In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Pete Larson (of the Dr. Pete Larson and his Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band), an epidemiologist, nyatiti player, and founder of Dagoretti Records, approached the late Grandmaster Masese (real name Dennis Dancan Mosiere) about doing a project on the Obokano music of the Kisii people from the Nyanza region of Western Kenya. Masese was a master of the Obokano, a traditional eight-stringed lyre similar to the Nyatiti of the Luo and the Litungu of the Luhyia. The project, which Masese had started working on by conducting several interviews in his home village in Nyamira, was hampered by a lack of funding, and soon after, his unexpected death.
I knew Grandmaster Masese well. Not only was he my neighbour at one time, he was also my comrade in arms. Masese and I were almost always broke; either waiting for payment from a gig for him, or a long-in-coming royalty cheque for me from a publisher. To fill in the dreary hours of this long wait we would find a cheap wines and spirits joint in Kangemi and pass the time philosophising over diluted kumi kumi-like alcoholic beverages of questionable taste and quality that had been manufactured somewhere in “Kariobangi Light Industries”, or the many other illicit distilleries littering Nairobi’s fissures. These drinks guaranteed an instant kick – that is if you weren’t dying or going blind – transporting you to a temporary heaven on a cloud that allowed you to overcome your short and medium term misery and the wretchedness of the present.
In our shaggy locks and side-pocketed shorts – I suppose we presented the very definition of bohemian artists living off the fat of the land – we navigated our way through the unforgiving urban space: the 1920s “moveable feast” Paris of Hemingway, James Joyce, and Picasso before they became famous, tottering on the brink of tipping over into Dambudzo Marechera’s wretched streets.
We were never once kicked out of those shabby joints, even when we ran out of cash and had to resort to cadging drinks off enthralled patrons who were happy to be in the company of “wasanii” – ghetto pseudo-intellectuals – the underground type, the ones who rarely appeared on TV or in the Sunday papers. Most of the “groupies” who would throw us free drinks were aspiring rappers and hip-hop artists who believed I was somehow connected because they had heard my name mentioned in an Ukoo Flani song, and knew that I was known to Binyavanga “the Binj” Wainaina. They also knew that Grandmaster Masese occasionally toured abroad, and so he must be an artist of some substance. They sat around us, working on their lyrics on scraps of paper, banging out a rhythm on the pub table, hoping we would help them polish their rhymes, willing to pay the “consultancy fee” in booze.
In all his interactions, Masese was always aware of his impact. He knew that many younger artists looked up to him, and while he was always willing to help where he could, Masese knew when to say no. Once, we came upon the rappers Kuni Mbichi and Magunia lounging against the rusty heap of an ancient Ford Anglia, lip syncing, two fingers dicing the air, the heavy silver crucifixes, dangling from their necks, swaying gently to an imaginary beat.
Across the street, a cameraman recorded them discreetly. I imagined the owner of the scrapyard watching an underground hip hop video shot on his property, without his consent. The rappers had once persuaded us to appear in one of their videos. They knew I was a music journalist, and Masese was, well, the Grandmaster Masese. I told them I could only work with them as a journalist if there was some distance between me and the project. As for Masese, he knew that his shadow would loom over the project, that it would be best if they collaborated rather than have him make an appearance. They were not pleased, but they knew he meant well.
I could always tell when one of the gig payments Masese had been waiting for had come through. I would come upon him in the morning, on my way to Ketebul Studio where I was working on some music projects, being carried home by his drinking buddies, his feet dragging in the dust. I knew there was not much I could offer in the way of assistance and so whenever I saw them thus I avoided them, knowing that he was in safe hands. The beauty with drinking buddies in the ghetto is that just like the US Marines in Vietnam, they never leave anyone behind. They will always get you home, even after they have emptied your wallet.
Sometimes I would accompany him to pick up his Obokano, which he would have left at some friend’s apartment in Westlands after a late night gig. We would stand in the aisle of the Number 23 matatus with the colourfully-decorated instrument. The uppity folk with their phone earbuds plugged in would turn their noses at us as they squirmed to get off the bus, probably wondering what these primitive ganja-smoking villagers were doing in Nairobi.
Then there was that one thing that irritated him, when people misspelt his name as ‘Mosese’ – that character in Francis Imbuga’s play Betrayal in the City. I never got to ask him what Masese meant, but I know that in Ekegusii language, ‘amasasi’ can refer to various things: bullets, eggs, or even radio batteries. So, maybe it was a corruption of the word, and he was in essence Grandmaster Bullets . . . or Grandmaster Sparks . . . I will never know.
For a short spell we were neighbours in Kangemi. This was before he disappeared mysteriously, and I, soon after, was kicked out of my one-room flat. Sometimes he would come over on Sunday mornings, after we had done our laundry, and we would go out and buy half a cow hoof and lots of “mlima” tomatoes – the squashed bondeka ones that the market traders had discarded – and lots of pepper.
With these, we would make hoof soup and ugali. After we had eaten, the self-styled “ghetto-griot” would tire of the crappy music they were playing on the radio, whip out his phone, and put on some obscure music that I had never heard of. There was Zawose, a Salif Keita number, or some other ethnic musician from Tanzania or Cote d’Ivoire with whom he had shared a stage on his last tour. We’d hook it up to my ancient stereo and listen as we worked our way through a bottle of hooch.
Often, when the music hit him, he would lean back on the overstuffed couch, close his eyes, hook a foot over his knee and go into a sort of trance, picking a twig of khat from the newspaper-wrapped bundle on the table and chewing speculatively. And then, suddenly, he would snap out of it and say something like, “That keyboard doesn’t belong there.” Or he would help himself to a pen and a piece of paper on my desk behind him and scribble down a line or two furiously, pore over them, and then fold and tuck away his idea into the roomy side-pockets of his shorts: the repository of his artistic secrets. And then we would relapse into silence again, lost in Zawose’s world as the hours ground by.
When the track wound out and he started shuffling through his library for another, I would mention that we were hosting someone he liked, like Leo Mkanyia, and his dad who played guitar for the legendary DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra at Ketebul, and he would get real excited, vowing to accompany me to the studio on Monday morning.
In all the times I visited his house, I never once saw Masese practising his Obokano or writing music. I never found out if he wrote it at night, in solitude while everyone else was asleep, or if all his compositions formed and stayed in his head.
G-Master was working on a project, translating his lyrics into poetry that he was compiling into a book, and he was trying to entice me to be a part of it. But I was very reluctant, since I wasn’t a poet but a prose person. Much as I enjoyed music, I was no expert when it came to writing music lyrics, which was G-master’s forte, and I found it challenging marrying the two. But, somehow, G-master believed they went together; that our different artforms could marry together. I was not sure. I would rather he had collaborated with a poet instead, because poetry and lyric-writing are both aural artforms.
Commenting in Literary Chronicles on his approach to writing in response to whether he thinks through every word of every stanza or he just writes freely allowing the words to flow, the Grandmaster said, “Free (style) is better, but (while) thinking of the (overall) plot, and the best way to present it. When writing rhymes however, you need to think of every word before you commit the crime of rhymes like what they do in Kapuka and Genge and stammer styles in Kenya. Either there is a lack of thinking about rhymes or the crime itself is a norm.”
Grandmaster Masese, who considered himself a griot (djeli) or chronicler of history, was a product of the Kwani? Open Mic project that brought to the fore previously unknown poets, writers, spoken-word artists and musicians, and which was initially staged at Club Soundd on Standard Street and at Yaya Centre. Open Mic would later move to other venues like Kengele’s in Lavington and the auditorium of the 20th Century Plaza on Mama Ngina Street. It is at Open Mic that he met and teamed up with Inkwa Dennis, Njeri Wangari and Leon Kiptum to form the Mstari wa Nne poetry collective that later disbanded after the members landed full-time jobs.
As he matured in his craft, Masese spent considerable time doing musical projects in Tanzania, which might as well have been his second home. From what he told me, he felt at home in rural Tanzania, and some had mistaken him for a local, to the extent that they even wanted to get him to marry a local lady on one of his stays. He did a number of recordings in Arusha, and was a frequent visitor to the United African Alliance Community Centre (UAACC) where he taught kids, especially girls, how to carve Obokanos as a form of empowerment. Similarly, back home he was very active in the Mukuru Kayaba community in Nairobi’s Eastlands when he was still living there.
Masese’s first album, Chaminene (Urban Griot’s Word), was released in Arusha, Tanzania in 2013 during the African Liberation Day. It was recorded with his Ritongo Afrika band featuring Nathan Okite, and produced by Herman Shekiondo for In Tune For Life (UK). Listening to him pluck the Obokano in Chaminene, you can hear the West African Kora and Mbalax music influence; it is only the distinctive buzz of the Obokano strings that reminds you that the music is from East Africa. When Rabbit kicks in with a funky groove in Taxi Driver you are reminded that you are in Nairobi, and not in the bundus of Nyamira. That is how versatile Masese was with his Obokano plucking.
His last self-titled full-length album was released on vinyl in December 2021 under Dr. Pete Larson’s Dagoretti Records. It is described as, “a unique collection of tunes that take the centuries old folk traditions of the Obokano and the Gusii people and melds them with the forward thinking ideas of some of the most singular musicians on the planet, the first full length Obokano record in history and a taste of the future of African music.” The eight-track album features Kunal Prakesh of Jeff the Brotherhood and Weather Warlock bands on guitar; Tokyo-based percussionist and sound artist Samm Bennett of UA, Haco, and Elliot Sharp bands; Detroit percussionist and member of Dr. Pete Larson’s Cytotoxic Nyatiti Band, and Dave Sharp Worlds, Mike List; and bassist and synth-player Dave Sharp, amongst other international stars.
Having carved out a sort of life in Nairobi, Masese was not welcome in his home town because he rebelled against categorisations. He refused to be perceived as a musician only, and to present himself in the ways the people of Nyamira expected of an Obokano player. Because he grew dreadlocks, he was accused of being a criminal, and that he owned a secret ganja farm somewhere. Of his experience in the village, he wrote, “(The people) walked in a manner to suggest that they were careful and concerned…. In short, the women walked holding their baskets and purses tightly as many put their pockets on constant vigilance.”
While he stood his ground, firm in the knowledge of who he was, at times it broke him. “All this time I smiled, happy because I was enhancing security, but my mood was changed when they forced me to feel guilty.” Still, Grandmaster Masese was very much a man who lived on the fringes, and who refused to conform to the norm.
In 2022, Dr. Pete Larson decided to complete the project he had started with Masese. It included a book containing the interviews he had conducted in Nyamira, an extended interview with Masese himself, information about his life, and material on Obokano music. With the project completed, and having found the musical confluence he had always sought through the Obokano in the last album he released, 2022 was meant to be the year of his breakthrough. Unfortunately, on June 1, 2022, Grandmaster Masese, legendary Obokano master, would die of cerebral malaria.