First and Second Rhythm Guitars in an Old Benga Song
With those words the knot was broken. Everybody in the pack laughed heartily, and when Banja turned around in the fits of laughter, Raga Raga saw that the Gor Mahia jersey had the words Otit Mach boldly printed in white on its back. That spoke volumes about the man: he was affectionate about himself and he knew how to brand himself and his business. Maybe he was called Otit Mach due to his flaming demeanor, the one he undoubtedly exhibited. In those few seconds Raga Raga learned that the man was pleasant in his own gruff way, but he was accommodating. It was clear to Raga Raga that he had finally met Juma Banja, owner of Otit Mach Promotions, the company that was managing Agak Onjiri and the force behind Tetemeko’s success. Gut feeling told him that he would soon make some money again, enough to get him out of the financial mess he was in. It was confirmed by the sudden itching in his right palm.
Shortly after that they were sitting in Juma Banja’s office, a large impressively bright room with brown felt-covered walls and black leather furnishing. Quite modestly, Banja begun by talking about his business. He was exporting cold-stored fresh Nile perch fillets to Europe and USA, and he supplied stationery and stuff to the Government’s various ministries. He also owned a large poultry farm near Kiboswa, some fifteen kilometers from Kisumu. In Kondele he also owned the four-storey Awela Boarding and Lodging.
He talked fondly about himself and his love for benga. Then his expression changed; the mirthful expression on his face was at odds with the light, friendly chocolate tone of his skin. He revealed another side of his nature: generosity and surprise. He called out and one of his aides entered the room with a shiny black leather guitar case. It wasn’t a normal guitar case; it had the words Fender debossed into the fine leather. The words were in gold.
The case was handed to over Raga Raga who gasped. This wasn’t happening. Fender: the instrument of his dreams.
“Open it,” Banja said.
Raga Raga opened the case and nearly went blind. He almost forgot how to talk. He stood transfixed for a moment as his gray eyes widened in surprise. Agak nudged him and asked
“Isn’t that what you’ve been looking for, japuonj?”
Raga Raga mumbled something that must have sounded like “Yes, ee, ma to e en. Yawa, to koro?”
Agak said, “Don’t you want to see the amp?”
The amp was brought and he was taking the cover off, Raga Raga was thinking. This was a Fender Stratocaster, the tool of Owino Ja Shirati. At the sight of the instrument, his face lit up with a smile of surprising sweetness for a man his age. He felt an urge or some sort of longing, indescribable. He lifted the guitar out of its red velvet nest, raised it methodically to his face, smelt it, and held it in passionate embrace. He ran his fingers over the golden strings in soft languid strokes. He had never played a Fender before, let alone own one. Then he got it; he had always talked to Agak about his wish to own a Fender! He chuckled. This strange man Banja had done his homework well.
“Yes, it’s a Strat, alright.” Banja said to break the tension. He was watching the old master’s face to see his response.
Raga Raga surprised himself with the sudden conviction in his voice. It was a whisper. “It’s a Fender Stratocaster.”
Banja nodded. “Original from USA, not fake Japanese.”
Raga Raga looked up and down, trying to keep his face neutral, trying to hide his excitement. He kept the facade up for about five seconds before collapsing into a snorting giggle. So far the best guitar he had ever owned was a Gibson SG Standard which had a tendency to break where the neck met the body after a hard playing. While he had glued it back, his ability to stay in tune was compromised.
Then, without cracking a smile, a totally out of character line came out of his mouth, “Thank you, bwana Banja. But I think you should know that no matter what guitar I grab, I can come off sounding good. Some guitars lend themselves to a certain type of playing style better than others, but with good tuning, all can be made to sound good in the hands of a master player like me.”
Juma Banja didn’t like that statement. He kept his face dead-pan, letting none of his thoughts show. One could tell by the look on his face that he was astounded, even mildly upset.
“Japuonj, imor?” Agak asked the old master concernedly.
Raga Raga looked up. When he spoke, his voice still held the deep baritone but the sarcasm was replaced by genuine curiosity, “Amor. I’m happy. I wonder who’s happier than I today in the whole world. I just got my first Fender Strat.”
Banja smiled. Knowing some of Raga Raga’s past, he could see he was doing well so far. So he shifted gear. “Japesa Piere Obam,” he said, “I respect people with talent. I respect you. The deal is very simple: I want you to spend time with Tetemeko, maybe a couple of weeks. I want you to create a band that we will merge with Tetemeko and create some benga recording that has never been heard before. You are so gifted in composing good songs; this is why you are here. This is your break; I will support you to do it. Then we can tour the world to promote the recordings. This is it.”
“Why don’t I play a set with Tetemeko tonight? Then we can talk about all this.”
Banja stood up. “Can I talk to you privately?”
Raga Raga nodded. “Fine.”
Banja took him to a small room that looked like a store. He pulled two plastic chairs, sank his weight into one and kicked the other to the bengaman. What he had to say was not painless. He was considering using Congolese drumming and percussions in the recordings. Times had changed and benga might have to change too. “This is where you come in. I have this all worked out. Changing and borrowing forms the basis of art. Dr. Nico, your idol, and his brother Dechaud, refused to change. They perished artistically. Franco and Rochereau were always borrowing and adding new things. They lasted. You are the master and king of benga, when I introduce change through you, people will accept it.”
Raga Raga looked petrified. In his understanding, benga was classical like rumba or salsa or afro beat and had strict patterns and could not be changed. “What are you talking about? You cannot change benga, it’s impossible.”
“What is benga?”
“What do you mean?”
“Benga is popular music like soukous, isn’t it?”
“Ask yourself why soukous or even Congolese rumba is alive and vibrant yet afro beat and other styles, including our very own benga, are coughing along, maybe dead. I am not talking about world music; I am talking about popular music of Africa, which benga is.”
He paused then continued. “There was a time when the Congolese believed that the melody of soukous was enough for them and to talk about adding percussion, synthesizers and electric drums was a crime. That was during the time of Franco. Yet some people felt soukous was too light compared to music from other West African countries like Cameroun and Nigeria. It is the time Souzy Kasseya and Emeneya Mubiala were experimenting with adding percussion to the soukous melody. Look at the scene today after some twenty years. Look at the blazing power of soukous melody fused with perfect percussions. Look at the boost a shift in power drumming and rap animation has given soukous. In my opinion soukous today has the power to compete with rock or be as popular as rock or reggae. Now think about this and think of where benga is and you will see my point. Today benga music is facing stiff challenge from soukous and our fans are drifting away. Benga lacks creativity; we play the same thing over and over. We have to change and it’s is no longer a matter of if but when. I know you have invested a lot in Victoria Kings but it’s time benga changed. This is where you come in. Remember I am paying for this. If you don’t agree to this, no problem. I will find somebody else.”
Raga Raga swallowed. He had heard this tired yarn over and over since 1978. People had told him that benga had been overplayed and its patterns were too thin and restricted. He had been told that recasting it in a raucous style with a variety of instrumentation will popularise the music in the long run. This was something Zaireans knew.
Banja took a deep breath. He remained staring serenely, his intelligent face stiff. He waited for the old bengaman to say something. Nothing came. He sat back, shuffled his feet a bit, shaking one then the other, stretching out his arms and evoking a fearlessness that was foolish.
Raga Raga wasn’t the type to quail in a resolute situation, but this morning he was over his head in grief. Keeping a low tone of voice, he began speaking, “Juma Banja, I think the difference between you and me is your money. I know that you are very smart, shrewd and capable—and perfectly able to craft whatever deal you want (which you are successfully doing). I’m sure you can be a tough negotiator. But you need to give me time to think this over. I’m no longer young.”
Banja lifted up his sweat-glossed face. With his face set, his eyes keen and probing, he said, “Japesa Piere Obam, you are an artist and I am a businessman. And therein lies the difference—the degree of desire. I cannot tolerate benga music being a secondary activity. I feel too passionate about it. And I believe that when it comes down to it, that’s the deciding factor. People make things happen, sooner or later, if they want it badly enough. Making music is a do-or-die affair for you, am I right?”
Raga Raga sighed, his face struggling to express a tiny fraction of the outrage that he felt. He flashed a smile, but it vanished off his face in seconds. “I have had a lifetime of it. It is the most important activity in my life. I just have to be honest about it and allow my life to reflect how it is inside me. I am an artist and a musician with principles to uphold to the society that depends on me to inspire them with songs in the style they know: benga.”
Banja sat back “For me it’s making money. I get my kicks that way. Anyway, I’m glad we have an agreement. What I want with you is very simple: a four album deal. Money will come from me, all the expenses. We will co-produce and have the same rights and we will share the profits made from the sales, after I deduct all my costs. I do value your insights very much. Don’t take too much time, though. The food is getting cold.”
Banja walked out leaving the old benga master to digest the shock of his life.
Later that evening Raga Raga joined Agak Onjiri and his group Tetemeko Boys at Awela Club in downtown Kondele for a gig. He owed today’s fresh lease of life to Agak for their years together in the 1980s. Therefore, he did a rehearsal with Tetemeko that afternoon, and then accompanied Agak over to the Obunga Splash to meet a woman, and then back across the railway line and Kibos Road to the Awela Club. The band was pretty good. Not great, but Raga Raga could see the sound was solid. They revered him and he pointed out a thing here and a mistake there during the rehearsals. Do not do it this way, he said. It should be done this way. It is not benga music unless the wires are pressed well and the note rings right. The band listened attentively and followed his instructions with devotion.
The approaching evening was like a relief as the sun scorched its way down to the ground and took the heat with it and Kisumuans could cool out and breathe. Tetemeko were warming up for the performance.
Raga Raga walked in.
Brandishing the Fender, he sauntered up the stage. It was vintage style benga all those stuffy hours performing in the tiny stage the noisy bar room hall, getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase to the lodges upstairs. It was magic. Classic benga riffing solos and passionate double rhythms, sizzling hi-hat, harmony vocals, magical accents and the thumping bass was no doubt tearing the place up. There was quite some heat in that club and the bassist was rumbling too much, playing the fattest notes and the backdrop banner was flapping with the maddening drumming, but instrumentalists and vocalists of Tetemeko gave room for Raga Raga to make the best use of his classic second rhythm. As Raga Raga played his passion on the frets, he couldn’t get on fine with this youthful band led by Agak, the middle aged bengaman with a piercing soprano. This was another triumphantly private epoch style benga show. It suddenly felt like the guitars had mellowed with age, the voices blended with ease and Agak Onjiri was once more taken back in time, his shrill soprano scaled the highest heights with hot sweat bathing his face, with his eyes closed, with his nostrils wide open, with his hands gesticulating. Raga Raga felt gladness melt his heart to the point he could scream. People gave him standing ovation. He tumbled along and with the barmaids too dancing and swaying and excited fans ripping and rippling, he felt convinced that in no other bucolic city like this Kisumu, he had a commanding position. Being known and famous has its advantages and for an old master like Raga Raga, this was more than he could do: men in business suits and respectably dressed women hugged him on the stage and stuffed bank notes in his pockets and drinks flowed. This was normal: thirty years in music by all odds gave you status. But after thirty years in the business, he still couldn’t come to terms with it. In the 1970s when he was unknown, he struggled to be known, today he even resented the fury of his fans and merely wanted to play and go home to sleep. Anywhere else, being a second rhythm benga guitar player would go well in a guy’s favour. But here in Kisumu, being a second rhythm benga guitarist could be a condemnation!