Ally Sykes: Soldier, musician, trade unionist, and businessman

Thursday June 20 2013

Ally Sykes wore many hats with ease — he was a soldier in Burma, a trade unionist and politician, a businessman, and even founded a jazz band. Illustration/John Nyagah

Ally Sykes wore many hats with ease — he was a soldier in Burma, a trade unionist and politician, a businessman, and even founded a jazz band. Illustration/John Nyagah Nation Media Group


I cannot remember the first time I met Ally Sykes, but I knew him when I was very young. Ally Sykes was one of a kind.

Many do not know of the key role that this iconic figure played in Tanganyika’s drive for Independence, but he shared a lot with me when I was writing a book about his elder brother.  

It was Ally and his brother Abdulwahid who took in Julius Nyerere when he first came to Dar es Salaam in 1952, and proposed him to stand for Tanganyika African Association presidency in 1953, which was then held by Abdulwahid himself.  Nyerere won that election and the Tanganyika African National Union (Tanu) was formed in 1954.

Ally and Abdulwahid, along with John Rupia, Dossa Aziz and Nyerere formed the inner circle of the nascent nationalist movement, and they were the vanguard in the Independence struggle.

The two Sykes brothers were natural insiders in the political awakening in Tanganyika since their father, Kleist Sykes, was the founding secretary of the African Association in 1929.

When Tanu was founded in July 1954, Ally Sykes, from his own pocket, printed the first 1,000 Tanu cards. He issued Tanu card no. 1 to “Territorial president” Julius Nyerere and card no. 2 to himself, card no. 3 to his elder brother Abdulwahid Sykes, card no. 4 to Dossa Aziz, card no. 5 to Dennis Phombeah, a Nyasa from Nyasaland, card no. 6 to Dome Okochi Budohi, one of the Kenyan nationalists in Tanu, and card no. 7 to John Rupia.

He printed a further 2,000 cards from money borrowed from Tanganyika African Government Servant Association, of which he was secretary.

In the early 1960s, we were living on Lindi Street (which before Independence was known as Kirk Street) near International Hotel in Dar es Salaam. The hotel still exists today, although the house we used to live in was torn down and replaced by a high rise building.

Ally had his office just across our house. He and my father had been friends since childhood; they had gone to school together in Dar es Salaam. I later learned that this office was owned by Peter Colmore, the managing director of High Fidelity Productions, a publicity and advertising agency based in Nairobi, and Ally was his representative in Dar es Salaam.

Ally was a civil servant in the Labour Department but after office hours, he would work at the agency.

Ally formed his first company — Sykes Sales Promotion Consultancy — in 1958 at the age of 32. Colmore, who had built up a very successful sales promotion business in Nairobi, appointed him as his agent for High Fidelity Productions in Tanganyika.

It was during this time that I came to know Peter Colmore. Whenever Colmore was in Dar es Salaam he would stay at the International Hotel Annex where he had a permanent room with a brass placard on the door carrying his name.

During this time, Ally, through Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation, was hosting a radio show for Philips, Shell BP and other companies.

My father was an ardent fan of Ally Sykes’s radio programmes, and though I was very young then, I can still hear Ally’s husky voice on the radio over the music, with my father sitting close by on his favourite sofa. This was in the early 1960s.

Ally was 15 years old when he ran away from home in Dar es Salaam and volunteered for King’s African Rifles (KAR) in Burma, in 1942. His elder brother Abdulwahid had been conscripted and was already serving in Burma. Although Ally’s father Kleist went to the KAR Recruiting Centre at Kilwa Road to protest that Ally was too young to join the army, the authorities refused to listen.

Ally recalled that, “When we were about to be transported to Burma, my father came to Kabete, near Nairobi, where the training centre was, to see me off. But the authorities did not allow him into the camp. He went back to Dar es Salaam a very sad man having not been able to see me.’’

Even before he reached Burma, word was sent to his parents that Ally’s ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and Ally was among the dead soldiers. It was, however, a false alarm, as Ally arrived at Kurnegala Camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka safe and sound in 1943.

What had happened was that while Ally’s convoy was sailing towards Colombo, one of the ships was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The vessel sank, killing all the African askaris and their white officers on board.

In Dar es Salaam, death rites for young Ally were even held at Kipata Mosque near their house, but his family was later overjoyed to learn that Ally was still alive.

After the war in 1945, Ally decided not to go back home directly. After disembarking in Mombasa from the ship that was bringing ex-service men back, he took a train to Nairobi to seek employment. In Nairobi, Ally went to work for Colmore, for the first time, as an assistant at his real estate agency.

The two had first met in a record shop a few years earlier, the East African music store owned by Assanand, who once had record shops in all major towns in East Africa. Both were in KAR uniform. Colmore was from the upper class of the British nobility and Ally from a well-to-do family in Dar es Salaam. Ally was fluent in English. That meeting at Assanand’s was a good omen, because after the war their relationship revolved around music, publicity and promotions.

As Colmore’s assistant in the real estate agency, Ally’s job was to take prospective buyers to view properties and negotiate the price, leaving Colmore to seal the deal after he had completed the groundwork. Ally also acted as the public relations officer for the agency.

At that time, during colonialism, Ally’s job was considered prestigious, out of reach for most Africans in Kenya. To get privileges from the colonial system, like staying in a hotel and getting a good salary, Ally registered himself as a Zulu. It wasn’t very far-fetched — Ally’s grandfather was actually a Zulu from South Africa, who came to Tanganyika as a mercenary for the German colonists.

The Germans, wanting to beef up their colonial army, went on a recruiting drive to South Africa and Mozambique, to attract Zulus into their army, as they had a reputation for being fearsome warriors. 

After living in Tanganyika for a while, Ally’s grandfather found that life in Tanganyika under the Germans, and later, under the British, was less oppressive than what he had experienced under the Boers in South Africa, and decided to stay.

Ally got on well with Colmore, and they decided to form a band. During the war, Ally had been part of the entertainment unit of the KAR in the Burma Infantry 6th Battalion, and played the saxophone alongside the famous guitarist and vocalist Fundi Konde from Mombasa. 

Colmore brought African musicians from Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, into the country. At the time Kenyan musicians had not learned how to use modern musical instruments. The band from Zimbabwe had musicians who played the piano, saxophone and trumpets. Colmore put Ally in charge, and he was responsible for general management and finding engagements for the band.

They became popular in Nairobi and played mainly for white audiences who could pay high rates. The band held many shows at Nairobi Theatre (now the Kenya National Theatre). The band was first known as the Ally Sykes Band, but was later called the Peter Colmore African Band.

It was while he was in Nairobi that Ally Sykes came to know Jomo Kenyatta, W.W Awori, Tom Mboya, Bildad Kaggia and other Kenyan nationalists. It was also during this time that he came into contact with Mau Mau activists.

Colmore and Ally working under High Fidelity Productions represented, promoted, and were consultants to Coca Cola (East Africa) Ltd; Cooper Motors Corporation Ltd; Allsopp (EA) Ltd; Shell Company of East Africa Ltd, Aspro Nicholas Ltd; Gailey and Roberts Ltd; Bata Shoes Company Ltd; Kenya Broadcasting Service, Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing Board and Raleigh Industries of East Africa Ltd.

They were also commercial representative in Kenya for the Tanganyika Broadcasting Corporation.

As a young boy, I remember the famous poster of Eduardo Masengo the guitarist and singer from Congo in striped blazer with his guitar holding a bottle of Coca-Cola. There was also the famous photograph of Msafiri Morimori, the trombone player, advertising Sportsman Cigarettes. These photographs of Masengo and Morimori were found in all newspapers in East Africa.

In 1960, Colmore brought Eduardo Masengo over to Dar es Salaam to perform, and Ally asked his friend Julius Nyerere to grace the occasion as the guest of honour at the show, which Masengo gave at Arnautoglo Hall. Colmore also came over from Nairobi for the show and Ally took the opportunity to introduce him to Julius Nyerere.

“I took Colmore over to Nyerere’s house at Magomeni Majumba Sita where he was staying at that time. On that day, Nyerere was a bit distressed since reports had been received from Congo that Lumumba had been killed,” Ally Sykes remembered. “The only thing that I remember about this is that we were all very sad about the events which were taking place in Congo.

“I took Peter Colmore to Julius Nyerere with the view of discussing serious business opportunities that would unfold to Africans in free Tanganyika but the atmosphere that day was not permitting,” Ally wrote in his unpublished autobiography Under the Shadow of BritishColonialism. In the book, he reveals that he was getting richer by the day even though he was a civil servant at that time. His wealth eventually created a problem with Julius Nyerere.

After Independence, and following the Arusha Declaration of 1967 which intended to turn Tanzania into a socialist state, the government passed the Leadership Code. The code prohibited civil servants from engaging in business, drawing more than one salary, owning property or holding shares in a private company. The code even prevented a civil servant from renting out property.

Ally knew that the Arusha Declaration would be the turning point in his career and business relationship with Colmore, because as a civil servant he owned property and was an established entrepreneur even before Independence.

In 1971, the government passed the Acquisition of Building Act. By the stroke of a pen, all buildings with the value of more than Tsh100,000 became government property.

Ally and his mother, Bi Mruguru biti Mussa, lost property nationalised by the government, and so did John Rupia.

Ally writes, “Strangely, about this time in 1967, soon after the Arusha Declaration, there was subtle harassment from the government towards me and my business to the extent that one day my mother asked me what has gone wrong between me, my brother Abdulwahid, and Nyerere.”

Colmore could not stand the hostile political climate. He wound up, sold the company to Ally, including the office premises, and went back to Nairobi never to return.

Ally went on to live a full life owning residences in Montreal, Ottawa, Johannesburg, London, Harare and Nairobi. Sykes was buried in Kisutu cemetery, Dar es Salaam in May 2013, and this region will surely be a dimmer place without the light of this remarkable man.