Grandmaster Masese, a Kisii folk singer, famous for his Obokano, remembers how a chance encounter with Binyavanga Wainaina opened the door for his craft, in a city where it is rarely celebrated. But with Kwani, all creative endeavors were welcome.
It was back in 2005. I had been squaring life in squalor in the slums of Mathare, Satellite, Kawangware, Mukuru and Kangemi; crashing at friends’ or people I met at the Kenya National Theatre houses, for two years. I had also crashed with a clansman from my village, a friend at the University of Nairobi, and when he was not around, I would sleep on the benches in halls of residence. A story for another day.
I was starting out my life as an Obokano performing artist, poet, and lyricist. I had tried everything, from auditioning for acting and dancing, at the ever struggling Kenya National Theatre. The opportunities were few and far between. However, I still got a few appearances. There was no money. It was traumatizing. And yet!
Anxious moments, those were.
And then in 2005, around May, I was attending the Poetry Salama, Kikwetu Workshops leading to an open mic every last Wednesday of the month at the Italian Institute in Westlands, Nairobi. The forum was the first I had ever seen that was open to all kinds of poetry and music in any language. This was wonderful, an eye opener for me.
Come that Wednesday night, I was playing Obokano and reading my poetry at the Italian Institute oblivious of who was who in the audience. I sang in Ekegusii. People seemed to enjoy it. I was surprised.
After the performance, I, the son of Nyaboke, the villager in the city started getting what they call in celebville, ‘Mafans’. A dreadlocked man I had seen the audience walked straight to me after performances and introduced himself. And yet!
“Hey, that was amazing. My name is Binyavanga Wainaina.
I am a writer. What's your instrument called? We would like to work with you. You are a living legend carrying societal burdens,” he told me.
He was someone I had only caught glimpses of in the newspapers.
“OK. Obokano. I muttered.” And yet.
He introduced me to Billy Kahora, and June Wanjiru, who he fondly called Ciru. I was told to visit their office. I tried to say that I was very new and with little experience.
“No, you were wonderful, that's what we need,” he was insistent. Those were very encouraging words. From people, I would soon start reading about in Dailies or watch on TV.
That was the profound, phenomenal mentor and motivator, Binyavanga Wainaina. Yet.
He really encouraged me. He introduced me to his sister, who was to run the new Kwani? Open Mic at Club Sound. I signed a nine-month performance agreement as the intermission musician during readings. It wasn't much money then, but it sure made me proud. And the honour! And owner of a big phone, Alcatel. And yet.
It was unbelievable. He introduced me to Tony “Smitta Smitten” Mochama, Ukoo Flani, Mau Mau, Parsalello, Kantai, Andia Kisia, Simiyu Barasa among many others. Man! It was beautiful and refreshing. He could make sure you are well and drunk what you wanted, and he could talk for so long. We listened. A man, very humble, bubbly and boisterous. I was the first musician and poet who pioneered Kwani? Open Mic sessions in town.
The 2005 Kwani? Summer Literally Seminars opened my small world to a larger world. I met so many beautiful creatives who said they liked my work. Never was anything artistically awful with the bunch. I even managed to rent a Ksh 400 house in Mukuru. I could send something home. It eased my earlier depressed life. Another day for that. And yet.
I worked with Kwani? until 2008. I had returned from Ghana and there was young blood. So, we gave them a chance too. Here we got the Mstari Wa Nne crew among the rest. By then I had emboldened my heart and art intellectually. I was bold to say, Masese, the Obokano poet. In those days it wasn't fashionable to declare that. My family had long dismissed me. The larger Gusii community valued education, colleges or work, over creative work.
I am writing from Nyamira from where I discovered him in newspapers and later met him several times in Kenya, Ghana and Senegal. The rest of my work was influenced by him. He read my handwritten notes and certified them as literary. I have a complete anthology and some incomplete work. Lost a dozen to Nairobi ngeta too. My shelf is full of dusty manuscripts. All due to his encouragement at the start.
Binyavanga Wainaina and I represented Prof Jeffrey Allen during his wedding at Mbweni Ruins in Zanzibar. I was the family brother and a musician. Binyavanga was his best man.
Were it not for Binyavanga, I could not have made any contribution artistically, yet so minimal that I have given literally, culturally and musically. It was a creative and boisterous intellectual engagement from 2005 through 2008. He gave so many of us space to think critically and to grow intellectually. He was hope.
And now, he has left? Must we all go through this death passage?
Rest well, Binj.
Grandmaster Masese, now resides in Nyamira. A poet, lyricist, and writer, he has performed with his instrument in many countries, in Africa and Europe.