Baba Gaston: Godfather of Kenyan pop
One of the earliest rumba musicians to migrate to east Africa from Congo was Baba Gaston who led his group, Orchestra Baba Nationale from Lubumbashi to Dar es Salaam in 1971, writes WONDER GUCHU.
Baba Gaston, real name Ilunga Chenji Kamanda wa Kamanda Gaston Omer, was born on July 5, 1936, at Likasi, near Lubumbashi in Shaba Province, Eastern DR Congo.
He changed his name to Ilunga Chenji Kamanda wa Kamanda Gaston Omer after Mobutu decreed that Zaire nationals replace their Christian names with African ones.
He picked up his early musical training from a Greek pianist, Leonides Rapitis, and had a hit with “Barua kwa Mpenzi Gaston” while he was still in school.
When he was 20, he formed the Baba National Orchestre, which he took on an extended tour through Zambia, Zimbabwe and several European countries before becoming one of the first Congolese musicians to settle in East Africa in the early 70s.
Evani Kabila Kabanze, who was later to star with Les Mangelepa, sang with Orchestra Baba Nationale in Lubumbashi. The band used to travel to Kinshasa to record. According to Kabanze, sometime in 1971, because of the poor roads in the Congo, they took the Kisangani route through Kilemi which lies on the Congolese border with Tanzania. But, instead of proceeding to Kinshasa, they decided to enter East Africa, having heard of the region's superb studios.
The band settled in Dar-es-Salaam for four years. They found it cheaper there and built a strong fan base. They would cross the border and travel to Nairobi for recording. But, four years later, in 1975, Baba Gaston decided to move the band to Nairobi when they realised they had an even bigger following.
Congolese musicians have been making waves in Kenya since the late 1950s. It was the Congolese OS Africa Band that opened Nairobi's famous Starlight Club back in 1964. But it wasn't until the mid-1970s, after the passing of the American soul craze, that music from Zaire began to dominate the city nightclubs.
As a composer and band leader, Baba Gaston was prominent on the music scene in Kenya for three decades, and is considered one of the godfathers of Kenyan pop.
He sang mostly in Swahili. His tunes were hugely popular and remain evergreen.
“Kakolele Viva Christmas” (lead vocals by Kasongo Wakanema who later joined Super Mazembe) earned him a golden award ‑ selling over 60 000 for Polygram. Other memorable hits were “Ilunga Ilunga”, “Kai Kai”, and “Mayasa”.
He rarely dabbled in politics, but a praise song for Mobutu in 1983 earned him a gold disc from the president.
Baba Gaston once proudly claimed he had played with more than 700 musicians and that his band was a virtual training school.
There was another side to the statistic, however, as Hanz Kinzl, manager of Phonogram, the second biggest label in Kenya, has said, “Baba is an extraordinary person. He has this fatherly image on him, and I think it's quite genuine. In Africa you're wealthy if you have a big stomach.
If you can show that you're a big man then you are also regarded as a rich man and an important personality. Which means that he takes the majority of whatever income his music provides him with, to the dissatisfaction of the band members. Consequently, there is hardly any band in Nairobi and Kenya which has broken up as often as Baba's”.
Mounting dissatisfaction for two years came to a head in July 1976 when several members ‑ including Bwami Walumona, Kasongo Wakanema, Evani Kabila Kabanze (vocalist/composer), Kalenga Nzaazi Vivi (vocalist/composer), Lutulu Kaniki Macky, and Twikale wa Twikale ‑ split from Baba Nationale to form Orchestra Les Mangelepa. Other splits led breakaway members to Bwambe Bwambe, Pepelepe, and Viva Makale.
Names that rose to prominence with Baba Gaston include Starzo ya Esta (the force behind Festival du Zaire), BadiBanga wa Tshilumba Kaikai (vocalist/composer, later with Les Mangelepa), Mukala Kayinda Coco, Jimmy Kanyinda, Aloni Vangu, Mukala wa Mulumba Bebe, Zainabu, Pepe Mato, Yassa Bijouley (now in Mombasa, Kenya), Lisasi Ebale Mozindo, Zengele Saida, William Tambwe Lokassa, Kasongo Fundi, Kazadi Mbiya Saleh wa Bambu, Medico Bwala, Lukangika Maindusa Moustang, Lumwamga Mayombo Ambassedeur, Mukala wa Mulumba, and Tshimanga Zadios.
A female vocalist who sang with Gaston was Nana Akumu wa Kudu. She is also remembered for her singing with Pepelepe in Nairobi before joining Franco and OK Jazz in the hit song “Mamou”.
She still performs in Brussels (Belgium), backed by her husband Djo Mali and ex-Les Noirs guitarist Dieudos.
Other alumni, who have now died, include John Ngereza (who later led Les Wanyika until his death in February 2000), Shoushou (Tchou Tchou), Lutulu Kaniki Macky (a vocalist/composer), Bosho Kayembe Nyonga (who led Festival Libaku in Nairobi before his death), Tabu Nkotela Kiombwe (who died in Mombasa, Kenya, while in police custody on a theft charge).
Baba Gaston died on March 25, 1997, while living across the border in Tanzania, where he had moved since his retirement from the music scene in 1989.
He is buried at the Lang'ata cemetery in Nairobi. A prolific musician and apparently also a prolific father.