By Stanley Gazemba
Makadem is a child of East Africa, literally. His childhood was spent in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. Born Charles Ademson in Siaya in Nyanza, Makadem went to Tanzania with his sister when he was six. He attended school in Bukoba, northern Tanzania and later Kijitonyama in Dar es Salaam. From Dar he went to Uganda briefly before transferring to Mombasa.
From Mombasa he joined Nairobi’s Jamhuri High where he completed his secondary education. At Jamhuri he learnt French, which helped him get his first job as a tour guide in Ukunda, thanks to his elder brother, Albert Ademson, also a musician. He encouraged Makadem to pursue music to earn pocket money. “He got tired of me asking him for money all the time and told me to earn my own,” Makadem said in an interview between studio recordings at his studio, Ketebul Music, at The GoDown in Industrial Area.
It was on these beach hotel gigs that he honed his skills as a live performer, even though he had experience in high school singing in the school choir.
At the time his brother Albert was playing with several groups, among them Safari Amigos, which played mostly for tips since paid gigs were hard to come by. Although Albert wanted him to concentrate on vocals, which he felt were his forte, Makadem was keen on learning to play instruments. And so he approached Albert’s friend and band-mate, Jack Popo, who agreed to tutor him. “Popo taught me the guitar for free. I didn’t pay a cent,” Makadem said.
It was around 1997 that the restless Makadem felt he had picked up enough skills to go solo. The Bamburi Water Sports hotel became his main haunt. “People really loved it when I played. Some of the tourists asked me to think about playing my own music, which they felt could land me invitations to play outside the country. But at this time I was still playing cover versions and didn’t have my own songs.”
It was at this time that musician Hardstone released his groundbreaking street-anthem Uhiki, which was a major influence on Makadem. The runaway success of Uhiki encouraged him to start experimenting, diverting from benga and Afro fusion, the common fare at the hotels, to hip-hop. Soon after he composed ‘Mr Lololova’, which officially introduced him to the urban music scene. He remembers recording an album at this time, but it was never released.
All the same, he was getting noticed and started landing paying gigs. He curtain-raised for Gregory Isaacs in Mombasa in 2001 and Mighty Culture the following year at their Impala Grounds show. Two years later he got another chance to rub shoulders with the greats, this time curtain-raising for Glen Washington.
But he still didn’t have a producer, so in 2003 he came to Nairobi to find one. He did some work with Bruce Odhiambo and Tedd Josiah, the leading lights at the time. But it was when he teamed up with Ketebul Music’s Tabu Osusa that his music took the direction he had been looking for.
Tabu listened to his ‘Anglo-benga’ music and encouraged him to record. At this time Tabu’s studio band, the Nairobi City Ensemble, had just released their compilation album Kalapapla and were taking it on the road. Makadem accompanied them to Djibouti as a background singer for K’Odhialo, one of the leading lights in the ensemble; his job was to do the rap inserts in Kalapapla. They performed at the Festhorn.
In 2005 he recorded his first official album Ohanglaman with Ketebul. The event also marked his official transformation from his former moniker, Mr Lololova, to Makadem at the Alliance Francaise’s Spotlight on Kenyan Music series, in which he had participated.
“I now decided to go slow on rap and concentrate on doing contemporary African music, which didn’t have an imported influence,” he said.
In 2007 he landed his first international gig at the Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar. The same year he returned to Djibouti to attend Festhorn, this time as Makadem. By then he was working with various bands, including those of Dave Otieno and Juma Tutu, even as he worked on cobbling together his own.
In 2008 Tabu arranged for Makadem to accompany him to Womex (World Music Expo) in Seville, Spain. They attended as delegates of Equation Music, of which Tabu was a member. The purpose was to expose Makadem to the competitive world of international live music. From Womex they proceeded to Paris, still on a learning mission. By this time Makadem had released his ‘Obama’ video, just a week before the US elections, and it created some buzz in France and online, making people curious about him.
The tours continued. The following year he appeared at the Timitar Festival in Agadir, Morocco, thanks to the sponsorship of the Institut Francais. The tour landed him his first international booking agent, Carolina Vallejo. The following years would see him perform in Denmark, Canada and Sweden. At the time of this interview he was preparing for another European tour.
So far, Makadem, who is adept at playing the guitar and the kalimba, has released one album, Ohanglaman. But he is working on his next one. In performances he is backed by Mathewmatix on drums, John Mutombo on guitar, Shaddykeys on keyboard, Chao on the bass, Willy on percussions, and Debbie and Vanessa on vocals. “I see him going places,” said Tabu. “He is a very powerful performer. His music is beginning to have a Kenyan sound.”
And Tabu, a seasoned producer who has worked with some of the greats of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has reason to be optimistic. “The best way to prove you are good is to play in front of a neutral crowd who don’t know you by name,” he says, taking issue with Kenyan musicians who tour abroad to perform to a room full of their friends.