The church choirs that shaped the fate of gospel music

ACK Jogoo Road Choir of St Stephen. [File]

Over the years, Kenya has produced great church choirs under the direction of passionate conductors.

There are several church choirs, but a few stand out for singing with all their heart.

Six leading church choirs stood out in the hands of veteran and experienced tutors.

During their musical journey, they have produced sweet gospel melodies that have survived the test of time.

Over time, they competed to compose and release songs which later shaped the destiny of gospel music in Kenya and the East African region.

As the Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd of the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK), Nakuru ruled the former Rift Valley Province, St Joseph’s Catholic Church Choir, Migori, did so in the western region of Kenya with fierce competition from the Itierio Lutheran Choir in Kisii and Kisii Cathedral.

The Itierio Lutheran Church Choir’s most popular hit was Ewe Ndugu.

The ACK Cathedral Church Choir was conducted by Aggrey Lugalia, who is now the Church’s Director of Music, while the St Joseph’s Catholic Church Choir was and still is conducted by Alfred Osonga.

In Nairobi, the battle was between ACK churches led by St Stephen’s Church Jogoo Road and St Barnaba’s Church Choir, Otiende, in Lang’ata.

In the coastal region, it was ACK St Luke’s Church in Mombasa under Canon Samuel Blasto Ooko.

The St Stephen’s Church Choir was under the direction of the late former Minister of Roads, Darius Mbela assisted by Chris Shikuku. This was before he was inherited by assistant tutor Dan Madalanga after the duo disappeared. The choir of St Barnabas’ Church was at one time under Walter Ominde.

The late Darius Mbela who was choirmaster and musical director.

St Stephen’s Church Choir (formed 1954) set the tone for ACK churches, some of its earliest choir members being retired Court of Appeal Justice Emmanuel O’Kubasu, Justice of the Court of Appeal Aggrey Muchelule and Graham Hyslop.

“We have set the tone for our constituent churches across Mbela and Shikuku for others to follow and that is our pride. I’m happy that we excelled,” Madalanga said.

Also, popular gospel compositions like Pokea Moyo Wangu composed and produced by Mbela and Heri Wao by Shikuku, and the duo also made patriotic songs. Natazama Kilele was made after the death of Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, on August 22, 1978.

“It was a song composed and produced within 48 hours due to the urgency of the moment, which is a composition and production record in the history of Kenyan music after the death of Mzee Kenyatta,” said Madalanga.

The choir’s fame has catapulted most of its members into regional and world tours in professional groups, with artists like Erick Wasonga, Stanley Ouma and John Ouma joining Kayamba Africa under director Juma Odemba.

“Some of our members have even played in the UK, USA and Canada on special tours while locally the number is huge as we can’t name everyone,” Madalanga said.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church Choir was the only one to rival the dominance of the ACK churches, with popular gospel hits sung in the Dholuo and Kiswahili languages.

Choir director Alfred Osonga said they were rich in talent after traveling through the region rehearsing and singing with different groups as they nurtured young talents before settling in Migori.

“If you listen to sweet Catholic melodies in Kenya it must be from Migori and we have trained many young people to play keyboards, read and write music and compose new songs,” said Osonga, who s ventured into music in 1988 before joining the church choir (Migori) four years later.

He produced 81 albums, with 16 choirs before moving to St Joseph’s Church Choir.

Alfred Osonga, the musical director behind some of the most popular Catholic songs.

The performance of St Joseph’s Choir inspired other choirs in the Catholic Church which saw the emergence of Our Lady of Fatima Kongowea Catholic Choir with its popular success Uninyunyizie Maji.

The competition between the churches stemmed from the passion of their choirmasters, as those from Anglican churches dominated the scene since they adhered to the structured traditions of the ACK, according to ACK St Luke’s Church Choir Director, Canon Samuel Blasto Ooko.

“Our excellence in gospel music must be attributed to our strict adherence to the structured traditions of the ACK,” said Canon Ooko.

ACK churches have dominated the scene due to their regular competition at the Kenya Anglican Youth Organization (KAYO) choir festivals.

The KAYO Music Festival was an annual event that rotated from one ACK diocese to another.

“It was a forum that shaped us and gave our members great visibility compared to other churches,” said ACK Nakuru Cathedral Music Director, Aggrey Lugalia.

The choir of Saint-Barnabé church has released its best hit Ndani Ya Moyo Wangu Naona Jerusalem, which was followed by another top hit Injili Mar Hera, two songs that had good sales in the 70s.

“We had a passion for music and a commitment to the profession as Anglican churches in promoting church music which over time has produced many professional gospel and lay singers,” Lugalia said.

He said that many of their choir members were later recruited by the Muungano National Choir under the direction of the late Boniface Mganga. Mganga’s specialty was in patriotic songs during the time of the late President Daniel arap Moi.

One of Muungano Choir’s most popular songs was Naenda Huko Jericho.

Mganga’s exploits in the field of patriotic songs touched the heart of President Moi, who appointed him a district officer before being promoted to permanent secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services.

Muungano Choir pictured with former President Moi and Pierre Trudeau at State House Nairobi in November 1990. [File, Standard]

Some members of the ACK Nakuru choir who joined went on to pursue singing careers including Faith Mbote who joined the Muungano National Choir and Joseph Odhiambo who formed the Friends of Lake Nakuru Singers.

“Singing is my lifeline and I’m happy to be in the profession,” Odhiambo said.

Mbote cherished the prowess of the late Mganga as director of the Muungano Choir, where she served for 28 years before joining Safari Voices International, a professional group that also performs in public and private functions.

“The differences between the singers and the lack of succession structures in the Muungano Choir after Mganga’s death made us resign to form the new group,” said Mbote, a teacher at State House Primary School in Nairobi.

Safari Voices International’s last public performance took place in Bomas of Kenya on August 22 during the announcement of the August 9 presidential election.

And the dominance of the six churches opened the doors for evangelical churches to follow suit by first poaching some of the experienced tutors from the ACK churches by offering them stipends.

“This is how some experienced choir leaders found their way into evangelical churches from us (ACK churches) when they were offered good stipends and job opportunities to develop similar programs in their churches “said Canon Ooko.

He offered a total transformation which ushered in the commercialization of the gospel music industry which produced many professional singers who to this day have flooded the market.

“It has resulted in the birth of many commercial singers but it has not deterred our determination to promote music in this sector,” he added.

Ooko said passion is what drove their ambition to produce some of the most popular Christian tunes that won’t be easily eliminated in the gospel market.

“Some of the music we’ve written and produced is here to stay in the gospel music industry,” he said.

Ooko has recorded 50 songs, some of which are on YouTube, the latest being Mungu Baba Nimesikia Habari Zako.

Some of his compositions have found their way into national music festivals as centerpieces.

Martha J. Finley