This wasn’t just any ordinary concert. It was a celebration of the life and legacy of one man, Job Seda, popularly known as Ayub Ogada. The Kenyan musician was barely recognized in his own country until his death on February 1st 2019. Other than playing Kothbiro on repeat in our houses and radio stations, we needed something more to remember him by. Thankfully, nyatiti stars and friends of Ayub organized a free tribute concert to honour the forgotten legend.
Wednesday 27th February. By 7 pm, the Alliance Francaise garden was so full you could barely find an empty seat. The “late comers” had to sit on the cold stairs, spilling over to the dancefloor where Bomas of Kenya dancers were supposed to perform. All these people were brought together by a man whom many had never met but were touched by his soulful Luo music.
To know the mysterious man better, we watched a short video Remembering Ayub which is part of a Ketebul Music documentary. In probably his last recorded interview, Ayub mentioned he was born in Mombasa, moved to America with his musician parents, then studied primary and high school in Nairobi. He was exposed to music from an early age and picked up many contemporary instruments along the way. But it was when he was part of African heritage band that he bumped into the nyatiti and his life changed. Playing the traditional instrument from his Luo culture, he felt instantly connected to his roots.
He learnt how to play the 8-stringed lyre from traditional players in Western Kenya. Then he flew it all the way to the UK. It was on the London streets where he was found playing it and received an invitation to play at WOMAD festival in 1988. The festival’s founder, Peter Gabriel, was so mesmerized by his heartfelt performance he invited Ayub to Real World Studios. And that is how they recorded his debut album En Mana Kuoyo (It is Just A Sand).
Ketebul Music’s director Tabu Osusa also shared a few snippets of Ayub’s private life with us. He recalled visiting the Kenyan musician at his home in Donholm and finding him surrounded by street kids whom he fed and housed as well. He wasn’t just talented, he was human too.
Throughout the next 3 hours, we encountered artists who had been inspired by Ayub Ogada - the first Kenyan musician to put the nyatiti on the global stage. He also changed the original style of playing the instrument from the ground to his lap. This has allowed women such as Atisanna and Judith Bosire to play it easily. It was once a taboo for women to touch the nyatiti, let alone play it.
G-Master Masese played the larger Abagusii equivalent that night at Alliance Francaise, the obokano. The most unique act was Guys Like Us, a group of young teenagers singing pop/rap music while playing nyatitis and traditional drums. Ayub would have been proud of these kids making traditional African music sound new, just as he did. To succeed internationally, he had to play the nyatiti in a distinct way. The art of survival.
Rather than being a melancholic night, the tribute concert turned out to be a wild celebration of authentic Kenyan music. The ecstatic crowd danced to the beat of the ohangla drums, the benga guitar, the shrill orutu and melodic nyatiti. We also cheered on the energetic Bomas of Kenya dancers with their traditional costumes of feathered headgear, sisal skirts and African print outfits. And some revellers joined them to break their own legs.
All this time Luo musicians such as Boaz, Ezekiel, Walter Koga and Oduor Nyagweno sang songs of praise to the Kenyan legend. A characteristic of true African music. Mbeere singer Papillon honoured his mentor with the soulful tribute Ayubu while playing one of his original traditional instruments. Unfortunately, one of the most anticipated performers of the night - Suzanna Owiyo - did not show up.
Daniel Onyango, the originator of the tribute concert idea, and Makadem who helped push the idea did something special. To close the concert, they performed covers of their Ayub favourites Ondiek and Kothbiro. It was my first time ever hearing Kothbiro live. Its ethereal magic was still present in the air that night.
In a recorded iinterview at his home base in Kisumu West, Ayub also performed his most famous song with the nyatiti proudly on his lap. And urged the cameraman to sing along with him as music has always been a community project. And naturally, we found ourselves chanting aah-ahee-ahee at Alliance Francaise. His charisma came alive in that short clip. It felt like he was right there with us at that moment.
Even though Ayub passed away at 63, his spirit lives on. Not only through his timeless music marked by his final album Kodhi with Trevor Warren but also the authentic Kenyan musicians who played the kamba nane that night. They will never forget him. As Daniel Onyango echoed, the best gift we can give the nyatiti legend is to embrace and celebrate our African culture. Just like he did.
“Every time I play a song, I give you part of myself. So eventually, I must die because I have given you everything.” - Ayub Ogada