As a country, we are very allergic to consistency. Our history is full of gaps, and nobody really gives a damn about the Yearbook. But Joseph Kamaru knew our stories and used his melodies to narrate them, in a career that spanned over four decades.
On Wednesday evening, as some nightclubs were warming up for their weekly Karaoke, Kamaru gracefully exited the stage, age 78.
The man blossomed with the promise of a newly independent nation, recording over 2000 songs. This may appear ordinary to a 1960s musician, but it stops being so when you consider the technological deficiencies in the last century. Kamaru represents the generation that pioneered all crafts in independent Kenya. Whereas that generation messed the Kenyan prototypes in every field, Kamaru among other Benga maestros, fashioned a music prototype that has defined our music.
Born in 1939, in Murang’a, Joseph Kamaru Wanjiru started formal education in Gathuki-ini Mission centre before his mother migrated to Kangema. He has had a concrete fondness towards Wa Wanjiru, a valid influence from the Post Mau Mau Agikuyu who are structurally matriarchal but politically patriarchal.
Kamaru was a victim of the massive immigration from the Central Highlands to the city in search of labour in an economy controlled by foreigners. The painful frustrations in the urban lifestyles needed an artist to tell the stories in Bahati, Mbotela, Shauri Moyo African settlements. Kamaru understood the cultural dichotomy among these first city immigrants and composed philosophical tunes to make sense of the cultural blending.
When there was a need for love stories that could make sense to a post-war generation, Kamaru composed the Mwendwa Wakwa (my lover) hit that described the plight of two lovebirds whose wedding ceremony was confused for a Mau Mau oathing ceremony.
Kamaru described the dangers of cross-generational relationship long before the liberals found an -ism suffix to justify deviance.
When his fans were basking in the beauty of sacrifice in love, Kamaru did not want them to buy into the utopia of genuine love, he composed Caria Ungi that describes women infidelity in urban settlements, In this song, Kamaru confronts a cheating spouse with factual detective stuff on car occupancy, fuelling at Mtito Andei and a photocopy of a police bond slip, perhaps hinting on the need for accountability in the face of women empowerment.
Kamaru described the dangers of cross-generational relationship long before the liberals found an -ism suffix to justify deviance. The Darli ya Mwalimu song is an attempt to break from the dangers of such. His disdain for victimhood assertions came out when he composed D itari N, (Divorce without Notice) that calls out a woman who causes trouble in a bar but later feels entitled to sympathy. Muhiki wa Mikosi is a warning to wayward men on the omnipresent nature of Mwea Tebere scheme. An interesting paradox to his disapproval of cross-generational relationships, Kamaru’s ‘Gathoni’ hit describes a Harambee chief guest who spots a schoolgirl in Nyeri, he also has a song that tells tales of love with a Maragua school girl that he gave a lift. Before we start a #Metoo altar call, an understanding of the cultural realities and the average working age vs. school age in the 70s would be relevant in understanding the love escapades in Kamaru’s songs.
On capitalism, Kamaru knowingly or unknowingly captures the pains of inequality and neo-liberalism when he sang of his employer Kiuru (The bad one). Kiuru is a tale of a whole family employed by a Makerere graduate who advances education loans to his employee. Kiuru later takes over the employees land after a loan default. The Commercialization of bride-price among the Agikuyu made Kamaru declare he prefers a bachelor’s degree which he equates to an obedient wife.
Benga industry has no limits. It is the country’s humour repository. The story of a community is best told in its language. If Nairobi FM stations can have hectares for Mellissa, they can also promote Benga artists beyond the vernacular radio listenership. This would be the best way to remember Kamaru.
The idle Kenyatta University Unicity along Thika road should have room for Kamaru Theatre and a production house. This nation is too respectful to have the French as the major theatre space donors.
The death of Kamaru is a mirror into our Riverwood, an industry he pioneered and made fortunes from. Riverroad production houses have the potential to nurture talents that cross the tribal divides. Our weak Intellectual Property laws have condemned many artists into pauperism. Whereas Kamaru was a man of moderate means, the National Assembly and the police departments must not be used by draconian copyright societies to disfranchise the Kenyan artists. As we reflect on all this, may Kamaru Wa Wanjiru find favour and peace his melodious ancestors.