How Joseph Kamaru became a Frenchman, courtesy of my classmate

This week, the curtains finally fell on what is arguably Kenya’s most successful Kikuyu Benga music career of all times; that of Joseph Kamaru Wa Wanjiru Na Macharia.

With a music career spanning slightly over six decades, Joseph Kamaru bowed out a legend of his own kind.

Kamaru literary sang his way through all the five regimes that Kenya has been under. He kick started his career in 1957, during the colonial times, at the height of the liberation struggle, and instantly shot to fame courtesy of his pro Mau Mau freedom songs.

First working as a houseboy when he moved from his native Kangema constituency to Nairobi, Kamaru kept a nation inspired at the end of the colonial era, the Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki regimes and into the Uhuru Kenyatta era.

Every song Kamaru did was a hit. It is technically impossible for me to choose which of his songs is my favourite. I equally love very many of them. By the time Kamaru exited, he had recorded a whooping 2000+ songs! I have a whole playlist of his best on all my gadgets.

By the time he died, Kamaru was the father figure of the entire Kikuyu Benga music fraternity, most of whose careers he had inspired.

But perhaps, what made Kamaru distinct and the legend he ended up becoming was his ability to compose with expertise on wide ranging topics, from politics, economy and social issues. One day, Kamaru would be recording a damn serious political hit like ‘JM’ (a tribute to the late slain Cabinet Minister JM Kariuki) then, not long after, Kamaru would release a social masterpiece like ‘Muhiki Wa Mikosi’ and then follow it with an economic hit like ‘Kiuru’, all from the same man.

Even more interestingly, Kamaru openly castigated authoritarian administrations, when democratic space was unheard of in Kenya, and still walked away with it because of the following he commanded.

Kamaru’s signature tunes were spiced with proverbs and wise sayings.  Some saw Kamaru as a philosopher, while to others he was the conscience of the nation; his songs would stir the society and cause ripples in Parliament.

Personally, I have three interesting Kamaru related memories.

The first one relates to my childhood. When I was growing up in the village, many many moons ago, among the valuables my dad Mwalimu owned and treasured is a cassette player radio. He still owns and uses it to date. Guy knows how to take care of things.

And among the cassette tapes he used to own and play is one by the legend Joseph Kamaru. I don’t know which volume it was but it had a song that used to go, “Gwitû nî Kangema kûrîa ngui ciothe ciarengirwo icuthi” (I come from Kangema where all dogs have their tails cut off). My father used to like Kamaru. And he made me grow up to like Kamaru.

The second memory is about my grandpa, Kamaru’s ultimate fan. In his heyday, grandpa’s signature way of announcing his grand arrival home, in the evening, after irrigating his throat quite well, was by loudly singing some of those Kamaru freedom songs. And of cause adding a nasty adjective at the end…

The third and most thrilling memory comes from my high school days. When we reported to Form One, we found that Kianyaga High School was offering Music as a subject. Personally, I could not get anywhere close to such stuff. But the guys who had come from town, who were way more daring than us villagers, joined the class, with imaginations that they would end up as musicians. But shock was awaiting them. They got there only to realize that what was being taught was completely different from what they expected. So, the story is told of one of the guys, during an oral exam, when he was asked to name at least three famous French composers he had been taught in class. Fellow could only remember one and because he knew all French names have a ‘De’ in the middle, he decided to get innovative. Therefore, he named the first composer correctly, then, when he got to the second composer, he confidently roared, “Joseph De Kamaru!” That guy did not just elicit a heavy laughter in that class. The story went viral all over the school and he was chased out of that class for good!

Yote tisa, Kamaru kept a nation going because he sang from his heart. Legends don’t die; they just fade away.

I sign out at that point. Thigari cia Waitina Iri Njira….