During the burial of Fidel Odinga, his sister Rosemary sang Bob Marley’s Redemption Song
By Shifa Mwihaki
Kenyans were given three days to Monday February 10, to view the remains of the late retired President Daniel arap Moi-who chose, Forever with the Lord, as his main funeral song.
President Moi loved hymns in Golden Bells and his favourite was the one composed in the 18th century by Scotsman James Montgomery. Moi chose it 10 years before his death at 95 this February. He had also picked its soloist, Fred Ngala, Director of Music at Kabarak University and chair of the Presidential Music Commission, way back in 2010.
While he loved other hymns like Amazing Grace and Take time to be Holy, it was Forever with the Lord that tagged at his heartstrings. Every Kenyan community has dirges, those traditional funeral songs sang to among others; appease the dead, voice personal grief besides consoling the bereaved. But dirges have taken a backseat in view of the growing influence of religion and modernity.
Dirges also had aesthetic effects including inducement of sorrowful feelings and sympathy on the mourners and which explains why some cry in the funeral of strangers, rolling to the ground, and all.
Moi, despite being a conservative Tugen man of the blood, chose a Christian hymn, Forever with the Lord, with words ideal for those on a journey to that land where no traveler returns:
Here in the body pent/Absent from Him/ I roam/Yet nightly pitch my moving tent/ A day’s march nearer home.
Founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in August 1978. Though he loved traditional Kikuyu songs from Mwomboko dancers sourced from his Kikuyu community, he hadn’t chosen his funeral song when he died of natural causes at the Mombasa State House. He was also an agnostic despite his family being front-pew Catholic.
But still, before his interdenominational funeral service led by the late PCEA Moderator Rev Charles Muhoro Kareri, Kenyans were entertained by Darius Mbela, later a Permanent Secretary, Minister and MP for Wundanyi before, his death in 2007.
St Stephen’s choir which played for crowds that filed past Kenyatta’s body
Mbela was a choirmaster at St Stephen’s church Jogoo Road. In a span of four days, he assembled his choir which composed hymnal dirges steeped in church and traditional music and recorded the 12 track album, Tribute to Mzee Kenyatta, at the VOK (now KBC) studios.
Cultural analyst Dr Joyce Nyairo captured the essence of funeral songs belted out by St Stephen’s choir which played for crowds that filed past Kenyatta’s body as he lay in state at State House Nairobi and later at his Gatundu home in Ichaweri.
Dr Nyairo noted that the songs like Bwana Mchungaji (Lord the Shepherd) and patriotic songs from 1963, like Siri ya Ushindi (The Secret to Victory) and Kwaheri Mzee Wetu, were at hand, “capturing the emotions of the crowds with words commemorating a life of service and others describing devastated grief anchored in the hope of Christian salvation.”
Of the songs, Pokea Moyo Wangu (Receive My Heart) became a Catholic standard.
Colour was added by Jaramogi Oginga Oginga, Kenyatta’s old enemy, who arrived at State House “blowing oporo, the trumpet, clad in grand traditional Luo regalia and chanting dengo, a mixture of praise-name poetry, pleasant memories, anger, disappointment — in one word: bereavement,” recalled Dr Nyairo, adding that “those who write our songs shape our idioms. They provide the soundtracks and the story to mark the moments and the memories.”
Blowing the oporo and charging towards the coffin in traditional regalia-Tero Buru style, was repeated by Jaramogi’s son, Raila Odinga, during the funeral of Vice President Michael Kijana Wamalwa who died in London in August, 2003.
That retired President Moi chose his own funeral song, is not the first time a prominent person is doing so in what sociologists say is psychological. For Christians, a hymn might beseech for them at the parley gates besides passing a message they held dear. One’s chosen funeral song also means one was prepared and singing it could be comforting to the deceased’s family, friends and not a few enemies.
Governor Gachagua asked that President Uhuru Kenyatta sing along to his funeral song “since I know you will come”
The late Nyeri Governor Nderitu Gachagua selected gospel singer Carol Wanjiru’s, Munduiriri (My defender), which she performed during his funeral service in Nyeri County in March, 2017. Gachagua had requested that it be performed by two gospel artists and Wanjiru sang it with Regina Muthoga. Another strange request was that Gachagua asked that President Uhuru Kenyatta sing along to the song “since I know you will come.”
The requests of Gachagua, who succumbed to blood cancer in a London hospital, were granted.
While gospel songs are ideal for the funereal nature of burials, others like the late Safaricom boss Bob Collymore, who loved jazz music, went for classical music instead. During his funeral service at the All Saint’s Cathedral in July 2019, his wife Wambui Kamiru asked that American composer Samuel Barber’s, Adagio for Strings, be played as that was his chosen funeral song.
Then there was the case of the flamboyant, eccentric and irreligious Naivasha liquor tycoon, Fai Omar Amario. He opted for a secular song and no photos during his funeral after succumbing to liver failure and was buried in May, 2010.
Mourners including musicians could not pick one song for the late Kikuyu benga maestro Joseph Kamaru
Amario chose, My Way, made famous by American crooner Frank Sinatra and which has the end of life lyrics:
I’ve lived a life that’s
I travelled each and every highway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it My Way.
Mourners listened to the song which was played via loud speakers as his body was lowered to ground inside his liquor factory, famous for brewing Amario’s Sherry whose slogan was ‘Drink Amario’s Sherry and know why birds fly.” My Way, according to Bishop Joseph Wambugu, his friend and preacher during the funeral, was a summary of Amario’s life.
My Way was also played during Collymore’s funeral service by Safaricom Youth Orchestra and Ghetto Classics. Collymore loved music and often said he would have retired to a jazz band.
But what songs does one sing for a prominent musician?
Mourners including musicians could not pick one song for the late Kikuyu benga maestro Joseph Kamaru. When the most significant musician from Central Kenya died, a motley crew of artists gathered at the dais and sang a medley of his popular songs including Selina, one of his earliest songs.
While some have the brevity of facing their immortality and going for their choice songs, others have their loved ones with ready funeral songs.
Sir Elton John sang Candle in the Wind when Princess Diana died from a road accident in August 1997
During the burial of Fidel Odinga, son of former Opposition leader Raila Odinga, his sister Rosemary Odinga took the opportunity to sing Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, “because Obange loved reggae.” Obange was one of Fidel’s nicknames.
Elsewhere in the world, British singer Sir Elton John sang Candle in the Wind when Princess Diana died from a road accident in August 1997. Elton John had composed it as a 1973 tribute for Hollywood sex symbol Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose over a decade earlier in 1962.
While funeral songs weaken even those with hearts of stone, their artistic rendering is such that they also bring strains of pleasure and entertainment.