By Tony Wasuna
A friend recently introduced me to the notion of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It is an illusion of frequency insinuating that once you are actively cognizant of something, you seem to come across it with uncanny ubiquity. Sometime last year, another friend barged into a WhatsApp chat in textual frenzy to let me know that Buju Banton, Gargamel himself, was coming to Kenya. In line with tradition, I called him to acknowledge through vocal mania that I was indeed excited. And suddenly Buju Banton was everywhere. Not on radio, not at this stage when the news of his sojourn to the motherland was barely more tactile than a rumour. Just everywhere else.
Someone at a grocery market might have growled at me to act like a champion. Another might have sung that they wanted to rule their destiny in a matatu. Maybe. A conversation I overheard watching a Youtube video definitely contained the line of dialogue, ”So you’re Jamaican? Like Jerk Chicken, Buju Banton, big tings a gwan Jamaican?” implying stereotypically and perhaps in truth that Mark Anthony Myrie is the quintessential Jamaican man. And so it went, each name check or song lyric whetting the appetite with Pavlovian anticipation until a date and formal announcement finally materialized. It did. 31st December. Mombasa.
Buju Banton is a big deal. And for a certain breed of Nairobi-bred millennial whose teenage years straddled the 90s, he is an icon. He is a face on a hypothetical Mount Rushmore of 90s dancehall and reggae music. Crucially, he went on a journey as an artist – without forcefully relocating – from egocentric bravado and truculence towards spiritual angst, meditation and exhortations of social justice and it is a journey that many of us took with him. He may not be the first or only reggae artist to mature in that direction but he is one of a few who bridge with authentic strength the dual cultural identities of the popular Jamaican music we’ve come to adopt as our own. Buju is a dancehall behemoth and just as prominently a primordial star of neo-roots reggae rather than a dilute version of either.
He did not perform on December 31st. But he did not cancel definitively either. We just needed to wait. And this time he’d be performing in Nairobi on 8th January 2020. More time to reflect on the man who made me grab my left breast and almost rip it off when I first heard him wail that it was Not An Easy Road. The man who roared “Boom Bye Bye in a Batty Bwoy Head” and became the reference point for an apoplectic LGBT movement that was railing against homophobia in popular culture. If you’re to believe a conspiracy theory or 2, the West finally got him when he was in December 2009 charged by authorities in Miami for possession of narcotics. I had more time to contemplate a man whose song was the background music many a youth’s clamour for self-determination. More time to see or hear him everywhere.
He did not perform on the 8th. But our former president’s death had not stopped reggae. It had only postponed it for a week. More time to see him in the clouds that portend the city’s evening showers and to hear him in the patter of their sweat.
A day verging on two after St. Valentine’s, I walked from Tom Mboya Avenue towards KICC with company. Pavlov’s bell had rang thrice, twice in vain, and this dog was frothing at the mouth. It is a few minutes to midnight when we get to City Hall. It is only at this point that you can hear a beat thumping faintly in the distance. Beres Hammond? It isn’t clear. Since that side is the VIP entrance, the bouncers direct us into a mini-tour of the Central Business District. We walk as if away from the venue intent on reconnecting with the music the closer we get to Parliament on the other side of town. It is also on this trek that the trepidation creeps in or at least when I notice it.
KICC is my favourite concert venue in Nairobi. It has always felt safe without being especially martial. There is ample security but it is not overbearing. There are venues elsewhere where the walk to the ticketing booth feels like an inspection of the guard and you’ll still lose your wallet to jugular pressure. Without claiming to account for everyone, all of my 6-7 concerts at this venue have been without unwanted incident. It is as if the courtly and almost ceremonial atmosphere of the area is enough to compel acceptable behavior even for nightlife revelers. It is not security I’m worried about. And I’m still anxious.
There is no jostling and there is no queue. Maybe there are no people inside? Maybe there are more roadies than there are fans? Has Moi actually stopped reggae? The clearing and forwarding of us night creatures is quick and easy. Our ticket codes are scanned from our phones to a device as a band is tied and sealed around our right wrists. As we walk towards the field that’s making all the noise, I sheepishly throw 2 folios of paper into a trash can. I’m old school. The way I knew it, you don’t get to have fun before a piece of paper is ripped, stamped, signed or ticked. And then we’re in the midst of 2 sizable crowds, 1 wrapping the stage another milling along the drinks stalls. There are people. A lot of people. Enough people to have a lot of fun with. Not so many that you have to piggyback a stranger for a longshot chance at purchasing an overpriced bottle of water.
I want to enjoy Buju. And for a reason I can’t place my finger on, I just as firmly want Buju to enjoy us. I nebulously believe that a great Buju concert will somehow validate my youth. And when I embrace this, I identify the source of my mild anxiety. The last time a reggae artist who mattered to my past graced our city he didn’t do very well. He too had spent some time away from his career incarcerated. By consensus and experience, it was not a good concert and for some reason I too, as a fan, felt somehow culpable.
After a stop at the stalls and the calming of nerves, I make my way with company to a place, any place, near the stage. I am disappointed that I didn’t get to see local artist, Lavosti perform. He is always great. Fyah Mummah Njambi has the crowd enthralled with just her presence. She is strong, she is loud, she is energetic and got us eating off her palm talking to us. She ushers in hit after hit intermittently reminding us that given what she’s been through, she shouldn’t be standing before us. She shouldn’t but she is. We are blessed. The sound system is good. Loud, aggressive but adequately crisp.
A slew of DJs take turns to show off while the MCs and hype men heckle for our attention. Reggae is probably the only genre I can think of in which a DJ can play songs released in 1976, 2015, 1988 and 1997 within 9 minutes in that order without fracturing your brain. Wailing Souls, Chronnixx, Barington Levy, Anthony B. Each song is a contemporary sing-a-long. All songs are anthems. However, I still find jarring the modern trend of concert DJs essentially channel-surfing tunes, teasing 40 second clips and never letting us actually get immersed in one song. But it is also so common I’m almost embarrassed to complain about it. And soon, it doesn’t matter.
Just as I begin to hear the first impatient murmurs of “We want Buju!” the stage lights dim, the laser lights point away and in the limited visibility one can hear a flurry of movement. As if someone has been given 30 seconds to move all his furniture into a new apartment. I pick out the drums of a live band and as this new type of music finds its feet, a familiar voice wrestles control of the pleasant commotion. The drinks stalls empty frenzied revelers into the threshold of the stage. We hear that voice again. It is now in charge. It is a roar. It is melodic but it is not sweet. It is beautiful but it is not accommodating. It is powerful. It is great. I still can’t see where its owner is. It doesn’t matter. I can tell. This concert will be good. I am no longer anxious.
We’re trotting on the spot and swaying and darting our eyes between the stage and the big screens on the side trying to find a sighting. And then someone taps me on the shoulder and guides my face to my right. And there he is in a brown-grey African pattern suit. And suddenly we can all see him galloping across the stage, knees alternating across his waist. Now we’re all jumping and I am lost somewhere between the present and the past.
Destiny. Easy road. Champion. Cry No more. Hills and Valleys. Pull up the Vibes. Love Sponge. Murderer. Mr. Nine. Driver A. Untold Stories. He goes through all his classics. I jump and wave and sing along in a trance. I try to match his energy. I cannot but I inadvertently try. In the rare moments of lucidity, when he too takes a rest to see how we’re doing, I notice and consider that quite a lot of people, particularly the young, do not and cannot sing along to some of his songs. But they cannot ignore the performance. They feel it.
When he summons Bobby Wine to the stage, there is a surge. Bobby Wine, shy and clearly in awe, joins him in a song. The crowd hits a gear I feel we would have engaged and never left if he was performing here twenty years ago. Just like Buju himself when we first heard his voice today. He never relents.
Over two hours later, he finally decrescendos from his last song and says goodbye. Long after he has left the stage I hang around enjoying a set from Silverstar Sounds who do the unenviable job of following Buju well. But I’m really sticking around in the hope of a surprise encore. I hold onto that hope for almost an hour after he left the stage. At this point the band that was around my wrist is missing. Probably slipped off from the perspiration. I thought it were waterproof.
Inevitably, I have to go home. Everyone has to. I am at peace. Buju Banton and his Til Shiloh band did us proud. And I think we did him proud too.