Performing Arts

Them Mushrooms' 50- year journey of rhythm and impact

John Katana

Them Mushrooms band leader John Katana holding a bass guitar bought in 1973, part of the exhibition Them Mushrooms a Journey of Rhythm and Impact’.

A gold record certifying sales of 60,000 copies of Jambo Bwana (Hakuna Matata) takes pride of place at the exhibition “Them Mushrooms: A Journey of Rhythm and Impact”.

The BD Life got a sneak peek of the items that represent 50 years of the iconic Kenyan band as the team of curators and designers set up the exhibition ahead of its official opening at Goethe Institut in Nairobi last night.

“This is the mixer on which we recorded Nyambura, Akumu and all the greatest hits of that era,” says band leader John “Bishop” Katana as he points to a closed black case.

His brother, Billy Sarro Harrison, shows us his first bass guitar bought in 1973. “We used to hire instruments on the day before our shows,” says Billy. “So, one day our mother saw us sitting at home dejected because apparently someone else had offered more money to the people who hired out the instruments. She was so mad that her boys could not perform that she took us straight to the music store in Mombasa and paid a princely sum of Sh800 to buy own equipment. We owe everything to her.”

Them Mushrooms

Them Mushrooms band members.

Arguably the first exhibition on this scale by a Kenyan musical act, it traces the earliest days of the band in Kaloleni, Kilifi, to performing at beach hotels in Mombasa, their eventual relocation to Nairobi, to become the resident band at the Carnivore and later at the Panafric Hotel, and their international tours to Ethiopia, Germany and the UK.

“The exhibition has been two years in the making,” explains Biko Orlale, Project Manager. “We had over 5,000 different exhibits, covering every aspect of the band’s history, selected and curated by a production team comprising art and graphic designers.” He says all the surviving brothers brought together all the items that they had collected individually through the 50 years of the band, from some of their first instruments, to studio equipment, vinyl records, to newspaper clippings. “The Book Bunk project digitised the newspaper articles, posters, and other documents as part of their Missing Bits collection for cultural memories,” says Biko.

The entrance of the exhibition had been set against the backdrop of the band’s members by the side of their tour van that was christened “Akumu” after one of their best-known songs of the 1980s a decade when they thrived with hit records and prolific tours around Kenya and the world. The giant installation of a mushroom represents the band’s name that was inspired by the plants that sprouted around their home.

There is a display of artefacts and memorabilia each carrying a piece of the band’s journey of half a century. Orlale showed us some of these rare exhibits such as a Tiger brand keyboard, a drum kit and a 16-track reel-to-reel tape recorder. “We don’t have the original drum set anymore but we still have a snare from that set that our mother bought us,” says Billy with a smile.

The interactive multimedia installations allow visitors to engage with visuals and rare concert footage. The listening devices span the different eras, from a transistor radio set and gramophone record player, portable Walkman to a double cassette deck recorder that Billy recalls they used during a stint in Ethiopia. “You are invited to play their music on all the various formats, vinyl, cassette, CDs through today’s digital streaming,” says Biko.

There is a setting reminiscent of the typical 1980s family living room, complete with a sofa set, with crocheted covers for visitors to the exhibition to sit back and watch some of the band’s memorable performances on a “Great Wall” Black and White television set.

Just beside the TV set is a collection of some of their branded merchandise through the years bearing the famous mushroom logo.

The exhibition is a celebration of the band’s legendary status and introducing a Kenyan success story to a new generation of fans. Biko explains that part of the process has been making the band’s catalogue accessible on digital streaming platforms. Last year Spotify run the campaign #ThemMushrooms50 with a playlist featuring all the major hits across the band’s career and a special podcast that also connected them with younger musicians.

“Them Mushrooms can now earn from streams of their catalogue of classics and younger producers can reimagine their songs to conform to contemporary trends,” says Biko. Last year, for instance, producer Motif Di Doh remixed an amapiano version of Jambo Bwana which spawned a popular challenge on Tik Tok.

“Their music is being scored so that it can be performed for orchestra and generations to come can interpret the songs in their own ways,” says Biko. “Them Mushrooms is an institution. Fifty years is a milestone but there are still many generations of this institution to come,” he concludes.

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