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Daily Nation : February 21st 2014
8 BE FAMOUS. daily NATION February 21, 2014 cover » AMONG THE FINEST! If ever Kabaseke had competition locally, Kato Change, would be it. He is another of Kenya’s most skillful guitarists, and plays for television shows Coke Studio and Tusker Project Fame (since Season 6) as well as performing on a number of international shows NO STRINGS E Ever heard a sound so sweet, that made you so bitter you couldn’t produce it yourself? Well, KABASEKE’s strings have been spreading sweet bitterness all over, writes BONIFACE NYAGA with six strings — or more — and a wild imagination. In the history of music, the guitar T has always played a central role in the evolution of genres, and those who have mastered the instrument have become legends in their own right. You can’t have reggae without that iconic chop, or rock without the screaming overdrive of an electric guitar. Lead guitarists often hide in the shadows of the superstars they backup so, unfortunately, we rarely take note of their contribution. But without that distinctive Congolese guitar, most hit songs on our radios today would be tasteless. Sebene is by far the greatest Congolese export, and, it has given East Africa its musical identity. And when that Sebene guitar solo hits you, it’ll make you pull moves you never knew you had in you. Now, the bond between a man and his guitar is often peculiar. After spending endless hours practising on it, it becomes a second wife. BB King was the undisputed king of blues and his US$30-dollar Gibson guitar was legendary. In 1949, he ran into a burning building to save his beloved baby. Two people died in the fire. One of them was called Lucille. King named his guitar after her. From then on, Lucille accompanied BB King in his 250 annual performances, prompting the guitar maker to produce a special edition, Gibson Lucille. The Hendrix chord Jimi Hendrix tops most guitar legends’ lists. But he didn’t play the guitar. He felt it. The guitar was an extension of his own heart. Jimi exploded onto the scene in the early ’60s and grew up playing blues. He kept pushing the boundaries of how the instrument is played and manufactured. The Rolling Stones’ magazine’s list of All time greatest guitarists currently ranks Carlos Santana at No. 20. Nearly 50 years after his first major record deal, Santana remains relevant by continuously reinventing himself. Through the years, his distinctive Spanish guitar licks have remained constantly astonishing, but everything else has changed. Over the years, he has collaborated with different artistes: here are artistes who are so good at what they do, that they write history with every note they play; performers who paint a whole new world Shakira, Lauryn Hill, Michael Jackson and Wyclef Jean, and had an endless list of hit makers that has kept him on the charts for years. Down south, Jonathan Butler has been running his fingers through his fret board since the late ’70s. Despite growing up in South Africa at the height of apartheid, he transcended racial and financial barriers to become the first black man to be played on white radio. He was later nominated for a Grammy and won a long list of awards. In addition to his exemplary gui- tar skills, he is an accomplished Jazz vocalist, who has played with all the greats at countless festivals all over the world. My personal favourite is Phil Keaggy; how one man with an acoustic guitar can play like a seven-piece band, I cannot just understand. He makes guitars do things they were never intended to do, making them sound like Scottish bagpipes, and even sings into the guitar, creating his own background vocals. Kenya’s finest today But that’s history, and all of it only an introduction to one of Kenya’s finest today. Benjamin ‘bad boy, long-time heavyweight satellite’ Kabaseke, is a name you need to memorise. It is a name that most guitarists in and around Nairobi have come to respect. You’ve probably seen him on stage with Octopizo or on Jimmy Gait’s video, Signature. If you listen carefully you can hear Benja’s timely licks and clean chord work all over the track. At the very end he builds up to a remarkable sebene solo. He says: “Music is food for the soul. You might not see the salt or the spice but if you have ever eaten tasteless food, you’ll appreciate it. As instrumentalists, our aim is not to overshadow the artiste but to add flavour to his performance.” The Congolese guitarist has played major gigs all over East Af- I COULD HAVE DONE ANYTHING ELSE WITH MY LIFE BUT I CHOSE THE GUITAR, I WAKE UP EVERY MORNING AND MY FINGERS ARE JUST ITCHING TO PLAY” — KABASEKE rica and is currently the lead guitarist for Niko na Safaricom live. Benja makes it look all too easy when he’s running his fingers on that fret board. He holds the audience in a captive gaze with every note, sometimes overshadowing the main act. Whether it’s a jazz piece, pop, rock or sebene, Benja will get you on your feet either dancing or standing in awe of his riffs and licks. “I could have done anything else with my life but I chose the guitar, I wake up every morning and my fingers are just itching to play,” he explains. “On top of my regular band practice I do at least 3hrs a day, on my own just to keep sharp, music is all about discipline.” It was love at first sight when he first picked the guitar in the rich musical environment that is the Congo. He grew up listening to his father practising chords and baselines for hours on end. His father’s music found fertile ground; it was only a matter of time before Benja went into the family business. When he was 10 years old, his dad would prop him on top of a table with a guitar twice his size hanging from his shoulder. His little fingers were barely swimming on the fret board, but he produced enough music to wow the crowd. It took him a while to become proficient in the art, and when he did, he joined the local church choir to sharpen his skills. Balancing music and his school was no easy task, but Benjamin was one determined little guitarist. “I never really thought of myself as a guitarist, I just picked the instrument and discovered I had a talent,” he recalls. “I never imagined that one day I could turn it into such a successful career. I guess when you pursue what you love with all your heart, things happen.” He played with the Catholic Char- ismatic group in Congo until he was about 15, when the perils of war came knocking. The Ituri conflict erupted in 1999 and Benja’s family was caught in the crossfire until about 2002, when they eventually crossed to Uganda. The conflict was between the agriculturalist Lendu and pastoralist Hema ethnic groups in the Ituri region of the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The two groups had fought in armed clashes at least as early as 1972 but proliferation of small arms stirred up fresh fighting. Entire families were wiped out; Benja and his family were lucky to escape. “War is bad. You should always thank God that we have peace In Kenya, he says. “At the time it was hard, but when I look back, I realise it was God’s way of launching me into East Africa.” In Uganda, he impressed local superstar Jose Chameleon with his flawless fingerwork. This opened the door to a five-year contract that saw him perform all over Kampala.
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