Peter Colmore: The father of modern Kenyan advertising

An early studio and a member of the  Kings African Rifles. FILE PHOTO | NMG
An early studio and a member of the Kings African Rifles. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Marketing of consumer goods is a game of numbers and no man understood this principle better than Peter Colmore.

He came to Kenya in 1938 aboard an Empire Flying-Boat service as an ambitious and adventurous air traffic officer for the burgeoning Wilson Airways at Nairobi West Aerodrome.

Born in England on 22 October 1919, Peter went to school at Sherborne, proceeding to the aviation industry, first at London Airport, then Croydon.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of World War II, Nairobi West Aerodrome and all the assets of Wilson Airways were taken over by the British Airforce in aid of the war effort.

By this time there was a nascent African wage-earning consumer market in urban areas. Although the pay was nothing to write home about, this segment of the market had the all-important numbers and they were growing exponentially. Some time in the 1930s, a collection of Kenya’s earliest songs had already been recorded and pressed in England, into 78 rpm shellac records. By the mid-1940s, more than 200 recordings had been pressed with the East African Sound Studios Ltd as producers.

Sales of these recordings were proving to be popular in establishments patronised by African wage earners. They felt a sense of reprieve as the music and lyrics were closer to their culture.

In the course of the war, African servicemen were exposed to live entertainment by bands and individual artists. As a serving sergeant and later, captain, of the British-led East African Forces, Colmore became acquainted with guitarists Fundi Konde and Daniel Katuga who were enlisted in the Kings African Rifles.

Soon after the war in 1946, Colmore met an old friend Ally Sykes and together they formed a band later known as Peter Colmore African Band. Colmore realised that there was massive musical talent amongst Africans and he began by assembling an assortment of ex-soldiers into musical units. He also discovered that Congolese musicians were already exposed to modern musical instruments and had developed a uniquely African genre of music. Colmore brought the first Congolese Jean Bosco Mwenda and Edourdo Masengo to Kenya to record and perform mostly in Nairobi.

While the Peter Colmore African Band played in European establishments where they could earn higher rates with covers of western songs, the Congolese artists targeted the African market. The latter shaped the style of music that Kenyans were to play in the years before and after independence in 1963.

The State of Emergency declared in 1952 put a halt to further development of music in Kenya but Tanganyika was still available. Colmore partnered with his friend Ally Sykes in Tanganyika and were able to make some progress there. Swahili was the lingua franca of all three East African states as well as parts of the Great Lakes Region, including Congo. In one stroke, Colmore had access to a vast regional market.

During the emergency, Colmore was engaged by the BBC and Kenya Broadcasting Service (KBS) to provide music and entertainment (read government propaganda) through the medium of mobile cinema, which travelled throughout the more populated areas of Kenya. Colmore is reputed to be the first person to own a tape recorder in Kenya in the late 1940s.

It was also during this period that Colmore made a foray into the record industry under the His Master’s Voice (HMV) Blue Label, owned by his friend Guy Johnson, where he produced more than 250 records by African artists such as Fundi Konde, Edourdo Musango and others from 1956.

Colmore was the pioneer of disc cutting in East Africa. He promoted many bands from Tanganyika and Kenya.

In a move that would prove to be his most profitable, Colmore established his own recording company High Fidelity Productions Ltd in 1959 as the emergency came to an end. While still promoting African artists, he shifted his focus to advertising and he can be said to be the forerunner of modern advertising in East Africa.

His clients were major corporates such as Coca-Cola, Shell , CMC, Eveready, Bata Shoes and Aspro. There was never a day that High Fidelity Productions Ltd was not on the airwaves promoting these products in Tanganyika, Kenya or Uganda.

Colmore composed most of the jingles, which came to be synonymous with the products. “Aspro ni dawa ya kweli”, “Safari Boots, the boots that say you know Africa”, “Sanyo juu, Sanyo tops”, readily come to mind.

After the war and during the emergency very few Africans could afford a gramophone or a radio but the advent of the transistor radio in the early 1960s changed all that. As the number of African salaried and wage earners continued to grow, suddenly, there was a radio that many people could afford.

From that moment, Colmore knew that radio was to be king in his advertising campaign which targeted the African, where the real numbers were. Now Africans could also afford cars and luxury consumer products hitherto out of their reach.

Colmore also promoted entertainers and comedians such as Omari Suleiman popularly known as Mzee Pembe, Halima bin Said, Kipanga Athumani. The first African broadcasters Stephen Kikumu and Simeon Ndesanjo were also recruited by Colmore.

International advertising agencies realised the enormous market in the region and established offices in Kenya towards the end of the 1960s. Nevertheless, Colmore and High Fidelity Productions Ltd still maintained a stranglehold on the market until the break up of the East African Community in 1977 because of the unique way they connected with their consumers, through the Kiswahili language, culture and humor.

In later years, Colmore was more involved in photography, notably the Photo Me franchise.

His friend Ally Sykes, in his unpublished memoirs, described Colmore as “The man with the Midas touch”.

He was a truly a man with great foresight and a unique understanding of marketing in his time. We owe a great deal to him for the development of local music and performing artists.