I never told you about a Kenyan musician named D. K. Kamau who is popularly known as DK locally. Back in the 1970s he sang a popular vernacular number called Murata. In Kikuyu language, murata means friend and is sometimes used to refer to a lover.
In that song, DK described his anticipation for the time that his sweetheart would finally come home. On that day, he would slaughter a brooding hen to prepare a meal just for her. A brooding hen? You have to understand that back in the rural village in the 1970s, a chicken sitting on eggs so as to hatch them by the warmth of the body was perhaps accorded the celebrity status that I can only compare to the one we currently give to popular soccer stars that play in the UK premier league. I exaggerate a bit here, but I am sure you get the idea of how highly DK esteemed a brooding hen. And just for his lover’s convenience, DK would go ahead and sprinkle water all over the compound to ensure that not a single speck of dust got into her food as she ate.
In that song, DK explained that he anticipated the coming so much, that being without his Baby felt as awkward as drinking tea from a cow’s horn. That would have been cumbersome since culturally, the cow’s horn was only used to dispense traditional liquor amongst a group of old men.
He was just a school boy when he first went to the studios and the song Murata/ I love you catapultedhim to instant fame and riches. After a long stint as a civic leader, DK is now back in the music scene and is among a generation of musicians who have consistently provided sounds that define Kenyan musicFor a decade, DK Kamau was the ultimate love man in Kenyan music. He managed to mix intimate sex-flavoured love songs and Elvis Presley-inspired stage apparel with equally catchy vocal and melodic nuances to evolve a well-rounded portrait of pop superstardom.
His pleasant persona was an asset and he used it to full advantage.He had the money, the image and a taste for fast living, and boy, did he live it up! “I walked around with no less than Sh20,000 in my pocket at any given time and I spent it without a care because there would be more to come,” recalls the singer. His earning power was not lost on his bankers at the Kenya Commercial Bank where he opened an account, and for a whole year it was a one-way money traffic; only deposits going in. “When I finally tried to withdraw some money from it a year later, I was turned down because I had forgotten how I had signed the introductory slip!” remembers DK.At a time when a holiday at the Kenya coast was but a wild dream to most Kenyans, DK hopped onto planes to spend his vacations in Germany and Britain. He was obsessed with cars and would not hear of calling a mechanic when one of his babies broke down. He preferred to call his dealer and buy a new one.”I bought 20 new cars between 1972 and 1978 and disposed of the old ones, all in fairly good condition, at the price of a broken egg,” he recalls. He also owned a bus which he christened Wamaria Success and bought a lorry to extend his scope in the transport business.
He does not elaborate on his recreational pursuits, but throws good hints by admitting that the stars in his time had real fun. “I guess if AIDS had existed then, none of us would have survived,” he admits.Those days are long gone. But though out of the spotlight, DK refuses to fade away. His latest cassette, ‘Nyangweso’, makes a strong bid for the limelight and the track ‘Ni Wendo’ (It’s Love) has been well received. He is being marketed by Mama Betty Productions and hopes she does a good job of it. He is optimistic, saying: “If she can get it playing I think I have the hit that has eluded me since my comeback bid five years ago.”As a singer, his voice has dropped an octave and the sex image that sold him before is now gone. Apart from that there are no other changes, and he still retains the crystal-clear timbre that helped push his records in the ’70s. And though not exactly rich, he has not been starving either.
A re-issue of his old hits in a compilation titled ‘Kamugunda Kamahua’ has picked up well and two other compilations of oldies released earlier have all helped pay his bills and generally keep his head above water. I found him at his little shop along Racecourse Road which he shares with a cobbler. For the one-time high-flying star, life is beginning anew. Clad in white striped sneakers, DK still wears his trademark cap; he has had a liking for hats since his superstar days. When he was rich and famous, he owned a store on Luthuli Avenue in Nairobi, about 50 metres from his current business. In those days he had a ground-level store and used an upstairs room as his office. As would be expected of anybody who enjoyed the high public profile, he was courted by the country’s high-fliers, most of them in politics, and returned the compliment by occasionally recording songs that were political by nature.
But the very essence of pop music is anti-establishment, and encroaching on the political territory provided a ready collision for musicians who ventured into social commentary.This happened when DK recorded the hit song ‘JM Kariuki’ about the brutal murder of the late politician. As a commercial product the timing was perfect and in less than a month it sold 75,000 copies. But some of the lyrics pointed to the popular belief that the murder was state-engineered. It is rumoured that the musician was summoned to Gatundu and thoroughly caned by the President, Jomo Kenyatta, which was the late President’s preferred punishment for dissent even among his fellow politicians.
DK refuses to confirm whether this actually happened.DK’s star dimmed shortly thereafter to conclude the first chapter in a musical career that has gone through two phases of success. He seriously hit the downside in 1976. “I had to ground my cars and even bus fare was at times hard to come by,” he recalls. It is said that luck comes once in a lifetime, but DK became one of the rare exceptions when good fortune struck for a second time. This time the vehicle was the single ‘I Love You, I Love You’ which joined his list of career hits and shored him up again, supplying an endless source of money and renewed fame.The musician, who had been launched by the hit ‘Maitu Tiga Guthura’ in 1970, was even bigger the second time around. It was at this time that he travelled to Britain and Germany to see new places and seek new markets. “It was a great experience, but the timing was not exactly right,” he says.
The Kikuyu secular music market was booming and while Joseph Kamaru remained strong, others like James Wahome Maingi, Rugwiti Wa Njeri and CDM Kiratu were riding on a wave of popularity. But DK was clearly the man of the moment.”People bought the music for its potency and originality and the abundance fanned the industry,” he says. Besides record sales, he was doing well as a live act and his Lulus Band was busy most weekends, spreading his reach as an all-round artist. Everything was happening too fast and there was hardly any time for reflection. But the fall from stardom has given him a chance for soul searching. Listening to him you hear a trace of regret for all the money squandered. But he says it could have been worse. “The cars are gone and so is the big money, but I still have a house built in the golden days,” he says.
DK blames his lavish lifestyle on the lack of a father figure to guide him and offer him good advice. “My father died when I was seven, leaving me under the care of my mother who survived doing casual work in coffee plantations and there was nobody to advise me. Most of my purported friends just robbed me,” he says. He claims that the friends would drop by his rented house in Nairobi to stay the night and many ended up picking his pockets at night. But he feels that all is not lost and putting his seven children through high school is something he views with pride. “I have also managed to keep my family together and this to me is big achievement,” he says.One of his biggest regrets was dabbling into politics, which cost him dear in cash and kind. And it all started as a silly bar-room joke.It was one of those weekends when he had gone to visit a friend in Karatina who was in a jovial mood.
“I asked what the occasion was and was told that he intended to contest a civic seat in Karatina,” DK recalls. Why here? he asked, puzzled. As it turned out, the friend wanted to hype himself up for ‘sale’ to more serious politicians. Excited by this joke and manner of making money, DK drove to his home in Gatanga with the mischief playing in his mind. He went straight to a pub he owned at the Gatanga shopping centre and invited everybody to have a drink to celebrate his candidature. “It was a joke then, but I never realised the implications,” he recalls. After the drinking session DK drove back to Nairobi laughing all the way. His shock came the week after when his brother and a delegation of friends followed him, furious that he could venture into politics without informing them. “I told them that it was all a joke, but they challenged me to go to Kandara and explain that to the people who were all excited about my so-called candidature.” DK obliged, but the folks wouldn’t let him off the hook, and he had to run for office. He won and retained his seat twice, but the ten years in politics literally ruined his business and messed him up him musically. But he insists that the tenure was good service for his ward in Kandara.
“I helped build better roads and started a bursary scheme for the poor and I do not believe that I let my people down,” he says. He says he is now done with politics, although he is currently a director of the Music Copyright Society of Kenya which fights for musicians’ rights.Over the years religion has also had a strong impression on him and he thanks God for the little he has. He is philosophical about it his new situation: “I no longer believe that a good song is a wasted investment because experience has shown that the time factor is crucial in this business – what fails today could be a hit tomorrow.” He has 14 cassettes to his credit, some dating back to the early ’70s. Though rarely credited for it, DK was the pioneer of full band sound in Kikuyu music with his song ‘I Love, I Love’, recorded in 1976 which sold a commanding 100,000 copies to become a landmark in Kenya’s music market. As he looks at his new release, the big question is whether he can be three times lucky. He does not rule it out.