One of the most enduring stories of contemporary Kenyan music will be celebrated this weekend as the legendary band Them Mushrooms marks its 50th anniversary.
Fittingly the concert that honours the band that has put Kenya on the world music map is on the eve of Jamhuri Day at the Carnivore, Simba Saloon, the venue where they created a massive impact as the resident band in the late 1980s.
“We have been building this brand for five decades and so this is a tremendous occasion,” says John Katana Harrison, who together with his four brothers, Teddy, Billy, George and Dennis, founded the group in Mombasa in 1972.
“Given the way the music industry is going, it is a milestone to be able to celebrate 50 years of continuously making music as a band,” he says.
“This should give hope to young musicians that if you are consistent and disciplined then you too can build your legacy.”
Their golden jubilee began with the Hakuna Matata tour in July with sold-out performances in London and Birmingham during the Commonwealth Games.
One of the spin-offs of the celebrations is some of their timeless anthems, including the globally renowned Jambo Bwana and the chakacha favourite, Ndogo Ndogo, being reimagined and rereleased by a new generation of producers and artists.
“We have given producers and DJs, and from Kenya and the UK, the freedom to choose their favourites from our catalogue and to be creative with the music in a way that appeals to their generation,” says Mr Katana.
The band’s essential collection, from Jambo Bwana to Nyambura, and the Zilizopendwa hits like Si Nguo and Wazee Wakatike, are also available to stream on the Spotify playlist This is Them Mushrooms.
While Mr Katana, who is the keyboardist and vocalist and guitarist Billy Sarro Harrison are the only survivors from the original lineup of the band, the baton is already being passed on to the next generation of the family — Katana’s son Kalume Katana Harrison, having joined the band playing the saxophone, in place of his uncle Teddy, and clarinet.
The weekend’s concert will also feature performances by musicians who have been members of the band in the past like saxophonist Juma Tutu, and the Pressmen Band of Msenangu fame.
According to Mr Katana, this weekend will be a celebration of the band and the fans who have enabled them to achieve this milestone.
“I still remember the first time Jambo Bwana was played on the Voice of Kenya radio (now KBC) in 1980. That was the beginning of a dream come true.”
The band embarked on their first international tour in 1983 playing in the Middle East and onwards to Germany where they met Boney M producer Frank Farian (Boney M released a version of Jambo Bwana that same year).
In 1987 Them Mushrooms made their boldest career move, relocating from the hotel circuit at the coast to Nairobi.
“We had reached our ceiling in Mombasa and so when we heard that Martin Dunford (of the Carnivore) was scouting for bands we jumped at the opportunity,” says Mr Katana.
The band replaced the Congolese outfit Vundumuna, which had been the resident band at the Carnivore and had built a loyal rhumba-loving fanbase.
Them Mushrooms eventually attracted their crowd with their signature style that combined rhumba, reggae and funk with chakacha and other coastal beats.
Those moments were captured on the album At the Carnivore in 1987 which included the catchy sing-along Akumu Nyar Kisumu.
“Our music has evolved from reggae to chakacha, benga fused with the Giriama traditional mwanzele, which we called Nzele,” explains Mr Katana.
“Today, we have just settled on Afro-fusion because the sound is a potpourri of African rhythms music with influences from all over the world.”
In the 1990s they opened Them Mushrooms Sound Lab in Nairobi where talents from East and Central Africa came to record their music.
“We did collaborations and recorded artistes from Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia,” recalls Mr Katana.
“We also revived the careers of Kenyan veterans like John Nzenze and Fundi Konde through the Zilizopendwa albums in 1991 and 1992.”
“The proposal to record the Kenyan oldies came from my brother Billy as we were seeking ways of countering the wave of South African music that had flooded the Kenyan airwaves at the time,” he says.
Those renditions are some of the most popular songs in their performance repertoire.
Reflecting on the transformation that the music business has undergone, Mr Katana says thanks to social media the current generation of artists has to cope with pressure from fans to release new songs, so the shelf life of their music is very short.
“While streaming platforms pay comparatively small sums to the artists, the advantage is that we have an opportunity to get our music to all corners of the world,” he says.