Tabu Osusa: The Making of an International Music Champion – Isaac Otidi Amuke

It is midnight on a Thursday in late 2019 when Kenyan music producer extraordinaire Tabu Osusa walks in on me at Sippers pub in Nairobi. I am having what is supposed to be my last drink for the night, but things change.

Osusa, tall and lean and spotting a shy greying goatee is dressed in black pants, a matching black denim jacket and a stylish African print shirt. Just like every other time you will see him, Osusa isn’t missing his flat hat. On this night he’s donning a pair of round-rimmed glasses with a gold frame, which I haven’t spotted on him before. I tease him that at 65, his exquisite fashion sense makes him look like an African chief.   

Osusa is accompanied by the Kenyan Benga Blues singer Winyo, arguably one of East Africa’s finest recording vocalists, signed to Osusa’s Ketebul Music founded in 2007. The pub empties out, leaving Osusa, Winyo and I facing mixologist-turned-barman Joseph Okwale. We are all drinking and making merry, before Osusa and Winyo–who seem to be coming from a late night recording session–turn the bar counter into a makeshift studio. Winyo sings his heart out, with Osusa urging him on, asking him to do one more rendition of the leading song in Winyo’s forthcoming studio album. With every encore, Okwale and I get carried away, joining in and singing the chorus, which we have now mastered. Okwale uses a spoon to rhythmically tap on an empty bottle of Guinness. It becomes a half-replica of the NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.

A fortnight later, Osusa and I are sitting at La Belle Époque, the ground floor café at Nairobi’s Alliance Francaise on Monrovia Street. Soon, our conversation becomes untenable when music from Straight Line Connection, a Nairobi indie rock/metal band gets too loud. Osusa, an avid French speaker and board member at Nairobi’s Alliance Francaise, informs me that the performance is part of ShowCase Wednesday, a monthly shindig where artists experiment with an eye on building audiences. That’s how Osusa and I, once again, make for the relatively quieter Sippers pub in Hurlingham, a hideaway we both frequent to listen to Congolese Rhumba, a musical shrine of sorts which Osusa has since christened The Church.

Manu Dibango (R) gifting Tabu Osusa (L) a copy of his album Wakafrika

Our conversation at La Belle Époque kept getting interrupted, something one learns to make peace with. It was either a call from Guy Morley, the British DJ and board member at Osusa’s Ketebul Music calling from London, where the celebrated Kenyan-Congolese band Orchestre Les Mangelepa was meant to be on tour. If not Guy, it would be George Ouma of Jojo Records, a Mangelepa associate. Guy and George are calling to convey updates on the recovery of the at-the-time hospitalized Evany Kabila Kabanze, Les Mangelepa’s stoic band leader who hadn’t travelled to London after falling ill and needing life-saving surgery, which he underwent successfully. The conversation now was, where would Evany go for aftercare. Osusa started making frantic calls, seeking solutions.

Before getting to Sippers, Osusa does a detour and drives me to ‘‘the new GoDown’’, where he’s moving office to. The GoDown Art Center, a space in Nairobi’s bustling industrial area which housed a number of art practitioners–including Osusa’s Ketebul Music for over a decade–is now being transformed into an ultra-modern, multi-storied and economically self-sustaining arts facility. With the new development underway, The GoDown has relocated to a much smaller property on Galana Road, just off Dennis Pritt Road in Nairobi’s Kilimani area. Work is ongoing, and a set of artist studios are lined up against the perimeter wall, facing a little lush green lawn. Osusa’s office will be the first one on your right. He tells me he now wants to permanently relocate his studio elsewhere. He hasn’t decided where that will be.

‘‘I remain office-less at the moment,’’ Osusa quips and laughs, ‘‘until work here is complete.’’ 

On getting to Sippers, Osusa informs me that he has just returned from Paris, having given what I later learn was a moving presentation at the 6th World Forum on Music, a gathering of the International Music Council (IMC). The IMC, I later learn, is an independent NGO-partner to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), comprissed of over 1,000 music organizations in 150 countries, dedicated to the promotion of music and development of sustainable music sectors worldwide. The meeting in Paris marked its 70th anniversary since it was founded in1949 by UNESCO, to advise the UN agency on musical matters.

Tabu Osusa (R) with musicians Jualiani (SR), Suzanna Owiyo (TR), Harsita Waters (Head of Cultural Affairs, Alliance Francaise) (TL), promoter Budha Blaze (SL) and Krysteene Savabe (L)

Osusa tells me his journey to the meeting in Paris began three years earlier on 12 September 2016, when he received a two page letter from the UNESCO mission in Paris, signed off by the Belgian art historian Paul Dujardin, who was, at the time, President (2013-2017) of the IMC. Dujardin was informing Osusa of his appointment as one of the five International Music Champions – individuals picked from across the world to each represent one of the organization’s Five Music Rights, namely the right for musical expression for all; the right for musical education for all; the right for musical involvement for all; the right for opportunities for musical artists; and the right for recognition of musical artists. Osusa was paired with the IMC’s fourth right.

‘‘I have the pleasure and honor to designate you as “IMC Five Music Rights Champion”, in recognition of your impressive record of commitment to the cause of music and its transformative power,’’ Dujardin wrote. ‘‘Your designation is motivated by your relentless strive for an enabling environment for (emerging) artists, through your over 30-year involvement in the music industry as promoter, producer, composer and band manager. Your work documenting the music history of Kenya and the greater East Africa is highly valued.’’

Osusa was in good company. The other individuals with whom he would work with in promoting the IMC’s Five Music Rights – for a renewable four year term (2016-2020) – were Cambodian musician, activist and Khmer Rouge survivor Arn Chorn Pond, Scottish virtuoso multi-percussionist Dame Evelyn Elizabeth Ann Glennie, and Egyptian musician Ramy Essam, also known as The Singer of the Egyptian Revolution courtesy of his appearances at Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The three, together with Osusa, were each tasked by the IMC ‘‘to embody the principle expressed in the Right(s) which they have been chosen to represent, and in doing so, give the Right(s) concrete and human expression.’’

Before receiving Dujardin’s letter, dispatched to Osusa through the IMC’s longtime Secretary General Silja Fischer, Osusa had a series of email exchanges with a number of individuals regarding whether he was interested, to begin with, in being one of the IMC’s Five Music Rights Champions. If Osusa’s answer was in the affirmative, the next step would be to settle on which of the five rights he was best suited for. Among those engaging Osusa was Prof. Emily Achieng Akuno, who took over as the IMC’s President (2017-2019) after Dujardin’s exit.  

Tabu Osusa (L), Benga musician DK Mwai (SL), Congolese musician Mose Fanfan of Papa Lolo fame (SR), and British DJ Guy Morley (R) at Ketebul Music

As a matter of fact, the person who had had the keenest eye on Osusa was Davide Grosso, the IMC’s Project Manager, with whom Osusa met in Rabat, Morocco, and had an extensive conversation about the IMC’s Five Music Rights. As Osusa was contemplating championing the fifth right–recognition of musical artists–it was Grosso who suggested that maybe the fourth right–opportunities for musical artists–was Osusa’s best fit. On further consideration–as evidenced in their email exchanges–Osusa agreed with Grosso’s assessment. It was as if the fourth right was tailormade for Osusa, considering his life’s work building recording and archiving (film/print) infrastructure for musicians in East Africa, going as far as the African music Diaspora and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he lived for nearly five years.  

As articulated in his Paris presentation, from the time he was in primary school in the 1960s, Osusa noticed African languages were relegated to the gutter through the classroom disk, in a system where English was forced on Africans. Once handed out to the first culprit, the disk wove its way around the classroom, joining those who forgot to speak English for a moment at the hip. The guilty parties were condemned to cleaning school latrines. To Osusa, this was a form of psychological conditioning, where that which is foreign is considered superior. When Osusa was done speaking, the audience in Paris gave him a standing ovation. During the break, an elderly Welsh man approached him, expressing solidarity against colonialism.

‘‘A Welsh gentleman came up to me to express gratitude for my making reference to the classroom disk, which they called a Welsh Knot,’’ Osusa tells me. ‘‘They too suffered the same fate under the English. My hypothesis of blatant cultural domination was being proven right.’’

That Paris experience, Osusa tells me, repeats itself throughout his travels across the world.

‘‘It is important that we tell our stories and champion our cultures and music both at home and abroad,’’ Osusa says. ‘‘That is the only way we will make a contribution to the cultures of the world, as opposed to trying to do poor imitations of other people’s cultures. Whatever we do, even if we borrow from others, let it be grounded in the richness of our histories, because people appreciate sincere cultural expression, language barrier notwithstanding.’’

Osusa’s go to citations in making his argument are Nigerian and South African popular artists.

‘‘If you listen to Nigerian music today, you will notice that it without a doubt borrows heavily from the past, be it Highlife, Fiji Music, Jùjú Music or Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat,’’ he says. ‘‘The same applies to South African popstars. If you listen to them, you will certainly know they are from the South courtesy of their sounds and rhythms, heavily rooted in their music of yore. It is that cultural uniqueness that makes people from across the world appreciate these sounds.’’ 

Tabu Osusa (L) with musicians Nick Kosovo (seated) and Fiston Lusambo (standing)

Tabu William Osusa was born in 1954 in Kanyamwa, Homa Bay County. He attended local schools, before the resident Catholic priest, Father Lodovicus Louis Okodoi, asked Osusa’s parents whether he could take the young man with him on his redeployment to Busia County. Osusa’s parents, themselves staunch Catholics, readily obliged. That was how Osusa spent the rest of his childhood and teenage years at a Catholic outpost in Amukura. After witnessing Father Okodoi’s selflessness and industry in serving the locals, Osusa considered him the highest embodiment of human virtue, deciding that he too wanted to become a priest. The downside is that Father Okodoi passed on mysteriously before Osusa made much headway. 

‘‘I was so inspired by Father Okodoi’s brilliance, courage and selflessness,’’ Osusa told me at Sippers, ‘‘and so I decided to enroll at St. Peters Mukumu Seminary, intent on following in his footsteps. His suspicious death earlier had affected me heavily, and so on learning later on that he might have been poisoned, I got completely disillusioned and abandoned priesthood.’’

It was while trying to find his footing that the 20 year old Osusa embarked on a life changing journey to the Democratic Republic of Congo, armed with nothing but the clothes on his back. Osusa hitchhiked to Kinshasa, where he made contact with Kenyan musicians such as the saxophonist Ben Nicholas. On the sidelines of his music pursuits, Osusa made ends meet by offering basic English lessons, integrating into Congolese society by conjuring a new identity, pretending he was originally from the Kiswahili speaking DR Congo–Tanzania border area.

‘‘Being a foreigner in Kinshasa was difficult,’’ Osusa tells me. ‘‘There was constant harassment by the police, and so I decided to usurp Congolese identity. That way, life became bearable.’’

On his return to Kenya in 1977, having cut his musical teeth in the Congo, Osusa made inroads within the music industry, joining the Samba Mapangala led Les Kinois band, working as a band manager. When Les Kinois wound up in 1981, Osusa and Mapangala – widely known in Kenya for his Vunja Mifupa hit – formed a new band, Orchestra Virunga, also managed by Osusa. Virunga gained notoriety in the Nairobi scene of the 1980s and 1990s, dominating venues such as Garden Square. Osusa did the same with Nairobi City Ensemble, working with the group to produce the acclaimed album Kalapapla. With time, Osusa became much sought after. This is how Ketebul, a name derived from the Luo word for drumsticks, came to be.

According to veteran Kenyan cartoonist Paul Kelemba, popularly known as Maddo, he of the Madd Madd World fame–a weekly caricature heavy newspaper sociopolitical commentary–the world is finally taking note of Osusa’s years of hard work. ‘‘It’s like building a pyramid,’’ Kelemba tells me when he and I meet at La Belle Époque, to speak with Osusa. ‘‘I have watched Tabu put in the work over the years, without rushing himself or seeking attention. The world can finally see the impressive results.’’ Kelemba would know about Osusa’s work ethic and the man’s contribution to Kenyan and African music, since other than making time to hang out most Fridays, Kelemba also sits as chairman at Osusa’s Ketebul Music. The two were first introduced to each other in the 1980s by John Obongo Jnr., renowned for the Sundowner, the nighttime music show on Kenya’s national broadcaster serenading listeners with oldies.

Working together with fellow board members–including Kenyan music journalist Bill Odidi–Osusa and Kelemba have led Ketebul in ambitious music archival projects such as Retracing the Benga Rhythm, Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits and Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest. Osusa has further collaborated with the Alliance Francaise and established Spotlight On Kenyan Music, an incubator for fresh talent. For over a decade and a half now, Osusa has travelled across Kenya in a continuous search, with a bias towards gifted artists who lack means. The project has so far released 6 compilations, discovering artists such as Makadem and Juma Tutu. Possibly out of the runaway success of Spotlight on Kenyan Music, Osusa is now working on Singing Wells, a collaboration with the South London based Abubilla Music, where Ketebul is traveling across East Africa equipped with a mobile studio, offering a rare recording opportunity for indigenous musicians of all shades and ages.

I ask Osusa what is next for him. He tells me he now wants to produce the paperback version for the Ketebul published Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music in Kenya: 1946–2016, a groundbreaking hardback 650-page coffee table book, populated with precious anecdotes and rare images chronicling the history of Kenyan and in some instances African music for an epoch. Holding its own as one of the highest quality books to come out of Kenya, Shades of Benga which revisits the Africa-wide influences of Benga musicians and producers on the likes of Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi and Cameroonian Manu Dibango, among other leading lights, has to be one of Osusa’s ultimate career highs. ‘‘I want people to be able to read the book on the move; on the streets, in matatus, at airports, everywhere,’’ Osusa tells me. ‘‘I don’t just want people to keep it in their houses as a collector’s item or for mere aesthetics.’’

Next, I ask Kelemba how Ketebul has managed to do so much heavy lifting in preserving East African music. His answer is simple, ‘‘Tabu doesn’t play around.’’ According to Kelemba, Osusa might seem all polite and soft-spoken, but when it comes to business, Osusa’s no nonsense side manifests. Kelemba narrates to me an incident from July 2014. Osusa was in charge of the Kenyan musical contingent to that year’s Folklife Festival by the Smithsonian Folkways. On arriving in Washington, D.C., one of the supporting music acts started insisting on a main slot in the tight program. Osusa told the musician that wouldn’t be possible, since the itinerary had been finalized months earlier. Incensed, the musician left for his hotel room, threatening not to perform for the remainder of the festival. News of the musician’s boycott got to Osusa.

Tabu Osusa (R) gifting Manu Dibango (L) a copy of Shades of Benga

‘‘Tabu quickly followed the guy to his hotel room and gave him two options,’’ Kelemba tells me, laughing, ‘‘to either stick to the original plan and perform, or to leave for Kenya immediately. There is no prize for guessing what the musician chose. That is Tabu’s firm side for you.’’ In such instances, Kelemba steps in to cool the waters. ‘‘There are musicians who Tabu has been really firm with to a point of them saying they won’t work with us anymore,’’ Kelemba says. ‘‘But after I explain to them the necessity of Tabu’s firmness in getting things done, they always come around. In the music business, sometimes one has to be assertive.’’

It is another late 2019 evening and Osusa and I are pulling up at Sippers. As soon as Osusa locks his car, a babyface-d, heavily built clean shaven thirty-something man jumps out of a Range Rover parked across the yard and rushes towards him.‘‘Excuse me Tabu,’’ the man says, grabbing Osusa’s right hand with both his hands. ‘‘Sorry to ambush you but I just want to thank you,’’ the man says. ‘‘My name is Didge, I wonder if you remember me from Tusker Project Fame. You may not recall but you were one of the first people to compliment me for my voice when I was recording with Tedd Josiah. Your encouragement meant the world to me. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you’ve done for musicians.’’

The reverence goes on and on, with Didge, the Kiswahili RnB sensation of the 2000s, rarely allowing the soft spoken Osusa time to speak. Osusa lets the man savour the moment, acting with the characteristic unassuming mien of an old hand, used to these sorts of unscripted flattery. Didge is soon asking for a selfie. A smiling Osusa readily obliges. Didge pulls out his smartphone, positions himself next to Osusa, and as if speaking to an audience, grins and says, ‘‘This is me with the legendary Tabu Osusa.’’ The adulation doesn’t stop here. On receipt of Osusa’s phone number, Didge makes him an offer. ‘‘I can’t wait to buy you a bottle of something strong sometime soon,’’ Didge says.

‘‘Sure, let’s make that happen,’’ a bemused Osusa retorts, before walking the remaining ten paces or so into Sippers.

Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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