Joseph Kamaru: Kenya’s answer to world’s renown artists

Joseph Kamaru [Photo: Courtesy]

Every generation has an iconic artiste, singer, writer, griot or poet. Unfortunately, not many of the would-be world’s greatest artistes become recognised in their own lifetimes.

For many, it takes the irony of the Grim Reaper’s call for their genius to be acknowledged.

Joseph Kamaru, an artiste who spoke truth to the people in power, died on October 3. In his lifetime, he was fortunate because the powers-that-be listened to him.

In March 1975, when the country was undergoing serious political turmoil following the assassination of populist Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki, Kamaru composed a commemorative song for the legislator.

In the song, Kamaru gloomily crooned: "Andu a Kenya tondu Kariuki ni akua, arutitwo magego na maitho, na ti kuiya kana kuragana; mutigaite thakame niundu wake... rekei Ngai arute wira wake... rekei Ngai arute wira wake... (People of Kenya, because Kariuki has died, with his teeth extracted and eyes gouged out, though he was neither a thief nor a killer, please do not shed blood because of his death… Let God do his will… Let God do his will…)."

Many Kenyans expected that Kamaru would be arrested and detained without trial for such an explosive song, or be 'obliged' by the powers-that-be to compose a 19-minute, 32-second praise song as happened in Zaire regarding Franco Luanzo Makiadi & TP OK Jazz Band’s 1984 song ‘Candidat na Biso Mobutu.'

Spoken language

Instead, Kamaru managed to use his prowess in the art of cryptic spoken language to duck the bullets of political retaliation. Despite the anti-establishment songs he composed during Kenya’s trying political moments - the death of Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki - he managed to effectively orbit the complex world of post-independent African politics.

Indeed, nothing illustrates the enduring allure of Kamaru’s music better than an incident during a State luncheon in State House, where he was one of the key performers.

As he exited the stage, First Lady Ngina Kenyatta unobtrusively requested that Kamaru get back on stage to perform another of his classical numbers. And as always, he did not disappoint.

Listening to Kamaru’s songs, one discerns an explicit message with an unmistakeable moral clarity on politics, marital life and human rights.

It was perhaps because of this unmistakable moral compass that Kamaru’s artistic prowess survived and thrived from the days of Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, through his successors, Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and now, Uhuru Kenyatta.

In his tribute to the late Kamaru, Uhuru said: “It was a blessing for us as a country to have had such a talented artiste who played a big role in promoting the Kenyan brand of music. Indeed, we will miss his educative music, which was unique in many aspects.”

However, like many other prodigious artistes, Kamaru’s greatness was never recognised as much as it should have been in his lifetime.

In retrospect, the complexity, intricacy and sophistication of his musical compositions can only be compared to artistic works of the likes of Wole Soyinka, Paulo Coelho and Kahlil Gibran among others.

Worldwide fame

But unlike these renowned artistes, Kamaru never gained worldwide fame. Despite his genius with words - it is not for nothing that cultural expert and analyst Joyce Nyairo described him as one of the best poets of our times - Kamaru never got the kind of worldwide eminence he so much deserved.

He composed more songs than many of his contemporaries, sang about social issues long before they became catch-phrases of the day for civil society groups here and abroad, and trail-brazed political causes at a time when it was not prudent to take such risks.

Although Kamaru did not die a rich man, his legacy is arguably richer than his worldly gains. In his musical career spanning 53 years, he recorded more than 2,000 songs. To put his artistic output in perspective, consider the following statistics:

Nigerian author, poet, essayist and playwright, Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde (Wole Soyinka), one of Africa’s best known artistes, has penned 31 plays, 13 essays, five memoirs, three short stories, two novels and produced three movies in a career spanning 61 years. He won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature; the first African to be so honoured.

Artistic works

Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has composed 31-plus books over 44 years. Coelho’s artistic works have won him more than 30 awards.

Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist, Kahlil Gibran, who died in 1931 aged 48, had some of the most profound writings of all time but did not gain much recognition until decades later, when countries, among them Lebanon, America and Canada (where he lived) were falling over themselves to give awards, build monuments and name streets in his honour.

Yet, despite the fact that Kamaru did not gain worldwide fame or get his hands on untold riches, he made our lives much richer culturally, socially and politically. Fare thee well, Joseph Kamaru. You came, you saw and you conquered.

Mr Njoka works for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government

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