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Greatest Kamba Benga Artist of all Time
By Dominic Nzuki - 8th Jul 2021
CHARLES MUSYOKI KIKUMBI [KIJANA] – Greatest Kamba Benga Artist of all Time?
Sometimes in May 2015, I was engaged in a very heated debate with a friend of mine about whether Charles Musyoki Kikumbi [Kijana] should be considered the greatest Benga artiste of all time.
What is clear to me is that in many instances talent and flair are conflated with greatness. In fact, in the debate on the propriety of designating Kijana 'the greatest Benga artiste of all time,' there are those who are contending that he was not a better guitarist than Kasyoki of Katitu. Yet one should be careful with this type of argument. Guitar quality is not the only or the most important feature of a great artist. There are other characteristics, which must be taken into account when making a determination on artistic greatness.
Yes, there may have been more naturally talented artists than Kijana, but were they greater than he was? History is replete with so many individuals who displayed remarkable potential but who were just not able to respond appropriately or consistently to the imperatives of success.
Kijana was tireless in his efforts to hone his craft and skill. Did he reach the apex of admiration at the time when Benga was beginning to blossom nationally? Kijana is the very personification of biological, historical, and social circumstances, which will never again be embodied by any other individual.
Kijana was a once-in-a-lifetime, colossal talent. On influence alone, I bet he is a top influence on anyone who came after him, including all musicians who came after the year 2000. He was a brilliant composer, really brilliant arranger, songwriter, and live performer. He was a top name in our region, not only as an artist but also as a standalone for most of the post-1990s. In the time when there were no cable TVs, no internet, and only one AM Radio, everyone knew him.
Kijana could write memorable tunes. He had an incredible ear for rhythms and hooks. That’s why his tracks, to this day, still sound fresh and those albums are about 20-30 years old at this point. As far as being able to craft a tune, Kijana Musyoki had to be one of the best. His tunes are definitely wearing well. He was not the best vocalist, as far as I am aware and by his own admission, didn't do lead vocals in his songs. On vocals, Kijana relied on his young brother, Kyalo Junior.
Kyalo had one the best unique and most beautiful voices that could simply not be replicated. There are few Benga vocalists before or after him I can think of. What made him so special is beyond my understanding. Maybe it was his tone, maybe his accent. Whatever it was, it was one the most amazing thing ever recorded in Kamba Benga history and nobody will pull it off. At least not any time soon.
After Kijana exit, nobody has since emerged with the complete package of talents that Musyoki had (Kativui and Ken Maria have tried). It was amazing how, once he was dead, people suddenly realized again how good this guy was. There has never been anyone remotely as good as Musyoki at Kamba Benga music. Kasyoki of Katitu had a longer career and a more solid track record, but even his best stuff can't pack the Mamba Platnumz dance floor the way “Mwendwa Maria” can.
Will we ever get another Kijana? Most probably not. As far as Kijana goes I have to say that there is no chance that someone will match him ever. Kijana just had a charisma that was like none other. Why do some people love Kijana so much? One reason is that his music was not just good and beautiful with a beautiful message, but also an embodiment of who Kijana truly was. He was hugely influential in ways that took a lot of people by surprise.
Kijana was the last of the old-school megastars in Kamba Benga music. Old school because he was influenced by the likes of Kakai Kilonzo and Peter Muambi, and those inspirations shined through in his performances. But he took their showmanship abilities to higher heights setting and shattering records.
If there will be another Kijana, he will have to pull off something new and exciting that many people love. If I knew what that would be, then I would be making that incredible new art instead of typing this post.
Pluck the strings with the angels, Charles Kikumbi.