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The Rev Kenneth Owuor: The father of local gospel music in Kenya

‘‘What really bothers me is the fashion of gospel music. It should be distinct. I hear it being like bongo, Tabu Ley, Madillu System, the only difference is the word Jesus” Rev Owuor on local gospel

‘‘What really bothers me is the fashion of gospel music. It should be distinct. I hear it being like bongo, Tabu Ley, Madillu System, the only difference is the word Jesus” Rev Owuor on local gospel

One of the most stunning things about the inauguration of Uhuru Kenyatta as President on April 9, 2013 at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, was not that a political dynasty had been cemented; it was the elevation of Kenyan gospel music into official State discourse.

Immediately after the swearing-in, witnessed by the Chief Justice and the prayers of dedication by Pastor Oginde, singer Jemimah Thiong’o performed Mwenye Baraka — commonly known as Akisema Atakubariki. Was the song meant to affirm the oath of office?

That moment sealed gospel music’s long journey from the confines of the church — where it used to be known as hymns or songs of worship — to public spaces that include matatus, banking halls, lifts, cellphones, broadcast media, even night clubs!

But long before that Kasarani moment, and long before gospel celebrity Emmy Kosgei got Mama Lucy Kibaki and all of Uhuru Park up on its feet dancing to her Taunet ne Lel at the promulgation of the Constitution in August 2010, there was a man called Kenneth Ombima Owuor and a song called Ring No. 9.

Ring No. 9 is our first example of a crossover gospel tune that left the hallowed walls of worship on Sunday mornings and entered our living rooms on week days via radio and television becoming a pop anthem.

Children in the mtaa playfields sang along unperturbed by its message of life after death. Owuor edged out local pop sensations like The Scorpions with Henry Braganza and The Vikings with their Karibuni.

That was in 1968.

Last week I was in Kima, Vihiga County with the Rev Kenneth Owuor of the Church of God, reminiscing about his work and the inspiration behind Ring No. 9.

To begin with, the Rev Owuor is not your modern-day artiste hammering out computer-generated tunes and miming his way through a playback performance. That kind of music has its place and genius, but the Rev Owuor is a professional musician.

He learnt to read and write music while he was a student at Mwila Teachers Training College in Kisa. He also learnt to play the piano and the guitar.

To this day, the Rev Owuor annotates all of the music he composes. That kind of written record for future generations is not always possible even with big international musicians like DRC’s Franco Luambo Makiadi, who could not write music and who recorded from the ear straight to the mic!

One of the first questions the Rev Owuor asked me was: “How did you find me?” He is such a self-effacing and humble man and yet he is a true pillar of his community in Kima.

He was ordained by the Church of God six years ago but has been nourishing souls spiritually for over 50 years. He also provides valuable livelihood skills for young people at the Kima Cutting and Tailoring Training Centre, which offers a three-year government-approved course.

It seems that all of the work that the Rev Owuor does — teaching, preaching and singing — revolves around one very distinct gift: his booming baritone voice.

Even before he arrived at Mwila TTC, where he graduated in 1959, Owuor had developed a love for music, thanks to his parents, the Rev John Owuor and Linet Chuma Owuor.

Both of them sang in the Church of God choir, mastering the hymns that accompanied the liturgy of the church service and making them a part of the Christian life that the family led in a neighbourhood that was still very much in the grips of the colonial tension between Christian conversion on the one hand and on the other, the traditional practices of “abingo, the steadfast watu wa nyumbani”.

In the early 1960s, Owuor was a primary school teacher in the Kima area when he felt compelled to try his hand at composing a song that would speak of his observations of life and relate them to his faith. He wanted a modern song with guitars and the accordion, not one limited to the organ, which was then the sole accompaniment of Christian music.

For the lyrics, Owuor wanted to do more than simply transfer the scriptures in the Bible to a tune. He wanted to sing about the everyday life that he led. “You have to be a thief to compose music about theft! I was a spiritual man so I sang a spiritual song”.

As we sat talking against the backdrop of “the stone hills of Maragoli”, it was easy to see how that landscape — full of wonders of nature — provided the absolute inspiration that underlines Ring No. 9.

Why the number nine? I asked. His explanation has nothing to do with what I always thought it was — a short-cut to 999, the official emergency telephone number for police, ambulance and fire brigade that was re-launched last week after a 20-year hiatus.

Owuor explained that in fact, the choice of number 9 “was mathematical. We pray to God through Jesus because He said you come to my Father through me. So that formula of “God the Son” gives us a total of 9 letters, so just ring the number 9”.

It was 1963. Owuor had a tune and lyrics that filled three verses and a chorus. But the song was still a long way from being recorded on vinyl. Meanwhile, he completed his training in Christian education at the college in Kima.

There were no recording studios in that area and it wasn’t until Adams Kutai invited Owuor to Mwangaza Studios in Nairobi in 1968 that Owuor was able to realise his dream and give Kenyans something to compliment the foreign Christian songs that dominated the Sunday gospel hour on radio.

Pop musicians David Amunga, Mathias Mulama and Adams Kutai had started Mwangaza Studios with help from Kenneth Watene, the man who would later write a groundbreaking play called Dedan Kimathi.

This group wanted to give local musicians an alternative to Charles Worrod’s dominance with his Equator Sounds studios and they had no qualms about recording a Christian song in a commercial studio under a secular record label.

Owuor put together his singing team, the Beloved Moving Brethren (BMB). It included Grace Owuor and S. Ombuya. They would offer many new songs and a few cover versions, including a religious twist to their rendition of Don’t Set me Free by Ray Charles.

On Sunday radio, Christian music consisted of choirs performing classic hymns such as Amazing Grace and Jim Reeves with his Nashville sound crooning, This World is Not My Home, Precious Memories and Across the Bridge (there is no more sorrow).

Musical talent

And now here was Owuor with a voice so smooth and a message filled with hope for local musical talent and religious faith. He was irresistible to the crew of young broadcasters at the Voice of Kenya. Seth Adagala, Ruth Nekesa Bwongeri and Oliver Litondo invited Owuor to the studios to hear first-hand how he managed this feat of making such compelling local Christian music.

By 1970, Ring No. 9 had become a big hit with the Christian unions that were springing up all over the country. Bibilia Husema Radio in Kijabe picked it up and popularised it further. Owuor re-recorded it with their Word of Life label. Side ‘B’ of that vinyl was Troubles May Come, Troubles Go.

Troubles May Come gate crashed into the Pop Review page written by Grant Peters in the dailies, forcing Peters to pause his praise for Cliff Richards’ 1970 release, All my Love to acknowledge the “distinctly religious message” in Troubles.

He praised it as “a catchy little number which effectively combines African folk traditions (Bosco, Sibanda etc) with the country and Western style of Jim Reeves.” Owuor’s crossover achievement had been officially documented.

But Owuor wasn’t done yet with the work of transforming our country’s music. From Kima, he had moved to Eldoret in 1965 and worked as a music teacher at the then Highlands Girls School (now Moi Girls) and at the Reformed Church. He was tireless in his work with local choirs and youth conventions.

When the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) advertised for a person with knowledge of music to start their music department, Owuor left Eldoret to take up the job in Nairobi. He was anxious to identify a wide net of musicians all over the country whose skills could be used to enhance Christian music.

As the head of the music department at NCCK, he trained choirs in both vocals and music annotation, planned music festivals, worked with adjudicators to select set pieces and to give guidelines for original compositions to be entered in international music competitions. Competitions promoted high standards.

The late Prof Arthur Kemoli, a literary critic and gifted musician, was a key ally in this festival work. Owuor still has a strong attachment to the lyrical beauty and indigenous rhythms of Kemoli’s composition Nambwo Kwalangi (that is how we were).

Until his retirement in 1990, Owuor worked with NCCK to encourage the growth of African languages within the church liturgy. They also wanted to see drums, kayambas, nyatitis, obokanos and other African instruments become part of church music.

These objectives were shared across the continent. In 1963 Owuor had attended a month-long meeting of the All Africa Conference of African Music in Mindolo, Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) where participants shared their concerns about how to make African music a part of the Church. They learnt how to compose and they demonstrated in performance the work they had created.

But their change objective was not without complications. “The rhythms of African instruments, the quavers and semi-quaver notes in our languages do not find easy harmony with Western instruments such as the violin and the piano.”

Dance and worship

Additionally, the Victorian mannerisms attending to the introduction of Christianity in Africa did not see dance as a natural part of worship. But the Rev Owuor says emphatically:

“Movement is not unchristian! Worship is sober and can be accompanied by movement that is excellent with dignity and control. It must be decent… We must dance, yes, so let us have 10 minutes of vigorous jumping up and down before the main service begins.”

Historically, we have seen many instances when the street borrows from the church. Mau Mau soldiers imposed their messages of protest on Christian hymns. More recently, the Mugiithi repertoire vulgarised hymns, adapting them for nights of lewd passion.

But the Church also borrows the rhythms of the street. Is the Rev Owuor disturbed by this and by the sound of gospel music everywhere one goes? He ponders for a while and then says with a tone of wisdom:

“What really bothers me is the fashion of gospel music. It should be distinct. I hear it being like bongo, Tabu Ley, Madillu System, the only difference is the word Jesus… You see, a romantic song must take you to a place of romance – emotionally, must lead you to that place. Spiritual songs should affect you to the point where you will end up in the church. Are they taking us there?”

A widely travelled man locally and abroad, the Rev Owuor has only one regret about the massive geographical spread of gospel music into every corner of our lives. It has killed the traditional funeral dirges in many parts of Kenya. Where is the song for the dead? The one that tells us what kind of person we are burying instead of just listening to a recorded gospel song that gives words of comfort about our loss?

I was not going to leave Kima before the Rev Owuor sang Ring No. 9. What a performance! At 74 years, Kenneth Owuor’s rich baritone is as strong and captivating today as it was in 1968.

New album

This week I met him at the Dede Studios in Nairobi, where he is working with the adept producer, Dominic Khaemba, of the aptly-named AgelessMuzik label to re-record eight songs on Ring No.9, an album that will be released at the end of August.

Watching this old man of music with young Dominic and his modern recording methods, I am struck once again by how easily Kenneth Owuor works with choral, gospel and pop bands without privileging one over another.

When Owuor first recorded “Ring No. 9”, musicians were earning roughly 20 cents per record sold. But money from singing was never his priority. He only wanted to make good music and to help others learn to make good music.

Today, the Kenyan gospel music industry is a multi-million shilling enterprise that drives radio and TV stations and is recognised in several annual music awards.

As we celebrate 50 years of growth in various sectors, our music industry must stop and salute the Rev Kenneth Owuor, a man whose life-long dedication to shaping Kenyan music deserves a Life-time Achievement Award. And more. It deserves State commendation.

-Nation

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