When I was eight years old, I visited my favourite barber Boni’s shop at least once a month. This was the only way I could get the latest issue of Supa Strikaz. Back then, when you could get a clean shave for 20 bob and the blue notes were still in circulation, Boni would buy the Sunday Nation, pull out the comic, and give it to me for free when I arrived. For a long time, he was my hero.
Thanks to Boni, I spent countless hours immersed in the twists and turns of the rivalry between Supa Strikaz and Invincible United. The comic series was the inspiration for a lot of my early art work, and even today the easiest thing for me to draw, if called upon, is a bicycle kick with the sound effect “ker-blam!” duly attached.
Thing is, as much as I loved the Supa Strikaz, I actually had another reason to visit Boni’s Kinyozi frequently. You see, this was a time when the adults in my life thought that a young boy like me was only smart when he was clean shaven. And although I wasn’t particularly pleased with the haircuts, the silver lining was that while I sat waiting around in the shop, I became acquainted with the music of Bob Marley. Since I was too young to butt into the grown ups’ conversations, I passed the time partly eavesdropping on the local gossip and football banter, and partly concentrating on the lyrics to joints like Buffalo Soldier, Get Up Stand Up, and Iron Lion Zion.
Afterwards, during the week, I would find myself chanting, “Iron! Like a Lion! In Zion!” or “Buffalo Soldier, dreadlock rasta!” under my breath or out loud whenever I could. It was not odd to find my friends and I at break time jogging on the spot, fingers in the air, heads bobbing, singing, “You can fool some people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time… get up, stand up!” We felt so powerful out there jumping around chanting the rhythms, and the fact that Bob’s melodies are just so catchy, made it so much fun. You can imagine how devastated I was when I found out a few years later, when I was about 12 years old, that Bob Marley was dead—and not even recently dead but that he had been dead for decades. I was utterly shaken.
Until then, I had just assumed Bob Marley was still with alive and recording the reggae music I had come to love so much. While I was upset, it also struck me as interesting how all through I had been consuming the music of a dead man, and yet every time his crackling mellow voice and simple melodies came on the speakers, he was as warm and alive as a spring afternoon. Later on still, I would learn of The Wailers, and that it was always Bob Marley and The Wailers. This was a coming of age moment for me because I realised two things that day: that no one achieves greatness alone, and when you’re gone your art will immortalise you.
I suspect my city dwelling folks will find this hard to believe, but early in the morning, just before the sun rises, birds chirp, tweet, and sing to usher in the new day (I have half a mind to descend into a rant about light and noise pollution, but I shall save that earful for another forum). Now, if you were living in my household as a kid, you probably wouldn’t hear the birdsong; first, because school mornings are inherently stressful monsters that need to be fought and vanquished, and second because the house would probably be rocking either to the sounds of Kool & The Gang urging you to Get Down on It or Tina Turner vexed at What’s Love Got to Do With It? That’s right: Classic 105 in the morning with Maina & King’ang’i and their kasheshes, good times and great hits.
For birds, as it is for humans, there seems to be a natural inclination to start the day off with a song– an expression of music. In fact, the first cries after birth can be considered musical if you care a lot for the newly born, or if you’re a predator in the wild.
According to J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and the father of fantasy, music is everything. In The Silmarillion, not only his life’s work but also one of the most difficult yet ultimately rewarding texts to read, Tolkien narrates the beginning of time in the first chapter, Ainulindale: The Music of the Ainur.
As Tolkien describes the beginning of time in The Silmarillion, before everything else was made, there was Eru (who is known as Iluvatar on Arda or Earth) who created the Ainur (Holy Ones) out of his thoughts. I reflect on this chapter often, and I simply cannot get over the fact that Eru, the most powerful being in the universe, came into existence in a void and his first thought was music.
Tolkien writes, “Then Iluvatar said to them: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will know that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled in you the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’”
Unlike Tolkien who was a devout Catholic and admitted that The Lord of the Rings was “fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” I am not religious. And yet, while I have read many creation myths, they’re all just stories to me but every time I read The Music of the Ainur, it is special and feels spiritual.
My philosophy, which I borrow from Oscar Wilde, is that life imitates art more than art imitates life, and Lionel Lassiter from The Viewing, in Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities says, “We are talking about music. Music, man. All art can only aspire to music.” (At this point I would be remiss if I did not implore you to watch the terrific horrific masterpiece that is Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities. You can jump in on any episode, but be prepared for a sick twist that’ll leave you grateful that you’re on this side of the fourth wall.)
When music is honest, it is always transcendental and connects us meaningfully. When musicians involve us in their stories and performances, the music becomes true. For instance, it’s not a party without Boomba Train, and as soon as E-Sir makes the announcement that, “Tumekuja kuparty/ DJ hebu weka traki/ Tukule hepi halafu tufungue sakafu,” everybody’s hands automatically go up and we all can’t wait to go “Uuuiiii! Boom boomba!” Everybody’s hands go up because it’s our song. After all, as the King of South C himself said, “Cheza kama wimbo ni wako.” It’s our song, it’s our party, it’s our King’s word. E-Sir lives on as long as we keep dancing to Boomba Train.
To put it further into perspective, despite his musical genius, Queen lead vocalist Freddie Mercury’s most indelible performance was at the Montreal Live Aid show as he engaged the crowd with the famous “Ay-Oh” improvisation. Even Fela Kuti, the pioneer of Afrobeat and arguably the greatest musician to ever live, featured to devastating effect the call and response theme in his songs Water No Get Enemy, Zombie, Gentleman, and Mister Follow Follow and used his band, the Africa 70 to mimic the crowd response. And even when Fela doesn’t explicitly call you out to dance, the Africa 70s jazzy horns, high tempo percussion, and swaying bodies will nevertheless coax you out of your chair to join the celebration.
In the 1982 documentary Fela Kuti: Music is the Weapon, Fela says, “Music is a spiritual thing, you don’t play with music. If you play with music you will die young. You see, because when the higher forces give you the gift of music… musicianship, it must be used for the gift of humanity.”
Since life imitates art, and all art can only aspire to music: from Tolkien we learn that music is divine and great beauty is awakened when we harmonise our diversity into song; from Freddie Mercury we learn that we don’t need to say much to connect (a simple ay-oh will do); from Fela Kuti and the Africa 70 we learn not only is music spiritual and revolutionary, but that we should always sing and dance together, like we did when we were children; and From E-Sir, we learn that sharing is caring, so if you’re not at the party, umetupa mbao.
Abraham Maslow, introducing the concept of the hierarchy of needs, suggested that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving to satisfy other more advanced needs. Maslow’s theory assumes people have an innate desire to be self-actualised, and he places self-actualisation at the peak of the pyramid as the ultimate goal. I, however, disagree with Maslow’s hierarchy since I have found in life, as in art and music, in the pursuit of happiness there is no hierarchy; people’s only desire is (or should be) shared actualisation. Singing alone is fun, but singing with others is divine.
And from the eternal music of the late greats – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer, I remember the words of the old round song: All things shall perish from under the sky, music alone shall live, never to die.