The death of Ayub Ogada last week at the age of 63 has robbed Kenya of arguably the most influential artiste this country has produced in two generations.
To understand the influence of Ayub Ogada on what has come to be known as World Music, one needs to read a tribute to the musician that was posted by British musician and producer Peter Gabriel on his website last Saturday.
Gabriel recalled that in the early days of WOMAD (the international music festival) and Real World Records (The label championing world music that Ayub was signed to for part of his career) many people were not interested to listen to music from other cultures and ‘whenever I was trying to convince them I would play Ayub singing “Kothbiro” and invariably win them round.’
“Ayub was a phenomenal figure, musically, he was a genius who was able to transform a Luo folk song, “Kothbiro” into a contemporary classic,” says music producer Tabu Osusa, founder of Ketebul Music and a long time associate of Ogada
The song, released in 1993, has been widely used in soundtracks of films like The Constant Gardener (2005) TV shows and commercials, notably the Guinness Africa advertising campaign. Just last year, American rapper Kanye West sampled Kothbiro for the song “Yikes” from his album “Ye’.
Tabu, who filmed Ayub at his home in Nyahera, Kisumu, in 2017 for a project called Singing Wells, that records and archives folk music of East Africa, says Ayub was in the same league as African greats like the Youssou N’dour, Baaba Maal, both from Senegal and Mali’s Salif Keita.
He also draws several striking similarities between the Kenyan star and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, “Although they both came from affluent backgrounds, they chose to champion the cause of the poor and downtrodden through their music and personal charisma.”
Interestingly both artistes spent their formative years in the West with Ayub, who was born in Mombasa, living with his father in Chicago in the 1960s before returning to Kenya. Fela studied music in the UK in 1958 and returned to Nigeria after Independence in 1963.
“I believe this early exposure made them conscious of African culture. It is this awareness that shaped the paths their careers would eventually take,” says Tabu.
Fela started his own genre and named it Afrobeat borrowing elements of jazz, funk along with West African highlife. Ayub whose career had started with the Black Savage Band (who first recorded “Kothbiro”) and African Heritage Band mastered the eight-stringed nyatiti instrument and gave it global recognition.
“Just as Fela had dropped the name Ransome, Ayub too stopped using the name Job and instead adopted the Arabic equivalent of the name,” says Osusa. “Fela opened up his musical base known as Shrine to everyone in society, from ministers to street urchins and Ayub’s home was also a sanctuary for ordinary folks, many seeking assistance.”
Ayub’s protégé Papillon recalls that Ayub would say, “A meal that is not shared is not as sweet as one that you eat with others.” Papillon was just 14 when he met Ayub for the first time at the AMREF Child In Need Project in Dagoretti where Ayub would perform for the children every Friday. It was Ayub who introduced him to the nyatiti and helped him establish his own career by passing over some of his gigs to the young musician.
Papillon composed the song “Ayubu” in appreciation of the role that Ayub had played as his teacher and mentor.
“Any time he received royalties for his music, he would randomly offer assistance to people who were struggling with one issue or another,” says Tabu.
Both Fela and Ayub were defiant and bold, they lived their lives very much on their own terms, says Tabu.
In later years, Tabu tried to record an album with him but every time Ayub spelt out his conditions. “He told me ‘I don’t record any more inside a confined studio. If you have to record me, we have to go to the field and I sing with the birds’. So it never came to pass”
Indeed Ayub’s last album “Kodhi” released on 2015 was recorded in makeshift studios set up in such serene surroundings like the Nairobi National Park and a campsite right next to Lake Naivasha.
Everyday for one week in 2012, Ayub, British guitarist Trevor Warren and singer, guitarist, composer and engineer Isaac Gem would drive along Mombasa Road past Mlolongo to Alan Donovan’s African Heritage House, set up the recording gear, and work on tracks until dusk.
It was while recording “Kodhi” that the British pop superstar Gary Barlow also recorded a session with Ayub for the Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee song, “Sing”.
“Kodhi” was only the second solo album by Ayub Ogada after “En Mana Kuoyo” which was released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label in 1993.
During that visit to the Ogada home in 2017, Ayub told Tabu and his film crew: “When I play music I close my eyes and I go inside my soul. Every time I play a song I give you a part of my life so eventually I must die because I have given you everything.”