John Junior’s fifth studio album with his Brilliant Voices (B.V) band is a complete departure from his other musical productions.
Even the choice of the album title is quite telling. Titled “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye” (Human behaviour has surpassed God’s expectations), the Rumba artiste has served his fans an elegant collection of six songs that will keep music lovers talking for some time.
Born John Odhiambo Orondo, John Junior has struggled to shake off the shadow of Musa Juma (the deceased Luo Rumba maestro) that keeps stalking him whenever he releases singles or an album. His critics continue to use his former bandleader as a yardstick to measure his artistic success something that bothers him as he has revealed in a few media interviews. He performed with Orchestra Limpopo International led by Musa Juma during its heydays mainly as a vocalist. Today, he is not only a vocalist, but a composer, a bandleader, and performer par excellence hungry for greatness and glory that comes with it.
The six songs in the album are “Chris Budo”, “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye”, “Steve Odidi”, “Georgy Ogada”, “Vanny Remix”, and “Generic”. The distinctive difference between these songs and others previously produced by the artiste is the vocal experimentation that makes the album al the more refreshing.
He does not touch on love issues, a theme he’s is accustomed to. My favourite track is “Steve Odidi” in which he praises his friend comparing him to holy water straight from heaven. Within the social imagination of most African communities, the educated and wealthy sons and daughters of the community had the obligation to uplift their people from poverty and suffering. They accomplished such responsibilities through helping their people secure jobs, paying schools fees for children from impoverished backgrounds, and helping widows. That collectivist approach is still firmly anchored within the Luo community despite the onslaught of individualism brought by modernisation and urbanisation.
The loud absence of women artistes, however, is something that should worry us. John Junior’s album, for instance, does not feature any female vocals.
Like his predecessors in the Luo benga and rumba genres, John Junior, therefore, acknowledges his role to immortalize and commend such members of the community who remain committed to a collective goal even as they pursue their personal interests. It also forms the subject of “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye” where he warns against intra-community jealousy, betrayal, the need for humility and restraint in order for the Luo people to rise to higher heights. The artiste hence becomes not only an entertainer but an educator in the community.
I also enjoyed interludes in the album by B.V. band member Kataliko against the background of guitar and drums which creates a very interesting harmony in the songs. “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye” follows other recent album releases from two popular Luo Ohangla sensations: Musa Jakadala and Emma Jalamo. The latter is known for his experimentation and infusion of diverse beats and rhythms from other genres hence making his music hard to categorize strictly as Ohangla. I would argue that it is a promising sign of musical maturity. It is a challenge afflicting many Kenyan artistes who always refuse to reinvent themselves according to the times. This generates a sense of stagnant creativity and innovation as witnessed by Jakadala’s 2017 album “Chuny Dhano” (the heart of a human being). The vocals and the content of some of his songs are unnecessarily repetitive, unlike his debut collection that catapulted him to fame.
The loud absence of women artists, however, is something that should worry us. John Junior’s album, for instance, does not feature any female vocals. Few of these women release albums to such fanfare and pomp. Most of the bands led by some of the artists mentioned are only comfortable with women being dancers. While dancers are integral in the overall performance of any serious artiste, they tend not to matter when it comes to production. The voices that get to our airwaves are all male.
The marginalization of female singers in rumba, ohangla, and benga reflects very badly on the music scene when there’s a worldwide rebellion against traditional gender roles that limit a woman’s potential. The Luo music industry must hence dispel the notion that women can only be dancers playing among other roles the objects of male desire during performances. Except for Lady Maureen, an Ohangla artiste who has tried to remain consistent in a male-dominated field, other female artists remain in the margins, struggling to record singles, receiving little media coverage, and unable to produce full-length albums.
Therefore, as we worry about the skewed representation of female singers in the music industry, it is instructive for them to take advantage of technology to market themselves. John Junior, as well as Jalamo and Jakadala, have uploaded their entire albums on YouTube. They are active on social media networks where they constantly engage with their fans and receive suggestions on ways to produce better music. So, while we continue to lament that musicians don’t release videos nowadays as in the past, let’s save something small and pay for their live performances. That’s where the market has shifted to. It is the ideal place to sample the multiple flavours of “Dhano Otamo Wang’ Nyasaye” which I highly recommend to all rumba fans.
Amol Awuor is a Master of Arts student at Rhodes University, South Africa. His research interests include African popular culture and digital cultural production.