One of the most enduring Kenyan musicians received a fitting tribute for his contribution of more than six decades, during a rare performance in Nairobi two weeks ago. The legendary Joseph Ngala Katana was the special guest at the bi-monthly gig Jazz Attitude at the Alchemist in Nairobi.
The event was also an occasion to launch a compilation album that features songs by the man popularly known as Mzee Ngala and a host of contemporary musicians who have been influenced by his brand of “Bango” music.
Juma Tutu, Gogosimo and Afro Simba all learnt their music at the feet of the veteran artist and have all contributed some of their most popular recordings to the album “Kali za Pwani”.
Ngala, a saxophonist who is now 82, started his career in 1954 with friends in Mombasa by playing improvised instruments. His first instrument was the clarinet, a woodwind instrument similar to the sax that would later become his trademark sound.
Soon, the talents of musicians, known as the Blue Band Orchestra, were noticed by a supporter who bought them professional instruments. Through the years, Ngala has played with many bands, notably Bahari Boys, Teusi Five and Bango Sounds.
The name “bango” which is a Coastal slang word for Sh5 was originally used in one of Ngala’s songs “Naitaka Bango”.
According to Mzee Ngala, bango is basically rumba music combined with traditional rhythms from various coastal communities. His distinctive fusion of musical styles has earned a huge fan base and influenced artists. “This new generation has worked hard by following the example of bands that came before them and are improving the music even more,” says Ngala.
For James Gogo, band leader of Gogosimo whose group played alongside Ngala at the Alchemist, it was a privilege to appear alongside a man he regards as a father and teacher.
“I grew up listening to Bango and going to play in Frère Town along with him,” he says. “It was humbling for my band to be on the same stage with Ngala.”
Kombo Chokwe of Afro Simba band was also mentored by Ngala and says it is remarkable to see the old man still performing the same brand of music all these years later.
“He was very accommodating to us as young musicians and we have followed in his footsteps,” says the guitarist.
“When he sees us perform he proudly calls us his students.” Just like Ngala, Kombo’s music is drawn from the traditional music of the Mijikenda fused with contemporary rhythms such as jazz.
It is such rich rhythms that are contained in “Kali za Pwani” a new compilation album featuring songs by Ngala and Bango Sounds along with those by his protégés Gogosimo, Juma Tutu, Kombo and Afro Simba.
“We all got together and decided its time to release an album of our songs for our fans to hear our music on a compilation,” says Kombo.
The album contains three by classics by Ngala and Bango Sounds: “Nione Raha” “Simba” and “Shaka” Kombo and Afro Simba contribute three songs including the upbeat “Kaya” based on a Giriama folk song. Gogosimo’s songs on the album are the danceable tunes “Ngoma” “Sirathii and “Kibebwe” while Juma Tutu has “Kimombasa” “Lazaro” and “Sukari”. The Jazz Attitude featured a supporting act by the Nairobi Horns Project (NHP) who treated fans to songs from their “Kenyan Classics” project that contains their Kenyan urban hits from the 2000s with an instrumental twist.
“Artists can introduce Kenyan hits from years gone by to a new audience,” says MacKinlay Mutsembi of NHP.
As for Mzee Ngala, the venue may have been a little unfamiliar from his haunt in Mombasa, but the love and energy from the crowd made him feel right at home.
“If the music is in your blood then you retain the vibrancy and youth,” he says on his longevity in the music business. ‘‘I have many more years of music in me and will not be hanging up my saxophone soon,” he says.