There has emerged an interest in classic songs by East African bands over the last few years with collectors scouring the archives to dig out classic recordings, most of which were done in Kenya during the 1960s to the 70s.
This is an era when the best recording facilities in the region were located in Nairobi and musicians trooped in from as far as Kinshasa to record their music in Kenya.
Multinational companies like CBS, EMI and Polydor (PolyGram) also set up in Kenya where vinyl records were pressed and distributed across the region and as far as Europe and Asia. This golden age of music ended in the 1980s when these companies, besieged by piracy shut up shop and left Kenya.
It has been a challenge to trace the original recordings made during that period because many of the master tapes were not archived.
The only recording company that has survived through the changes in the music business and the evolving recording formats is A.I Records Kenya Limited whose majority stake is now owned by the international giant, Universal Music.
In the last one year, the company has started digitising the most popular hits in its vast catalogue of music recordings.
The first phase contains 10 albums that have previously not been available since their original release dates, in some cases up to 40 years ago.
“We are delivering the most iconic catalogue and hit songs from East Africa to the world, and we are most proud to have partners that can deliver these hits to fans and music collectors,” says John Andrews, the A.I Records general manager.
The collection includes “Kings of History” by the legendary benga maestro, D.O Misiani and Shirati Jazz. Some of Misiani’s finest work was released on record labels like Sungura, Lolwe, D.O 7 Special that were produced by A.I Records. The collection contains timeless benga favourites like “Kiseru” “Lala Salama and “Harusi ya M.K.”
There are three albums by Orchestra Super Mazembe, which is one of the finest examples of a band that relocated to Kenya from Kinshasa via Lusaka and became a music powerhouse in the region. The albums are “Atia Jo” a 10-song selection including the title track and “A Phiri Anabwera” taken from the band’s stint in Zambia, before they boarded a bus bound for Nairobi. “Giants of East Africa” is a compilation of the band’s finest hits like “Kassongo”, “Mwana Mazembe” and “Shida” from a period after they signed a recording deal with EMI East Africa.
“Mazembe @45” is a selection of songs originally released as 45 r.p.m vinyl singles that were manufactured and released out of Ndola, Zambia and Nairobi, Kenya. The fourth album, “The Original Movers” contains more of the songs that made Mazembe a household name in East Africa like “Mwana Nyiau” “Okova” and “Nanga.”
“Legends of East Africa” by Orchestra Makassy has a special place in the history of African music in Europe. Englishman Norman Mighell put the album together in 1982 for Virgin Records UK as an experiment to assess the impact of African music in the UK market. Orchestra Makassy, comprising musicians like Mose Fan Fan and Remy Ongala, had visited Nairobi in the late 1970s and recorded 20 songs in Swahili, Lingala and Shona, including the timeless hit “Mambo Bado” to be released on their own label.
At the time the album was produced, A.I Records was unsure if this was a sensible idea because using multi-tracking recording was untried and expensive but the experiment worked and the album was very well received in the European market that hitherto had very little interaction with this type of music.
Other albums digitised by A.I Records are by famous Tanzanian musicians, “World Defeats the Grandfather” by vocalist Issa Juma, and Simba Wanyika featuring the popular “Sigalame” and two albums by Vijana Jazz, “Kamata Sukuma” and Koka Koka” have also been reissued.
Another classic recording in the collection is “Soul Brother” by Kenyan singer Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys comprising songs recorded at the peak of their fame in the 1970s.
“You could not listen to the radio or keep your feet from the dance floor in the home territories of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and the former Zaire, where many of these songs are still massively popular even today,” says Mr Andrews.
“A few of these songs became mega hits in Europe, with a particular fan base in London and Paris, where they are still played today and some of the recordings have been used in films and documentaries.”
We believe this will be an incredible journey into thousands of songs and artist from the historic catalogue of A.I Records Kenya Limited,” says Mr Andrews.