By Stanley Gazemba
He learnt to play the drum-set by banging on his mother’s cooking pans, plastic water barrels and kitchen table. When he later graduated to the live stage and discovered he was shy in front of a live audience he quickly hid his shortcoming behind his guitar. Meet Kamau Karongo, the man who rose from a cheeky village boy full of curiosity in Gachie to become an award-winning gospel musician.
The people of Gachie on the outskirts of Nairobi may remember a village lad who once got on stage at a crusade at Kinoo Shopping Centre and thrilled everyone with a stellar performance at the drum-set for one hour nonstop. This boy, who has since gone on to conquer the world beyond his village, was reluctantly drawn into music. After the day’s labour in the village coffee plantations his mother would come home and practice music after the household chores were done. She was learning to play the guitar, tutored by a Congolese musician called Emmanuel Chachuna who attended their village church. As they played the popular gospel songs at the time like Cha Kutumaini Sina, Karongo would be encouraged to join in. But he was very reluctant, opting to go out and play with his friends.
Gradually the curiosity got to him, and he started accompanying them by knocking on the table. It is the death of his mother in 1999, during Karongo’s final year in High School, that proved the turning point. All this while he had had his sights set on becoming a tour guide after school, but he now realized he had to complete his mother’s mission. Karongo clearly recalls that day when he sat at a drum-set for the first time at Kinoo Shopping centre. He was in Class Eight. Chachuna, who had sensed the young man’s talent, had dragged him along. The village church had just acquired new instruments and there was no one who knew how to play the drums. Karongo took his seat at the drums and played for an hour. The bishop and all who had turned up for the crusade were very impressed. Slowly it stopped being a fun activity and Karongo started taking the drums seriously. He also started trying his hand at the keyboard. After his mother’s death he graduated to the guitar, which he says is his most favourite instrument.
Slowly people started taking note of his music, and he started getting gigs. He was invited to perform at Egerton University, Medical Training College, Nairobi, and in various high schools around Nairobi. “I have found that people yearn for live music,” he said in an interview at the Christian God Gift Restaurant on Tom Mboya Street. “We do not have bands which can perform for two hours straight.” During his weekly live performances at the restaurant The Waiters Band backs him. The band is made up of Joseph Wahome, the drummer, Mark Ngige on keyboard, David Mwangi on the bass guitar, Fred Mudasia on guitar, and David Kibera, David Kasika Munga and Shiro Karanja on vocals. Karongo’s big break came at the 2004 Kipawa Talent Search held at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church, Valley Road. As a village boy coming to perform at a major concert in the city Karongo admits he was intimidated. Big names in gospel music at the time were lined up to perform, and he honestly didn’t see a chance for himself.
Nonetheless he gathered courage and stepped on stage with his guitar. And to his big surprise a rapturous roar greeted him from the audience. Apparently word had gone round in the village that he was performing at Kipawa, and unknown to him his Gachie village-mates had mobilized and turned up to give him moral support. And that is just what he needed at the time. Some other thing happened that evening. He discovered he was terribly shy in front of the large city audience. With all eyes on him he had to think first. “I decided to hide the shyness behind my guitar.” He did just that and played his best, to the delight of the audience. When time came to declare the winner his home-fans were certain that he had taken it, going by the response of the audience. However he had to settle for second place, which wasn’t bad either.
Finally his star was shining. He was quickly booked to appear on Hope FM, KBC and other FM stations for interviews. By this time he had a number of his own compositions, and got a chance in 2005 to record with Steve Ominde at Soul Child Records. Sponsors came aboard, and he was able to record his first ten-track album, ‘Ngoro Yakwa’. His first big paying gig was organized by Citizen TV’s Kubamba Krew at Nairobi Baptist Church. Thereafter they started rolling in, with him curtain-raising for gospel Star Kirk Franklin at Nyayo Stadium during his 2008 tour. Although the response to his first album was encouraging he took a long hiatus, causing some of his fans to think he had abandoned music. In 2009 he was nominated for the Atlanta-based Talanta Award. He competed in the Non-US-based category. He was voted the non-US-based male musician of the year. The video for Mungu u Mwema off his Ngoro Yakwa album also won the Short Film award in Joplin, Missouri.
The victories saw him perform in seven states, mostly in churches and private functions. The shows were arranged by Talanta’s Maggie Waruri and Fred Obare. He had worked with Obare on some of his songs while he was still based in Kenya, and now that they had linked up again in the States they decided to get to work in Obare’s well-equipped home studio. It is most of these recordings that formed his second album Umetenda. The response to his second album was encouraging. Karongo says he has his eyes set next on a wedding album, which is still in the works. If the crisp acoustic quality of Umetenda is anything to gauge him by, he certainly has a bright future ahead. His is a refreshing sound in a market flooded with hastily-cobbled electronic music.