When a girl goes to school

You really need to love loud music to live in Kenya. The shops pump it out through their grills, the buses crank the base of their sound systems until your chest reverberates, work meetings will involve regular outbursts of singing, even the boda boda drivers strap speakers to their motorbikes so everyone on the street can enjoy the sweet sounds of gospel hip-hop (yes, it exists). Beyond volume there seems to be a few other things most Kenyan’s agree on when it comes to music:

  • Tanzanian’s are the best lyricists and their songs ring out with beautiful poetry from the true masters of the Swahili language
  • Dancing on your own, anywhere, to music that moves you is absolutely appropriate and accepted
  • Air guitars are played at chest level not slung low by the hips, like a cool kid bass player
  • This is not the most annoying song every created (despite it clearly being the most annoying song ever created and played approximately every five minutes on Classic 105 FM)

The final thing people seem to agree on is that Congolese music is the best in all the world. And here I’m totally on board.

Nairobi’s best Congolese bar was just round the corner from my house and at weekends the resident band would take to the stage at 8pm. With six singers, three guitarists, a drummer and several others lurking at the sides the stage was full off bling-ed up clothing (the drummer’s leather suit was head to toe diamante). Gradually the dance floor would fill with people gently swaying their shoulders while the all male line-up on stage pumped their hips in time. Franco – sorcerer of the guitar – is the widely acknowledged legend of Congolese rumba. When he died in the late 1980’s there were four days of national mourning in what was then Zaire. He is still heavily revered in Kenya too and his style widely copied by Luo musicians in Western province. And he is revered by no-one more than Patrick, owner of the best bar on Rusinga. Patrick is mainly known to his patrons by a Linghala name, his stereo only plays rumba and when we went to a club one Saturday night where the live band weren’t playing rumba he refused to dance. Many a night was spent with Patrick translating the songs for me and teaching the rituals of live rumba performance including ‘praise singing’ where the musicians incorporate the name of a member of the audience into a song; a little ego boost in exchange for a tip.

As for his favourite Luo rumba musician? George Ramogi. And his favourite album? “When a girl goes to school” or “Kanyako Osomo”. As Patrick passionately explained, George’s songs weren’t all romance. Back in the 70’s he was singing about the benefits of sending girls to school rather than keeping them at home for house work and marriage. Unfortunately, there’s still a way to go for women in Kenya with only 48% of girls enrolled in secondary school. I can’t think of a more enjoyable campaigning medium than rumba!

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