Benga man’s midas touch

Ketebul Music founding director Tabu Osusa at his studio. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG
Ketebul Music founding director Tabu Osusa at his studio. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Talking to Tabu Osusa is like going down a rabbit hole of African music of yore.
He’s counting over 30 years in the industry as a composer, a producer, a promoter and a band manager.

He founded Ketebul Music that nurtures and promotes local musicians. He’s involved in countless initiatives with bodies like Alliance Francaise, Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts, the Ford Foundation, Goethe Institute among others.

He is currently running Singing Wells project partnering with UK’s Abubillas Music Foundation to record and archive traditional East Africa music.

JACKSON BIKO met him in his office at the GoDown Art Centre where he played Kenyan music from yesteryears, lamenting the demise of our cultural musical roots and feistily defended his ideals, not only as a musician but as an African.

If you were to meet a musician for a meal, who would that be and why?

(Chuckles) The late Fela Kuti. His music had a purpose. He came up with a genre, Afrobeat, a fusion of fun music and African music. West Africans know and appreciate their past. So do South Africans, they laud Miriam Makeba. Ghanaians laud E.T Mensah, the king of Highlife. Right now we’ve got people like Sarkodie, who are doing something different. A bit of dance hall but also hiplife.

The more dominant music in Kenya is Benga but the current generation doesn’t know Benga. We have good musicians but without any identity. Being good at imitating everybody isn’t enough, it’s your uniqueness that actually sets you apart from the rest.

Who is to blame? The government that doesn’t set proper policies and you people, the media, who highlight the wrong things. I just came back from Nigeria’s All Africa Music Awards as a judge where I had to listen to over 4,000 entries of music from all over Africa. When we got to East Africa, the only fresh sounds were from Ethiopia. It’s sad that nothing unique came from here.

You are pretty riled up about this.

Of course! I’ve been doing this for many decades because I’m passionate about it. We just published a book called ‘‘Shades of Benga’’ that traces Kenyan music back to 1944 because young musicians don’t have a reference. They don’t know their past.
I don’t see how you can move forward if you don’t know who or what was there before you. The Congolese, ask Fally Ipupa, know Tabu Ley Rochereau or Le Grand Kalle. Now ask our own musicians who Fundi Konde or Gabriel Omollo is and they wouldn’t know.

Was your childhood filled with music?

I was in a seminary — St Peter’s Mukumu. I was supposed to be a Catholic priest, but I never became one. That’s another story for another day. I listen to all types of music; jazz, reggae but I love African music. Rooted music. So growing up was with the likes of Miriam Makeba, Fundi Konde, Fadhili Williams, Daudi Kabaka…

How old are you now?

I’m 63.

Well, you don’t look it.

I don’t eat unnecessarily. Most people feel that they have to eat because there is food and it’s lunch time. The seminary taught me discipline. I eat healthy, fruits and all that and I have a gym in my house. So three times a week, nothing crazy, I do light weights and I walk a lot. Also there is an element of genetics, my father died when he was over 100 years, not that I want to live to be 100. That would be boring.

What do you love most about your life now?

I’m just at peace with myself. You should read ‘‘Desiderata’’ that’s my Bible, actually it’s even better than the Bible. You don’t try to leave beyond your means, or expect too much of the world. Just be a normal person. This life is too short.

By the way, whether you’re the president or a minister, you’re still go down under. Be good to people. Don’t try to acquire the whole world, for what? You can only sleep on one bed at a time, drive one car at a time, only have one meal at a time, overabundance is overrated. If you own helicopters and mansions and you are on your deathbed you will be so sad because you know you are leaving all that behind. Of course I don’t want to be poor, neither do I want to be beyond comfortable.

When did you find this peace with yourself?

Seminary. We used to spend time meditating. They would ask you, ‘who are you?’ And then they give you a week to go and find out who you are without talking to anybody. It really is great trying to find out who you are. I still meditate but I don’t go to church because I don’t think it’s necessary.
The church is full of hypocrites; thieves, murderers, corrupt people who every Sunday go and kneel and pray. I can’t stand that. God is just within you. God is peace. Go back to the ‘‘Desiderata.’’ I’m at peace with myself and with God as He is.

They say between 40 and 60 is the age of mastering and 60 and 80 the age of reflection. When you reflect in your life, which part do you think you had the most fun?

(Sighs) Depends what fun is. When I was in my 20s, I lived in Congo for about four years. I once took the boat for seven days from Kisangani to Kinshasa. It was just fun; music, women, you name it. I started the band Orchestra Virunga in my 30s, around the 80s, the age of serious music. I went and lived in the UK when the band split. Then I came back and started another band called Nairobi City Ensemble then Ketebul in 2004. My 40s were good but I knew if I didn’t make it by 50, things would get rough, so I put things together. (Pause) But I think I’m having more fun now because I’m happy.


Yes, three. The youngest is 25, they are all in USA. Listen, let me play you Kenyan afro boogie music from the 70s and 80s. Young people now think they are funky? Oh! The 70s had lots of funk. Here. This is the album Kenya’s Funky Hits, 70’s and 80s. [It’s excellent Kenyan music reminiscent of Motown sounds.]