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The enduring soul of Chakacha.


Last year saw major breakthroughs for Kenya's performing arts, starting with actress Lupita Nyong'o's Oscar for her captivating role in 12 Years A Slave and more recently the MTV Mama Award to Sauti Sol hit Sura Yako, which becomes the topic for the day.

Every generation needs a hero and these two combine well as the suitable flagship for the country and East Africa as a whole.

The bias for Sauti Sol resides in the impact that the group has had in reviving interest in chakacha music genre and giving a new shot in the arm to the music driving right up to the top of the box, musically, so to speak.

Such has been the impact that many artistes are rushing to release their own adaptations of the genre that is native to the coast and could well become the country's next big thing.

The latest on the list is the amazing gospel singer Jemimmah Thiong'o, who continues to defy age to win where many of her generation would not venture.

Certainly, benga is still up there but chakacha appears to have a clear edge due to its easy groove and adaptability across many cultures and generations.

Indeed, its global appeal is already well noted through the late Ishmael Jingo's hit, Fever, recorded in the late 70s and featured in the soundtrack of the movie The Last King of Scotland. It was complemented by the inclusion of Super Mazembe hit Kassongo in the movie Phat Gals, recorded in the 80s.

The two are vital indications of the flexibility of the coastal rhythm by alternately providing a hard driving dance floor hit and a delectable easy listening track without compromising the rudiments of their origin.

Undoubtedly, the success of Sauti Sol song has spawned a wave of chakachamania that evokes memories of the early 80s when the music strode to national prominence.

The tidal wave then, led by Them Mushrooms, carried the flagship through several record producing songs like Ndogo Ndogo (featured on Paul Singh movie Mahari). Safari Sounds also had Mama Lea Mtoto while Mombasa Roots had their day with Disco Chakacha.

However, there was a shift as rumba took over the helm, driven largely by enduring local media bias for Congolese music, but there was enough reference for a return of the coastal flavor.

It has come in doses, notably a brief chakacha interlude with Vidonge that was covered by Samba Mapangala and Queen Malika, the Somali refugee who pursued a music career during her stay in Kenya.

This time, the success of Sauti Sol at continental level has jolted the country awake and the warm reception in the media and among the urban music fraternity is firing up the scene and spreading the awareness about the genre.

Depending on how long it holds, the genre could well become the urban youth music that has a true Kenya flavor.

Historically, the genre has roots in the East and probably arrived to our shores with the dhow culture of past centuries.

This theory explains the similarity of Chakacha and Sega music of Seychelles and other sub genres along the Indian Peninsula that are largely described as the slave routes.

But it has evolved and domesticated in the various regions although clearly it is impossible to completely erase the Arabic element.

In Kenya, the main element of its adaptation was the prominence of the percussion and mainly drumming as a highlight of the music.

This element was dominant on the Ishmael Jingo as it was on the Mombasa Roots hit but that was as far as the similarity went, with the vocal approach setting the two apart.

While the Roots took on a traditional coastal vocal style, Jingo took it with a full blown soul approach akin to the James Brown style, complete with the yells and it worked wonders.

His engagement of then visiting Caribbean artiste Sammy Abu as producer was another advantage allowing an outsider the benefit of interpretation. The influences provided a potent signature sound to the song.

It is amazing to hear how much can be achieved in such relatively inferior studio facilities, and the live studio effect is still a fitting compliment to the superlative musicianship of the day.

The emerging approach is injecting a DRC guitar climax to the chakacha that is probably intended to woo fans of Congolese music while at the same explore a homegrown genre.

It will be interesting to see how it evolves and certainly does present itself as a potent country identity for this New Year and even beyond.

More significantly is that it opens a new window to Kenyan music with artistes and the music public looking more to our own native forms.

We are at a point when the country's youth are showing growing hunger for a national identity and a confirmation of the truth once voiced by the late Masinde Muliro when he said "that our ethnicity is not a vice but a celebration of our diversity".
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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Jan 7, 2015
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