Gariel Omolo: Musical Strides, First Kenyan Singer To Hit 150,000 Sale


Gabriel Omolo

For the happy-go-lucky folkes growing up in the ’70’s, it was quite a healthy disposition to listen and dance to wide variety of music across genre.
From West Africa through East Africa, to South Africa, just as the likes of legendary highlife music giant, late Chief Osita Osadebe, afro music king, late Fela KUTI and the other pop stars reigned supreme in Nigeria, from Kenya, East Africa also stood tall in the music horizon Gabriel Omolo.
He through his single. Lunchtime brought the Keynan urban music culture to the globe. A peep into history reveals his musical strides just as the year 1974 was special in the career of this Kenyan composer, singer, and guitarist.

In September that year, he became the first Kenyan musician to be awarded an International Golden Disc for the sales of his single, Lunchtime.

Phonogram Records certified a total of 150,000 copies of the single, sold in East and West Africa by that time.

The company’s vice-president, Joop Buinink, flew to Nairobi to be present when the permanent secretary for Information and Broadcasting, John Ithau, officially handed over the plaque to Omolo at the Panafric Hotel in Nairobi.

As a result of this achievement, he was selected as the first musician in the country to be awarded the Guinness Stout Effort Award in September 1974.

Omolo and his band, Apollo Komesha, had recorded 20 singles for Phonogram with total sales of 300,000 copies, more than the 80 bands contracted to the company together.

In his social commentary that still resonates 40 years after its release, Omolo captured the plight of the urban worker who struggled to make ends meet and could only afford a little luxury at the end of the month. That applies to date.

“I was working in Industrial Area and noticed that at the end of the month, my fellow workers would all run away from the usual githeri and porridge for lunch and instead be found eating chapati and beef,” he says.

“Similarly, come the end of the month and all the fellows who would otherwise be whiling the time away, sleeping under the shade of Jeevanjee Gardens in Nairobi would be feasting on chips and chicken,” he adds.

The lyrics of Lunchtime came naturally from these observations. The impact was felt beyond Kenya.

Born in 1939, Omolo was raised in the railway quarters of Muthurwa and later in Makongeni, Nairobi. He learnt how to play the guitar while at St Peter Claver Primary School, where he also sang in the choir.

His career took off in the 1960s when he joined the iconic Equator Sound Band along with Fadhili William, Daudi Kabaka, and Nashil Pichen.

When the musicians fell out with Equator owner, Charles Worrod in 1968, it did not take long before another deal came through.

Politician J.M. Kariuki set up the African Eagles Recording Limited and made Kabaka, Pichen, and Omolo directors of the company.

Kenyan actor and broadcaster Oliver Litondo, who worked as press secretary for J.M., says the musicians felt that they were not getting their due share from the sales of their records at Equator and were, therefore, delighted with the new deal.

“J.M. remained as chairman while the musicians were free to run the company. I would help them plan their recordings, rehearsals, and concerts.”

Omolo confirms that the new setup was favourable to the artistes. “J.M. was really keen on promoting us and he offered all the facilities we required to succeed.

His violent death in 1975 was not just a blow to the politics of the country but it also marked the end of the company he had formed with the best musicians in the country,” he says.

Omolo played with the Blue Shades Band before forming his own outfit, Apollo Komesha 71. He released music under the Apollo record label that was distributed by Phonogram Limited.

“Phonogram not only gave me a contract but also advanced me Sh10,000, a princely sum at the time, to buy instruments for the band.”

The managing director of Phonogram Limited, Niewenhuis, best summed up the impact of Gabriel Omolo’s success, saying the company recorded about 1,000 new songs every year and pressed three million records, more than half of which they would export.

The venture earned Kenya about Sh5 million a year in foreign exchange, which, said Niewenhuis, made Omolo “one of Kenya’s foreign exchange earners”.

The Gold Disc itself was deposited at the Kenya Commercial Bank, according to radio presenter James Onyango Joel, but Omolo is less forthcoming about the whereabouts of his award: “I kept it some place safe,” he says.

The follow-up singles like Keep Change and Mr Kupe retained the social commentary, but could not attain the same heights of success as Lunchtime.

In later years, Omolo tried his hand at various businesses, including running a taxi venture and operating a music store in Mombasa.

He was also employed as a driver with the United Nations in Nairobi from 1989 to 1995.

His accomplishments have, however, gone unnoticed by most Kenyans, save for a performance at the first Mashujaa Day celebrations in 2010 and a Head of State Commendation (HSC) a year later.

Lunchtime was also redone in 2005 by producer Tabu Osusa and his Nairobi City Ensemble in a version featuring the late rapper, Poxi Presha.

Today, Gabriel Omolo spends his time at his home in Ugunja, Siaya County, writing songs and playing his guitar. More and more, he recalls the songs he learnt in the choir in primary school. “Maybe it is just old age,” he laughs.

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