After 20 year sojourn in America, kenyan band, Jabali Afrika, returns home

Nimetembea sijamuona msichana kama Aoko…

imetembea sijamuona msichana kama Aoko…

This is one of the most famous lines in arguably Jabali Afrika’s greatest song of all time, Aoko.

Teenage Kenyan music fans — and most certainly those in their early 20s — may not resonate with songs by one of the continent’s most iconic Afro-rock jam bands, but the journey by the legendary ensemble reads like a fairytale.

Teenage Kenyan music fans — and most certainly those in their early 20s — may not resonate with songs by one of the continent’s most iconic Afro-rock jam bands, but the journey by the legendary ensemble reads like a fairytale.

After bolting out due to unresolvable differences, former members of Kenya National Theatre (KNT) Dance Troupe formed Jabali Afrika on February 12, 1993.

Justo Asikoye, Peter Mutua, Josek Asikoye, Evans Chagala, Victor Savana Elolo and Robert Owino threw in the towel to chart their own way, but one would wonder why this powerful troupe split even after making a serious musical impact in the country and beyond.

Justo Asikoye, Peter Mutua, Josek Asikoye, Evans Chagala, Victor Savana Elolo and Robert Owino threw in the towel to chart their own way, but one would wonder why this powerful troupe split even after making a serious musical impact in the country and beyond.

“We wanted independence, freedom and space to express our creativity in a more profound manner. Our decision to break away wasn’t that easy because we had already established ourselves at KNT, but we had to make a decision anyway,” says Justo Asikoye, 48, one of the most recognisable faces of Jabali Afrika.

The name ‘Jabali Afrika’ was birthed at a meeting the splinters held at a rock within the KNT precincts. And one of the most daunting aspects of starting something new is the possibility of failure and it was no different from the new music outfit.

“There is this big rock just outside the Kenya National Theatre auditorium where we held meetings most of the time and when the time to break-up came, we decided to name our band after the rock. That rock (jabali in Kiswahili) is still there to date. Sometimes, the strongest resistance to starting something new comes from the resistance to change. But if you have a routine or ways of doing it, then you are on your way to win,” Justo tells Spice.

Jabali Afrika, arguably the first band to print a compact disk (CD) in Kenya, flex their muscles and slowly made inroads musically across the country. In just six months after its formation, the ensemble was already performing in some of the biggest music events around. In 1994, their freedom and independence started to bear fruits when they got an opportunity to travel to Sweden to perform in three cities; to be precise, Stockholm, Norrköping and Linköping.

It was during the Sweden trip that the band learned a lot about music and copyrights.

“Immediately after jetting back from Sweden, we received a cheque from our hosts and we had no idea what was it for, until they told us the money was for royalties from our concerts there,” says Justo, who by then didn’t know royalties were the sums paid to copyright holders when their creations were sold, distributed, embedded in other media or monetised in any other way.

THE DREAM

They say if you dream getting awarded, it is a sign that you are going to be part of the winning pact. Jabali Afrika had a dream to carry Kenya’s flag to many high places. Though to them, winning people’s hearts was a victory in itself a factor that helped them win the Carnivore Star Search Competition the same week they returned from Sweden.

The competition was the biggest event in the country then where the winner walked away with Sh30,000, among other prizes. Against all odds, the band won the fiercely contested battle against music heavyweights Ted Josiah, Eric Wainaina, Pete Odera and the late Sally Oyugi, among others.

Josek says: “Despite our Sweden tour hangovers, we did an amazing job and wasn’t surprised when Jimmy Gathu, the event emcee, made the big announcement.”

From that moment, things started falling in place for the group, which had been nicknamed ‘Osibisa Band’ due to their forceful music influence in the country then. Osibisa Band is a Ghanaian Afrobeat band that was founded in London in 1969 by four expatriate African and three Caribbean musicians. The group was famous in London, across Europe and major cities in the world.

During our interview, Justo took me back to 1979. Alan Donovan, the director of the African Heritage had formed a band named after the famous art institution. African Heritage band was made up of some of Kenya’s best musicians of that time, among them the late Ayub Ogada, Gido, Samite and Jack Odongo. They were known for their finest African rhythms enriched with soul and jazz. However, the band did not last long, breaking up just a few years after its formation. Soon after the break up, Donovan was on a mission to sign new band members.

“He saw us perform with a troupe called Danjo Dancers and immediately fired the Congolese band that had taken residence at the African Heritage base. In fact, Donovan signed us on the sidewalks of Kenyatta Avenue. After getting signed, he promised he would take us to a European tour, but we didn’t take it seriously. We were skeptical about it because it was just a promise. Donovan had no assurance about it too,” Justo recalls.

AMERICA CALLS

The promise became a reality not long after, in 1995. The band was off to Europe for a month and thereafter to United States. In Europe for the first time, the band performed in cities such as Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Leipzig, Vienna, Valden and Berlin. After the tour, the group didn’t return home, but flew over to United States.

“We informed our girlfriends back in Kenya to move on with life because we were to take the longest time possible before we could come back home. Ha-ha-ha, ” chuckles Joseck.

It was challenging settling in a whole different new country for the young Kenyans, they remained defiant. However, it reached a point the ‘center bolt’ couldn’t hold anymore weight.

Justo says: “I’m grateful to our elder brother Luke Asikoye who gave us accommodation in New York and supported us kindly for six months before we could land our first gig. In reality, we were starting from zero.”

After the six months they left New York for Pittsburg, California, in search for greener pastures. However, as they settled, band politics erupted. Some members were already losing patience and started getting frustrated for the lack of musical progress. Peter Mutua and Evans Chagala left the group to pursue other interests. The band made a decision to replace them with Dumisiswe Bhembe.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

In 1996, few months after settling in Pittsburg, their biggest breakthrough finally took shape: “There was an award winning TV show that was so huge in America called Mr Rogers Neighbourhood. It was a children’s programme with global viewership. We were not properly invited, but when we took to the stage, everybody loved what we showcased,” says Justo.

After that show, Jabali Afrika recorded a lot of bookings, averaging to 250 every year that followed. They got opportunities to perform in all American States except Alaska and Hawaii, sharing stages with artistes such as Joseph Hill, Maxi Priest, Buju Banton, Ziggy Marley and other musicians from Bob Marley’s lineage. Jabali Afrika proceeded to release eight albums in US, with the single Aoko from the Journey album becoming their greatest hit ever.

After spending 20 years in America dotted with varying experiences, Jabali Afrika finally decided it was time to go back home.

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