It’s just after 8pm on a warm Saturday night and the heavy sound of guitars lightens up the atmosphere inside the serene setting of the Tamambo Restaurant in Karen.
The pulsating beat of “Tres Impoli” a classic hit by Congolese rumba legend Franco and the setup of the band on stage is reminiscent of an era when the bigger the band was, the grander the sound they produced.
No less than 11 musicians who are the members of the Orchestra Masika Band are playing to an audience that includes some die hard rumba loves who easily sing along to the Lingala lyrics and others who are just attracted by the compelling rhythm of the music.
‘‘We have chosen to play rumba because it is very sophisticated and it is music that breaks through the barriers of borders and appeals to people across generations,” says band leader and lead guitarist Shyam Shah.
While their music is broadly categorised as rumba, the band’s repertoire is quite diverse as they also embrace other variations of the genre like cavacha. It is fairly common these days to find popular rumba being played by DJs at most entertainment venues but it is a whole different experience hearing the full impact of the music as its played live by a band this big.
When we ask Shyam how complicated it is to perform these rumba classics, his response is immediate. “I love the challenge,” he says.
“I hope our own music can rise to the levels of Franco’s songs.”
What started in 2015 as a six piece band playing cover versions of rumba hits in a small bar in Nairobi is today one of the busiest bands on the Nairobi live circuit with a growing reputation.
Orchestra Masika Afrika plays the good old-fashioned way. The band comprises musicians from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, DRC and Angola.
“We play the songs as faithful to the original sound as possible but sometimes on stage we add our own flair to the music,” says Shyam. The band has four vocalists, a three man brass section (two saxophones and a trumpet), bass and two guitars, congas and drums. “The rumba sound demands a big band to cover the entire range of instrumentation, no shortcuts,’’ says Shyam.
“As an orchestra, the band has to think about the arrangement through skill and a lot of patience.’’
His own love for rumba came in the course of guitar lessons at the hands of experienced tutor Manasseh Uzele, who is of Congolese origin and who introduced him to the standard repertoire of the genre. The band is in the process of recruiting an additional guitarist to complete the set-up.
“We want to revive the original rumba instrumentation that was the signature of musicians like Franco and Tabu Ley, so we are in the hunt for another lead guitarist to play alongside me,” says Shyam.
It is a challenge to sustain a band of this size even though Orchestra Masika has had a few things working in their favour. The instruments belong to the bandleader and the rehearsal space in Westlands where they practice three days a week for six-hour sessions is also available to them at no cost.