The history of music development in Kenya would not be complete without the mention of Mwalimu Thomas Wasonga. And rightly so. For three decades, Thomas Wasonga or as he is popularly referred to, Mwalimu, has been churning catchy patriotic songs that have formed the basis of entertainment at many national celebrations since the 80s.
A boy from Siaya
Sixty-five-year-old Thomas Wasonga was born in Nakuru County but raised in Siaya County. The third born of seven children recalls that life was not a bed of roses as both his parents were small-scale farmers who ensured that their children followed in their Catholic faith. This, he says, is perhaps the reason he got interested in music from a young age.
“During mass in those days, the songs were in Latin and the melodies sounded very nice to me,” he explains wistfully.
Although very bright, his parents could not afford to take him to secondary school. Supported by his late brother, he moved to Mombasa in 1967 where he went to a technical training centre for his secondary school studies.
Once done with high school, he joined Mombasa Polytechnic for a Grade Two Certificate in mechanical engineering. He then got a job at a firm, which promised to take him for further studies abroad. Unfortunately, this did not materialise.
“I am very religious so when that did not happen, I just took it as a sign that it was not my time,” he says.
Soon after, he was mysteriously taken ill and admitted in hospital for two years. During this time, members of the church he attended would constantly visit him and fellowship with him. When he recovered, he decided to join the church choir and soon became the chorister.
“I loved the solemnness of the music and whenever the choir trainer was unavailable, I would volunteer to assist in training,” he shares. This, he reveals, was the origin of his moniker, ‘Mwalimu’.
Since he was not practicing what he’d learnt in school, Thomas decided to apply to a teachers’ training college. Days after receiving the acceptance letter, another opportunity for a scholarship in America presented itself.
Despite the lucrative scholarship, something did not sit right with him. “It was a hard decision for me so when I prayed over it, I had a strong conviction about what I was supposed to do. I promptly gave up the chance to someone else. The priests who organised for the scholarship were very surprised but supported my decision to be a teacher. If anything, I believe your work is your vocation,” he says.
With no regrets whatsoever, he proceeded to Kericho for his teacher training.
Finding his groove
While in college, he also joined the choir. Soon after, the choir mistress picked him out of the bunch for his distinct voice and gave him opportunities to conduct the choir so as to build his confidence and stage presence. She also made him in charge of training in her absence. This served to build his on-stage presence and training skills, though at the time, he could not have been more oblivious of the impact it had.
One of his instructors, Dr Manani, who was involved in the composition of the national anthem, also spotted his talent when he composed a folk song for the music festival. “My song stood out because it combined the different cultures from all the places I had lived. I think I was a late bloomer because at the time it did not occur to me that there was anything unique about it; but I also believe in God’s timing,” says the 65-year-old.
After his studies, he was posted to his hometown in Siaya where coincidentally, a new parish had been started. Having studied music and with his newfound ability to compose songs, he formed the St Michael’s Church choir. It is here, he says, that his creativity in composing songs really picked up as the seasons of the Catholic Church refined his ability to write different types of songs for different occasions.
Their choir became the talk of town as it was constantly invited to weddings and other events. As a result they started interacting with other denominations, which aside from bringing cohesion, exposed him to other sounds. His style of music was applauded for attracting the youth to the church.
Aside from the youth, they had also attracted the attention of various leaders who asked them to perform their songs at national celebrations in the region. “When we performed, everyone would rise up to dance. Mind you we were just singing Christian songs!” he says.
After one such performance, he was asked to compose a patriotic song as former President Moi was going around the country and this birthed Kenya Yetu, Nchi Nzuri. Unfortunately, the President did not show up. A short while later, he got word that the president would again tour the area and composed the famous Tawala Kenya Tawala in 1978. Again, the President did not make it. Unperturbed, he continued making music. The President would not hear the song until six years later.
In 1980, he went back to Mombasa where his love for music saw him and other music teachers from the region form their own choir composed of 200 teachers. It was during the launch of the Kenya Pipeline Company that his musical prowess and skills in training and conducting mass choirs would be noticed when the Mombasa Teachers’ Choir performed before the President and the public.
On another of his visits to the region, the President was so impressed that the delegation from Nairobi requested him to compose a song for the twentieth independence anniversary in 1983. “It was quite a challenge because this was the only song I had been expressly told to compose. The rest just came to me, mostly inspired by God and whatever was going on at the time,” says Wasonga who reveals that he has over 50 patriotic and political songs to his name.
This would officially mark the beginning of his career in composing and conducting songs for national celebrations with the President’s blessing. So illustrious was his role that it was rumoured that he was ordered to compose the songs by the President himself, something he refutes.
“I wrote those songs because we wanted to encourage the President to keep touring even remote areas of this country so that other Kenyans could feel like part of the country. The President was also very supportive of musicians,” he clarifies.
His competence and conducting skills saw him promoted to higher positions in his career, eventually ending up in the Permanent Presidential Music Commission where he served until his retirement and continues to be a consultant in the Public Events Coordination Unit of the commission. Wasonga has performed for various heads of state and boasts of several accolades such as a Silver Star State Commendation (1988), Order of the Grand Warrior (2002), Brand Kenya Ambassador of the Year (2013) and an honorary recognition from Kenyatta University for his contribution to music for the last three decades. These are just some of his key achievements.
Ever modest, he says the biggest accomplishments of his career to him are the reintroduction of the Orutu, a Luo musical instrument, and the countless number of people who come up to him to tell him that he moulded them through music.
“When I meet my former students, they tell me that music helped shape the direction of their lives, which makes me very happy. I used to tell my students that one day they would be my bosses and they’d laugh but some of them actually are,” he says listing several government officials such as Dr Hassan Wario, former Cabinet Secretary for Sports; Dr Alfred Mutua, Machakos County Governor; and Eugene Wamalwa, current Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Devolution and ASALs, among others, as those who passed through his hands.
All this, he says, was made possible through God and his value system of self-discipline, dedication and patriotism; something he is keen on projecting to two of his children who are passionate about music.
With regards to the current music on the airwaves, Mwalimu Wasonga says that he does not blame young musicians for the content of most of the songs. “We ignored our own culture so they came in to fill the vacuum with what they were exposed to. Music is meant to represent cultures, which is what they should strive for,” he says with conviction.
He, however, cautions young musicians against aping too much of western culture and urges them to take advantage of music workshops to learn from those who have been in the industry longer. He also urges the government to reintroduce music back into the curriculum from the primary level if Kenyan music is to go even further.