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When You Sing ToThe Fishes

When You Sing ToThe Fishes

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When You Sing ToThe Fishes

490 pages
8 hours
Jul 12, 2020


He is back for some unfinished business in the town, the city that made him. Kisumu.


Guitarist Otis Dundos is back in Kisumu, the addictive and possessive lakeside town. Back in the '80s, he was the Urban Benga guitar legend. His commercially potent mix of hard benga and lofty rumba was loud with a culture surrounding it, and a cult-like following. It ignited an entire generation of music fans. It made him rich and famous.


When he left Kisumu twenty years ago, it was a sudden unpleasant event. Everything ended in tragedy. He was twenty-nine years and at his peak. Today he still is the artsy man: the musician, the guitarist. People have died fast; the men and women who helped him make music… they have all died or wasted away. Is he about ready to follow suit? What is left? The past has unfulfilled dreams, good life, nice cars, easy money, expensive perfumes, glamorous women, living on the road and in the studios. And conniving bandmates, thieving promoters, and clever pirates.


The present is bearable but holds no promise: he is forty-seven. If he has to accept his forced retirement, he has to learn to be a local Kisumuan, not the famous name. He reminisces about the romantic encounters of the '70s. The future is uncertain. He is searching for sanity and happiness. Happiness? In Kisumu lives the woman whose unfulfilled love still dwells in his heart. But his mind is too bamboozled to even think.

Jul 12, 2020

About the author

Okang’a Ooko is the author of Businesswoman’s Fault, (stories), and three mainstream novels, including Bengaman, When You Sing To The Fishes and the latest, Hunter & Gatherer mostly vivid accounts of scandalous vices, human folly, power games, and peopled by men and women struggling to succeed in the new African renaissance. He writes thrilling and intriguing character-driven fiction based on African characters and situations. His work presents a compelling narrative voice and a new way of seeing the world.Ooko is a very ambitious and hardworking writer for this generation. His three Must-Read cavalier bestselling novels are in categories that matter to him: history, politics, pop culture (especially music), love-and-danger, business, corruption, true crime, and self-development. Known as “Kenya’s new master storyteller”, Ooko epitomizes a new shift in African fiction and his books are mostly set in Kenya. He loves to dispel the myth that Africans don’t read, and incredible readers who have stumbled upon his books have liked them tremendously. He has been writing since childhood when his mother took him to the local library in his hometown of Kisumu to keep him out of the company of bad boys. As a serial daydreamer, it was nice to finally get the stories on paper when he started writing full time in retirement in 2017. He has not looked back since. He believes current African issues (pop culture, politics, business, corruption) make dramatic stories with or without a literary bent, and he knows there is a huge potential to create intriguing stories around these themes. No writer is doing it. With his new book, Hunter & Gatherer, he currently aims to shepherd his vocation as a writer of commercial African fiction.In addition to being a prolific writer, he is an artist, an acclaimed graphic designer and musician. He lives the life of an artist. He worked in the publishing industry as a designer and typesetter, community manager at a content development company, and book cover designer for fiction and non-fiction.When he isn’t reading or writing engaging stories, he’s probably singing, watching edgy black comedy on Netflix. He was born and raised in Kisumu, in Kenya. He lives in Nairobi with his wife and four children.In his spare time, he gives writing lectures, creates graphic arts, plays the guitar and draws things. You can connect with Ooko on Facebook at facebook.com/rd.ooko/.You can also visit his website, okangaoo.com, to sign up for emails about new releases.

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When You Sing ToThe Fishes - Okang'a Ooko

Copyright © Okang’a Ooko 2020


This book is for my wife


who has stood the turbulence

of my rocking boat.

Also by Okanga Ooko

Businesswoman’s Fault 


Hunter & Gatherer

Author’s Note

This book is a work of fiction. All names and characters

are either invented or used fictitiously. Because some of the stories play against the historical backdrop of the last three decades, the reader may recognize certain actual figures who played their parts in the 1970s and 1980s. It is my hope that none of these figures has been misrepresented. The historical events and accounts based on real occurrences are merely used to enrich the plot. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © Okang’a Ooko 2020

Published by Oba Kunta Octopus

The right of Okang’a Ooko to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, scanning, or digital manipulation, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

Oba Kunta Octopus has no responsibility for the information

provided by any author websites whose address you obtain from this book (author website). The inclusion of author website address in this book does not constitute an endorsement by or any association with us of such site or content, products, advertising, or other materials presented in such sites.

Typeset in Nairobi by Oba Kunta Octopus

Cover design by Patacas © www.obakunta.co.ke

For further information regarding special discounts for

bulk purchases, please contact Oba Kunta Octopus Special Sales


Available in trade paperback.

Table of contents:

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

About the Author

Other Books by Okang’a Ooko


Shakespeare was right: death is a necessary evil.

UNEXPECTED expectation, it was

It came as a powerful and relentless dream that was as limber as kamongo mudfish wriggling through your hands. On the day I had another fishy dream, that night in 1992, my nogoodnik brother died. Mama went to church to pray in meek supplication, crying out to the heavens in rapture. I fell apart. My heart pained like bezoomny. If I dreamt about fish, something bad happened. Somebody died.


Mama nyar gi nera, sister of uncles, is sad about it. And she’s happy at the same time. She announces that she is now ready to die too, herself. She keeps hoping Agwenge will walk in through the door. She dreams he is still here beside her while he is now gone away. Then she remembers how she found herself plagued by his terrifying ayaki. She raises her arthritic hands in despair.

He’s free at last, she mutters in Dholuo. "Ei. Yawa. Thu! Let him go and rest." The melancholia of Agwenge’s ayaki must have been unbearable. Is he free of it now? Amazing how his death quickly dissipated Mama’s concerns and worries. She mutters Oh oh oh not believing he’s gone.

Mama sings hymns in a very sad voice, culling out the most beauteous sound anyone could hear, cuddling the lyrics of the old hymns in them with such grace and giving. She’s been crying off and on. I fear she will jump from the pier of Pandpieri one fine sunny day and she shall find him confined to the bottom of the deep murkiness of Lake Victoria. Seriously; Agwenge’s death sent me into a tizzy. And now he lives as is, a frightening comic jigsaw puzzle of what he once was; memories made over; taken apart; thoughts that do not fit but are slammed together, wedged together making no sense. Memories of his once radiant face remain; the once seen kingdom of happiness that was as though a glade through his childhood long; nestled in networking of jokes and joys there used to be between us. Now those jokes and joys are a girdle of insubstantial thickness that surround me and cinch round my memories tightly, remnants of minds turned inside out parboiled.

I grieved. I was devastated and solemn for all my twenty years in the land of white souls. I decided to as well die. People talked, said things and pointed fingers. My family, especially. But they never asked me. I am the fertility of their own paltry lack of imagination. I am the drawing board. I am the shining sand on which they can draw what they please. I knew better. I am the artist. But face it; I was cockleshell hero to begin with. I was nothing really. Just a normal Kisumu kid. A dumb artist that was forever getting it wrong on purpose. Didn’t I do things that put people in trouble and made me run out of town? Like that nifty faux pas against Kanu Party in 1991? Admittedly so maybe I wasn’t the best music maker. Perhaps I wasn’t smart, but I always dreamt I would reach my life-peak as a guitarist and a band leader standing outside a 48-track studio with my name on it in Kisumu one day. But when you’re busy forging the future, there’s always going to be some collateral damage. I had been blessed with a stout creative mind and an unyielding spirit... more than sufficient to see me through my Kisumu life.

I deed nothing at this point. I realise nothing in this juncture of life and death; my life is the darkness; from the murk of light of fishing mornings at Dunga. I weep for my brother as if there is nothing left to live for other than a miracle ceding; as if that were a possibility. I remember how we used to read books with nyangile kerosene lamp at dala in Pandpieri once upon a time; my countenance cloud and my eyes are rent with tears. Agwenge used bury his head in my chest while we slept on par reed mat. He sometimes peed on me and I scolded him; and he cried. He was always what he was... a little brother. When we ate omena and fulu with kuon bel on one single plate, he was slow in chewing and swallowing and Ouru and I chewed with all our teeth and gobbled all the food inside to feed the tape worms and ran to play outside while Agwenge cried to Mama and asked for more. We grew up in Pandpieri and he followed me and I became his keeper and fended for him lest the hyenas ate him. I fought for him and provided for him like a brother, knowing it would be a good thing of comfort, of sanity, of brotherly love. But he always made me mad wearing my clothes and following me around. He just followed me bolingo into void, into emptiness. Into nothingness. Then he died and I was blamed. I was told by all the people who knew me that he believed in me more than a brother with all the hopes that fell like firelock tops at him, that reeled him with wreathes of powdery madness and screams in the night-time hours at our dead zones where nyawawa only prowl.

I was the smart one, I survived. He was the dumb one, he died. I was always the smart one. In Kisumu I was chosen along with a selection of benga masters of the guitar like Collela. And everywhere I went playing guitar in nightclubs with my band, Agwenge followed. He followed my footsteps with no foresight of his own, like a small dog running after a bigger dog. He joined me on stage at Olindas in Kondele, which reeked of sweat and cheap perfume and cigarette smoke and cheap booze and mouldable shadows of all the sick desperation that came to call here. So we entertained a rotating smorgasbord of weird, random Kisumu revellers. We did not know tomorrow was coming up, or the sidewalk outside the antiquated pithole ashamed bar was so cracked many people fell on it, tripped and fell even at high noon, and in the dark of the night. The lyrics of ours were water caresses of scared fish come to feed and knowing they will be tricked themselves even more, the ultimate gag line our fans feared all their lives was coming to dig up the meaning behind our songs, and it was that this was not even a town of cheap gilded gimcracks even, that this was Kisumu compared to the hell they will descend to in about a half second on the express elevator that had been going down from day one and on which even hardcore sinners fear to ride.

O brother. He sang in my band and was a fine troubadour for my songs. And he would dance in the fairy dust my music could create in reality with noisy walls of applause on all sides in bars, and they used us like a masturbatory device, and they killed him like that, not knowing I was the golden glowing dove way up in a sky with my own personal music to accompany me, not the crap from benga bands, the strings and choir singers and the drums struck wrongly hollow and imprecisely with a waterfall of finger tears and blood running down them, like my tricks, and the machine of it. We journeyed together in the voyage of music and performances during the good old days, sharing microphones, guitars, cigarettes, booze, and one very enchanting Kisumu girl called Mary-Goretti.

This girl is the sprite that killed him. She was my millicent too. She was my girl first then she became his girl. She was a big stupid lost Manyata doll, sweet like miliki. She was one of these stinking janes Chiela of Nyakongo used to warn people not to marry (Ka inyuomo jane to ia e nono), you know them. Every Kisumu droog wanted  to shag her. They gave her the disease which she sambazad.

This feeble-minded little brother followed me to damnation and disease and death. And like a redundant doppelgänger, he cries in our crib of a dead musical enterprise called Victoria and still holds to me. He sings, for he has not sang any song since our musical voyages twenty years ago due to the nightmare of created insanity for him; as made from the beauty his blocky body once had, turned into dross. His once beautiful Afro hair now looks as though greased with Kondele jua kali used motor oil, and his body emaciated to the point of almost without redemption. Now soaked in the earth.

These are the bewitched memories, like petals of black flowers in twilight. A year after I left Kisumu for Britain (via Uganda in a leaking canoe through Lake Victoria in the dead of night), my brother was sicker than ondong’ chodha; malarial, fever-struck, gasping for breath, thinner than a mosquito and sweating like a rat from uji. He was eating no food while his Adam’s apple jerked up and down, and his eyes, white like Kicomi cotton, were watchful out of that emaciated face which resembled the face of a drowning man. They took him to Russia and left him there. Not that other Russia, not that old cold country up there in the world map: no, no. It’s our own Russia in our Kisumu. It’s our biggest hospital, where you hear the moans of sick and dying souls down there like shoats every morning.

Come the end of that year, I got the grief: my brother was dead. It was horrendous. I didn’t take it too good. I tipped over. Tried to get a grip of myself but tipped over. A sickness welled up in the pit of my stomach; the same sickness I used to get when out on fishing boats at Rusinga-Kaksingri passage near Takawiri. I’m not a jaramba landlubber, I’m a janam lakeman. I love the lake... I love water. My head swam in a tumultuous tide of pounding waves and thundering throws. 

Getting a grip was elusive, at least for the time the tidings of his death hang close. I felt awful. Didn’t really grieve, just felt rotten and awful. There were ways to deal with such happenings. Calmness was, first and foremost, necessary. Then; after that, everything else would fall into place. Bile stung my throat, and something cold trickled down my back. But I refused to break down. The calmness I sought after was being a little elusive; my vision was blurred as was my memory. I spent the next twenty years of my life learning various aspects of self-control, defence against adversaries and elements; seeking my inner being and so on and so forth. Twenty years seemingly rolled over me like an avalanche of hot charcoals. Well. So. Now. I am going to kill myself. This all adds up to one fantastic, forward-looking benga record. For the next twenty years, it has remained in my head, and it has grown bigger. I want to go back to Lake Victoria and later I would walk through Dunga and then I would put my feet in the waters when they’re wet with April rain, from the song of the same lyrics, which was my mother’s favourite.

It came to me how I was going to die. Trying not to hear that music, I am going to dunk in and swim away from Mbita Point passage and drown myself inside Lake Victoria and with my face wreathed in embarrassment, my eyes wide in the dawning drowning shock, my mouth hanging open, my hands slow to beat the waters. I will scream, Take me water please hurry up and gulp me up here and hide me in you, as the dying ritual all round will start in warped slow motion. But first I am going to do one last great album. I am going to gather the best benga musicians still alive in Kisumu and do one last great album capable of uniting benga die-hards, stringing up my ‘80s and ‘90s fans, zilizopendwa-old-music-diggers plus boat-rocking enthusiasts. A tale of how Otis Dinos made it in the ‘80s is going to be told in a pricey production that is going to give Attamaxx Records their first new millennium East Africa No. 1, buying them another twenty years’ shelf life after my death.

Then I am going to die. I am going to die before Attamaxx puts the record in the shops and in the air. This way, my name is going to be immortalised and my music is going to be alive after I am dead. My treasure is going to be tied up in a nifty package, a startling posthumous recognition as yours truly. You know that thing about art being above ordinary mortality, don’t you? You heard of it, probably. About that paranoid fantasy we artists have about dying and living after we are dead. About art continuing to be alive and to function long after the artist is dead?

Yeah, you know.

Art, once you create it, lives longer than you. Just look around you and see all the music that is alive whose creators are dead. My name is going to be immortalised in the hearts of people and on vinyl, and in my vanishing flashes; I am looking forward to an exciting rendezvous with all my dead siblings: Keya, Akong’o, Agwenge, Hawi. Or the dead singers and instrumentalists of my band Victoria. Or I am going to whirl away and meet my uncle, Ratego Kwer. In death I am going to live and as the Nile perch and the crocs are going to make a meal with my leftovers hours later and hours to come, I’m going to descend in aching slowness to the cold blue below, the water lazing up, taking its own sweet time, to catch me like a snake swallowing its prey, in increments by the half inch and quarter inch, down, down, but far too late, and then things at fast speed, the shoals of fishes will all watch me. I am going to toss myself with the surging waters and wriggle myself inside the swirling ngeri currents and create music as I wait for Final Death to come get me under the lake in a place where there is no night and day when you sing to the fishes.


My dreams are all unreal. My nightmares are real. I at least have the civility to live. So as I walk with you in this journey, before I begin to take you into my colourful past (really? Yes, you will soon find out...), it might be a good thing to introduce myself now. I am a terror and a handful. I am always alone I am full of myself. My name is Otieno. Yeah. Ordinarily. Otieno. Quite common too, nothing special. Well, it’s just my default Luo name, anyway. I was born at night. But if you call me Otieno then you’ll learn very fast how much I hate it. My father’s name is Odundo son of Nyangao. My name is Otis O. Dinos. You can call me Dino too... My name is Dinos Otieno Owiro. My real name is Odino Otieno Owiro. That’s what they have in my ID and passport.

I’m Dino or Dinos to everyone, only my mama calls me Owiro. And I’ve heard just about every Owiro twist there is. Owii or Owinye or Owish or Wire or Wyrie or Weir-D. Or Owaya! There had been maybe two or three women who called me Otii or Otis. The rest of them just called me Dino. Angelou used to call me Dinos while Mary-Goretti used to call me Didi. In high school in Kisumu Day I was Owinye or Owaye. In the phone directory, my name is Odino Otieno Odundo; but don’t bother to look me up in that book. Even in the new Kisumu County Directory, there are five ‘Odino Otieno’ entries and three ‘D. Odundos’. And, I’m telling you what town, county, city, I live in. Kisumu. Kenya. East Africa. Africa. The World.

I’m an artiste. I stay by myself. I read a lot. I think a lot. I love to do the things that pummel me from anonymity and nothingness into fame and power and more power. Art. Music. Art. Making music that pulls at my dreams and make people dance and be merry. Music that makes people happy; music that makes young lovers marry each other. Music that makes people sad and happy. Music that makes people laugh at themselves. Music that rescue damsels in

distress. We sang to the fishes when the sun shone brightly and the night shone darkly and there was peace upon the land.

Well, I am the man, the musician, the guitarist. What is it with music, anyway? Makes me feel important. Like a rose flower in the sun. Back in the day, I was a legend. In guitar. It was loud. We called it urban benga. I was the solo guitarist and the leader of this seminal benga band that stuck with this name I hated: Victoria. Yeah, I hate to talk but I love to tell my story... how I started out and got welcomed into upstart underground rat holes like Olindas Bar in Kondele; how I tried to wrestle this juvenile band called KDF (no, not the other KDF; Kisumu Delta Force, really) out of the hands of the feeble-minded first-class idiot (add pathological womaniser) and fine singer called Nicholas Opija (add Dr. Nico Pedhos the small-ass fucker, in Dholuo: ja mach piere tindo), to turn it into a successful story.

There was a culture surrounding benga, and the cult-like following for the Victoria ODW Band in Kisumu was intense. Vending a commercially potent mix of hard benga and glossy rumba, Victoria’s brand of music fell flat with the critics but ignited an entire generation of music fans. This was in the 80s, the good days of yore. I ran the gauntlet and emerged on the other side with good music in my hands.

The butt naked disappointment is that my blossoming career was cut short when I went to prison at the age of twenty-nine at the peak of my career. Then I got out of prison and stole away to Britain to waste the best twenty years of my life.

Even if you didn’t share my affinity for the urban benga ethos, most people live and die with their music unplayed. They never dare to try. Me, I did try. I really did try. Not sure if I’m a winner. I love music, I hate music. I can’t get it out of my body. It just runs in my soul for evermore. It’s my only job. It doesn’t hurt so much not to hear urban benga on radio lately. I don’t have to try to turn the radio on often like I used to do. Music remains. Those who may have thought I went underground and got burned out have missed my song. Nobody is going to hear my songs again; I am not going to play and record. I am no longer young. I’m forty-seven and I’m going to do other things here in Kisumu. But music, ah-ah. Crazy decree?

To die or not to die is the question. To die in Lake Victoria as I drift in my huge sudsy bubble bath lake that is so wrathful and has killed hundreds of thousands, remembering my childhood home and how the waves used to draw back slowly like a lovely melody fading away into a gold leaf background. When I was ten, I discovered I was a boy of imagination, full of big dreams and Kisumu was filled with freshness and smelling of green trees and African placidity, all come to life. Not come to disappoint. But to inspire Kisumu the town of mine and the town of anyone who plays music. It was a love affair.

I was such a miser of money. Poverty was my face. The Kisumu kids did not understand my dreams. I was fey. My fingers were delicate and long, making my fans sure that I would play the guitar, and I did as a young genius, metronome tied, kept home in the evenings in our house of mud walls of thick silence and walls decorated with colourful clay and ash and white ceilings, where I pined on the guitar while my brothers and all the other children played outside their children’s games; and me with the guitar bench of cypress, agonizingly hunching my bird-like shoulders that were caught in my light cotton shirt (they almost always imagined that for some reasons. It made me cuter to them), my eyes scrunched up and brow furrowed, practising hour after unmitigated hour, hungry to stop.

And the sunlight of diffused blond of the daylight burned my back as I sweated again and again to get the music notes in my head to thus deliver them to my fingers, and then to portray what I memorised into the strings I delicately (always delicately, even for the strongest hardest music) caressed, into the guitar, the music instrument, while the sun descended into quiescent night and the laughing free tossed children outside to play in the moon, always outside, depicted, cameo like, in the long tall clear immaculately clean living room window. It delivered shadows into the well-appointed room, while all along, I never played the guitar. I was never forced to, never wanted to, but it was a common dream of me—little boy of enforced servitude to musical notes written so nonsensically that they dived into my soul should I be considered to have one. My strings played notes that washed me into the sad songs, as the sad songs would mould me into themselves, and my tricks would be playing the strings, making music, making their precious dreams making melodies, of meaning only to them, instead of warm living me.

People who love my music get so lucky today because sometimes my melancholy makes me get tuned up in poetry. My telling. Like an artist, I am immortal. People are not. I tell them I was a winsome child. I tell them my music will live until this world passes away. I tell them I was a lonely Pandpieri child (they love that most of all; for they are lonely too; loneliness is a palette on which to draw one’s life, not to run from and deny; they do not know this), that is why they blather incessantly from the time my music starts playing, to the time the band gets into climax and we go to the crumble down stumble bum bar called Olindas when the music shifts, in which they trade in their words, dignity a distant merrymaking, into the fuzzy moated dark dank airless barroom, up the dark tricky cornered tumble down steps, down the mouldy carpeting to the lodging room, past all the moaning prostitutes and red-eyed hawkish randy men. Often we found ourselves faced up with failed sad mornings in the shabby dressing rooms packing our guitars behind the cracked and gape bottomed and topped doors, to the sad dance floors strewn with bottle tops where the fans will do the same dance with their sad dreams in their little town with no better tomorrow.

I recently returned to Kisumu to no ceremony, and, stuck, I’ve been trying to keep myself busy and sane and reminiscing about Riana, the woman who still haunts my dreams. If I can remember I’m about 5ft 10in with broad swimmer’s shoulders. In my twenties, I had a pretty even build, and I was working out a lot during stage dances, but Leeds stashed so much fat in my back for the twenty years, so I have no waist. I’m starting to get the makings of a pretty good six-pack.

The best advice my father gave me? Tell the truth always. People will respect you more if you say the truth. For my dear good father, actions spoke louder than words. He taught me how to swing a hammer, how to cast a net and toe the line, how to swim, how to treat a woman like a lady the same way you tame a boat in strong wind. And that when you have talent... any talent, use it to make money. He also told me that matters between us, as father and son, stayed between us. That as father and son, we are brothers. Women are devils who are always going to confuse you, rearrange you. Listen to what my father told me: that all women except your mother are devils. But even your mother is your father’s devil. Funny, don’t you think?

So, I will tell you the truth.

My story may be a chilling grotesque drama and may even be frightening as a remorseless mimic of human frailty, but it’s a true story. Victoria ended in tragedy. The music stopped playing. One cannot understand it; the whole bloody raucous story of Victoria. You go through something, and it changes you. I’ll tell you about it shortly, and I’ll slot in many random accounts as I go on, giving you a series of Kodachrome-sharp snapshots of my life in different stages.

My mind is too bamboozled to even think. Here are some accounts, not in any particular order since I can’t remember well. The devil is in the detail.


Where to start?

Real stories don’t really have good beginnings, they’re all tangled up in other stories. That’s life, right?

I lie on the grass at DreamScape, my home in the plateau, on a under the fulsome moon. There are stars in the sky. My eyes can’t actually see the brightest of them, but as I look up and do a long scan of the sky, my eyes fall on that uncloudy patch right as a shooting star streaked by.

Stars are dancing. Like fishes in the lake.


Mama smells of talc and home and mother. Her slight perspiration is a nice aroma. She says what a normal Luo mother will say to express profound shock and disbelief: Wuololo. Mama yoo! She’s so desperately sad and lonely. For she always half saw chimeras in Agwenge’s ayaki and her heart sank like a stone.

She says she always heard the victims of this terrible disease being thin, but not that thin. It must be the most painful way to die, she says. Mama still appears mostly gentle, able for much of the time to cope with everyday realities and even hold on to our little sister Akinyi. After all these years, a married woman with four children of her own, Mama still sees Akinyi as her doting daughter. As nyare matin. Akinyi has grown into a strong young woman, a wife, and a mother; a very devoted church woman. Her good-for-nothing husband always wants to fork her money to go for beer rounds and to watch English Premier League as if he’s a... ka gima... chieth! Deadbeat messy ass. He long stopped caring for his family. Akinyi’s had to work. She inherited Mama’s shop (our family Rusinga Island General Store on the corner of Kendu Lane and Odera Street in downtown Kisumu).

Mama reacts with frightening paranoia to everything that colligates to Agwenge’s death. Anxiety somehow makes her unnaturally polite and differential that she appears frightened and; thus, provokes fear.

My father retired from Kavirondo Fisheries, gave up drinking and opened a curio shop cum art gallery in a brownstone edifice at the end of Oginga Odinga Street near Obote Road, near the lake. The shop smells of linseed oil and shoe polish and smells of old things still. From here papa waddles around in slippers reading newspapers, arguing with artists, talking on the phone and piling cash in the tiller. The shop is neat and quiet, and occasionally a tourist who loses his bearing sneaks in to glare at the objets d’art. Perhaps it is the sullen mood of this little shop that has changed my father. In a subdued way, he appears an alienated man, prepared for vertigo and dislocations, seemingly asking himself, How much longer do I keep living in this world? But whatever my personal feelings about him, like all sons, I’m holding on to the fascination by my father as a symbolic figure. The role model.

My parents seem to relax in the art shop as they get older and I agree with Akinyi that they are fairly relaxed near the end. Of course, my father still gets time to paint his queer acrylics and sit next to the colossal gramophone singing along with Rochereau. He has all the odd vinyl in 45s and LPs including Kallé’s Afrikan Jazz, Nico’s African Fiesta, OK Jazz, Vox Africa, Maquisards, Bantous, Le Négro Succès and Trio Madjesi (Orchestre Sosoliso). He still wants to surprise me all the time with facts I don’t know regarding Zairean (I mean, Congolese) rumba. The latest? That Dibango, Brazzos and Longomba also played with African Jazz. With his tiresome didactic voice, he carries on with his favourite topic: the greatest brothers in music. Dewayon and Johnny Bokelo Isenge. Dechaud and Docteur Nico Kassanda wa Mikalayi. Franco and Tchongo Bavon Marie Marie. Faugus and Roger Izeidi Mokoy. Soki Vangu and Soki Dianzenza. To my father, music is always Zairean (arrggh, Congolese) music. Whenever my father talks about music, he means Congolese music.

One thing I didn’t know for all my years in music is that (really) the brothers Nico and Dechaud set the standard for Congolese-style solo and rhythm guitar interplay that we enjoy and play all the time. That the celebrated guitar god Nico actually created it! I (like most musicians who play rumbastic styles) take it all for granted, like somebody just came up with it. And after that disclosure, I have begun to really look... to really listen to the old music, and I begin to see a pattern.

Like my father, I am a huge-huge fan of the 1960s and 1970s Congolese rumba. They are old fashioned and of a time I cherished. I have been known to go well out of my way in pursuit of some combination or other of these things. My current worst lousy habit is sleeping and brooding. And feeling rotten about my imperfections. So lousy I long for self-flagellation and even death to wake again renewed. Like those nightmarish computer games my son Daudi used to play in UK where you play hard and sometimes survive, but most times you get yourself killed. Then you resurrect yourself and start over again. I long for a Bible-like revelation that explains to me why I’m a musician and not a professional athlete.

Mama’s life appears to be pressed down by sad memories than the real world. There are ghosts and these ghosts are family. Long before Agwenge died, arum tidi the dark bird of ill-fortune and death had perched on the roof of our house and opened its beak. In 1987, big bro Keya committed suicide. Mama, with her fishy beliefs, said he was bewitched. In 1997 my sister Akong’o died of AIDS. To Mama, again, she was bewitched. In 2005, our last-born brother, Hawi Odhiambo died. He had gone to the University to study law and that was going to be another achievement for the family, but the sparkling glitter of his career was ended by a stray bullet. They shot him down during a student riot in his final year. He was only twenty-two. To Mama, again, Hawi was bewitched. In fact Mama could tell you the people she knew bewitched her children and why. Superstations. Whatever. But her belief protected her; once there is somebody to blame, natural justice is served. Funny but this is how stuff works here in Kenya. I only sympathise because I know the poor woman of Nyalenda Mama blamed for killing her children is innocent.

Of course, I’m the one to blame. I remember my crazy pact with the devil through Fortune Man. I wish I had not done the unthinkable thing. Sadness comes over me, a dark shadow. As I lay on the grass at DreamScape watching the moon and the stars like a shoal of bream, I wished my dead siblings were alive. The impossible, of course. I wished to reload my past like life was a game that I’d made the wrong choices in. I wished to rewind time several years back when my sister Akong’o was alive, and Keya, and even Hawi... when Akong’o was still this happy, irrepressible tween girl who hugged me tight with both arms when I came home from high school.

If you’re going to wish, why not wish for the whole shebang, everything you want at once, right? It’s not like I expected it to come true. Ever since the Akong’o fell under the spell of ‘The Poet’ Willy Wilbarforce Opiyo, a sentimental composer and singer in my band, not so much could be hoped for. As always, something tragic is bound to a girl who gets married to a musician, and she has to make her bed and lay out for some serious crash. It happened that this was the time musicians were dropping dead left, right and centre from HIV like the broom of God was sweeping dirt from the face of the Earth. All musician are harlots by nature, I am one of them.

The wish was a harmless whim, but I regretted it anyway, both for the immaturity of wishing on an impossibility in the sun, and for the still-admittedly-immature thought that I might have wasted a wish on the impossible, that maybe a more reasonable wish would have a better chance of being granted.

When I lifted myself from the grass at midnight that night, I had plenty of reasonable wishes already in the back of my mind. I needed to come back with a win, a realistic win, anything that fell on the spectrum between a little better than barely adequate to might actually cheer Mama up.

Poor Mama. She can’t understand that the fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world. As an artist, I see it. I feel it. In fact, I’m ready for it. Soon and very soon, we will whisk away to some unknown place. Shakespeare was right: death is a necessary evil. Amazing how we spend all our lives waiting for death... the way we do our stuff so-so quick in a race against time so that when death finally gets us, we won’t be so badly off. Yet when Mr. Death finally knocks the door, we cannot accept it. Just cannot. We tense up and make a run for it.

I think the reason Death has to force us to die tragically through bizarrely painful means like deliberate poisoning, murder, boats capsizing or motor vehicles running us down or illness consuming us in hospital beds is because we defy his will. I just don’t know why death brings loss and sadness, yet we know well it is for real. I wish we always had an appointment with death (like Tutuola imagined or like Sura Mbaya reckoned). So that we will know the day it comes so we can get ready to meet him (after running the full gamut of life and raising a family and putting stuff in place) and just walk away and disappear instead of being hit by a bus or a bullet. It’s a hell of a thought, I know. I mean even if Death is in the business of killing people, he wouldn’t need to find ugly and in-human ways to kill us like (imagine!) inventing incurable diseases like AIDS or cancer, or paying fellow men to kill us on his behalf. If we just cooperated with him.

I look back at my family and I feel sad. Mama worked hard to bring us up straight by ripping us off the bad company in Pandpieri and trimming us with her iron fist and keeping us strictly focused on school and reading books, and I feel sad. Sad because I now see how terribly I let her down. I worry that Mama is losing her mind the same way I’m losing my grip. I know. She’s on her way out. I know. We know.

Mama’s face clouds, grows wary as she struggles to tell me about Agwenge’s last moments. His last words were, ‘Set me free! Open the windows and let me go!’ And his soul is indeed free now to continue his work of creating music in the winds. 

With sadness, I feel awful that it really got me nowhere, that I had strayed from an acceptable course that my life went in the wrong direction. That I was a headstrong narcissist who went against Mama’s wishes and took matters into my own hands spinning my life into a kind of performance-art thing that I called Orchestra Victoria and through which I made some records and got fame. Through which I messed people up, especially women. I was a mean-spirited bad man and a celebrated womaniser. I never married, not in the proper way. I never had a family... not a real one. It brings tears into my eyes. This is something deeper and sadder: not just alienation, but a hard-won awareness of mortality and passing the time. I’m worried that I’m now forty-seven and I’m unaccomplished. I’m concerned that I have tumbled deep into a full-blown, existential crisis. I’m deeply sorrowful over the toll that my exile-life, mistakes, and misplaced dreams have taken on my life. I worked and made a name, alright, but what’s the meaning of it. Hakuna maana yoyote. I lost twenty years doing nothing. Just doing nothing.

I remain haunted. Why can’t I get you, dear kid brother, out of my mind and my heart? Agwenge has gone for good—what is left are shadows and music that never fades, shadows you sometimes find yourself still looking at. Now. My worry and my sense of unworthiness now happen more often; some part of my brain is sign-posting its distress. (More hallucinogenic thoughts of brain on fire).

It is time.

Time to do something. Time to get my flimsy story the hell out of my noggin.


You only realize you’re black when you’re fed up of being told you’re a black asshole and you only get told you’re a black asshole in UK.

HOO—OME sweet home!

I came back home to Kenya a clogged-up chucklehead. Like all the other Africans who had lived and worked many years in the West (Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Banda, etc.) I came back penniless. In the precocious English Kingdom, I found myself in a harrowing predicament. I came close to becoming insane. To say the least, I was freaky freaked out, deranged, and just how long I was going to be suspended in the unknown, many, many miles away from home only God knew. I tried to be normal. I repeatedly tried day after day, month after month, year after year, sometimes allowing a couple of years to pass before trying again and each succeeding time I found the same clouds in my mind. I determined at length that the clouds would be there for a long, long time.

It was sure for some certainty that I was a long way from being myself. Memories flooded my frapped mind lambasting me until at length I screamed out in my

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