They were among the most successful bands in East and Central Africa during the golden era of Swahili rumba in the 1970s & 80s.
By the 1990s the evolving trends in music and the death of their charismatic lead singer halted their success and consigned Les Wanyika to oblivion.
Even their most ardent fans would not have imagined that the band would be revived two decades later and return to performing at major festivals.
“Many people assumed we were all dead and the band was no more,” says Sijali Zuwa, one of two survivors from the original Les Wanyika.
“Some of those fans shed tears when they see us on stage today,” he says during a break from their rehearsals for their highly anticipated performance at this weekend’s Blankets and Wine festival.
Les Wanyika will be sharing the stage with a whole new generation of artists during this Sunday’s All-Kenyan edition of the popular event.
“We fear that the taste of music is being lost today so we have maintained the original sound that people have loved through the years,” says Sijali.
“If it is trumpet then we blow it live, and if it is guitars, we play them just like we have always done, it’s a complete band.”
As if to affirm their commitment to the big band sound reminiscent of their heyday, the band’s current setup comprises 10 musicians: three vocalists, two trumpeters, three guitarists, a drummer, percussionist.
For the last three weeks, the band has been performing every Friday night at the Office Park on Riverside Drive, Nairobi and attracting a host of nostalgic fans.
This weekend’s performance though will bring back memories of the era when they would pack stadiums and other venues across the region.
Even though this is a whole new era but the hits recorded over 40 years ago still retain a strong connection with fans of all ages.
“As you can hear we are rehearsing the all-time favourites like Nimaru, Paulina, Pamela and Sina Makosa,” says Sijali with the sound of guitars in the background.
The 60-year-old veteran was the youngest member of the seven-piece band comprising Tanzanian, Kenyan and Ugandan musicians that were formed in 1978 as an offshoot of the original Simba Wanyika.
Of the original members, only two remain in the current band: Sijali and Tomy Malanga, the bass player, from Rabai, Kilifi, who was among the musicians who departed from Simba Wanyika.
After a prolific run of hit songs in the 1980s which made the band a household name in the region, the group sunk into oblivion for more than a decade though their music remained alive thanks to radio airplay and the release of compilation albums.
“You cannot go into any club in Nairobi or any town in East Africa without hearing the music of Les Wanyika and that is why we have remained relevant,” says Sijali.
“There is also a resurgence in the popularity of rumba music on the radio and streaming platforms.”
“When band leader John Ngereza died in 2000 the Wanyika name disappeared from the scene,” recalls Sijali.
“But Tommy Malanga and I who were the original members and were then doing our own projects came back and revived the band.”
Sijali’s face beams as he recalls: “We were playing at the Carnivore in September 2011 at a tribute concert for Habel Kifoto of Maroon Commandos and when we came on stage the whole place went crazy. We realised that we needed to get back to the scene.”
“We thank God because how many great bands who were our contemporaries can get another chance in the spotlight after so many years,” reflects Sijali.
“It is not just the old fans but the younger ones love the music because they have been introduced to classics like Afro, Safari ya Samburu, Kajituliza Kasuku, and Sina Makosa so we are serving different generations.”
Les Wanyika’s influence has inspired a whole new generation of performers.
Notably. Sauti Sol has paid respects to Les Wanyika as one of the biggest influences on their own style and last year a whole album of cover versions of Wanyika classics, by contemporary Kenyan artists, was released.
The band can’t wait to get on stage during this Sunday’s Blankets & Wine All-Kenyan edition at the Laureate Garden, Moi International Sports Centre, where they will share the stage with Nyashinski, Nviiri the Storyteller, Okello Max, Lisa Oduor, and Xenia Manasseh.
In May, they will make a homecoming trip to Arusha, Tanzania, where the band was formed as Arusha Jazz (forerunner to Simba Wanyika and Les Wanyika) to perform during the Festac Africa Festival of Arts and Culture.