My mother’s answer leaves me disappointed when I ask her about the musician whose cassettes we listened to every Saturday morning. I want her to say Pastor Faustin Munishi because that is the story I have in my head: my mother, the weekend, chores, laughter, music, Munishi. But she says, blankly, as she goes about her business, Apostle Kyande. Her answer is correct, just not the one I wanted.
My disappointment comes from the fact that I have spent countless hours listening to songs by Munishi, lost in false memories. When she tells me that it is not Munishi that we listened to but Kyande, I immediately play Kyande’s Seremala. She is right. This is the soundtrack of my childhood Saturday mornings: the open accordion; the Kiswahili sanifu; the carefully crafted, witty, thematically astute lyrics. But we also listened to Munishi, just not as much, and many other gospel musicians. To be honest, it’s not really Kyande or Munishi that are important here, but the music that brought so much joy to my mother, so much so that I wanted to bask in it, to be part of whatever she felt when she got her cassettes from her drawer and sang along as she washed clothes or wiped a window. In part, this is about gospel music. And in many ways, one cannot speak of gospel music in Kenya without speaking of Munishi.
In the 1980s, years before Saturdays with my mother, there was, reportedly, no local gospel music. This is, of course, not true. There were singers, but not in the ways we have come to know gospel musicians or the music they make. Musicians from different ethnic communities, for example Mama Julia Lucy (the mother of Akorino music) and Kamaru from the Kikuyu community were popular in the late fifties and sixties. However, this music served a very particular audience and was occasionally censored by the government when the lyrics were deemed too political. This type of music, as well as that from other communities, was seen as too diverse, antithetical to the state’s calls for national unity.
To meet this demand for national unity and a “Kenyan sound”, choir music, or Makwaya, grew in popularity. This was fostered by several reasons including the fact that the then president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi loved choirs. Makwaya music worked because it was a unifying force in that it had regional, social, and political neutrality; and it was a welcome way in which Christians could show their devotion to God musically without resorting to the ways of the world by sounding like secular artists.
One major criticism in the early days of Makwaya music was that Kenyans were not very good at choral performance. Singers were said to be too stiff, or unable to keep the tempo (clapping was introduced to help maintain the pace of the music). It was a new genre and adjustments had to be made. However, when singers tried to make the music “African” by matching tonality or instrumentation to the different cultural contexts, they were said to be emulating pagans. The rule was simple: be Africans, but not too African. Eventually, composers and arrangers such as Boniface Mganga, Walter Ominde, Arthur Kemoli, and Raymond Wambugu rose to prominence and Makwaya music became widely accepted. It was in these choirs that certain musicians grew in skill, musicians who were not afraid to break free from the shadow of corporate performance, musicians who saw no problem with making a living from gospel music and interpreted Matthew 10:8, “freely you have received; freely give” differently. Still, there was a desire for change, and from unlikely places.
In 1986, a producer who had recently graduated from the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication and had joined the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) had a new vision for what programs should be broadcast. The producer, Karanja Kimwere, had grown weary of Makwaya music and yearned for more. He believed that something could come out of the choirs, something more than this music that came from imitating missionary practice. He talked to his superiors and requested that they create a show where a select team of musicians would back solo singers. The bosses agreed and thus Sing and Shine was born. Kimwere wanted to create opportunities for Makwaya singers beyond choir music and promote individual artistry, changing the face of the gospel music scene forever. Sing and Shine, and shortly after Joy Bringers, opened doors for artists such as Mary Atieno, Japheth Kassanga, and a singer who Kimwere had listened to at an evangelical rally at Nairobi’s Charter House, Faustin Munishi.
Faustine Munishi was born again in 1980. Raised in a Roman Catholic family, he converted to Pentecostalism and travelled across Tanzania singing and preaching with members of the Arusha Pentecostal church. He learned how to play the accordion from a member of his church and became so good at it that he broke off from the church choir and took to evangelising on his own as a one man music ensemble. As a solo artist, he composed new songs and contemporised old ones. His music was well received for being familiar, and often discussing current issues he saw in the world around him through a biblical perspective. In 1984, a Kenyan Christian group known as Jesus Harvesters travelled to Arusha on a church mission. It was during their time in Arusha that they heard Munishi’s music and invited him to perform in Kenya.
When Munishi featured on Sing and Shine, he was seen as someone who “just came from nowhere” to change the order of things. In an interview on KBC’s Living Legends Japheth Kassanga says that he was confused by the fact that Munishi sang without the choir as was the norm, and that Munishi influenced him (and other musicians) to want to sing solo. Furthermore, Munishi offered other Christian singers proof that it was possible to make a living from music without compromising on religious values. While other musicians struggled to perform solo and would only sing the main melody of their Makwaya pieces, Munishi created his music specifically for solo performance. Having performed on Sing and Shine, his popularity rose and he was invited to sing in various churches further increasing the demand for his music.
When Munishi came to Kenya, there were no recording studios in Tanzania. Musicians such as Mbaraka Mwinshehe and popular choirs such as Arusha Town Choir and Mwanza Town Choir would travel to Nairobi to record their music. Munishi, who had come to Nairobi to perform his songs, decided to stay to take advantage of recording opportunities. Having no money to do so, he did the next best thing which was to make a home recording. This was in 1987. Munishi borrowed a keyboard on which he played rhythm and bass, and sang, accompanying the music with his accordion. He would record one voice on a cassette and then dub another voice over it on another cassette. Once he was done, he took the cassette to Carl Anderson at Valley Road Studios, who tried to clean up the background noises to little avail. He however gave Munishi some production notes on how to improve on the sound quality. Munishi added a few voices, and then made ten copies which he sold. He used the money to record more tapes until he broke even. This was his first record, Munishi: Vol. 1, which featured the hit Ninyime Githeri Niachie Yesu. Munishi used the extra money to record his second cassette, Munishi: Vol. 2 which featured another popular song Niko Chini ya Mwamba in 1988.
By this time he had appeared on Sing and Shine and had produced two albums that had been received well by an audience that had been hungry for a different gospel music product. Munishi, always thinking of ways to get his music to as many listeners as possible, noticed that there were a lot of people who spent their lunch time in parks around the city. He had the brilliant idea to set up speakers and play his music. After every set, Munishi would sell his cassettes. His popularity rose further, at times selling 1,000 copies a day.
From here he produced Munishi: Vol. 3 featuring his wife Prisca Munishi in the track Waovu Hukimbia Ovyo where he admonished the weak in faith from ascribing random signs and happenings to witchcraft, reminding them that those whose faith is firm in the Lord are not afraid. Then, Munishi: Vol. 4’s Kosa ni Kosa, Munishi: Vol. 5 with Tenzi za Rohoni (Kuoshwa Kwa Damu), a deeper more traditional collection of hymns, and Munishi: Vol. 6 in 1995 which featured another popular song Namlilia Malebo, a biographical song about his childhood friend who refused to give his life to Christ and instead devoted it to sinful ways. In the same year, Munishi became a pastor. Congregants would meet at his residence and this meant that unlike other musicians who performed as invited guests in churches, he did not have to deal with limited performance time. He could perform as much as he could and with his increasing popularity (his church had grown to 500 congregants by 1996), he was able to make more music. Then came Munishi: Vol. 7 which had Adui Mpende that talked about the politics in Rwanda and the genocide that led to an incomprehensible loss of life, Munishi: Vol. 8 and finally Munishi: Vol. 9 which included the sequel Malebo Ameokoka.
I find the structural similarities between Nina Simone’s Four Women and Munishi’s Niko Chini ya Mwamba interesting and the coincidence a bit amusing. Written after the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963 that led to the murder of four young Black girls, Four Women demonstrated Simone’s ability to articulate the painful truths about being Black in America. The song tells the story of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches; four women who have been disenfranchised by American society. Similarly, Niko Chini ya Mwamba tells the story of Malebo, Pili, Tatu, and Mrefu, highlighting issues that were relevant both socially and spiritually, and how a life devoted to God can solve these problems. Through great storytelling, both writers are able to write different characters, each of them representative of a relevant social reality. Beyond that, they are able to write music that sustains the narrative, connecting the listener to the story and the message it is presenting.
Another great example of Munishi’s artistry is a video created by Tiktoker ado.shadi which has Manabii wa Uongo playing against a curated series of photos of president William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua . This video shows how Munishi’s lyrics speak across time and to different issues and individuals. The lyrics go:
Hawa ni wawili wamenipora na mimi
Mmoja ni mrefu na mwingine ni mfupi
(Waki)tembea pamoja tena wote ni vijana
Hawana kanisa kila kanisa ni lao
Wakianza kuimba utafikiri malaika
Ngoja wamalize utavisikia vilio
Madada wanalia wameibiwa pesa zao
Ndugu wanalia wameibiwa shati zao
Kaka, eeeh, jihadhari nao, eeeh
His ability to speak truth to power caused problems for the singer. After releasing his seventh album Munishi: Vol. 7 which includes the songs Usiabudu Amerika speaking about imperialism and the predatory relationships western powers have with African countries, Wanahabari Watubu addressing the complicity of journalists in the oppression of citizens, and CCM Imezeeka which criticised the then ruling party CCM causing the song to be banned in Tanzania and reportedly, Munishi received threats on his life.
Still, it is because of his courage in the face of repression that Munishi made a name for himself at a time when it was almost impossible for musicians to make a living performing solo, to a time when government censors curtailed creativity and freedom of speech. Through the years, Munishi has used his music, invoking metaphor and allegory, prose and lyric, tune and text, to speak truth to power, unafraid.
Munishi served gum at his wedding. Chewing gum. There was no food served at the reception. Every guest was given a pack of gum. While most guests must have still been surprised, Munishi had informed them beforehand. In the invitation, he made a request that instead of monetary contributions towards the wedding, guests should contribute by eating before the wedding. He also wanted to ride on a tractor instead of an expensive car. The wedding committee refused and he made a concession. It made no sense for him to spend money he did not have on an expensive wedding.
I got born again many times and backslid many times more. Most of the altar calls were at gospel music concerts. Gospel music has and will always be an important part of my life. From Sing and Shine to Kubamba, Emachichi to Juliani. The time I stood on stage in (Redacted) Boys High School rapping about Jesus to the time I shared a stage with Bahati Bukuku in Pare. From the controversy of what kudara pages za Bible means, to Ezekiel Mutua calling for the banning of Yesu Nipe Nyonyo. The gospel music industry in Kenya has gone through a lot of transformation, and I am lucky enough to have witnessed it all. Over the years, gospel musicians blessed us with their music: Esther Wahome, Rufftone, Daddy Owen, SK Blue, Gospel Fathers, Jemimah Thiong’o, Astar, Jogg C, Henrie Mutuku, Wangeci Mbogo, Christine Ndela, Kanji Mbugua, and many more. This would not be possible had it not been for the individuals who dared to dream, to do things differently, individuals like Munishi who walked so that Eko Dydda could fly.
My mother’s answer leaves me disappointed when I ask her about the musician whose cassettes we listened to every Saturday morning. I want her to say Pastor Faustin Munishi because that is the man whose music I have come to love. This is the man whose music brings me joy akin to that which I saw in my mother many years ago. When she says Apostle Kyande, her answer is correct, but Kyande did not serve guests chewing gum at his wedding.