There is renewed interest in a wave of funk music that was recorded in various parts of Africa in the 1970s. The essentially American beat was exported particularly to West Africa where musicians reworked the music to create their own genres like highlife in Ghana and Afrobeat in Nigeria.
The Funk and Soul movement also had an impact in Kenya starting with groups like The Ashantis and later taken up by musicians like Steele Beauttah, Ishmael Jingo and Faisal Brown who all tried to sound and dance like the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown.
In recent years, compilations of rare West African songs from the funk era have been issued mostly by European-based record labels. Kenya has also experienced a revival of interest in the funk generation especially with the production of a documentary “Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits of the 1970s” by Ketebul Music last year
South African music publisher Geoff Paynter has issued two CDs containing the music of Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, one the finest and most successful Kenyan bands to emerge from the funk era. The peak of Slim Ali’s success came with the release of “You Can Do It” the smash hit single in 1976.
American music producer, Doug Patterson, whose liner notes appear on both Slim Ali CDs says of the funk era: “It was great music in the spirit of soul and funk out of Memphis and the American South.”
The irresistible sound heard on the lively “You Can Do It” and ballads like “We Need a Little More Time” combined sax harmonies played by Geoffrey Ngao, catchy guitar riffs and Slim Ali’s exquisite voice. “Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys’ 70s Soul” and “70s Pop” are distributed in Kenya by A.I records.
The label boss, Mike Andrews, who is remembered as radio host Mahanjam Mike says this collection has some of the best music of that era, comparable to anything else produced in the world at the time.
The two CDs contain songs from the three albums recorded by Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys with the slower songs in the “Soul” compilation and the upbeat disco songs put together on the “Pop” disc.
“As you listen to these CDs, you can hear the distinctive qualities of each of the three original albums,” says Patterson who adds that it is impossible for him to pick a favourite song. “They are all fantastic in my book.”
Like most musicians of that generation (Steele Beauttah, Faisal Brown, Kelly Brown, Ishmael Jingo), Slim, too, was born and raised in Mombasa. After school, he played in several bands before joining the Hodi Boys in 1968 in Nairobi.
This was one of the best known groups at the time playing both African rumba as well as cover versions of American soul by singers like Otis Redding and Percy Sledge at venues like the famous Starlight Club in the city.
The Hodi Boys had just lost their lead singer, Faisal Brown who left the group to pursue a solo career in Ethiopia. Therefore, Slim, with his soulful leanings was a perfect replacement as the group’s main vocalist.
After a while, Slim also decided to leave the group and try his luck in Addis Ababa, where other Kenyan musicians like Sal Davis and the Ashantis had established a name on the live performance circuit years earlier. From there, he travelled to Djibouti and then to the Middle East before eventually returning home and reuniting with the Hodi Boys in 1976 to record “You Can Do It.”
The single sold what was then a national record of 40,000 copies and earned the group a silver disc. He followed that up with another album “Smile” a year later, where he expanded his repertoire to include several reggae songs and experimented with different recording techniques.
Slim left the Hodi Boys again after the release of “Smile” and secured a performing contract in Dubai for a year. He returned to Nairobi, set up a band called The Best and moved to the Pan Afric Hotel as the resident band. It was at this time that he recorded his third and last album, “Home.”
After this album, Slim left the country again destined for the Middle East effectively ending what had been a short-lived but highly successful music career.
For those who remember the charismatic singer with the huge mop of Afro hair, it must have come as a shock to see a video of an old and weary Slim Ali playing the keyboard in Yemen in the 2011 documentary “Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits.”
However, the release of these two CDs capture arguably the most vibrant era in Kenyan music and is a fitting salute to a man who was one of the leading lights of that time.
Slim lives in the Middle east.