Ayub Ogada: The musician who ‘saved’ the nyatiti

Thursday January 14 2016

Probably the earliest eight-stringed harp in the world, the Golden Lyre of Ur. Right: Ogada, hailed as one of Africa’s great traditional lyre-players, playing a replica. PHOTO | COURTESY | ALAN DONOVAN

The road to Ayub Ogada’s house is like any other in rural Kenya. A red-earth single track leading to a gate, off the Kisumu-Kakamega highway in western Kenya.

There’s no sign at the gate identifying the house owner but people in the rural village of Nyahera all know the great musician who lives in their midst.

The compound is a typical Luo homestead. A main house in the middle of the compound, two grass thatched huts behind it, chickens running free and trees lining a green lawn around the compound.

Ogada stands at the door of his house – the building is still in progress since he started construction not so long ago when he decided to settle in his village after years away in foreign lands doing music. Through the large glass doors and windows, you can see the Maragoli hills stretching to the horizon; outside children play and chickens cluck – it’s music to his ears.

Ogada’s house is unpretentious. A simple abode with his musical instruments taking most space. The instrument that I’m looking for is the nyatiti, an eight-stringed traditional Luo lyre that is the centre of an incredible journey of the artiste and his music.

The nyatiti is simply propped against a wall in the living room.


The maestro

Ogada is hailed as one of Africa’s great traditional lyre-players.

He has travelled the world with the likes of music legend Peter Gabriel and the Japanese fashionista Issey Miyake to play the nyatiti at his fashion shows. He learned to play the guitar from the legendary Kenyan musician Fadhili Williams of Malaika fame and was good friends with another music legend, Daudi Kabaka who sang the famous benga musician of hits like the African Twist, Harambee Harambee and Western Shilo.

Ogada has played with maestros like the late sitar player Ravi Shankar, played the nyatiti in Lionel Ritchie’s Original Woman, and in 2012 was included in the making of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee song.

But his crowning moment came in 2005 when he was asked to play the Golden Lyre of Ur – albeit a replica of the 4,700-year old original that pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Gaza – at the opening of the Africa Calling Live 8 concert at the Eden project in Cornwall, England.

In 2007, he played it again at the Earth Festival in Kenya.

The Golden Lyre of Ur

In 1929, archaeologists in Iraq stumbled upon a tragic scene when they broke into a royal tomb. There lay the bodies of 46 women, later presumed to have been attendants to a queen. In a corner were three lyres and a harp, all deteriorated.

Fast forward to 2003, at the onset of the war in Iraq, the Baghdad museum where the Golden Lyre of Ur was on display, was looted. It was later found in the museum car park smashed to pieces and stripped of its golden bull’s head and inlays. This inspired harpist and engineer Andy Lowings to work with a team of experts from around the world to build a replica covered in over 5,000 pieces of cut stone, lapis lazuli, and mother of pearl, and finished off with pure gold, creating a wonderful work of art.

According to Lowings, lyres which are still played today in Africa are closely connected to instruments in Ethiopia, Yemen, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt and very likely to those played 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia in what is modern-day Iraq.

“The instruments cross over all modern borders, and are testimony to their very ancient origins. The Gold Lyre of Ur (2,550 BC) is oddly similar to many modern instruments,” said Lowings. “Humanity is connected musically.”

Ogada too feels a great connection with the Golden Lyre of Ur and traces the historical links of his people, the Luo, to the stringed instrument. “The Luo have only been in Kenya for 2,000 years having travelled up the Nile from the Sudan and before that perhaps from the Middle East.

“The Golden Lyre of Ur is a very easy instrument to play, just like the nyatiti, and is extremely beautiful,” he said.

His house

Ogada strolls to an open glass door that leads to the underground recording studio he is building. A few metres away from his house is that of his mother. Born of musical parents in 1956 in Mombasa, he accompanied them on musical tours to the UK and the US, giving him a broad outlook on life.

“Many people have forgotten traditional music,” says Ogada. “I feel a responsibility to reintroduce it. I learned from here and I want to give back.”

And he tells me the story of Koth Biro, his most famous piece. Composed in the late 1970s, his voice reaches the soul, the lyrics of a simple life in the village with the rain coming and the cattle being brought home. The nyatiti is heard in the sound track for The Constant Gardener while Koth Biro has been used in a number of movies, TV productions and concerts around the world.

“Music does not come isolated,” he continues. “It goes with the food, the language, the customs… it’s a cultural memory. We should not ignore what has existed for thousands of years.”

Ogada’s musical odyssey

In the early 1970s, Ogada was part of the Black Savages band, which played rock music.

In 1979, he co-founded the African Heritage Band with Alan Donovan, the founder of the African Heritage pan-African gallery. After the gallery closed down, the collections, many of Donovan’s and of the late Joseph Murumbi (Kenya’s second vice president) and his wife (the trio were partners) — are now on display at the Nairobi Gallery, the National Museum of Kenya, the National Archives and the African Heritage House, all in Nairobi.

“I was at the National Theatre and somebody tapped my shoulder. It was Alan Donovan who had come looking for me. He wanted me to play for his Kenya African Heritage Festivals, which showed the textile heritage of Africa,” Ogada says of how he met Donovan. It was the start of a long friendship.

The African Heritage Band became one of the most successful in Kenya, playing African music at the African Heritage shop and high-end hotels in the city. The band broke up soon after Ogada left for the UK in 1986.

It was at the African Heritage shop in 1985 that Ogada spotted the nyatiti displayed for sale. “It was an instrument from my rural home but nobody was playing it there any longer. So l bought it for a sum of Ksh3,000 paying for it in instalments of Ksh100.

“Then l found a teacher at the Bomas of Kenya to teach me how to play it. One lesson cost Ksh100 — a lot of money back then. After six lessons, I could not afford it anymore and taught myself after that. Since nobody played the instrument in Nairobi, I had to connect with the old people in Nyahera to learn more.

“The nyatiti is one of the great basics of my life. It’s the sound of beauty,” reflects Ogada. “If I feel unwell, I pick it up and play. It helps me recover. I couldn’t do without the nyatiti today. It’s like drinking water to me.”

Years abroad

In 1986, Ogada left Kenya for the UK where he lived for 20 years.

“In Kenya, I couldn’t meet the musicians I wanted to learn from,” he says. “In Kenya the music played was mostly from the Congo.

“In the UK, I met African musicians like Baba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keïta and others who embodied great diversity of styles. And that’s how I created my style. However, it wasn’t all easy going in the UK. The first four years were a struggle, spent playing in the London Underground and bus stations all over the city because he could not find a job.

“It was a tough, but simple life,” he recalls.

“It’s here that I developed my strength and played Koth Biro. I was never a vocalist but my voice developed in the London Underground because the acoustics are fantastic and I could hear myself. I had a passing audience and to attract it I had to develop something that would attract the audience. I learned to control the texture of my voice.”

In 1988, he was approached to play at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (Womad) festival in Cornwall, England. Womad has been in existence for three decades with the internationally renowned musician, Peter Gabriel, as one of the founders. The festival brings together artistes from all over the globe to promote cross-cultural awareness and tolerance.

It was to be a 10-minute slot made available following a last minute cancellation. It stretched into a full set performance of over an hour. Among the fans won over that day was Gabriel himself.

“I remember that day very well,” recalls Ogada. “It was the beginning of my international career. A very poignant point in my life.”

Ogada was invited to take part in one of the “recording weeks” at Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire. In 1993, he recorded his first album En Mana Kuoyo (Just Sand) at the studio and he toured extensively with Gabriel and Womad.

The making of Koth Biro

“All I did was adjust a traditional song. I sat with Nana Tsiboe and worked on the rhythm. In 1993, Ogada sang Koth Biro playing the nyatiti. “It’s when it kicked off.”

Tsiboe is a Ghanaian master of percussionist. At the height of the US civil-rights movement in the 1960s, he shared the stage with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and has worked with musical legends like Fela Kuti, Paul McCartney, Marvin Gaye, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangare and Nine Simone among others.

The future

“We have a long history of African music which hasn’t been researched. We don’t even know half of it,” says Ogada. “Colonisation had a deep impact in Africa, forcing people to abandon traditions, costumes, culture and so on. Very little of the African culture and languages are taught at school.

“I try to inspire young people to keep their language and their music,” continues the musician, who has made a career from singing in the vernacular playing traditional instruments.

“My plan is to give young artistes an opportunity to record in a studio and release their music. If they make money, they can pay me. I didn’t have a studio to record my music because it was expensive, so I feel it’s my responsibility to assist young artistes on their way.”

“If you look at Western or Eastern instruments like the piano, cello or the sitar, they have been played for centuries and are still being played. In the same way, we mustn’t forget ours.”