John Nzenze: The Pioneer Of Kenyan Music

by Duke Magazine

Fame smiled at John Nzenze earlier, and even before his home country Kenya got her independence from the United Kingdom, Nzenze was conjuring what could fairly be described as pop songs in his days.

Born in 1940, Nzenze was one of the few artistes who set the pace for the sound of Kenyan music from the 1960s, with the introduction of traditional melodies to foreign rhythms. Together with the likes of Peter Akwabi, Daudi Kabaka and George Mukabi, who died in 1963, Nzenze pioneered what was known as “twist music”.

Kenyan twist music is named according to the twist dance style very popular among southerners in the United States. The history is a bit unknown on how the twist dance was introduced into Kenya, although the best theories suggest that British colonizers must have taken it to East Africa as one of those ballroom dances at state functions and entertainment centers.

Nzenze’s twist music was accompanied by exactly the twist dancing you may know. But the degree of originality to the sound the Kenyan musicians invented cannot be underemphasized.

Angelike by Nzenze, released in 1961, still stands today as the most iconic twist song. Angelike is a song that shot Nzenze unto stardom. 

In 2015, he told BBC Swahili: “Music pays, once you get to a certain level, it pays… Angelike took me to many countries.”

Nzenze founded a band, Air Fiesta Matata, in 1968. The band had tour across Asia and the UK, including several African countries. Indeed, some of the band’s members were Congolese from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who had settled in Kenya as refugees.

Nzenze’s songs were usually about love, and that is what makes it great and what makes it hurt. He was a soulful writer who spoke to the realities of such things as breakups, love triangles and getting to be with the woman you love.

“If you don’t make a woman happy, your music won’t have much value. If a woman loves your song, even the men will love it. We were young and we were clothed in love,” Nzenze reportedly said once.

He continued to sing later in his years, still sticking to his preferred live music performances. Nzenze was a man who boast in maintaining music enthusiasm beyond producing quick-vanishing hit songs.

His 2014 performance at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the United States was the last major event at which Nzenze sang.

In 2020, he died of prostate cancer, much to the sadness of a continent that he had captivated with what Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto called “creative and a talent beyond spectacular, a true and original voice”.

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