- Mrs. Number One
Reverence is recognisable. You see it when it is there, and here, as the MC does his best to calm the crowd, to plead for order so that the show may start, you can see it. Reverence. It’s written all over his face, so much so that even as he speaks into the microphone, doing something he has done countless times, it looks like it is his first time.
You would think that the other man on stage would need an introduction, and you would be wrong. The MC pleads for calm, bounces up and down the stage full of excitement. He fails to calm the crowd, after all, he is wasting their time, lengthening the space between now and the main event. Finally, he gathers himself, places his free hand on the shoulder of the man standing next to him and holds his excitement for long enough to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Mûrîithi John Walker live on stage!”
Mûrîithi John Walker is unassuming in all the ways Mugithi artists are unassuming. Which is to say, even in his roomy brown suit, he still stands out. Under his coat he is wearing a white turtleneck with a silver chain. Unassuming. As the MC calms the crowd, Muriîithi John Walker holds out a thumbs-up and smiles. He has a beautiful smile. He flashes his njaromi and shyly looks at his guitar. The MC walks off the stage and he starts.
Mrs. Number One is the first song in the night’s set. It is an indictment of love’s discombobulating ways, and at the same time an ode to love.
“We no we Mrs Number One, girlfriend ya Walker. Nîwe ûtûmaga ndî wa 45 ngaigwa ndî wa 25.”
(“You are the Mrs. Number One, Walker’s girlfriend, you make me, a 45 year old, feel like I’m 25 again.”)
He looks at the crowd as he sings and you see it once again, the thing we saw in the MC’s face. It is also there in Mûrîithi John Walker’s eyes and smile. Reverence.
- Nyau Îrîaga Mbîa.
I first learned of Mûrîithi John Walker in 2020. It was after a conversation with my grandmother where I realised that my “language wires were crossed”. Whenever I tried to talk to her in Kikuyu I ended up speaking Spanish. It’s not my fault that the word for “what” is “qué” in Spanish and “kîî” in Kikuyu. So in my attempt to practise and uncross the wires, I decided to listen to Kikuyu music. A few songs in, I heard Nyau Îrîaga Mbîa and, forgive the hyperbole, my life was changed forever. I texted my friend the link to the song and the lyrics. Wendo nî ûrugarî wîingeraga ngoro / mûndû akahiûha mwîri wothe nî kûimangini (“Love is a warmth / that enters the heart / until one’s body is hot / just by imagining it”). “This is how I feel when I’m in love,” she responded. I was struck by the sheer brilliance of the song’s lyricism, its poetry, its power. I knew, right then that I wanted to know everything about this man.
Mûrîithi John Walker was born in Kianguku Village, Kirinyaga County, to Jacinta Wanjikû and Assistant Chief James Magûrû Mûrîithi. He had three siblings. In 1982, he enrolled in Nyanja Primary School and later Thumaita Mixed Secondary School where he was inspired by the late Benga Maestro Sammy Muraya. Everyday after school, he went to Jomo, a village guitarist, who taught him how to play. He practised what he learned by playing at his local church, Kirimugu Anglican Church, where he grew into a skilled guitarist.
In 1994, having sat his KCSE exam, his father, who was then the area chief, passed away. Mûrîithi John Walker, with the help of his uncles, would do his best to fill his father’s shoes and help his mother take care of the family. Over the next five years, he played guitar at Shamrock Hotel, before he joined Ndurani Boys’ Band based in Kerugoya. “As the first born, I knew I owed my family some protection and this needed money. I set out to seek money,”
Mûrîithi John Walker starts the second song in his set and the crowd goes wild with immediate recognition. Nyau îrîaga mbîa, kîiho kîrîaga ngûkû, nyota îrîa ndînayo ya wendo noo wî ûngenyotora. This is a song about certainty. ([As] the cat eats the rat, [and] the hawk eats the chicken, [so] does your love quell the longing in me). Mûrîithi John Walker’s life was full of uncertainty, but that he was a good musician and that he would use his gift to take care of those he loved, of that he was certain.
- Special Friend
As I watch this set, I wonder: Do Mugithi fans listen to the lyrics? Of course they do and that is not the right question, so I reframe: How do Mugithi fans interact with the lyrics they are listening to?
When the third song starts, nothing in the crowd changes. The dancers on the pole are still on the pole, those bent over are still bent over and those gyrating their waists against willing behinds are still gyrating their waists against willing behinds. The themes change, the lyrics suggest difference, the moments between songs, though brief, are filled with silence; and yet.
When he started playing professionally, Mûrîithi John Walker rubbed shoulders with the likes of Man Mbiuki, Man Kanyi, Man Chombo, Raphael Mathai, Man Mwendia, Tony Nyadundo – pioneers who helped him find his place in this new world. Years after he had moved to Nairobi in 1999, having grown in his career and enjoying fame and success, Mûrîithi John Walker would pay it forward by starting the Kirinyaga All Artist Forum where he helped upcoming musicians access studio sessions and gigs.
“Ûkanduta werûinî ûkandwara gîthimainî, maîini na nyeki nduru ya wendo
(You deliver me from the wilderness and onto the green pastures of your love.)
Talented Musicians and Composers Organisation Sacco chairman Epha Maina said Mûrîithi John Walker would sometimes seek entertainment deals and then fail to show up. He would then send a replacement, often a younger musician. This way, the younger musicians would make a name for themselves, and some money. “So as not to disappoint the club’s managers, Walker would show up later in the night and take over the entertainment from his seconded crooner for free, surrendering all the pay to the young talents,” Maina said in an interview with the Saturday Nation.
Towards the end of the song, Mûrîithi John Walker sings, “ûhutagia ngaigwa wega darling, ngaigwa ta ndahutio nî mûraika” and I wonder if he knew how many people’s lives he touched and if he knew that his presence felt like being touched by an angel.
- Kîrîro kîa Mama Cirû
I had never heard this song before this performance. Kîrîro kîa Mama Cirû is a fun genre-bending song that invites the listener to let go and let loose. Come, let’s play. Let’s do it as we listen to Mama Cirû’s lamentations, is the song’s request. The question I had earlier comes back and presents itself differently: Does it matter to Mugithi musicians what the song they are singing is about?
Kîrîro kîa Mama Cirû samples Murder She Wrote by Chaka Demus and Pliers. When we were children we misheard ‘Murder She Wrote’ as ‘Mama Ciru’. I think this is what Mûrîithi John Walker wants to do with the song, to take us back to that place of invention, that place, like that of childhood, where a world can be created. The song, as different as it sounds with its punchy riffs and rolling bass guitar, still sounds like Mugithi, and still looks like the man on stage. There is the serious foundational Kikuyu pop sound, brown, loose, and ever present like his suit. And then there is the experimental stuff, the turtleneck and the silver chain that says I’m here to play, to mess around and find out.
I learned of Mûrîithi John Walker’s death a year after he passed away. If he was alive, I’d ask him about Kûviûria Kûviûria, the name he gave his style. I would ask him if it was a philosophy, a way that guided his life and music, or if it was just a name he liked. Epha Maina says that it means to ‘gyrate your hips’. When the song starts, something interesting happens. Mûrîithi John Walker breaks character. He raises his picking hand and looks to the side, and in a deep voice and what I imagine is an attempt at a Jamaican accent, says, “Come again, Master DJ!” Kîrîro kîa Mama Cirû starts and the room is filled with Kûviûria Kûviûria.
It is the hook that captures the spirit of the song:
(Wooi), nî mûthee ngwethaga (I was looking for my man)
(Wooi), ndîramûkora lodging (I found him at the lodging)
(Wooi), nginya ena mûndû (He even had someone with him)
(Wooi), ni kûngua wana (He thinks I’m dumb)
(Wooi), maya nî matharaû (This is contempt)
Underneath the Kûviûria Kûviûria is a sad story of a woman married to an unfaithful drunk. Mama Cirû laments, bares her soul, and just like in Andre 3000’s Hey Ya!, she seems to say, y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.
Mûrîithi John Walker was the embodiment of Kûviûria Kûviûria, and he was also a storyteller who helps me answer the questions I have been forming as I watch his set. Seeing him enjoying himself, smiling and swaying in that knowing way, I understand that dancing is a way of listening.
- Njohi na Ahiki
Mugithi and misogyny are never too far apart. Women are often presented as untrustworthy allies, opportunistic gold diggers, and promiscuous caricatures. I will not cite examples of such songs. This is not my intention, nor the intention of what I am writing. It is also not my, nor the thing I am writing’s intention to present Mûrîithi John Walker as anything that he was not. I love this man, I love his music, I love how he writes his poetry. And I also know there are parts of him I do not know. Mûrîithi John Walker was a very private man. There are things I want to know, and many I will never know. All we have, for now, is his music.
When Mama Cirû’s lamentations come to an end, there is a short DJ scratch and immediately the sound goes back to familiarity. Mûrîithi John Walker starts: Ni getha ndirikanagie aciari ndî ithokoma, ndî maikagia kindû […] reke meetîage, na mwana wao, ndîmaheage gîtiîo nyongererwo matuko. (To remind my parents that I am working hard, I send them some money […] so that they may beam with pride and feel honoured, that I may also live long).
This is a song about honouring your parents, your responsibilities and your goals. It is about working hard and making the right choices. It’s a prayer to always remain focused and not fall victim to distraction. It is also a cautionary tale against women.
In Njohi na Ahiki, Mûrîithi John Walker, like most Kikuyu male singers, fails at imagining new ways of seeing each other. The refrain is the same: Work hard, stay focussed, make your parents proud, show up for your family, don’t let anything take you off your path… especially these women.
“Ndûkana reke, Ngai, ninwo nî njohi na ahiki. (Please God, never let alcohol and women destroy me.)
There are parts of him I do not know.
All we have, for now, is his music.
- Andu Mathimwo
Andu mathimwe riu! Andu ni mathimwo! Andu mathimwo biu!
- Ûhiki wî Mûrio
I asked my friend to help me translate some of the songs in the set. We sat down to enjoy the music as one should, with tea and gossip. We watched the gig together. The videos (four, twenty minutes each) were uploaded to YouTube five years ago. He was performing at Visa Place. When Ûhiki wî Mûrio starts, my friend sits up and says, “haiya, this song was sung by an actual person? I thought it was one of those ‘by unknown’ songs.”
Mûrîithi John Walker was born John Mûrîithi Magûrû. Because he loved words and he knew what to do with them, he took his last name Magûrû, which means ‘legs’ in Kikuyu, and changed it to Walker. (I insist that one should say his full name: Mûrîithi John Walker, like A Tribe Called Quest, or A Pimp Named Slickback).
When he died, Mûrîithi John Walker left 83 A4-sized pages of a handwritten manuscript titled My Life in the Wilderness of Music. He planned to retire in 2025, invest in real estate and agriculture, and market his book. It is dedicated to “my mother who is my second God, a warrior and a hero”, his family, his late father, and his fans.
Mûrîithi John Walker died on 12 March 2021. He was 45. He left an indelible mark. He will remain part of the Kenyan music landscape. He made his loved ones proud. He entertained his fans. He fulfilled his dreams. He lived a good life.