Kidum, the quintessential African musician. He sings in Kirundi and Swahili. His songs cut across ethnicity, languages and countries. They are songs whose tunes are expressive. Simple but seductive. Colorful yet subtle. And the lyrics…woven together by a veteran of the art.
I first saw Kidum performing live about a year and a half ago at Kengeles, Nairobi West. When Kidum is on, vehicles run out of parking space and the seats are filled by men and women who are eager to have a good time. Men and women who are dating, secretly dating, or looking to start dating. Kidum’s songs call for having a partner in present or in mind. But if not, they’re not the kind of songs that discriminate, on the contrary, they’re inclusive, they call for your attention, for your ear and for your feet to move towards the dance floor.
Late last year, I watched him perform at Le Palanka in Lavington. Seeing as this is Africa, there were the usual late comers. Someone must have whispered to a group of seemingly upwardly-mobile ladies that Kidum and his Boda Boda band play at Le Palanka on Thursdays, and, out of their FOMO, they must have somehow Ubered their way through the Nairobi night to catch about three of his last performances.
With a glass of wine and a friend, we watched as a lady walked up to the stage, said something to him, made him blush (or simply made him very happy) and managed to convince him to sing two other songs. These were signature songs that had already been performed, but this was Kidum, and no one in the audience had an objection.
That, is Kidum: easy-going and humble. However, as jovial as he may often seem, his demeanor must not be misinterpreted for a lack of hardship. Kidum has been through incredibly tough times. His younger days consisted of a reality that many will only ever get to read about. When we met at the extremely elegant, and particularly convenient Eldon Villas furnished apartments on Ngong Road, Kidum opened up on what it was like fleeing his native country Burundi, finding happiness after divorce and the fulfillment of living his musical dreams.
Is it “Kidum” or “Kidumu?” I heard it might be the latter…
It’s both. Most people call me Kidum but in Burundi they call me Kidumu and in Rwanda, Kidume. But the meaning is all the same.
The meaning being?
It refers to a 20 liter jerrycan.
Okay…and in the context of your name?
I was born fat, neighbors came to congratulate my mum and they told her, “You’ve got a kidum baby.” And it stuck. But my full name is Jean Pierre Nimbona.
Kidum, you have fans all over Africa and the Diaspora too, does it surprise you how many fans you’ve earned?
No, I’m not surprised. Music is my calling. I’ve been doing this since I was 10, like the late Michael Jackson. I’m used to singing before people and making them happy by now. And that translates into fans.
Do you sing for the money?
Not at all. For me, music is my passion. It’s life to me. The money is secondary.
Would you ever consider trying something other than music?
I tried playing football when I was young, and people said I was fairly good, but I never really had the passion for it. In this world, you may find yourself in an office, with a very nice job, but there’s something else you’re itching to do. Something you love doing. And for me, that thing is music. I’ve learnt that passion is key to a fulfilling life. Passion can be everything.
Your songs are mostly geared towards love, why love? Why not sing on politics or life in general?
I do sing about some of those things, it’s just that here in Kenya, people discovered me through love songs and they thought a new guy had arrived in town. But I’ve been here since 1995 as a refugee. In fact, the song that got me discovered in Burundi was a political song. I was advocating for peace and encouraging reconciliation. The song made me serve as a peace maker.
How is that?
During some of the politically trying times in Burundi, the song pulled people together when it was impossible for politicians to pull people together. I managed to do it.
How did you end up leaving Burundi for Kenya?
Music was the answer. My father never entertained the idea of me having anything to do with music. I was to go to school, get a degree and become something like a doctor or an engineer. This was only so that he could say among other parents: “My son is a doctor.” I was forbidden, severally. But when the war in Burundi broke out, he had no choice. He said he didn’t want to see me take part in the rebellion or joining the army, so he said: “Take your drums and go. Go and play your music.” And I left Burundi for Kenya via Tanzania.
Well, as I was trying to find my way to Kenya, what I saw in Burundi…(pauses)…what I saw…I can’t even tell you within the time frame of this interview. It’s an entire book. But in brief, I saw so many things. I saw how people can be animals in a very short time. I saw how people can loot someone’s house including the roof. I saw things. Human beings can really turn into something else.
Did that experience change you?
It did. It’s a bit impossible not to be changed after all that. But I think what really helps in such situations is the culture where people go to church on Sundays. And when they listen to love songs on the radio. Things like that help to calm things down. But…human beings really can become animals in a matter of seconds.
That violence is a modern day reality in various countries is sad, isn’t it?
It is sad. It’s very sad. And the things is, if you did an interview to ask some of these people why they’d engage in these activities, they wouldn’t have an answer. Then you wonder: is it spiritual or what exactly is it?
Do you think people can change?
Definitely, I think they can, especially through teachings. And mentors. We need willing mentors in our society. We need people who can see the best in others and encourage them. Most people are simply doing their own thing. They’re trying to somehow figure it all out, yet there are others who’ve gone before them. Mentors who could guide them.
What else could be of influence to society?
The media. The media is a powerful tool. And depending on how it’s used, it could either influence a country in a very positive way, or a negative way. But in all honesty, I really still don’t get it, and perhaps I never will. I don’t understand this spirit that overwhelms people and gives them this need to attack and exterminate others. One day they are all living in harmony, and the next day, they are not. It’s terrible.
What would you advise a current refugee who dreams of becoming like you one day?
Right now, in refugee camps, there are people who will become doctors, and scientists and musicians. What I’d tell them, is to keep tapping at what they know they are good at. Know who you are, know what you’re good at and keep working at it. Don’t give up. When you keep knocking, eventually, a door opens.
The Boda Boda band, how long have you had it?
With the same members or do the members of the band change?
Some members have stayed and some have left. But you can’t stop people from leaving, it’s part of life. The most important thing is to know your identity and what you’re about, so that whether or not people leave, your identity remains the same.
How many children do you have?
Five. Very soon I’ll be having grandkids. (Laughs)
How many grandkids do you hope to have?
As many as I can get. (Laughs again)
You’re divorced from your first wife, what’s your advice to those in relationships?
My answer to this will be based on the fact that I’m a Christian. And I’d say, don’t choose yourself a partner based on what you think will work. Don’t do it. Let God do it for you and trust that he knows best.
And when a relationship doesn’t work out?
Let it go. Find a way to move on. Don’t force it. It’s like a donkey, you can’t really force it to do what it doesn’t want to. If it’s not working, it’s just not working. Let go.
Are you happy with life now?
Ah, as you can see, I’m very happy (smiles broadly). I am happy. And I don’t wish my former partner any harm. She’s the mother of my children and I wish her well.
How do you unwind when you’re not on the job?
I farm. And I also go to Nyayo Stadium to run. I try and run when I can
Last words for your fans?
People imagine things about Kidum and they come up with stories. But I’m Kidum. This is the real Kidum. Don’t listen to what they say, listen to what I sing.