Mahanjam Mike: The musings of an old hand

By Stanley Gazemba

When he introduced his hugely popular Saturday show, ‘Sounds Like Hits’ on the Voice of Kenya in 1975 his producer George ‘Yahoos’ Fombe would urge him to: “… weka mahanjam kidogo!” (Give it more oomph!). That’s how Mike Andrews, the owner of AI Records, became ‘Mahanjam Mike’. And in his late 70s, he still speaks with mahanjam.

Mike Andrews popularly known as Mike Mahanjam. Photo courtesy of Mike Andrews
Mike Andrews popularly known as Mike Mahanjam. Photo courtesy of Mike Andrews

Reminiscing about the signature show that gave birth to his international music distribution business, Mike beams.

“I was trying to relate to the audience as though they were a live audience,” he said in an interview at his office. “I was looking for a language that would appeal to all those folks in Ngara, Ziwani and all those places.”

But ‘Sounds Like Hits’ did not happen by accident. Back in 1957 a young man walked into the offices of the Cable & Wireless Company carrying a stack of pop records that included Elvis Presley, the hottest act at the time, and told the producers, “This is what the young people out there want to listen to.” He had contrived to have the hot records sent to him from abroad.

The producers of Cable & Wireless, a colonial broadcaster that mostly aired classical and martial music for its audience -- predominantly British soldiers serving in the colonial administration-- were dumbfounded.  They grimaced as they listened to the records. All they could hear was a screeching of high notes and screaming guitars. Nonetheless they asked the young man to get behind a microphone and repeat what he had said into the microphone. They were doing a voice test.

Mike, who had no prior experience in broadcasting and production, stepped up to the mike and did as he was told. That was all it took for him to land a slot for a pop musical show.

Cable & Wireless was housed in an old building next to the Prince of Wales--now Nairobi—School. The place is now a communications training institute. When Cable & Wireless became the Voice of Kenya Mike migrated with it, taking along his pop music show.

“I wanted to include someone who would bring in a local touch. That’s how I brought in Elizabeth Omolo,” he said. Omolo, a broadcast veteran in her own right, went by the name Izzy Lizzy on the show, which was sponsored by American soft drink company Pepsi.

To obtain the new music they needed to play on the show Mike found the postal addresses of the major record labels abroad and wrote to them about their show and asked them to send their latest music so he could play it on air. At that time Nairobi was still a bush outpost, but all the same, the record companies in South Africa, Europe and the United States agreed to give him a try and sent him the music by air.

Mike would then play this hot music on air, and the listeners would troop to the East African Music Stores, Melodica and Assanands, then the leading music outlets, and ask for these records. The stores would in turn phone Mike and ask where he had got the music. And so a business was born.  Soon Mike, through his family business, P. W. Andrews & Co, was ordering huge consignments and supplying the music stores himself.

And Mike wasn’t just preaching the message of the new music; he was living it. Come evening after work he would be on stage at the Impala Grounds on Ngong’ Road with his band, The Silhouettes.

 “We were hot!” he said.

It was an exciting time for the musicians, a time of experimentation that gave Kenya perhaps the best music it had known. While the Mighty Cavaliers and Air Fiesta Matata were experimenting with fusions of western pop and their own music, the benga sound was also taking shape, as the newly arrived country musicians gathered around the recording studios on River Road, polishing up the traditional sounds they had brought to the city. In entertainment hotspots like Starlight and Halian’s the ‘boogies’ were in full swing.

“It was exciting and new,” Mike said of the new urban sound. “But it wasn’t a copy of anything, unlike the case now with our hip-hop that sounds American.”

According to him, everything was in place for the growth of urban music. “Commercial enterprise spurred this growth on. The clubs were there, and they were willing to pay the musicians. The fans, too, were there. It had to grow.”

He believes the musicians of the time stood out because they brought their own distinct style to the scene. He cites Slim Ali and the Orchestre Super Mazembe as some of the most outstanding. They landed with a bang, and the media noticed. “If you’ve got something that is different, new and exciting the media will latch on to it.”

But as young people were having a good time the city authorities were growing uncomfortable. It was the eventual ban on ‘boogies’ in December 1972 that brought this era to an end. Live music was dealt a further blow by the advent of the disco and the audio cassette which paved the way for piracy. Suddenly musicians found themselves struggling to make a living.

Nairobi’s middle class has been growing exponentially over the past decade, and it is only a matter of time before the city’s taste for live music is reawakened. Mike thinks that this won’t take long. The noveau riche in the major towns will soon be able to pay for tickets for live events. But he is worried about the fans.

“We have been asked to bring international artists here, but the one thing that frightens us is crowd control,” he said.

He would like Kenyans to understand that music can not thrive if the music is not paid for. The fans have to make a conscious decision to buy only original music and to buy tickets for shows, instead of crashing the gate. When this happens, then the bands will return.

 He also cautions musicians hoping to break into the international market that the standards are extremely high. They have to be prepared to work with experienced producers and distributors and also be prepared to split both the profit and loss of such a venture.

Mike took up Kenyan citizenship in 1965. He is married with three children and six grandchildren. He still resides in Kenya, carrying on the business of his family company, AI Records.

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