Madaraka Day: Top 10 Kenyan musicians across the generations

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Contemporary Kenyan music has navigated different trends since Independence, from the African Twist in the 1960s to benga and rumba in the 1970-80s and current Afropop sounds. During this Madaraka Day weekend, BDLife celebrates 10 artistes that created era-defining sounds and whose influence has transcended generations.

Fundi Konde

Fundi Konde’s musical style was shaped when he served in the Entertainment Unit of the Kings African Rifles in Asia in World War II. He pioneered the modern electric guitar in East Africa with his rich 1950s catalogue, including Jambo Sigara, Tausi Ndege Wangu, Olivia Leo, Ajali Haikingiki and Majengo Siendi Tena.

These songs were introduced to a new generation when he re-recorded his classics in 1991 with Them Mushrooms. Fundi Konde died on June 29, 2000, at the age of 76.

Fadhili William

The lanky, sharp dresser with an easy-going personality and a warm distinctive voice in timeless hits like Malaika, Taxi Driver, Jifunze Mengi ya Dunia and Zailai Zailai.

Fadhili William was part of the original line up of Jambo Boys Band (later called Equator Sounds) in the early 1960s, with among others Daudi Kabaka, Gabriel Omolo and Zambian duo, Peter Tsotsi and Nashil Pichen. His version of Malaika became an international hit, inspiring renditions by Miriam Makeba, Boney M, Angelique Kidjo and others. Fadhili died on February 11, 2001 at the age of 62.

Daudi Kabaka

With his Afro styled mop of white hair, bell bottom trousers and a guitar strapped to his shoulder, the self-styled King of African Twist captured the jubilant spirit of newly independent Kenya with the rousing Harambee Harambee in 1964.

His sound was inspired by American Twist enriched with elements of South African kwela and traditional Western Kenya rhythms. Helule Helule released in 1966 gave Kabaka international attention after it was covered by British band the Tremeloes. Kabaka died on November 26, 2001.

D.O. Misiani

The King of Benga formed Shirati Luo Voice Jazz, later known as D.O. 7 Shirati Jazz Band and released a slew of classic benga hits in the 1970s like Kiseru, Lala Salama and Harusi ya M.K. Daniel Owino Misian, D.O, as he was popularly known, couched his commentaries of the social and political events of the day using the analogies of leopards, snakes, hyenas, porcupines, rhinoceros and other animals. Misiani died in a road accident in Kisumu on May 17, 2006.

Ayub Ogada (Job Seda)

Ogada’s career-defining song Kothbiro released in 1993 is a haunting arrangement with his nyatiti, about bringing grazing cows back to the homestead before the rain. It was famously featured in the soundtrack to the 2006 film The Constant Gardener, played at the 2016 Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony and sampled by the American rapper Kanye West in 2018. Ayub died in January 2019 at the age of 63.

Them Mushrooms

When they recorded Jambo Bwana in 1980, Them Mushrooms were creating music using Kiswahili words popularly spoken by many foreign tourists in Kenya. The simple song with catchy lyrics has been recorded by many artists around the world, including the popular German group Boney M. Their trademark coastal rhythms combined with funk and soul has endured through the decades and the band marked their 50th anniversary in 2022.

Eric Wainaina

Sometime in the early 2000s, singer-songwriter Eric Wainaina attempts to get a replacement of his lost Identity Card were frustrated by demands for bribes in government offices.

Exasperated, he wrote the anti-corruption anthem Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo winning the Best East Africa Artists honor at the 2002 Kora All Africa Music Awards. The words of his signature song Daima have rallied the country together during national tragedies like the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi and 2007-08 Post Election Violence.

Sauti Sol

The high school friends, originally known simply as Sauti, made their debut with the album Mwanzo in 2008. Their signature hit songs Sura Yako and Suzzana have bridged the gap between different generations of Kenyan music by adding contemporary influences to rumba and benga.

Sauti Sol best illustrates the evolution of artistes in Kenya, with influence that transcends music, into fashion, technology and the corporate world.

Nikita Kering

Voted East Africa’s Best female Artist at the 2022 All-Africa Music Awards (Afrimma) Awards, the multi-talented singer songwriter released her first single as a 16-year-old high school student.

In 2020 she was signed to Universal Music (Africa) and released her debut EP A Side of Me containing her stand-out single Ex. Her big moment on the world stage came when she joined the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for an Afrobeats Concerto in 2022.

Suzanna Owiyo

Her big moment came when she recorded Kisumu 100, the theme song for the centenary celebrations of the lakeside city, in 2001.

With her powerful vocals accompanied by an infectious solo of the single stringed orutu, the song became a trailblazer of how a contemporary song can successfully be fused with elements of traditional music.

It also catapulted her to international acclaim, performing for icons like Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

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Note: The results are not exact but very close to the actual.