Last Friday night the usually serene atmosphere at The Hub in Karen, Nairobi was transformed into a stage for an energetic performance of thumping music, dance, dazzling lights and costumes.
Every October for the last six years, some of Nairobi’s top artistes along with fans of the hits that swept across the world throughout the 1960s and 70s get together for a night of fun and music dubbed “Motown In Nairobi.”
The mere mention of Motown evokes the memories of a golden age when legendary African American performers like Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Jacksons, and The Commodores dominated the charts worldwide.
The impact of the record label was felt far beyond the US borders, particularly among people of African origin, many of whom were tasting the first years of independence from colonial rule and were seeing black super stars for the first time.
The distinctive upbeat catchy songs transcended pop and soul and broke down age, colour and social barriers across the US and the world.
The legacy of this era remains powerful to date and been passed down through generations of artistes and fans, if the popularity of the Motown In Nairobi is anything to go by.
The concept explores the entire era of Motown from the music to the costumes, the styling to the social and political background against which the music was produced, coinciding with the civil rights movement in the US. This is what determines the song selection, the artists and the bands performing at the event.
“This idea began with a conversation about entertainment options for a particular demographic of concert goers who want more quality and diversity,” explains singer, songwriter June Gachui.
June who is the show’s producer took the challenge and called a number of partners, musicians and performers that she refers to as “Motowners” to bring the concept to life. The event started at the Village Market in 2013 and for the last three years has found a home at the Hub.
Among the acts that have performed at the show in the past include Mercy Myra, Aaron Rimbui, Maia von Lekow, Dela, Ian Mbugua and Kendi Nkonge.
The music director was David Hunter, an American music producer who was grew up during the Motown era and has a first hand experience of the ‘sound that changed America’.
“Having the opportunity to perform the same music that inspired me in one of Africa’s most beautiful cities is a win-win for me,” he says.
Mr Hunter says sharing the stage with some of Kenya’s finest artists who can relate to his feeling about the Motown era is an honor.
The night was packed with some of the greatest hits of Motown. Highlights included Kaz singing her rendition of “Baby Love” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, former Samsung Ziki Stars winner Daniel Chikhwaza clad in a typical Motown era suit and bow tie performing The Contours classic ‘Do you love me”.
Mr Hunter packed all his emotion into the Stevie Wonder ballad “Lately”, Viola Karuti added a twist to romantic Marvin Gaye hit “Let’s Get It On” while Noel Nderitu got the crowd dancing to the “Rhythm of the Night” originally by Debarge.
Other artistes who gave their Motown interpretations on the night were Silayio, Edward Parseen, Patricia Kihoro, Manasseh Shalom and Angie Gachui. Instrumentalists included saxophonist Chris Bittok and the Nairobi Horns Project.
While it is an audience above 40 that may have a special connection to the Motown classics, the music has such timeless quality that it also attracts a younger audience that has developed an association with the magic of that era.
Motown was a record company started in 1959 in Detroit by Berry Gordy, a 30-year-old former featherweight boxer who borrowed $800 (Sh80,000) from a family savings club to get the label off the ground. The name of the company was adopted from the reputation of Detroit as “Motor City”, home to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, America’s largest motor vehicle companies.
It provided a home for African American musicians at a time when the music industry mirrored the segregation in the rest of American society. Gordy’s writes in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that some of the early Motown albums were released without showing the artists faces on them until a time when the music’s popularity overcame the racial prejudices.
The studio known as Hitsville USA operated for 22 hours and was only closed from 8am to 10am for maintenance. It now houses the Motown Museum.
Gordy sold off the company to PolyGram in 1994, which was later, bought by Universal Music in 1999.