Ayub Ogada, the legendary Kenyan musician, who popularised traditional African melodies around the world and was a composer of note for movies, passed away earlier this month. Alan Donovan, who first recognised his talent more than 40 years ago, pays tribute to his long-time friend and collaborator.
For 40 years I have worked closely with the legendary Ayub Ogada, who co-founded the African Heritage Band with me in 1979. It was a great shock to wake on the morning of 1 February and hear of his passing at his home in Kisumu.
For the past seven months I have been organising the Gala Night of the Century for the launch of the magnificent double-volume opus, African Twilight by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, on 3 March, when 400 selected guests will take the train from the Railway Museum in Nairobi to African Heritage House.
Ayub Ogada was to open the show with his famous song, Koth Biro (The rains are coming in the Dholuo language). Fernando Anuangu (former dancer for African Heritage and Rare Watts, now in Paris) is to dance to Ayubu, a tribute to Ogada written by his protégé, Papillon.
I first met Ayub Ogada (then Job Seda) as he was coming down the steps of the Conservatoire of Music opposite the National Theater, Nairobi in l979. I was looking for musicians to accompany African Heritage on its tours to Europe, and go around the world with its troupe.
I realised I needed a musical group with a complete African sound and repertoire, who played African instruments, as African Heritage was the first organisation in Nairobi that held shows with all-African models, all-African fabrics and costumes and all-African jewellery.
Job had been performing with his guitar and drums with a group called Black Savage, which was getting a lot of press coverage. I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he would consider forming a new musical group which would feature only original music with African instruments.
At 3:30 that afternoon, he had moved into the African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue with all of his instruments and equipment and I felt this was an omen for both our futures.
He soon put aside his guitar and started taking lessons on the 8-stringed Luo instrument, the Nyatiti, which I had given him and which was to become his longest lasting ‘partner’ – it was Ayub and his famous Nyatiti, with which he was to travel the world.
The African Heritage Band soon became known as East Africa’s leading musical group and their concerts in Nairobi were sold-out events. Their regular Saturday afternoon gigs at the old African Heritage Garden Café on Kenyatta Avenue (where the I&M tower now is) often attracted fire marshals as excited fans spilled out onto the streets.
By 1986, the band had broken up, and its members fanned out into the world. Job Seda (by then known as Ayub Ogada) took up residence in the UK, where for a time he played his Nyatiti in the subways and streets to survive.
But he soon became a musical phenomenon, when the likes of Peter Gabriel took him on a world tour with WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Music Festival, and he recorded his first album, En Mano Kuoyo (Grains of Sand in DhuLuo).
Paying tribute to Ayub, Peter Gabriel writes on his website: “His was a prodigious talent and when he was on, he could mesmerise anyone and everyone within his range with his sensitive and melodic Nyatiti playing, accompanying that legendary gentle and hypnotic voice.”
Armed with his Nyatiti, Ayub then went on to conquer the musical world. He played for a while with a UK band name Taxi Pata Pata, toured with famous Japanese fashionista, Issey Miyake, and performed at the ‘African Renaissance Show’ in South Africa.
But his most recognised claim to fame is the music he composed and performed for the 2005 film version of John Le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. His song, Dicholo, plays a major role at the end of the film and was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination.
Ayub’s music has featured in numerous other films and TV shows, notably in Buffalo Soldiers, I Dreamed of Africa, T-Shirt Travels, The Caretaker, Hamilton Mattress, Into Africa, and in television commercials for Guinness Stout and other international brands.
Not only has Ayub’s music featured in many movies, but he has also acted in several movies, the first being Out of Africa, in which he played the gun-bearer for Denys Fitch-Hatton (Robert Redford in the movie).
He has acted and worked as a location manager in Death is Part of the Process, Kitchen Toto and The Colour Purple (Oprah Winfrey’s signature film, which also included African Heritage model Susan Auma). It should be noted that two of the world’s most famous models, Iman and Khadija, also came through African Heritage.
Sadly, there will be a gaping hole at the African Twilight show in March, while the surviving African Heritage Band members and Papillon take time to remember him. Yet it will be a celebration of the life and music of Ayub Ogada as well as the end of an era for African Heritage in Kenya. African culture twilight! NA