Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tugutuke Artistes Picking up the Pieces

In the run up to last year’s polls, I opined that the head-on plunge into active politics by a number of our artistes was misguided. As it turned out, the whole lot was walloped, sometimes literally. They are now dusting up as they pick up the pieces from a battle badly executed and are seeking to establish their relevance on the national arena once again.

The Vijana Tugutuke movement, under which they mobilized massive youth activity, seems to have scattered to the four winds or else taken a muted low profile. Or perhaps they have, as kindred political spirits would say, just made a tactical retreat to fight another day.

And the operative word is ‘fight’. That is the language of the degenerate local politics that they so desired to join. Fight with fists, stones, chairs. Mongolo, the last man standing, can attest that they will need to abandon their professional civility and instead cultivate a barbaric mien to survive in the man-eat-man jungle.

John ‘KJ’ Kiarie suffered physical harassment from hired gangs during the electioneering period and had a few of his bones broken. He had to be ferried by an ambulance to present his nomination papers to the electoral commission. The sad irony in his case is that the hoodlums who thumped him were the very target audience that Vijana Tugutuke sought to engage in bringing about change. And despite the project taking credit for increasing voter registration of the youth by upwards of 1million, their icons all lost in the ensuing contests. KJ in Dagoretti, Kajairo in Kasarani, Mdomo Baggy in Kamkunji, KingKong in Embakasi. Nyambane was initially expected to run for the Westlands seat but I suppose he wizened up just in time.

King Kong struggled without success to raise funds for paying party nomination fees. He died after the polls though the two events may not be necessarily linked.

Kajairo is putting out little fires lit up everywhere by the media who keep running stories that he’s broke after raiding his ‘piggy bank’ to finance his campaign. He has now, together with Nyambane, joined the Nation Media Group as hosts on the newly launched QFM radio station.

KJ is in court challenging the election of Beth Mugo with one of his petition grounds stating that she referred to him as “a joker who should be cracking jokes in the street”. In an exchange with Mugo’s lawyer, KJ insisted that he is an artiste and that any reference to him as a comedian is in bad faith.

Clearly, the brief incursion into politics has taken its toll on the artistes. And as they work to overcome the setbacks they suffered, one hopes that some valuable lessons were learnt from the experiment. One of which, I hope, will be that the murky and highly fluid arena that is Kenyan politics is not appropriate for advancing social change. In joining the fray, Kajairo was quoted saying that “We have a responsibility as entertainers. We cannot sit and watch things go wrong. Everything is determined by leadership”. Really?

I still insist that Comedian KJ is many times more likely to inspire change from his Redykyulass stage than “Mheshimiwa” Kiarie ever will. They will quickly lose their force and credibility as change agents as soon as they get hooked on the “Honorable” trappings.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Soul Men

There seems to be no escaping from the jinx that casts its dark shadows over the month of August. It has already ticked off two great performing artistes of our time in the space of one weekend, Bernie Mac on Saturday followed by Isaac Hayes on Sunday.

Bernie Mac, who was a member of the Original Kings of Comedy quartet, died of sarcoidosis, a lung complication due to pnuemonia.

Isaac ‘Black Moses’ Hayes who has been composing and performing Hot Buttered Soul music since 1967 died of stroke.

The two great men have recently been working alongside Samuel L. Jackson in a movie set to be released later this year.

Two Tough Guys have Walked on By. Soul Men.

(Pictures courtesy of Isaac Hayes' official website.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Finding Churchill

An internet search for Daniel Ndambuki gives amazingly few results with equally scanty detail. Which is fairly bizarre for a man whose trade hinges on popular ratings. And I have little doubt that Ndambuki is perhaps the wittiest stand-up comedian to come out of these parts in our times.

The man’s wit is powerful and makes for a hilarious beginning to every morning on Classic FM’s breakfast show where he doubles as the streetwise Mwalimu Kingangi and tea-lady Philgonias. Co-hosting the show with Maina Kageni, he performs lots of other flawless imitations only the way a consummate artiste can. It is widely believed that he enjoys quite a large fan base that has anchored the show at the top of the FM stations’ breakfast ‘battles’. I’m an ardent fan of his too and would love to keep track of their morning antics except that the duo spoils the act for me when they relapse, as Maina invariably ensures, to the depraved ‘pale pale’ dialogues.

Churchill, as Ndambuki is known in his stand-up comedy acts, is well reputed for his refreshingly ‘clean’ content that fits comfortably with family audiences. Many who have attended his shows will attest that his evergreen repertoire consistently delivers as billed. But now, after the end of the Redykyulass shows on national TV in which Churchill regularly featured, his fans outside Nairobi continue to miss out on his side-splitting performances.

Dan Ndambuki’s comedy has been recorded and several DVD volumes made but one is likely to have a pretty hard time laying hands on them locally. I have made rounds to several outlets here in Mombasa to no avail but find that they can be purchased online from Kilimanjaro Entertainment which is based in the US.

A DVD collection of Churchill’s Comedy Classics would be a prized feature to any home library and a befitting chronicle to this gem of an artiste.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Okiya Okoiti Omtata - Playwright Playing it Right for Civil Rights

The above stills are from a video clip that captured Okoiti Omtata when he chained himself to rails at the Kenya Police Headquarters in January 2008 while protesting against civilian killings by security agents. After making a few spirited pronouncements for justice in the wake of the then spiraling events of violence, he was unchained by a contingent of policemen who later charged him with “attempted suicide” besides the usual “causing a disturbance”. So, while confronting the police head-on is widely viewed in these parts as courting trouble, the police themselves actually see civilian protest right outside their headquarters as “attempted suicide”!

Is Okoiti Omtata a suicidal man? Yes, if you are inclined to view challenges in the murderous bent of our disingenuous police force. That the force found it necessary to dispatch a whole contingent of armed policemen to ‘crash’ a single man, and in the full glare of media cameras is indicator enough of absolute lack of innovativeness at Vigilance house. Faced with the creative prowess of one Okoiti Omtata, the collective genius of the top cops collapsed and they resorted to the traditional path of exhibiting raw power. And it did not scare the man of courage one bit. It did not scare him before and he seems to be built for the long haul. Okoiti is not afraid to exercise his right to expression and no amount of intimidation has thus far deterred him. This must surely irk the pretenders to almightiness who continue to warm their backsides at Vigilance House.

In August 2007, the last days of the 9th parliament, Okoiti was among a group of activists who spent several days in police custody for taking part in a demonstration against the MPs plan to award themselves a Ksh 6million send off package at the dissolution of the house. A seemingly fed up Judge ordered their release on the technicality of having been held for over 24 hours before being presented in court.

In March 2008, Okoiti was amongst members of the National Civil Societies Congress who stormed an ECK conference at a Mombasa hotel to protest against the commissions handling of last year’s general election. The stunned Chairman Kivuitu offered no jokes this time but stayed put in his seat as the hotel’s management mobilized their security guards for a fun day as they jostled and pushed with the activists.

Last week, the cops enthusiastically landed on him and his colleagues again when they took to a procession calling for resignation of Minister Kimunya. And again, they ended up with body injuries, got locked up and were later released on cash bail and are awaiting court cases.

Okoiti was born in Busia district, Kenya in 1964. He studied his ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels at St. Peter’s Amukura from where he met the requirements for university entrance. He, however, turned down an admission offer to study for a Commerce degree at the University of Nairobi and opted instead to join St Augustine’s Seminary in Mabanga to pursue priesthood. He left the Seminary with a Diploma in Philosophy and after a brief teaching stint in Busia, joined the Kenya Polytechnic to study automotive engineering. And what is Okoiti’s favorite subject? Not CRE actually, but Mathematics. Oh yes, of which he is said to enjoy calculus immensely.

Besides solving equations for x and y, or maybe because of doing so, Okoiti is also talented with creative writing skills that have seen him pen a number of plays. These include Luanda Magere, Voice of the People, Damn Patriotism, Taken for Granted, Chains of Junkdom and Cosmetic. Luanda Magere in particular enjoyed a long run in 1991 to nationwide acclaim. He has also written a novel, A Brood of Vipers, and is said to be working on compilations of various cultural practices in western Kenya.

Meanwhile, armed with a rosary and the occasional large chain-works, Okoiti will not shy away from telling off the politicians, quislings and their hirelings right to their face. He continues to keep vigil for that which is in the interest of public good. A thespian, activist and a man of courage.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Where are our movies, Project Nollywood?

About a year ago, ten Kenyan artistes traveled to Nigeria for a two-week training program in movie making facilitated by Mnet Africa, Kenya Film Commission and players from the thriving Nigeria Film Industry, famously known as Nollywood. Ideally, the participants were expected to draw from the knowledge of their Nigerian counterparts and on return to share their experiences with local colleagues with whom they would then collaborate to develop our fledgling industry.

It has been silent since they returned and I’m sure quite a number of artistes are at a loss what to make of it. Is there anything cooking in the studios or was the trip for the personal benefit of the ten artistes only? Even so, what have they been up to since? Our Riverwood, or whatever ‘wood’ we shall baptize our version of a movie hub, will certainly not thrive out of stealthy, publicity-starved production processes.

At the launch of the project, lots of sweet-sounding goals were made by the Kenya Film Commission. It pledged to support the group translate their knowledge into tangible productions upon return and even promised to host workshops where they would disseminate acquired skills to other players in the field. Well? Are we waiting for Godo? I cannot guess by what means the Commission intended or intends to notify the country-wide enthusiasts of these activities when their website was last updated at the launch of the project. This is a sad indictment for an organization whose mandate is ‘to make Kenya a centre of film production’. It is doubly sad, especially given the goodwill and resources from Mnet Africa and the Nollywood veterans.

Indeed Mnet Africa has been at the forefront of promoting Nollywood productions through the DSTV Africa Movie Magic channel. They have recently launched an extra channel, Africa Movie Magic Plus, to showcase productions from East and Central Africa. This is an excellent marketing opportunity for our movies which we might just lose as we continue waiting for Godo. Already, the earlier movies from Kenya like Backlash, By Any Means Necessary, Clean Hands and Wangai’s Cross have been run severally alongside those from Tanzania, Uganda and the Central states. After years of whining about lack of exposure, this is certainly a good time to put our act together and churn out those movies.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sidede Onyulo: Exit of Kenyan Giant

His towering physique aptly complemented a versatile artistic talent that strode effortlessly on the theatre stage as it shone on the cinema screens in a career spanning about thirty-five years. Sidede Onyulo passed away about a month ago at his Kajulu home in Kisumu where he was buried without much fanfare as was typical of his unpretentious lifestyle.

Although Onyulo attained remarkable success on the international movie scene, his fame was not widely celebrated in Kenya perhaps owing to an existence devoid of flamboyant displays. He is reputed to have had more friends in Europe than peers locally and once remarked that he was “more recognizable in the streets of Munich than Kisumu.”

Onyulo made his entry into the movies in 1987 when he featured in Shadow in the sun. He then went on to star in The Last Elephant (1990), Eye of a Witness (1991), Two worlds, Nowhere in Africa (2003, which made $6million), King Solomon’s Mines (2004), and The Constant Gardener (2005, which made $33million) besides many other television series and short films. Many of these have not been readily available for local viewers, but those who watched them elsewhere always seem to have come out with loads of praise for Onyulo whose performance they variously described thus;

  • “I just watched, "The Constant Gardener" I am thrilled. You made it. How can I contact you personally? You may remember we worked with you in Kenya in the Ministry of Legal Department some years ago. I happy you made the right choice. I am briefly residing in Australia with my entire family.”
  • “I have seen Sidede Onyulo in Nowhere in Africa and King Solomon's Mines the latter of which I seen first. I was so inspired by Mr. Onyulo's performance… He has the most beautiful noble presence I have seen, I don't know what it is but he looks as if he stepped through the clouds of heaven to grace us with his talents… and can't wait to see what his future ones will bring.”
  • “Onyulo is a gem of an actor. His role captivates the audience from the word go. It is from his net that the whole movie is woven.”
  • “An excellent performance by Mr. Onyulo. He has a real screen presence. Well done!”
  • “Very powerful and touching performance. I am very sad to find out this is Mr. Onyulo's only film so far - I hope we see many in the future”
  • “One of the most natural and powerful performances I have see. Sidede is a true talent.”
  • “I have just watched Sidede Onyulo in the movie King Solomon Mines on the Hallmark Channel. Very good acting for a Lawyer turned actor. Keep it up brother we Kenyans are proud of you.”

I captured the above quotes from film review sites on the internet as I searched for information that would give me an insight into Onyulo’s activities out there. The man’s achievements have not received widespread acclamation locally for reasons that are not immediately clear and that is an embarrassing indictment for a society that is in dire need of inspirational figures. Indeed, the bits of information gathered from his would-be peers seem to be suspiciously skewed to portray Onyulo as a recluse, a drunk and a madman for turning his back on a law career.

Sidede Onyulo who was born in Kajulu, attended school at Muthaiga Primary and Nairobi School before enrolling at the University of Nairobi where he studied law between 1975-1978. His classmates at the university included the current speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende and Kisumu Town West MP Olago Aluoch. He abandoned the legal profession in 1979 to engage in full-time theatre practice.

He first took to the stage while at Nairobi School when he played the leading role of Jero in Wole Soyinka’s play Trials of Brother Jero. He followed this with major roles in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City which were presented at Festac Nigeria in 1977. Other plays in which he put up superb performances were Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Shaka Zulu, The Successors and Man of Kafira. Onyulo relocated to Kisumu in 1993 where he established the Vigelegele Theatre Troupe to promote and develop performing arts in the region.

His demise is a big loss to the theatre fraternity and leaves unraveled the strange disconnect between his immense accomplishment internationally and a virtual publicity blackout locally. Upcoming thespians could pick up quite some bit of inspiration from Onyulo’s endeavors even though they may have to plough through the distractions and epithets from spiteful souls whose own success is dubious at best.