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Choir Music

“See you in heaven, brothers and sisters. Sibonana e zwulini.

— Joseph Shabalala

Daniel Moi, the former president of Kenya who passed away on the 4th of February 2020, detested writers. He had a particular disdain for playwrights, perhaps fearing the easy access to the public their performances afforded them, as opposed to novelists, whose reach was negated by the vestiges of class. The early years of Moi’s reign, as well as the last years of the previous president’s, Jomo Kenyatta, a man who Moi served as vice-president, and whose footsteps Moi vowed to follow, were marked by the arrest of numerous playwrights and academics. They were jailed, detained without trial, or forced into exile. Ngugi wa Thiong’o was among those who faced the ire of Moi. He was imprisoned for over a year. Writers, academics, historians, journalists: Micere Mugo, Atieno Odhiambo, Wahome Mutahi, Ali Amin Mazrui Maina wa Kinyatta, and Willy Mutunga, among others, tasted Moi’s ire. In public, Moi castigated them for teaching what he termed “bad ideas.” 

In place of these pesky writers and their bad ideas, Moi vaulted into importance the choir. During his twenty-four year reign as the president of Kenya between 1978-2002, the Kenyan sound became the choir, heavily-inflected with the sounds of the Christian beliefs Moi held dear. This Kenyan sound occurred in myriad ways. It was school children lined up along the road, having spent the previous day practicing their songs after being told that the president’s convoy would be passing by the next day. It was a group of kitenge-attired Kenyans cradling call-and-response tunes with easy-to-remember catchphrases — Jambo Bwana, Hakuna Matata, etc — in the country’s main airports in Nairobi and Mombasa. It was Maasai warriors (or random young men blanketed in Maasai shukas) arranged in an arc, singing and jumping to welcome white tourists to the country.  

During Moi’s reign, most government bodies had a departmental choir. At the forefront of his choir love was Boniface Mganga’s Muungano National Choir. Formed one year into Moi’s reign, Muungano was an a cappella choir which made use of the drum, the kayamba, and an occasional triangle accompaniment. Before its start, Moi had demanded the new choir be called the Kanu Choir, after his party, Kanu. Mganga balked at this, and Muungano National Choir was the compromise. The choir’s songs included: ‘Chama Kanu,’ which was a call for Kenyans to register as members of Kanu; ‘Enzi ya Nyayo,’ which harked to Moi’s political philosophy, Nyayoism; and calls to patriotism like ‘Heko Jamhuri’ and ‘Mungu Bariki Kenya.’

Moi, invariably, is not alone among dictators who recognized the role of music in helping them keep a hold on power. Before him, there had been a long lineage of despots and tyrants who had recognized the relationship between despotic power and music. In Stalin’s Russia, Dmitri Shostakovich, the great composer and pianist,  survived largely because of the dictator’s love for his music. In his memoirs, Shostakovich recalls an occasion when Stalin invited Ukrainian folk poets to ostensibly discuss their future in the Soviet Union under his guidance. There, the singers received the “highest measure of punishment” for their craft: They were driven to the edge of the forest on the outskirts of the city, where soldiers had dug trenches. The poets were executed. Elsewhere, Napoleon Bonaparte spoke of music as that, “which exercises the greatest influence upon the passions, and is the one which the legislator should most encourage,” while in Mao Zedong’s China, as Edward Rothstein observes, “China, for example, had reason to fear Beethoven’s bourgeois individualism; such music does not encourage communal docility.” 

Perhaps the most comic and thus tragic case was Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s ‘Bossa Combo,’ also known as the orchestra for the president. The Haitian dictator funded the band and treated it as his private property.  He made himself the bandleader, and would play with them with his big stomach. Anytime he wanted to enjoy himself or entertain his friends, he would say, “Go call my band for me.”

Moi read from a similar script as Duvalier. While other musicians and artists struggled to survive in eighties Kenya, Moi’s choirs flourished. They received generous airplay on the state broadcaster, and were able to get modern musical and recording instruments despite the government ban on the importation of such.

Muungano, as well as the other choirs, became an exemplar of Moi’s praise polemic. Kwamchesti Makokha writes, “Greatly buoyed up by the sycophancy of choristers, Moi began to demand flattery as a right; returning from a foreign trip early in his presidency, Moi demanded that everyone sing his tune ‘like parrots’ – just as he had done while serving as Jomo Kenyatta’s vice president for 15 years.” 

In Moi’s view, just as he had sung for his predecessor, the rest of the country had to sing for him. “During the Mzee Kenyatta period, I persistently sang the Kenyatta tune … If I had sung another song, do you think Kenyatta would have left me alone? Therefore, you ought to sing the song I sing. If I put a full stop, you should put a full stop. This is how the country will move forward. The day you become a big person, you will have the liberty to sing your own song and everybody will sing it too.”

In certain spaces, this polemic became de facto. In schools, children were forced to recite loyalty pledges to the state every Monday and Friday. Maendeleo ya Wanawake, a women empowerment organization that my grandmother was part of, was swallowed up by Moi’s government, and became part of his praise machinery. As a reward, Moi gifted the organization with assets that included vehicles and plots of land. On the radio and on TV, Moi was referred to as the father of the nation — Baba wa Taifa — and a rundown of his day’s activities, however mundane, was given before any other news item could be delivered. He created a national holiday in his honor — Moi Day — and on the occasion of its first celebration, he had Mbilia Bel, a popular Congolese musician, rewrite one of her hits into a praise song for his regime, and perform it live. 


As Fred Mbogo notes, “The songs were easy to sing along. They were therefore quite immediate in echoing humorous political statements in praise of President Moi. There were such claims for instance that Moi was mkulima, mwalimu, baba namba one (the leading or number one farmer, teacher, father).”

Still, the pesky playwrights, as well as other groups of writers, were not easily defeated. They persisted. Chief among them, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who in 1986, published a novel, Matigari. In the book, the eponymous protagonist, Matigari, dismisses the ruling class in the country as being cut from the same cloth as the colonial rulers whose yoke the country had shaken off. In a fit of anger, Moi’s administration issued a warrant of arrest for Matigari, the character in the novel, believing that he was indeed going round the country searching for justice. Upon their failure to arrest this man Matigari, they banned the book.

My uncle Martin had been a budding playwright in Moi’s 90s Kenya. Kicked out of campus for alleged anti-Moi activities, he was part of a group of thespians who coalesced around the two main universities in the capital: the University of Nairobi, and Kenyatta University. Only the intervention of my grandparents (a few pleading meetings with school administrators) led to Martin, while not being allowed back into campus proper, receiving his certificate. A few years later, while still in his late twenties, he was dead, the victim of an over-exuberance with alcohol. 

My grandparents and I watched Moi’s funeral on the telly, and I thought about Martin, after whom I am named. We watched the funeral, and exchanged gossip about the village: Someone had come back home with a new wife in tow. Daughter of Nyasaland, my grandfather called her.

Later, I asked my grandmother whether she was glad that Moi was dead.

Glad? Why would I be glad that someone is dead? she asked.

I looked at the ground, focusing on the groundnuts we were sorting out.

My grandmother sighed. Why would I hate Moi? What did he ever do to me?

In the aftermath of Moi’s death, his choirs of praise came to the fore again. He was exalted as an African statesman, a patriot, a hero who did his best to bring democracy to the continent. However, to many in the country, memories of Moi’s tyranny remain. 

In thinking about Moi’s legacy, I veer to W. H. Auden, and rewrite his famous dictum:

“The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one prize is beyond his reach: The Ogre cannot master memory.”

In the absence of memory, this particular ogre attempted to master the choir. And, with time, Moi’s version of the choir became Kenya’s version of the choir. 

Soon, even opposition to Moi was communicated through choral music. On the streets, certain songs became popular among protestors. During teachers’ strikes, it became common for teachers to hold hands and sing Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever.” Equally ubiquitous was the late Otieno Kajwang’s “Bado Mapambano”. Originally a church song, the song called on the faithful to remain strong and faithful, for the fight with the evil one was nigh. In the volatility of Kenya’s pro-democracy fervor of the 90s, the song’s meaning was very easily metaphorized.

A few months ago, my grandparents were at my parents’ house. I made them lunch, and as we sat around the table eating, the conversation veered to Kajwang. Kajwang’s family had been a pillar in the church my father grew up in, and relationships still exist between the two families. Nevertheless, my grandfather is still angry at Otieno for straying out of the church. “Such a nice boy,” my grandfather said, “always leading the song service at Nairobi Central.” And then when he joined politics he not only stepped away from God, but also, and here my grandfather’s voice became steelier, “took one of our nice church songs, and made it a politics song.”

My own history with the choir started in the church. The church in which I was raised was replete with choirs. There was the church choir, whose conductor was the son of one of Kenya’s music fathers, the youth choir from which, after a few years, it seemed to me, one received automatic promotion to the church choir, and a smattering of smaller choirs which existed only on special days: the children’s choirs, which were divided according to age; the men’s choir; the women’s choir; and others too fragmented to remember. Sometimes, a family could decide that they were a choir for a day, and sing a selection either from the church hymnal or their own personal collection, as mine did to my great embarrassment once. I was in a special interest choir for a spell, a choir that had been formed by a Zambian pastor, and which appeared only when he was in the country. We had the one song, our choir, a Shona ditty with two lines repeated over and over again.

My favourite church choir, however, was “Waves of Love.” Waves of Love was a group of women in their thirties, most of whom were already in the church choir, but had seen the need to create a choir of their own. My class teacher was in this choir (she was also in the church choir, and her family choir was a semi-regular one). At school, I’d look at her and think about her singing. It was an open secret that she could sing, but despite how often my classmates attempted to cajole her to sing to us, she never obliged, instead maintaining a steely professionalism in the classroom. Still, I knew, and she knew that I knew, and both of us knew that at the end of the week I’d get to hear her and one of her many choirs sing to the Lord.

In addition to these church choirs was another choir close to my heart: “Ladysmith Black Mambazo.” My brother and I each had Discmans (or we had two collectively, and it was never clear which of the two was his and which was mine), and one of the CDs whose ownership we shared was a Best of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The CD was green, and the selection inside had been made by an uncle keen to share his music with his. Ah, Ladysmith. Never was a choir so precious. Amazing Grace. Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Their rendition, with Dolly Parton, of Knocking on Heaven’s Door. 

There were other CDs, of course: African-American spirituals, local choir music, and Taita choral music by Muungano National Choir, which my mother loved, and listened to on repeat. But Ladysmith was, well, Ladysmith.

Ten days after Moi’s death, Joseph Shabalala died. At the moment of his death, I was away, and had removed myself from the news. I hardly knew what was going on, and found out about his demise a month after the fact. 

My friend R loves Ladysmith. When I saw her, we talked about Ladysmith, mourned Shabalala. Did you hear, I asked her, that Shabalala’s dream had been to have a song that ran the length of an album without pause? No, she said. She played me her favorite Ladysmith song, ‘Hello My Baby.’ Come along, come along, To kiss me, Before I’m going. She made the kissing sounds that are part of the chorus of the song. R and I mourned Shabalala.

R loves her South African choirs. Ladysmith. The Soil. Mafikizolo. She plays The Soil often, sometimes on repeat, and one time, when I get home after spending time at her house, I am seized by a sudden compulsion to listen to The Soil. Sedilaka. Linkomo. We Are Family. Susan, featuring Khuli Chana, which is a song R plays every time I see her. I discover that The Soil have a song with Ladysmith. Hamba Uyosebenza. I decide that I too love The Soil.

There is a certain pleasure of listening to a good choir. Sometimes I’ll step into a random church, just so I can listen to the choir sing. The chorister stands in front, in control, and the voices blend into one, titillating, drawing the listener into their hallowed presence. Sometimes, the audience (congregation) becomes the choir and the music is made together. One of my favourite memories involves my friend S, and how at the requiem mass of her cousin five years ago, we sat inside Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi’s CBD, singing “Holy Holy Holy” from little booklets that had been made available to us by the ushers at the service, the organist guiding us home. 

A few years ago, my then-housemate and I were talking about our music. I remembered a song my mother had loved to a hilt, and sang to him what little I could remember of it. He opened Youtube, clicked on something, and asked, “Is this it?” 

“Mkiri odu Jesu dakuvoya / Iside wanyonge / Ngolo redudari gunya kwako / Dakulomba kuditesie / Dakulomba kudihoreshe,” Muungano sings, and I remember my mother singing this song, again and again.

A friend with whom I play cricket loves Kaunga Yachee. Once, in a frenzy of excitement, we decided that we were going to start a choir, and Kaunga Yachee would be one of our main songs. Soon, two became three, and we fantasized about our choir. However, as these things often go, the initial excitement came to nought, and the original friend abandoned the idea. The two of us who remained decided that while we couldn’t sing, that was no reason to turn back on our choir dream. We declared that we were in a choir, a secret choir, and that we would, in lieu of actually singing, mention, in our bios whenever we are published, that we sing for a secret choir.

In the immediacy of Moi’s death, NTV, the biggest broadcaster in Kenya, did a segment on Moi’s choirs. The segment opens with a video of Moi inspecting the parade during one of Kenya’s national days. In the background, “Tawala Kenya Tawala”, a song penned by the famous Moi-era composer, Thomas Wesonga, a member of the Mombasa Teachers’ Mass Choir later transferred to Nairobi to be a senior education officer in charge of entertainment for presidential functions, plays. Later on in the video, there is a shot of the crowd at the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki, Moi’s successor as president. They sing powerfully, clapping their hands and jumping in tune with the music, purposing, in the spirit of Moi, a church song for their own purposes. “Yote yawezekana bila Moi! Yote yawezekana bila Moi.”

All is possible without Moi.

The video goes on for a minute, and then we have the school kids. They are clad in green and white and red and yellow and blue, dancing in simple moves whose choreography was practiced under the spectre of the largesse Moi would unleash upon their schools. In one of their songs, they sing about Moi’s choir, declaring that “KANU inatawala Kenya”, and that the driver of this rulership was “Mtukufu Rais Moi.” While watching this video, I think about Martin, and wonder whether he ever danced like these kids once did, before his nation swallowed him.

Always, in my house, there is music playing in the background. In this temporal moment, it is Kaunga Yachee, and while the ogre did master the Kenyan choral sound, my word, what music!

Carey Baraka

Carey Baraka is a writer from Kisumu, Kenya. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi.