First and Second Rhythm Guitars in an Old Benga Song

OVERVIEW:

2.
Music throbbed like a banshee. D.O. Misiani Owino Ja Shirati’s ‘Dr. G.P. Ogutu’ thumped deliciously on radio through a marshy pong of morning poo and urine and despair and paucity and slum. This is Nyawita, the sprawl, where reality burns with more harshness than songs on records. A day in Nyawita was a day of doom; even Owino’s guitar was a note off-key but sounded the better for it, powered by the posh, loud and powerful vocals of two gorgeously proportioned bengawomen; Aluoch Pamba and Queen Babito. He packed his guitar, thinking, music is the thing that unites the rich and the poor. The rich and the poor listen to the same music. People are divided in classes... the rich and the poor. Music is the gum; the bond.

‘Dr. G.P. Ogutu’ ended. He turned the radio dial to from Ramogi FM to Lolwe FM, finding the final bars of Emma Jalamo’s biggest ohangla hit. The DJ made an announcement in trendy Dholuo. “Engineer Wuod Fibi’s at his best. As this year closes, he is still at it giving us the best of rumba, ohangla and benga. Talking of benga, I have something here done by Osito Kalle and Aluoch Pamba fresh from Barikiwa Studio. You’re tuned to Thum E Mit Budho on Lolwe FM, brought to you by Assam Pala Ja Usonga. Now time for the new benga sizzler... Osito Kalle and Lady Tosha Aluoch Pamba Rachar... dherrr!”

Raga Raga switched the radio off and sighed. He felt lost in space and needed to take his bearing. Yukabeth had left early to her omena business. She had to leave before six, before the fishermen docked their canoes loaded with fresh omena at Dho Nam. He tapped cigarette ash out of the wooden window. A woman was peeing standing with her dress pulled up and her legs apart outside the opposite block while some pigs and dogs were sniffing the bushes for edibles nearby. Raga Raga stared; he could have puked. He could smell her body odour above the odour of her urine. The woman stared at him with a hideous come-on smile and did her business. Raga Raga’s eyes swivelled from the woman; he stood up and put on the shirt Yukabeth had ironed. Nyawita shrieked with bedlam. Hundreds of slum people passed by, the speed of the foot traffic manifested the determination of morning stream to work; a bustle to hustle. Kisumu was hot like locomotive engine room and smelt of tar. Only eight it was yet sunlight flared harshly and burnt the town down to the ground with unrelenting fury.

He dropped his cigarette stub on the doorstep and left Yukabeth’s house, headed for Kondele and boarded a matatu. The World Bank-funded roadworks construction on Kibos Road made for slow progress and the road was patchy with puddles mirroring the sky. A parked caterpillar had its engines idling. A concrete mixer rumbled by, churning fumes and dust. Nyawita’s doomsday spell faded as soon as he got into a matatu. But being bundled, like all the other hapless loonies, in a matatu was horrific. Considering that the greatest benga star, guitarist and bandleader Owino Ja Shirati died when a matatu he was travelling in crashed just here in Kondele, near Mamboleo. People cried and sulked and cursed. And mourned, thus: Owino tho odwanyo ma loo otero e yo marach ka ma Kisumo ka. Kare koro ere? Yeah, Owino Wuod Adongo ‘Gari Ocha Thim’ was a legend; a matatu drove him out of this freaking world in a freakish manner.

Inside the matatu, men, women and children were packed them like mbuta in a battered osera. He hated to be squeezed like this between sweating strangers in the matatu whose inside was like an oven. He was getting woozy from the stench of exhaust fumes. This was the way of matatus; if you complained you were told with blunt arrogance to buy your car. Yeah, cheap is expensive. His whole body discharged sweat, including his thick neck and his hairy forearms. The passengers pressing his white linen shirt added to his discomfort. His face was caked with dust, with heavier lines in the crow’s-feet around his eyes and he could have sworn he smelt rank sweat and swirling dust.

The matatu vomited him out somewhere in a lay-by along Kibos Road, in Migosi, a village less quaint than its name. He felt cool after roasting in that toaster of a means-of-transport and drank in the fresh air, wiped his face, dusted off his trousers and straightened his shirt seeking to eradicate the constant stink of exhaust fumes, cordite, sweat, and motor oil. His linen shirt was damp and, in places, stained with sweat. His short afro was ruffled.

He crossed the busy highway and found his way to a tall, magnificent tower along Kibos Road. This was the ten-storey Otit Mach Centre which had a supermarket, a hotel, offices, conference rooms, rehearsal rooms, club and restaurant, all built around a large walled, tiled courtyard which housed Otit Mach Promotions and nightclub. Down one side of the building, a massive billboard with a beer advertisement shone down over Kondele and its environs. In the front parking, a huddle of casually-dressed well-fed men were standing close to a dusty black Range Rover, talking loudly and laughing. A group of chokoras and their dirty dogs stood outside the gate looking nonchalantly on. In the middle of the huddle stood a tall and imposing man wearing a Gor Mahia jersey with his pot belly sticking out like a shelf for resting drinks on. One noticed he was the big boss in the pack due to his calm and his air of authority. He looked like a trimmed-down Lwanda Magere. His muscles stood out in detailed relief like a molded iron sculpture. Another man was Agak Onjiri. He was thin, tall and well-groomed, attired like an accountant or a banker. He was handsome enough, decked out in a designer kitenge that concealed neither his spindly legs nor his stuck-up airs. He was the baron, the boss, the chef’d’Orchestre of Tetemeko. He shaved every day and twice daily if there was an evening performance.

Raga Raga walked up to them, and the Gor Mahia jersey man looked at him, his eyes dry and beady from staring into the heat haze.

Agak waved Raga Raga in a welcoming gesture.

He said to the Gor Mahia jersey man: “This is jaduong Raga Raga. Japuonj na e thum. My teacher in music.”

The Gor Mahia jersey man’s soft face lit up with a warm smile, his eyes disappearing into the folds of his eyelids with gratitude. “Ma nyaka nene,” he said. “Japesa Piere Obam. Waruaki Kisumo ka. Welcome to Kisumu.”

“Agoyo erokamano. Thank you,” Raga Raga said as he shook hands with all the men in the huddle.

Agak then spoke to the Gor Mahia jersey man, motioning Raga Raga. “We played together in Victoria Kings. From him, I learnt everything I know today about music.” To Raga Raga he said, “This is Juma Banja.”

Raga Raga looking keenly at the man. At first, he scared Raga Raga a little; he was so very much not like a benga music promoter at all. With the tight-fitting Gor Mahia jersey, he unquestionably didn’t look the part. He was heavy, tall and smelled of money, a lot of it. He seemed to use hand scissors for haircuts, and he looked like he shaved randomly. One suspected his five o’clock shadow appeared at noon. He was a bit gruff, loud, and graceless. That kind of man. A man who provoked strong feelings. At an advancing age, he had kept himself well.

Raga Raga said, “Un ema uketho benga Kisumo ka. You’re the people killing benga here in Kisumu?”

To which Banja answered, “Wan ema waloso benga Kisumo ka. We’re the people fixing benga here in Kisumu.”

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 demeanour, 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. A gut feeling told him that he would soon make some money again, enough to get him out of the financial mess he was snarled up 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.

Banja began with, “So the King of benga heeded our call and came.”

Raga Raga made an ah-it’s-nothing gesture. “It’s a dirty job but some has to do it. Thirty years ago, Odira Jombo called it evil music. I stared off as a boy with sweet dreams, but now, after all these years, with nothing to show for it, I’m tired.”

Quite modestly, Banja began by talking about his business. He was exporting cold-stored fresh Nile perch fillets to Europe and the USA, and he supplied stationery and stuff to the Government’s various ministries. He also owned a large poultry farm near Kiboswa, some fifteen kilometres 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 “Ee. Ma to e en. Yes. This is it. Yawa, to koro?”

Agak said, “Don’t you want to see the amp?”

“Sure.”

The amp was brought. As he was taking the cover off, Raga Raga was thinking: This was a Fender Stratocaster, the axe 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 a 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. I’m Raga Raga, I’m Homa Bay born and bred and probably the last of the benga greats. Some guitars play some styles better than others, but with good tuning, all can be made to sound good in the hands of a master player like me” —He tightened the G-peg and plucked the strings, played a quick D scale as if to wake the new guitar— “I think you should know that it doesn’t matter which guitar I grab, I come off sounding good.”

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 the deal.”

“Why don’t I play a set with Tetemeko tonight? Then we can talk about all this tomorrow.”

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 style like soukous, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Ask yourself why soukous or even Congolese rumba is alive and vibrant yet afrobeat 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, synthesisers 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 the 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 with this, no problem. I will find somebody else.”

Raga Raga swallowed. He growled. A little fish bone hung in his throat. He had heard this tired yarn over and over since 1978. People had said (newspapers had wrote) 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. That (heck!) this is 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 foolish fearlessness.

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 I’m ready to take risks with my money, that’s the deciding factor. People make things happen, people like you and me. 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 on 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. I cannot take any liberties with the music.”

Banja sat back and spoke schoolmarmishly. “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. The 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. We’ll make music history. Don’t take too much time, though. Let peace and love reign. There isn’t enough grass to grow the cow. There are new cows. The food is getting cold.”

Banja gathered his jacket and bag, gave him a conspiratory wink, and exit without a backward glance, leaving the old benga master to digest the shock of his life.

This guy has the music circuit, Agak had said. The money, the connections. What have I got? Victoria Kings... the band. Benga. The craft. The talent. The music. The commodity.

Enough to make his future take off.

It put his career on the launch pad.

Juma Banja and his money. Money. The magnet.

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 to jam. 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 your guitar sound can make a woman cry. The band listened attentively and followed his instructions with devotion.

The approaching evening was like a relief as the daylight dimmed and the sun scorched its way down to the ground and took the heat with it. At last Kisumuans could cool out and breathe. Tetemeko was warming up for their performance. in the heated space, forty or fifty people were chattering, drinking, smoking, laughing. Beer bottles and glasses were tinging and pinging, and going thsss when bottle tops were yanked off.

Raga Raga walked in, and stepped up majestically. Beer fumes, human sweat and tobacco greeted him. Awela had the familiar Kenya Breweries bar and human toil smell. People gave him standing ovations. There was a chorus of greetings and whistles. “Japesa Piere Obam,” they cheered. “Osiep Collela Mazee. Owadgi Apiyo Sungu Ndege Okalo Abota!” Someone thrust a beer in his hands.

Someone stood in front of him and introduced himself. “I’m so-and-so and I say you are the best bengaman. Better than Collela and Owino!”

“Thanks,” said Raga Raga, “I do my best. Let’s play benga now...”

Brandishing the Fender, he was helped up to the stage. It was vintage style benga all those stuffy hours performing in the tiny stage of 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 racket 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 perfect second rhythm. As he played his passion on the frets, he felt heart-jeeringly in tune with this youthful band led by Agak, the 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, his eyes closed, his nostrils wide open, and his hands gesticulating. Raga Raga felt gladness melt his heart to the point he could scream.

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 it couldn’t have been better for an old master like Raga Raga. More bar party wavered in the stirred-up air; streamers and other assorted hanging beer promotional things lightly danced, too. 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, 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. Anything for a quiet life for mzee. Anyhow, being a benga guitar player would go well in a guy’s favour. But here in Kisumu, it could be a damning condemnation!

The men in suits dished out money and asked for their favourite songs.

‘Amolo Piny Pako Te’ by D.O. Misiani.
‘Solea’ by Dr. Collela Maze.
‘Weka Waka’ by Omore.
‘Apidi Nyar John’ by Odongo Agwata.
‘Parie Ndalowa Auma’ by Odongo Agwata.
‘Ochola Doctor’ by D.O. Misisani.
‘Asembo Piny Maber’ by Osito Kalle.
‘Dunia Mbaya’ by Princess Jully and Jolly Boys Band.

The music got sweeter. Beer got sweeter. Bodies got sweater. The air grew smokier. The bengaman fended off a dehydration and by midnight, he was close to puking and passing out from sheer exhaustion. He plucked the sixth string and left the note lingering note in the air. It was like a bolt bolted. In the applause, there was love. He detuned his guitar and packed it.

The audience paid him in warm applause. The applause subsided. A sweating Agak opened the buttons of his shirt and blew air on his chest to cool himself. He leaned into the mic and dispelled the Raga Raga spell with a flutter-by of words. “I thank you all for coming and thanks for my sensational teacher Raga Raga for being our guest tonight. Tomorrow night, make a date, he’ll be here again to play benga.”

Late in the night after the show, he sat slurping his pint of Tusker and smoking SM. Agak Onjiri came with more beers. He sat and handed Raga Raga the envelope of money. Raga Raga put it in his pocket, and told him what Banja was plotting.

“Put me out of my misery,” he said.

To his horror, Agak was not surprised. He put an Embassy into his mouth and reached out for the burning cigarette in Raga Raga’s fingers, used it to light his. He took a puff and said, “Be careful Japuonj, Banja is bigger than you think. Check him out, and you will be surprised to know who the man is.”

Raga Raga sulked. You can add that he scheming, self-serving and manipulative. Like all music promoters. I hope to God I’m wrong.

Agak continued. He has the resources to make or break you. Forget about classical benga, let’s make some money and give benga the facelift it deserves before ohangla and rumba smokes us out of business.”

Raga Raga held in smoke, then sighed it out. “You’re biased.” He thought of what Dr. Collela would do. “If Colly had lived to this day, would he waft in on such a wave of ridiculousness?”

“I’m afraid not. Ask anyone including Oluoch Kanindo and you will be told that Colly was a great borrower. An experimentalist per excellence. Don’t tell me you don’t know this and you’re a follower of Colly. Owino Ja Shirati was even a greater borrower. It’s only Omore who played benga without foreign influences.”

“You vouch?”

Agak stage-whispered, “You bet. Do or die.”

In a nutshell, you’re part of this. Stupid. “This was your idea, I gather. Why didn’t you discuss with me first?”

“Tact.” Agak drained his beer bottle. “I knew I wouldn’t convince you. You are my music teacher. Like a bee in a honey hive.”

In another life, I’ll smot you. Raga Raga sighed through his nose. He looked at his watch: 12:58. “What now?”

“Basically, give birth to something new. We need you before benga perishes in the wake of ohangla and rumba that our people now play.”

We need you. Who? The art? The people? The moneychangers? The music business was full of hyenas, sharks, creeps, and site-hawks... long kilometres on the road in the sun. You walk into a studio to record a song carrying with you a downing feeling that nobody will listen. Artists were the victims; often the losers.

God give me strength. Raga Raga wiped sweat from the back of his neck with a soiled handkerchief. The air felt static, close, the way air feels at the end of a duct end. He clicked his tongue and said, “De abed gi pesa gik ma kamagi ok dayie otimre ne benga. An aol adhi od Ayuka anindi. If I had money, I wouldn’t allow such things to happen to benga. I’m going to Ayuka’s house to sleep.”
Agak held up his glass. “Let’s driiiiiink,” he sing-songed.

They drunk. To sorrow. To doubt. To worry.

It was well past one in the morning when he got to the woman’s house. She was up, waiting for him.

“Iriyo Ayuka Toti?” he chided the woman. She was a moody cow with tongue like a razorblade. She carried with her her coarse manner, her nasal voice, her crooked smile, and, most of all, her wild sexuality. She was his match, a bit younger; as big as he was... his size. A bit stronger than him. She had a typical elderly Luo woman’s commanding voice, buzzing like a bee trapped in a bottle. “Be ing’eyo kaka Nyawita gi Obunga rach in? Do you know how dangerous Nyawita and Obunga are?”

“Donge abiro gi taxi. I know the security situation of Nyawita, I came in a taxi.”

“Mm. Taxi to ang’o? Ma Nyawita! Taxi my foot! This is Nyawita, for your information.”

“Ayuka to kare itimori nade? Why are you misbehaving?”

“Atimora nade nade? Me misbehaving? An ok adwar ni gimoro otimre ni ka mondo monde ni owach ni an ema anegi. If something happens to you, your wives will say I killed you.”

“Yaye Ayuka. Please.”

“Ang’o? Ang’owa? What?”

“Itedo ang’o, Atoti? What did you cook for dinner, baby?”

“Mano kende e gima inyalo penja, piere dongo ni. Ai e wich teko ma nono. Iyudo na pesa? Is that all you care for, you big ass man. Stop being arrogant. Did you get my money?”

Many times in the night as he lay next to Yukabeth on the narrow bed, he made humble jaunts to the bathroom where he’d lean against the wall and sob into his hands, releasing his despair with anguish and hopelessness. The words sounded in his ears. There isn’t enough grass to grow the cow. There are new cows. Now he knew what that remark meant. All fretted out, he would regain control, and splash his face with cold water, and return to bed quietly to avoid waking the woman. Poverty has never been a new thing in the life of benga artists, it’s normal. Many men who created benga died paupers. The existing ones were impoverished and lived in pathetic conditions. Up till now, he had been content to live that way. But now, he was faced with a challenge: to make a transformation in his principles and change benga music radically in exchange for money. This called on him to betray the loyalty benga had invested in him so faithfully for so many years.

He woke up at five with a bad headache. The pain was so bad that in his dream, he could feel the pounding and hear it too. It was so loud that he couldn’t hear the person he was talking to in his sleep (his first wife Ajeni nyar Obado, Nyar Sakwa). Then he woke up and mama yo.... it was bad. So Yukabeth gave him some Paracetamol she had in the house. He fell asleep in her strong arms, his mind running in circles. He experienced the familiar excitement and the nervousness that making an album brought. It was not about writing songs: writing songs was as easy as the junior crossword. The demands of this engagement were not acceptable, might not just work. His allegiance to benga music—as it should be played—was paramount. As an artist, he knew that he couldn’t change it. He was vulnerable; to him, art was above ordinary mortality.

At sunrise, when he walked out of the house with a plastic cup to wash his face outside, a Peugeot 504 was waiting. Banja had arranged for him to be picked and taken down to Otit Mach Promotions and sort out some details. He shared his predicament with no one, and the next few days no one noticed the misery of the old master whose world was caving in around him and was being forced to abandon his principles and participate in creating fusion benga in the quest for money.

 

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