best deal there was. Pam backed him up. He hurriedly filled the papers and gave me the pen and told me sign. I was screwed. Really screwed. My wings were clipped for good. They photographed me, took my fingerprints, security-checked me and issued with an ID.

I was required to report at regular intervals to immigration reporting centres. I was issued with a letter that informed me that I could be detained at any point during the asylum process. But what choice did I have? Tosha had rigged itself back to power in 1992. And, since the odds are against you as a black man in England, it is no use trying to live another life. In Leeds I learned that it paid to concentrate on what was going on around you than live in another world, because when you are a free spirit like me in this cold country, you’re really locked up. Many evenings, bleary-eyed and bored, I mooched around in the vicinity of the bus depot in the company of other Africans with nothing else to do. We shared out our problems and many of them had bigger problems.

In UK they had a parallel system of welfare support that provided us with £36.62 a week, 52 per cent of Job Seeker’s Allowance. Surviving on £5.23 a day put us asylum seekers well below the UK poverty line. You had to eat and you had to send money home. You had to stay alive. We swapped ideas and shared survival tricks. On my own, I resolutely wandered the streets of Leeds in the hunt for anything in the name of work. I concentrated on meeting the new culture, language, foods, smells, sights. Instead of walking around Roundhay Park with my head down, I learned to love the show garden with its Chelsea flowers.

Time seemed not to move and you didn’t see sunshine. It got worse… I couldn’t get omena or mbuta or ngege (just my favourite fish) at Kirkgate Market. I couldn’t get a good hair dresser for my afro. Pam hated dreadlocks. So I was forced to trim my beautiful wavy afro. It was difficult not to think about the things I was missing out on in the fringes of the outside world, but torturing myself worrying was making me miserable. It certainly wasn’t getting me out of UK any faster. It dawned on me that I was going to live in Leeds forever. At first the thought freaked me out. Being in one place forever sounded boring: same friends, same house, same neighbors, etc.

In the end, Pam trained me to be really married to her and I concentrated on raising Daudi and doing other things I could control in this country, not the things that were out of my reach outside the borders of the British Empire. I began the arduous task of seeking citizenship. I established roots and became affiliated to Leeds, its culture and its people. I transferred all my savings to a Leeds bank and bought a three bedroom house in Western Yorkshire where I lived with Pam, her aging mother and our son Daudi for twenty years.

And as my years in Leeds increased and I grew older, it amazed me how much I loved the English history and the Western civilization. I spent a great many lonely months in the libraries and in the few scenic parts of the country such as Yorkshire Dales and in the parks. I learned to use computers and it was the time when Word Perfect and MS DOS were the in thing in computing. I remember actually clicking (tkk) at the x when the tutor said click on the x to close the window. In between increasing knowledge and doing odd jobs, I met many people who struggled with the same or at least similar challenges. It took me years, literally, to fully comprehend that what I was going through was the adventure of a lifetime. And after all these years I still seemed to fret about the weather and longed for the sunny summer, and when it came, I spent it at Park Square with the locals eating lunch and telling them about Kenya and about my music. I often took Daudi on walks and we were always discovering new places. Then Daudi grew into a teenager; into a young adult and joined the University of Reading.

Then Tosha Party were defeated and a new admin came into office in Kenya. This gave me hope. Pam lost her job at African Dawn due to ill health and to me it was about time that we moved back to Kenya. We would be closer to family and it would be more affordable, she reckoned. “It’s easier to work as a musician in Kenya and that’s what you love doing,” she said to me.

Daudi was now a man and could take care of himself once he graduated. He was especially good with computers and had engaged a friend who had designed Victoria.com, my web site through which I had converted most of my songs into mp3 format and was trying to sell online.

I had also opened a Facebook page and was interacting with old fans and re-bridging my life and rebuilding alliances and contacts. My experience with Facebook is that it is like politics. Your ideas, philosophies, beliefs and interests must be read and shared with your friends all the time. Failure to let your presence felt by your friends throws you to the periphery making them forget about you altogether. Your friends only notice you through your constant contribution and comments. They will only identify with you when you share with them your news, sorrows and predicaments. The friends are many and varied yet you can only reach them through the network and my experience is that you may never in your life meet most of them physically. In Facebook, everybody is equal. And when you die, you can still live in Facebook, provided your Status isn’t marked diseased. Just die and get it posted on your page and you will be amazed at the flow of condolences.

Pam changed her mind about relocating to Kenya, she had other ideas. Her brief gave me the grief: “Go to Kenya and sell DreamScape. We need the money for Daudi’s college.”

That was it. I left. For me, it was a happy bye-bye to the British. And that suddenly, for the life of me, Kenya was only mere hours away! I was biting my nails and couldn’t wait.

I sighed. Even though my exile made me lose my time, I was deeply thankfulness for such a rich experience and it was something I was going to carry for the remaining years of my life. What awaited me there on the Other Side I had no idea. It was blacked-blanked out. The Kenya in my mind was the ‘80s Kenya. An amazing country where people were much more smiling and happier than Britain. On the plane, I looked at the dark gray British clouds and reflected that the weather was definitely one of the reasons Africa was a happy place. I was looking at my window and the European skies were gray and depressing. I hoped one of my new songs was going to do justice to the depth of feeling behind these cross-cultural experiences.



Nairobi. Nairobi? For real? This is Nairobi?

I find I hardly know it and I don’t like it. There are sights, smells, and feelings to be disregarded as a mere dream. I find a city overcrowded by well-dressed people, a city not as arousing and romantic as the one I knew. This city is cagey and dense and moves too fast. Too fast chasing money and gobbling too much politics.

Hey! Just a thought: what about that really soulful phrase we loved way back in the ‘70s: No Hurry in Africa.

Look! The new skyscrapers are awesome and the streets are wider and cleaner and packed with too many sleek Japanese cars, all seemingly hooting endlessly for a reprieve from the jam. I stare agape, it frightens me. So much I’m thrown into an emotional roller coaster. This place is ten times overcrowded than Leeds. Reminds me of London!

For a long blinker I forget who I am.

In England I had been the lonely African, now here I feel like the lonely Briton. Living in the West changes you forever. I think my shock is largely because of how I romanticized everything about home while being homesick and now that I’ve returned, I find that it isn’t really that rosy. The sad thing about going away and coming back is that you can’t really relate and fit in, and it sometimes feels like your experience abroad is not valid or hasn’t happened.

Thanks to my former producer Justin JB Bomboko, (that well-known JB of Attamaxx KRC) I have somewhere to stay, someone to take me around in their car and take me to the good record shops and night clubs and even buy the stuff that I need. I have a new car hired for me to drive if I want.

It’s been phenomenal, especially considering what a full-on assault-on-the-senses this Nairobi is. I repeat: I’ve been hugely culture-shocked in a way I had never expected, and if I didn’t have JB to show me around I’d probably not have left my hotel room. Even after two days I am still kind of helpless. I can’t drive a car. In UK I didn’t drive at all since I didn’t own a car. I was used to manual transmission engines and had forgotten how the clutch worked. It confuses me, but here they have automatic transmission engines in almost all cars and this requires me to learn again! So in short I can’t drive but even if I could, can I find my way around? Can I remember the names of even the most common streets? I know there is a Kenyatta Avenue but don’t know how to locate it. I have had to buy a map (I have to, really) instead of continually getting lost and asking for directions. I need to walk, sometimes to clear my mind and find my bearing. To see things and blink and feel and adapt. Luckily places like Nairobi Cinema, Kenya Cinema, Archives, Uchumi, Ambassadeur and Odeon haven’t changed. Nevertheless, the matatus are like nothing I knew. In 1991, I left the yellow buses known as Kenya Bus. Now I see none and this is like nothing I am prepared for. I’m even suspicious of the sudden patriotism displayed on matatus. Several matatus are adorning the Kenyan flag and the national colours. Could it be the display for Harambee Stars support or some new political thing?

On the other hand, Nairobi has kept pace with other world cities. I look with gloomy fascination at the well-dressed men and women and the youth. Especially the youth: the man-boys and girls behave the same way they do in Leeds. And they dress and talk the same. And I see sleek cars that reveal a steady middle class. I see advertisement on walls of buildings and on huge billboards just like they are done in Leeds.

Twenty years have turned me into an alien, for sure. Really. As an alien, I have so much learning to do. But it is kind of like a tourist. I’m ready to venture out on my own. To walk around (actually walk!) and get a sense of this city. To find clothing stalls and food kibandas on my own, to savour in cursory nyama choma or homely steamed fish with ugali. To get a Tusker and to be forced to savour the taste of Kenyan lager again. I eat some amazing food but can’t even tell you their names.

Later, when am wandering around town with a stapled itinerary and some njugu karanga nuts in a Tuskys bag looking for a place to sit down and chew, I catch sight of my reflection in a shop window and am struck by the haunting hunk of the man I am at forty-seven, slightly overweight, a little bulky but not bald.

So startling it is I quickly look away. Women are too good looking and there are far too many of them. They all carry big bags… where have the small bags and the kyondos gone? Alas, these women look much smaller too, not like the big-hipped big-buttock-with-madiaba-legs women I was used. However, I manage to find some old music stores and I’m overwhelmed by the ugly copies of my pirated music on audio cassettes and cheap Chinese CDs. I pay to listen to my own music and I’m feeling not exactly flush but at least less crushingly uplifted in the quaking baritone of Biggy Tembo.

I visit some clubs and don’t find the hell-may-care fun that characterised our time in the heydays of the ‘80s in the then invigorating and enlivened clubs with strobe lights. I find clubs dead to the characteristic boogies of our lives back then. I see million shilling clubs fitted with psychedelic lights and pricey music systems. The patrons are nearly all 20-something-or 30-year-olds whose only idea of fun was to chew gum, drink booze, talk noisily and endlessly gaze at giant screens watching English football clubs… Manchester United or Arsenal. What about Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards? They are still around, I’m told. Playing ananga.

Hm, for me it will always be Gor Mahia. You can call me old-fashioned if you like. Really that’s what I am. Gor K’Ogalo. In Leeds I was a strong Manchester United supporter while Pam and Daudi were strong Arsenals.

Anyways, I’m looking for pole dancing. Forget it, I’m told to forget it. Instead I am shown the new one with enticing sisters teasing male patrons out of their wits by vigorously and suggestively wriggling their scantily covered butts on their laps. It nearly makes my eyes pop out of their sockets each time I see it. Lap Dance, this one is called.

Hey, and what about gogo dance? Ah, spare me…

Call it culture shock again? You bet it is! Nairobi is in flux; ever changing. In 1991 when I left Kisumu, crime, corruption, bad politics and political dissent, tribalism, rotten economy and over-fagged society with jobless youths was the order of things. I’m told the situation has worsened.

At a closer look; however, I find a city that care for a new sophisticated and persnickety new middle class, with its sizable entertainment allowances and with zero sense of fun. The Nairobi that I knew and now miss, was the soulfully artsy one loaded with dispensable income or misplaced priorities and crucial weekend outings and lots of live band fun. My kind of Nairobi was the one where the young, the moneyed old wazees and hot-blooded youth, middle-aged middle-class working class were naturally riotous. Naturally. The joints of the times were the sleazy clubs with attention-screaming reputation for baseness and were generally packed out, rasping, party-laden and haughty, not particularly tasty for the faint-hearted.

Suddenly the romantic 1970s come tumbling back. And guess what comes to mind; Kuguru Noodles, Cinzano Bianco, Viva magazine, Pussy Cat and BigG chewing gums, Peregina Peremende, Starlight Club, Les Wanyika, Armstrong Kasuku’s Garden Square, Ronald Ngala Street’s notorious Imani Day & Night Club, the equally notorious Club Somberero, Lady Gay beauty lotion, Susana Pomade, Ambi perfume, Pressol hair gel, Abaluhyia Football Club, Luo Union, GEMA United Football Club, Orchestra Les Mangelepa, Maroon Commandoes, Ilunga wa Ilunga (Baba Gaston), Mercedes Benz 450 SLC, Renault 12, Tusker Export beer in stout green bottles, Voice of Kenya (VOK), Comedians Mzee Pembe, Mzee Ojwang, Mama Tofi, Amka Twende and Baba Zero, Kelly Brown and his hit song ‘Higher’, Air Fiesta Matata’s ‘Africa’ featuring Steele Beauttah on the VOK radio. The Mighty Cavaliers, Ishmael Jingo, Hodi Boys, De Rocky, Saidi Travolta and Fadhili William were the names that summed up music.

And of course with music comes some of the hottest VOK disc jockies of the time, such as Mr. RRRrright Eddy Fondo, Elisabeth Obege, Gladys Erude, Mick Ndichu, Lenny Mwashegwa, Agawo Patrobers aka A Gang of Petty Robbers, John Obong’o Junior, Abdul Haq and the Sunday morning duo of Mahanja Mike (Mike Andrews) & Easy Lizzie (Elizabeth Omolo).

The year was 1979 rolling into the ‘80s and new times.

One nightclub features strongly in a variety of memoirs: the Florida Night Club. It was very much at the upmarket end of Nairobi clubbing life. Formal dress was required and the clientele was drawn almost exclusively from “high society moneyed folks”. The club seemed to specialise in gimmicks. It had a glass revolving door and, depending on which account you read, a glass floor, a revolving dance-floor, professional strippers and/or a revolving seating-area. It was also very dimly lit, all of which sounds like a recipe for disaster after a few Pilsners.

Florida has a special place in Nairobi club history for two reasons—the funky Kenyan artists who played there (like Steele Beauttah) and the golden heart of its owner Major Mark Hassey. Hassey, Like Robbie William Fisher Armstrong who ran the Starlight Club, was keen on Kenyan acts having done well out of booking Kelly Brown and Slim Ali, very cheaply, for an earlier club he ran, The QuaNairobi (on Kimathi Street, I think). They proved very popular and a new artist Ali de Rocky was still a Florida favourite by the time I left Kenya in 1991.

I believe that Florida represents the pinnacle of the lost era’s decadence and creativity. Club Boomerang, perched upon Museum Hill, was a funk house charging fifty bob in the early 1980s. Hallians, Equator, Starlight, Garden Square, Arcadia, Pasha Club and Club Camey charged twenty bob because they were considered to have a modicum of class. Many popular Zairean bands performed at Garden Square in the earliest stages of their careers. I remember performing there in 1983, playing guitar on the Stukas song “Mandalala” in a makeshift band that had Kasongo Wa Kanema and John Ngereza.

I turn up at Garden Square hoping to find old friends and lost acquaintances, to compare diverging paths and find out where the great Zairean bands are now and remember what it was like then. Instead I find it has now been turned into a meeting point for funeral planning. The music has long since stopped; the good old Zairean music paradise is no more. Kasuku Armstrong, old guy, where are you? There were bands like Mangelepa, Super Mazembe, Ilunga Baba Gaston, Les Kinoir (later Virunga), Viva Makale and Les Wanyika.

The most popular pubs were Friends Corner, Matumbo, Kongoni, Karumaindo, Lidos, Green Corner and Afro Unity. For a start one would opt to go to Grogan Road or Muthurwa for chang’aa. You could opt to go to some backstreet chang’aa joints along Luthuli Avenue or parts of Tom Mboya Street. But the most interesting was Grogan Road where one would pay at the shop counter give the seller a few minutes to fill the glass, follow him, take a swig and leave by the back door then to the counter for another order. From Grogan one would opt for a bottle of beer at Matumbo Bar then proceed to get a prostitute at Imani Bar and Lodging where with five bob you could make your pick for a short one.

From here you would make your choice of nightclub where you could opt to dance till morning or fall into deep sleep and be woken up in the morning by the sweepers but find yourself with no shoes.

Tonight I stop by Florida to mooch around. But my appearance brings no hush to the crowd. I might have been a show-stopper but either I belong to the lost era or I belong to Kisumu.

It’s the sixth day now and I’m attuned to the new city. The random perils and deceptions of the old city are left for memory sharing and I have spasms of panic triggered by news reports about Nairobi city getting bombed like it happened in 1998.

What have they done to music, dear friends? I listen to music and see no pattern. Too much keyboard and percussion, no melody. Just jizzy canned stuff.


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