The Kenyan recording industry

By Bill Odidi

This text provides an overview of the recording industry in Kenya. It looks at its historical development as well as some of the leading recording studios and labels.

Artists during a recording session. Photo: www.singingwells.org
Artists during a recording session. Photo: www.singingwells.org

Historical background

Until the late 1940s commercial recordings of Kenyan music were released on international labels especially the British company His Master’s Voice (HMV). Independent record labels started emerging in Kenya after World War II with Jambo Records owned by East African Sound Studios which later set up a pressing plant in Nairobi called East African Records Ltd. Estimates show that there were more than 40 small independent record labels in East Africa by the late 1950s. The notable labels were Capitol Music Store (CMS) that set up a studio where the early generation of Kenyan musicians like, John Mwale and George Mukabi recorded their music. Others were Africa Gramophone Service, later renamed Africa Gramophone Store (AGS), Associated Sound Ltd (ASL) and the Mzuri label owned by Assanand and Sons Ltd.

Kenya also established itself as a regional hub for music during that era as the first Congolese musicians Jean Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo arrived to record and perform in Nairobi. The two guitarists turned out to be very influential in shaping the style of music played by many Kenyan musicians in the years just before and after independence in 1963.

A major commercial recording studio named High Fidelity was opened in 1961 by Peter Colmore, a former British Army Officer, who had settled in Kenya in 1938. Colmore had set up the Entertainment Unit that traveled the country offering music and comedy during the Emergency that was declared by the colonial government in Kenya from 1952 to 1960. Under the HMV Blue Label Colmore had a foray into the record business, the label saw more than 250 records by musicians like Fundi Konde, Edouard Masengo and others were released from 1956. Masengo was among the directors at High Fidelity and he also recorded music and commercial jingles at the studio. Colmore founded a group of young Kenyan musicians called the Bata Shoeshine Boys who were sponsored by the footwear manufacturer, Bata and appeared on a TV show to promote the brand. The band later changed its name to the Ashantis and moved to Europe in the late 1960s

In 1961 an Englishman Charles Worrod who worked as the regional representative for a South African advertising firm in Kenya bought Jambo Records and converted the label to Equator Sound Studios Limited in Nairobi. The record pressing plant was bought by Philips and became the main factory for vinyl over the next two decades.The label’s house band, known as the Equator Sound Band, comprised Kenyan musicians Fadhili William, Daudi Kabaka, Ugandan Charles Sonko and two Zambians Nashil Pichen Kazembe and Peter Tsotsi Juma. Equator Sound became so influential that Congolese musicians would travel to Nairobi to attend auditions over the weekend to compete for a chance to get a recording deal. This was the era of the African Twist, a musical and dance style inspired by the kwela rhythm from South Africa that became the sound of newly independent Kenya. Equator produced some of Kenya’s greatest ever hits notably ‘Malaika’ that has been recorded through the years by greats like Miriam Makeba, Boney M, Angelique Kidjo and others. Other hits released on the label were ‘Harambee Harambee’ and ‘Helule Helule’ both by Daudi Kabaka; the latter became a U.K Top 20 hit when it was rerecorded by the British group the Tremeloes in 1968. However the musicians at Equator fell out with Worrod in 1968 and set up their own outfit the African Eagles Recording Limited

By this time the multinational record companies had set up shop in Kenya with Nairobi as the regional headquarters of the major companies like EMI, Polygram and CBS International that entered a partnership with High Fidelity Productions. Nairobi had the only pressing plant for vinyl records in the region bought from the original East African Records.

The dominant sound in Kenya at the time was Benga, essentially derived from a combination of sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass, with a steady rise to a climax. Benga spread across West and Southern Africa thanks to the distribution of EMI Records that was represented in East Africa by Phares Oluoch Kanindo. Kanindo also owned his own labels like the self-named Kanindo, P.O.K Music Stores, Hundhwe and Sungura. The music became so popular in Zimbabwe that it gave rise to a genre known as kanindo and a faster variation of the music known as sungura.

In the 1980s, the music industry suffered a major decline as piracy hit the business and the international record companies shut down and left the country. This was the decade of the disco when DJs and sound systems took the place of the live bands and the few groups that survived were strong Congolese outfits like Orchestra Mangelepa and Super Mazembe.

The music business was transformed in the 1990s with the arrival of a new generation of musicians and the popularity of hip-hop and dancehall and other urban music formats. The studio that was at the vanguard of this new sound was Sync Sounds where producer Tedd Josiah released a groundbreaking album called “Kenyan The First Chapter” in 1997 featuring new rappers like Kalamashaka, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and Hardstone.

Josiah then left Sync Sounds to set up Audio Vault in 1999 combining a recording studio, music label, and sound consultancy and artist management. It is here that “Kenyan the Second chapter” was produced and recorded the same year. Hot on the heels of Josiah’s success came a host of new studios like Homeboyz that had started as a DJ outfit and expanded into a full-fledged production house run by brothers John and Mike Rabar. Among the artists who recorded at Homeboys were Prezzo, the all-girl group Tatuu, T.I.D of Tanzania and Peter Miles of Uganda.

Studios and Labels

The Ogopa DJs[i], a production outfit and record label transformed Kenyan urban music with their signature hard driving club sound that some critics dismissed as Kapuka (slang for empty words) but this was turned into the name of the genre. Ogopa launched their music through three compilation albums, ‘Ogopa One, Kenya’s Club Classics’, ‘Ogopa 2 Strictly for the Hanye (Party) in you’ and ‘Ogopa Three’. A fresh generation of artists like Nameless, E-Sir, female singers Amani and Wahu became popular through the label. One of their major success stories was when the duo Mr. Googz and Vinnie Banton reached the finals of the Kora All Africa Music Awards in 2002 with the Ogopa produced song Wasee Tumetoka Githurai (we are from Githurai).

This digital era also changed the dynamics of the music recording business as record labels and producers realized that the availability of computers and CD writers made music easier to duplicate and distribute. Therefore the strategy was to make music, not so much to sell CDs, but to gain airplay on the newly licensed commercial stations. The greater the popularity of the artist on radio and TV, the higher the demand for appearances at gigs around the country. Computer technology also created new opportunities for innovative young producers to establish their studios.

In 2000, a university student called Clement Rapudo (Clemo) gathered a keyboard, computer microphones and set up Calif Records[ii], based in his parents’ house in California Estate Nairobi. He introduced a style called 'Genge' (urban slang for the 'masses') combining hip-hop, dancehall and pop. The label’s first two stars were Nonini, the self-styled 'Godfather of Genge' and JuaCali who became famous for their feel good party lyrics delivered in the urban slang of Sheng. Riding on this newfound success, Calif turned into a hit factory launching the careers of Circuite and Joel, Pilipili, Jimw@t, Masha, Lady S, Mejja and Rat-a-tat.

Ingoma is a studio and record label run by Robert Kamanzi ‘R Kay’[iii] who first came to Kenya as a refugee from Burundi in 1998 and built his skills by fiddling with a computer just for the sheer fun of it. R Kay started his professional career working at Next Level Studios in 1999 where he was based for two years before stints at Homeboyz and Ketebul Productions. After that he set up his own production label Shammah Boy Music in the process creating a zouk influenced dance rhythm for both secular and gospel stars including Deux Vultures, Nameless, Kidum, Henrie Mutuku, Esther Wahome, CMB Prezzo, Jemimah Thiongo and Rufftone. 

Music producer and sound engineer Erick Musyoka began his career at Homeboyz Studios from 2003 to 2007 before starting his own outfit known as Decimal Media[iv] in 2008. The winner of the Kisima Award for Best Producer in East Africa in 2006 has created hit songs for several successful bands including ‘Ha He’ by the electronic music group Just a Band, which spawned the viral Internet adventure hero Makmende in 2009. Musyoka also produced the single ‘Kare’ for P-Unit, the first group to be signed to his label, singer Nikki and rappers Juliani, Nonini and Bamboo. His philosophy is to record fewer artists with less pressure so he is happy to work on as few as two albums per year as long as they produce guaranteed hits.

The digital era has also witnessed a major revival of a sound that blends contemporary rhythms with elements of traditional music from various parts of Kenya. The so-called Afro-Fusion artists may not get as much airtime on Kenyan radio and TV as their kapuka and genge counterparts but they attract a niche market at concerts and festivals. Ketebul Music, which runs two fully equipped studios in Nairobi, specializing in live-recorded instruments, has been at the forefront of the Afro- Fusion movement. There are diverse musicians signed to the Ketebul label[v], from Gargar, a group of women from the Somali community of Kenya, to the Benga Blues singer-guitarist Winyo, who was a finalist for the Radio France International (RFI) Discoveries Award in 2010 and 2011.

The organization has also produced the “Retracing” series of documentaries on the history of popular Kenyan music genres like benga. In 2014, Ketebul partnered with the Smithsonian Institution of the U.S to arrange a 2-week program of performances by Kenyan musicians, including Eric Wainaina, Makadem, Ayub Ogada and Suzanna Owiyo, at the Smithsonian Folklife festival in Washington D.C. Ketebul Music also owns a mobile studio that has been used for field trips to record the music of communities in Central and Western Kenya, the Coastal region and several parts of neighboring Uganda for a project called Singing Wells[vi] in partnership with Abubilla Music, a UK-based label.

The above labels and others continue the proud legacy created by their predecessors, ensuring that Kenya remains a regional hub for the African music industry.


[i] Ogopa Deejays
[ii] Calif Record: +254 (020) 242 7838
[iii] R Kay Ingoma: +254 728 663 233 ; +254 020 521 3777; info@ingoma.co.ke
[iv] http://decimal.co.ke
[v] www.ketebulmusic.org
[vi] www.singingwells.org

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