The emperor of Mombasa music
Part of an in-work project on musicians from East Africa Part 3
What about singing?
Never took a singing lesson, but both my parents were good singers. When I formed a dance band which required songs by Englebert, Tom Jones, Cliff Richard, etc, besides playing the piano I decided to sing the popular songs made famous by these stars – and I reckon this had an impact on our popularity as a band.
Why did you retire?
Retirement was forced upon me in 2012. A hotel in receivership for 7 years finally did it! Here I was playing as well as I did at any time of my life, my mind was active, my fingers still nimble over the keys, and my trio could still vow an audience. It was the overseas tourist that was the mainstay of the Mvita Grill and the many beach hotels. The death of overseas tourism here at the coast resulted in the loss of jobs by hundreds of hotel workers and entertainers. In short, I had lost my market!
I retired after 37 years as resident pianist and bandleader at Nyali Beach Hotel, a total of 57 years in the music business.
What do you attribute your longevity in Music?
I attribute my longevity in Music to an extensive and ever-changing repertoire of songs, but mainly to performing every piece of music with ‘feeling’. I believe that Music is what feelings sound like, and people listening to music are as affected as the performer. Whilst at the Mvita Grill, as much as persons motivated to do their thing on the dance floor, I had diners sometimes moved to tears by a tune I played – as with a British couple to my rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns’, and a lady listening to ‘Wind beneath my wings’.
What exactly was your music repertoire at the Mvita Grill?
Famous musicals (e.g. Phantom of the Opera, Les Mis, Westside Story, My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, etc), Popular Evergreens of long ago (As time goes by, Unforgettable, Wonderful World, Over the rainbow, etc), Pop hits (by Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, the Carpenters, etc), Folk Songs of Ireland,
England, Scotland, and other countries, Bollywood hits (Kal Ho Na Ho, Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om, Kabie Alvida), Famous Kiswahili songs (Malaika, Jambo Bwana, Mama Sofia, etc), Song Hits from famous cartoons (Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King), Popular jazz hits (Take 5, Take the A train, Summertime, Rondo ala Turk) and Latin American music.
It was this wide selection of music to appeal to all ages and to all tastes that really made the difference and made us one of the most popular bands in the country.
What about Jazz?
Jazz is a passion with me!
It’s a great form of music for it gives the performer ‘freedom’ for self-expression. ‘Improvisation' is the vital ingredient, like spices are to Indian curries, and pasta to Italian cooking! Improvising takes you into a form of ‘instantaneous composition’, allows for individuality and originality in one’s performance.
Never took a lesson in Jazz; my teachers were the LPs of famous jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and others.
In 1965, whilst at the Dartington College of Music in England on a British Commonwealth Music Scholarship, I formed a college jazz quartet and we performed on Friday nights at “The Cellar” of the college. We also performed in 1966 at a Jazz Festival in Devon that featured some of the top British jazz groups at the time.
Did your band do any concerts besides just performing at the Mvita Grill?
Yes. In 1995 I did a jazz concert at the Mvita Grill in aid of the Ziwani School for the Deaf with my trio, Jorjo (drums) and Jonjo (bass). It also featured my children, Mark on synthesizer, and Michelle (vocals). It was a huge success and well attended. Below are two photos taken then, when Michelle was 14 and Mark 17.
After retirement in 2012 I did a Jazz Concert at La Veranda Restaurant in Nyali. Besides my trio (with my brother Ernest on bass guitar and Jorjo on drums) performing famous jazz hits it also featured Jim Horne, an American Baptist pastor and fine jazz singer. The show was a huge success and Jim excelled in his rendition of the famous Michael Buble songs.
What was the greatest moment of your musical career?
In 1995 I was sponsored to go to Switzerland by an elderly lady, Daria Impallomeni, to record a jazz CD – a tribute to her late husband, G Impallomeni, a well-known Swiss bandleader and composer. I wrote the arrangements for piano, bass and drums. The bassist was the great (and late), James Woode, ex-Duke Ellington Orchestra. Jimmy’s bass playing was inspirational!
Some of the jazz legends with whom Jimmy had worked with read like a 'Who's Who' in the world of Jazz: Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton and the great Duke Ellington! The drummer was a very talented young Czech called David Elias. I was in elite company! Jimmy praised me as an above average jazz piano player – that coming from a famous American jazz musician was ‘music in my ears!’
Performing with Jimmy Woode was indeed the highlight of my music career!
Sadly the two other producers with Mrs Impallomeni fell out because they said that the CD was a tribute to G Impallomeni but it only had five of his compositions! There were three of my compositions and the other four were famous jazz standards. The CD never materialized, to my knowledge.
What about your family.
In 1966, on being appointed Music-in-Charge of all primary schools at the coast, I called on the Municipal Education Office and it was there I met Hasu who was the personal secretary to the MEO. I learned that she too had just returned from college in the UK having done a course in administration. I needed copies of song scripts for the classes I held for the teachers, and she readily agreed to do them for me. Fortunately the need for new songs increased, which meant more visits to the MEO’s office! And that’s how it all began!
Both our children, Mark and Michelle, are very musical having achieved distinctions in all their piano exams at the Royal Schools of Music, London. Mark has this phenomenal of ‘perfect pitch’ in music, and Michelle is a fine singer. She was the star of a charity concert I did in 1995 when she was just 14. Mark is a corporate lawyer and Michelle is a consultant pharmacist, both work in London.
Your jazz CD, ‘Just for you.’
On my retirement In 2012 ,I did a jazz CD titled ‘Just for you’ which was recorded at Kelele Records, a recording studio in Mombasa run by a German, Peter Gessler, with Ernest (bass guitar), Eluid Jorjo (drums), Michelle (vocals), and Mark (synthesizer). All the music arrangements were done by me!
Now retired, what are your thoughts about your life in Music?
I cannot express in words the wonderful feeling I experienced and continue to experience by playing the piano. Not forgetting the excitement brought about by playing with other fine musicians and the rapport that me and my trio had with audiences. It’s just indescribable! Looking back on my life, I thank God for blessing me with this wonderful gift called Music. I’m also grateful that my parents were so musical for it’s their genes I inherited, and for getting me on piano lessons at an early age with the two wonderful piano teachers mentioned in my story. My grateful thanks to my wife and kids for their support, for being behind me all the way. And getting into this exciting and scintillating music called Jazz furthered my love for music to an incredible high!