In part 1 of this two part series Alexander Ikawah takes us through campaign music and what it says about us, who we are and where we are. Look out for part 2 next week.
Each political season campaign trucks drive around town blaring music as frenzied youth dressed in campaign merchandise dance in, on, and around them. You might imagine that the choice of what music to play is critical. Inevitably, some songs rise to the top of the pile and come to embody the message of one or the other side of the campaign. In the period preceding the 07/08 election, the song that had come to occupy that spot for the opposition was an ohangla hit called ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ by Onyi Papa Jey. It is a magnificent song. Magunga Williams captures it thus:
“His song “Raila-ODM” did not become a favourite simply because Raila Odinga was currently the heartthrob of the nation, most favoured to win the 2007 election and highly likely to become the 4th Commander-in-Chief of the Kenyan forces. No. Well, maybe in a small part this was also a factor. But to give credit where it is due, this was not just a song. This was a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream that Luos had longed for, for nearly 40 years. A presidency.”
And indeed the song is epic in scope, covering a multitude of Raila’s achievements but particularly the struggle for constitutional reform embodied by the orange movement. It attempts to rally all the coalition’s allies and acknowledge their support. It urges calm in Kisumu(Beduru mos) and features a soccer game in which Jakom scores the winning goal.
This year, the airwaves are ruled by Onyi Jalamo’s ‘Tibim’ a song you have probably heard. I intend to discuss it because it is the most popular, however, there is another song perhaps more deserving of the limelight that I shall discuss too. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ by Amos Barasa. The former appeared on youtube as a grainy video that quickly became viral. As of now, two versions of the original have a total of about a million views. It is the noisiest tune on the streets at every NASA event, the campaign song by popular demand. The latter is a more musically and lyrically complex traditional song by Amos Barasa that made its debut early this year. The most popular youtube version had a modest 271,206 views by the time I was writing this article but I intend to discuss it as well because it is, by my judgement, the best composed of the lot this year and the closest in scope and emotion to Onyi Papa Jey’s classic.
I also wish to discuss something else, the disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. These campaign songs are undeniably crucial to the political process and yet they operate in some lesser media space, occupying the airwaves of local radio stations and emerging to seemingly surprise the national media who then do inadequate and token analysis of their meaning and significance, confident that after the season, they shall be irrelevant once again. A cursory understanding of the music scene suggests that these musicians are largely invisible to the media in the period between elections and then if their song becomes a hit, suddenly become news. And the media often neglects to do its due diligence in covering and discussing their role and impact. It is as though there is a caste system in the music world and the election season presents the only chance for a certain group of musicians to achieve national relevance.
In a news story aired this April, Ouko Okusah declares that this season’s hit song ‘Tibim’ is, “one of the lousiest piece of music ever produced in this millennia.” He proceeds to denounce its lyrics as being empty and reeking of substandard creativity. In particular, he singles out the word ‘tibim’ whose meaning he does not explain. He declares the video pathetic as well. He is only half right about the video, but he is dead wrong about the quality of the song. He looks at the video but he does not see what it shows. He hears the music but its meaning is beyond him, so he assumes there is none. And he marvels at the ‘masses’ dancing to the song all over the country. Ouko Okusa is no stranger to ohangla, I am tempted to wonder what it might be that made him miss the meaning of this song, hiding in plain sight. And in this case, in plain lyrics. He ends his story with no insight into the song, and no reasons given for the insults levelled at another’s art. A professional attacks another professional’s work with no reasons given?
Okusa is not alone. Magunga went on to write this after we spoke,
“…every time Raila has offered himself for an election a theme song has to be composed. I cannot remember who sang what in 2013. It was that obscure. In 2017, Onyi Jalamo just gave us this useless arraignment of verse with no meaning whatsoever; a 7-minute waste of time that merely rides on a catchword, TIBIM, invented by former SONU Chairman, Babu Owino. NASA (the song, not the coalition) is, at best, a pile of fermenting garbage. That NASA (the coalition, this time) even chose it to be a campaign anthem is a tragedy. That jingle is so bad it can cause brain decay.”
I wish to shed some light on the song in question and perhaps in so doing, offer Ouko, Magunga, and any others like them a chance to come to a different conclusion about the song. A small service in literature.
Jalamo is singing about what he perceives as the country finally agreeing to unite behind Raila’s presidency. This is precisely the same thematic content that Onyi Papa Jey had tackled with the more acclaimed ‘Raila Kar Chakne’ from the 2007/8 political season. The mood of the song is celebratory. For those who remember Gor Mahia’s unbeaten streak in 2013. And the hashtag #Giniwasekao (we have already taken this thing), Jalamo’s song is in the same vein. A pre-celebration/encouragement message. It is rooted in the Luo culture of ‘pakruok’ –praise giving- to celebrate and encourage heroes, leaders, teams(e.g. sports), and I am sure in the past, armies. It is a cultural song, in the ohangla genre.
‘Tibim’ is not a nonsense word. It has onomatopoetic meaning. It describes the sound of something being struck. A point hitting home. A final blow. It evokes the emotion of triumph after struggle. A striker might be described as hitting the winning shot ‘Tibim!’ and subsequently scoring. Dholuo has words like that. Words with onomatopoetic meaning and Jalamo uses several in this song. ‘Tialala’ might describe the sound of a veil being torn. ‘Riaaa’ is an exhortation. You may shout ‘Riaaa!’ to your hunting dog to encourage it to catch the game you hunt. The bulk of the song is made up of lyrics that name a politician and request the replies ‘tibim’ and ‘tialala’ from participants.
Raila tibim. Tibim!
Wetangula tibim. Tibim!
Obado tialala. Tialala!
Perhaps Ouko does not know but these words had already found use in the political process well before Onyi Jalamo borrowed them to use in his song. They were already being used in campaigns all across Nyanza in precisely the way that Onyi uses them in his song. I was home in Migori for the party nominations and Obado was ‘tibim’ in the red corner, Ochilo was ‘tialala’ in the other. The people Ouko Okusa observes dancing know precisely what the words mean, however repetitive and mundane they sound to him. Onyi Jalamo’s song is deeply relevant to its ohangla audience and that is a mark in favour of its quality.
We often criticize contemporary music based on perceived moral content. Jalamo does not moralise. He does not pontificate. He does not beg you to vote for NASA. He simply celebrates a victory that he wishes to sing into existence. His lyrics are clean. He points out a few of Raila’s finer points.
‘Amolo Odinga, gik ma itimo dongo. Ikelo Democracy.’
Amolo Odinga you do great things. You have brought democracy.
To those who may accuse him of buttering Jakom’s behind, I ask you, are the lyrics untrue? Does Jakom not count among his contributions the very recent and hard-won struggle for a new constitution? Is that not a great thing? And is Onyi Jalamo not entitled to his interpretation of events?
The women leaders of NASA are celebrated equally. He devotes an entire verse to their praise, some names he mentions repeatedly.
Gladys Wanga. Tibim!
Amilo Gesagesa. Tibim!
Again the song scores. In comparison to most recent local hits, even crossing over to the side of gospel, such recognition and praise of women leaders is without comparison.
The song makes a point to be ethnically inclusive, mentioning leaders from all the different parts of the country that NASA has secured alliances within. All the NASA principals are Tibim. Joho is Tibim. Muthama is Tibim. This too is a point in the song’s favour.
It is not a posh composition by any means. One can discern from the sound that it was not produced on a large budget, but it did not need to be. This limited budget is perhaps what Okusa is noticing with the quality of the video. In fact, I do not fault Onyi for the original video quality. I pointed out that Okusa was half right about that because the cameraperson took really bad shots. Onyi Papa Jey’s classic was not the best shot of videos either. These political hits never are when they first appear. They are spontaneous, reactionary, expressions of a groundswell of emotion. The emotion Okusa fails to observe in the dancing masses shaking to NASA.
It is not a perfect song either. Not all of Tibim’s lyrics are happy and celebratory. There is a line, casually dropped but ominous where Jalamo sings, ‘ma kata kochuno to wadonjo gi balangewa’ – If needs must, we will climb in through the rafters.
It is a veiled threat. If Okusa wants something to fault the song on, this is what I would submit as a fault. At the NASA rally on Saturday, this rhetoric was reiterated by incensed politicians on the podium in front of a mammoth crowd and international media. I disagree with this threatening rhetoric. I wished for Onyi Papa Jey’s classic with its more level-headed ‘Beduru mos’ message but unfortunately, this is not his season. A more mature artist, he was wise enough to warn of violence without threatening it.
In the meantime, Jalamo has realized the potential of his song and there is a new Tibim video out with slightly better production quality and more Swahili lyrics than the original. Jalamo wants more Kenyans listening. I would suggest that Ouko revisit this artist and both versions of this piece of art and do another news feature about it except this time, to treat them with the professional courtesy they deserve. NASA(Tibim!) is probably the most nationally significant piece of music that will be recorded in Kenya this year.
Amos Barasa’s ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ is a humble giant of a song. It is composed with traditional instruments and features Barasa plucking on a litungu as a talented orutu/wandindi offers counterpoint for the lyrics all through and his band backs him up. It is not a big budget production either, but the video is creative and ambitious.
In an interview on K24, he explains the lyrics a little and it is clear that he did not intend it as a NASA hit. Music is alive however and even though it bore a more general message at composition, its meaning has evolved and its key lyric ‘Bindu bichenjanga’ –things change- has found application on the campaign trail and resonated with NASA supporters from Western.
This political season, the Western alliance seemed to present the hardest challenge for Jakom to secure. Seasoned and advanced politicians had to be brought into the fold. It was hard fought but eventually, it was achieved. ‘Bindu Bichenjaga’ hints at the feelings among the electorate in Western that might have motivated the region’s heavyweights to lay aside their own ambitions and back Jakom.
At last Saturday’s rally at Uhuru Park, it was the second most popular tune blasting from the campaign trucks and vans after Tibim. In the video, Barasa seems to track the story of the country, pointing out different things that have changed over time and offering them as evidence that change is inevitable. This desire for change, if the song reflects it correctly, is what consolidated the Western region behind Jakom. ‘Bindu Bichenjanga’ is to the people of Western and NASA what Onyi Papa Jey’s song was to Jakom and Nyanza. In Magunga’s words, “…a soundtrack to the coming to life of a dream.” But whose dream?
WHOSE MUSIC, WHOSE DREAM?
Earlier, I had mentioned a disconnect between two types of voters and two types of musics that the campaign period reveals. I like to refer to these groups as ‘the ground’ and ‘the elite.’ It appears to me that these two groups are as distinctly separated as conflicting tribes. It seems to me that these groups have different musical cultures. ‘The ground’ is rooted in cultural musics, languages, and identities that are often missing from the national mediasphere before election time. ‘The elite’ value and seek national and international identification and acceptance and consume music in ‘national’ or foreign languages such as English. NASA leadership, if they had been given a choice, would not have picked Jalamo’s Tibim song or even Bindu Bichenjaga. They had repeatedly chosen Helena Ken’s ‘Mambo Yabadilika’ for official events and rallies. The NASA principals were announced to this song. A song in Swahili, a national language. Ouko Okusah’s critique of Tibim’s quality is an elitist critique. The ground doesn’t care for video quality. They consume the music from the speakers of radios, whatsapp groups, and roadshow trucks. They choose songs that best represent the emotion they feel, and if that song is missing, they sing it.
Suzanna Owiyo composed her own NASA anthem, an attempt to achieve the same feat as Jalamo. She isn’t the only one. In the run-up to the vote, NASA anthems have proliferated online as musicians from all genres toss their hats into the ring. There is a Kamba NASA anthem, a ragga NASA anthem, a ghipuka NASA anthem, a Benga NASA anthem, a Kalenjin NASA anthem, and there will be more. None of them is produced with stellar quality, but all are popular and widely shared online. This art has not been solicited, it is happening on its own. These artists all see a ground ripe with listening fans and are eager to endear themselves by paying homage to the party. They are betting their futures on NASA and Jakom. Nothing like this is happening with music on the Jubilee side. This is significant.
It is also troubling. It hints at the lack of support and opportunities for independent artists in the country, especially those performing in local languages. It highlights the magnitude of the challenge that candidates who offer no cultural or populist affiliation face in the current political paradigm. And it also highlights a failure on the media’s part to adequately and consistently represent all in their coverage and programming. A debate about the place of local languages and cultural music in the national mediasphere is long overdue.
At Uhuru Park, everyone danced to these local language, cultural songs. Despite the differences in language, they seemed to be unifying factors, not divisive ones. Everyone shared the emotions these songs carry, in the hundreds of thousands. The feeling of being part of the same emotion with so many, it is powerful. It is powerful enough to sway votes and to change minds. Nothing is a better barometer of the sentiment on the ‘ground’ than the music that the ground is singing and dancing to. The IPSOS and SYNOVATE polls may have their numbers but in the musical polls, NASA is winning by a landslide. They say politics is fought and won at the grassroots, ‘the ground.’ I believe the musical polls are a far better barometer of the sentiment on the ground than any opinion poll. If you wish to know what the ground thinks of the presidential candidates as they head to the polls this week, just listen. You will hear Tibim! And Bindu bichenjaga.
Alexander Ikawah is a writer and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. His work has been published in magazines Jalada, Kwani? and Lawino.