Tribute to Mzee: How Darius Mbela composed songs to mourn Jomo Kenyatta

Around this time in 1978, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta passed away at Mombasa State House in country was thrown into a state of mourning.
And as Kenyans mourned Jomo, Darius Mbela rehearsed his choir, led them to State House to comfort mourners and then rushed them to the then VOK studios to record the album Tribute to Mzee Kenyatta.
It contained twelve songs including the national five original compositions; original Swahili hymns; Psalm 21 as “Bwana Mchungaji” (Lord the Shepherd); and patriotic songs from 1963, like “Siri ya Ushindi’ (The Secret to Victory).
The organ was played by Joseph Kitakwa and Elias Njira, and drums by Jacob Matuku and Samson Ominde. The lanky William Owuor, who was popularly known as Faraway, played the kayamba accompanied by Jeremiah Kimani on the jingles.
Chris Sikukuu was the lead vocalist on “Kwaheri Mzee Wetu” (Farewell, Old Man). He helped Mbela compose it.
Makolo and Namirembe say that the choir members never got copies of that album and it has never been reissued. They have no other regrets about the dawn-to-midnight hours that they committed to rehearsals and performances in that momentous week of August 1978.
They did it “for service to the church and the nation.” Mbela wrote the bulk of the songs on Tribute to Mzee and he also wrote the album’s liner notes, describing Mzee’s deep love for religious and traditional music.
That love, Mbela said, inspired his compositions in that critical week in August 1978. On the album’s liner notes Mbela recalled Mzee’s encouraging words: “songs and dances are the roots of national culture and culture is the foundation of any nation in the world.”
Jomo Kenyatta was, seemingly, echoing the words of the seventeenth-century Scottish politician, Andrew Fletcher: “Give me the making of a people’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws.” Darius Mbela enjoyed the best of these worlds.
He ended up as a lawmaker but his primary calling was as a selfless maker of our nation’s songs. Those who write a nation’s songs shape its idioms. They anchor it by providing its soundtracks and documenting the stories to mark the critical moments and the memories.
In the Jomo Kenyatta years, Darius Msagha Mbela served as PS in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Under Daniel arap Moi, Mbela served as the MP for the Wundanyi constituency between 1988 and 2002, and he also served as a cabinet minister in various ministries including Lands and Housing, Agriculture, Livestock Development and Marketing.
Amos Wako, who rose to be Moi’s attorney general and then, under the Constitution of Kenya 2010, became the first senator for Busia County, was, like Mbela, an Alliance High School alumnus.
Wako once introduced Mbela as “the only old boy who … sang his way into parliament!”‘ Wako may have been speaking tongue-in-cheek but, in truth, Mbela loved music with an unparalleled passion.
Mourning Mbela’s death in October 2007, Duncan Mwany-umba, lawyer and fellow musician, recalled meeting the PS at the finals of the 1977 Kenya Music Festival at MCC. Unburdened by his status as a PS, Mbela was competing in that year’s Tenor Open Class category.
Mwanyumba was placed third. Mbela came second, gracefully accepting that the top prize that year belonged to a Form Five Lenana School boy, Edward Bisamunyu.
But the following year, Mbela’s musical prowess grabbed national attention when he composed several dirges to mourn the death of Jomo Kenyatta and led the St. Stephen’s Church Choir in a tireless week-long vigil as the body lay in state.
Mbela had been the choirmaster at St. Stephen’s for several years. The vicar was the Reverend Luke Makolo whose wife, Nancy, had started singing in the alto section of the St. Stephen’s Church Choir in 1972.
In 2013 she described the energy that was injected into that choir when Mbela learned of Jomo’s death.’ Together with his assistant choirmasters, George Masumbuko and Chris Sikukuu, Mbela embarked on composing songs befitting of the moment.
Nancy was a young mother and a teacher at Rabai Road Primary School, but she spent every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday evening in choir rehearsals. On Tuesday 22, the members assembled as usual but this time there was both urgency and sorrow in  their work.
Composition and rehearsal seemed to be happening simultaneously. Nancy explains: “Darius did not sleep … we were many in the Swahili choir and another big group in the English choir and everyone was busy working on the songs.”
On August 31, the choir performed at the funeral service at parliament grounds. But Nancy was not with them that day; she was in hospital delivering the last of her five children.
Both Nancy and Margaret Namirembe, another choir member from 1978, aver that Mbela was more than a choirmaster. He was a teacher. He made sure his charges understood instruments and the different aspects of voice. He taught them discipline and he demonstrated punctuality by his own example.
He was always at rehearsals at 5 o’clock sharp because he believed that proper preparation was the secret to good music and to the success of St. Stephen’s in choral competitions. Like the rest of the choir, Mbela never earned an income from his work with St. Stephen’s Church.
The church bought the musical instruments and provided choral gowns. But for competitions, Mbela would design the choir uniform and each member would pay for their own. Nancy recalls that though he was a PS he had no problem in dressing in the same uniform as his choir.
Mbela often told his choir members of the valuable music lessons he had learned from the master of East African mu-sic, Professor George Senoga Zake. He spent many hours with Dr. Arthur Kemoli sharing ideas and training choirs.
Kemoli often brought his Kenyatta University choir to work with the St. Stephen’s Choir. They would go on to build the Muungano National Choir in the Moi years, and Mbela valiantly tried to make time for the choir even after he went into politics.
His composition “Pokea Moyo Wangu” (Receive My Heart) became a Christian standard and gained interdenominational acceptance —a standard hymn at Catholic requiem masses and Protestant funeral services alike.

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