Tell us about your childhood.
I was born 43 years ago in Umoja, Nairobi. My family led what is by most Kenyan standards, a relatively middle class lifestyle; my siblings and I lived and went to school in Buruburu. I come from a very large family of ten and I am the forth born.
Where did this musical gift you possess come from?
My parents played and performed in the church choir, and my father had been performing professionally as a musician in the 50s and 60s. I grew up in a house filled with all manner of musical instruments. By the age of nine, I was playing the harmonica perfectly.
My father noticed my interest in music early on, and he was as expected strongly opposed to it at the time.
So then how did you break free and get from where you were to Jabali Afrika?
That was tough. As soon as we completed high school, my brother Joseck and I, who had shown interest in music, took to playing and perfecting our art with traditional musical instruments. At the time, traditional instruments were strongly looked down upon, as I earlier mentioned, education took strong precedence in my father’s mind. But we were determined to take our course, nevertheless. I remember at the time, my father got us part time jobs at Unilever, where he worked, and we purposely flunked every interview we went for. Other times, we never even made it past the gate. His heart was in the right place, and he even managed to get us scholarships to study abroad in Philadelphia, but all we lived and breathed was music.
What was it like, trying to make it as a professional artiste in the 90s?
It was extremely difficult. Shortly after we started Jabali Afrika, we recruited a few members, who eventually just gave up and left. But Joseck and I stuck it out because we saw the big picture. We were, after all, the nucleus of the group. We wrote the songs and constantly exchanged ideas — we managed to perform at the African Heritage and local clubs from time to time. We did well, and even packed up local joints to full capacity, kicking out Congolese performers who were, at the time, dominating the local music scene. I still remember, to this day, when we finally had our big break. It was 1995, almost four years after starting this gruelling journey. The Africa Heritage signed us on for a one month European tour. This was the beginning of great things for us. For a full month, we toured nine cities in Europe, showcasing our blend of roots and traditional style of music.
What were the hardships you experienced at the beginning, being new to the scene?
After the major success in Europe and Kenya, we decided to challenge ourselves and explore the United States. We packed our bags, four Jabali members in tow, and headed to Philadelphia. America was a whole new ball game, and we discovered, first hand, the high cost of studio recording as we worked on our first album. That was in 1996.
Unbeknownst to Joseck and I, the two group members were planning a coup de tat behind our backs. Every time we were at the studio, they would sneak out back and disappear for hours. It was not until we followed their footprints in the snow one day and overheard their conversation, that we discovered what they were up to. We eventually parted ways, and with that came, the first painful lesson about copywriting. The ‘rogue’ members left with our music, which we had written and recorded, but fortunately, we had the necessary repertoire, and managed to somehow get back on the track and record our first album, Journey.
Why did you choose to settle in the US despite overwhelming support back home?
There is no place like home, but I would also like to grow as an artiste, and teach people about my culture through my music. I can still juggle performances here at home and in the US, where our music is very well received. We have been performing to a packed audience in major states in the US since the 1990s, and we have never stopped. We are constantly on the road. I love the local scene, but I have to say that the pay does not equal the appreciation nearly as much it does abroad.
Why is it that most of your music is about Kenyan history?
One has to know their history in order to make it. We know where we come from, and that is why I think we have experienced success away from home. We try as much as possible to portray local culture and maintain the history in our music. Music is a strong agent of change, and in one of our songs — gangsters in parliament — we sing about corruption, which is evidently rife in politics. Ours is to raise awareness of the taxpayer about their rights
What are some of the challenges you face as musicians?
Being on the road constantly takes its toll sometimes. We usually tour back to back for most of the year, and we only manage to take breaks over the weekends, and this means being away from family most of the time.
You mentioned family… do you have one?
Yes, I am married to a beautiful Meru woman, whom I have known and been with for nearly ten years. We have been blessed with a baby boy who is now 13 months old.
What is fatherhood like at an older age?
I enjoy it immensely. I think I have matured enough to handle the task, and my priorities are firmly in place. I know what I want now. Solomon (my son) is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I have always wanted a family, which I can raise the same way I was raised, and I feel fortunate that I get to do this now.
Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
I am determined to replicate the same success I have experienced abroad with upcoming local artistes. Sadly, the local music scene is poorly managed, and I am working on a music venue and studio dubbed ‘Cultural Hub’ where I will be training local artistes and ensuring their rights and royalties. The local artistes themselves also have to stand out, and be authentic and unique in their own rights.
Any local artiste you admire?
I have great respect for Juliani — his music is real and deeply spiritual, which I truly appreciate. You can learn so much from what Juliani sings.
What do you consider as your greatest achievements in life?
Jabali’s success is something I will always be proud of. We started this when nobody was doing it, and even with other forms of music like afro-fusion bursting onto the scene, we have still managed to stay relevant.
I also feel so proud whenever I go through hundreds upon hundreds of articles written by journalists across the globe detailing and following my success and that of Jabali’s. The journey is long, and we have only just begun.