Wazee Wakumbuke: Them Mushrooms at 50


Wazee Wakumbuke: Them Mushrooms at 50

Them Mushrooms band are arguably Kenya’s most iconic band who have placed the country on the global scene thanks to their catchy slogan ‘Hakuna Matata’ that originates from their smash hit ‘Jambo Bwana’, a composition of the band founder and saxophonist Teddy Kalanda Harrison, better known as Mr Groove.

In an industry where bands are formed overnight and break up equally fast, this band has scored a first. They recently celebrated fifty years of their existence with a major concert at the place where they solidified their presence on the showbiz scene, The Simba Saloon at The Carnivore, on 11 December. Although most of the original members are no longer on the lineup, John Katana and Billy Saro are still holding the ship on a steady course, with Teddy occasionally coming out of ‘retirement’ to join them on the sax. During the Carnivore gig Teddy put in a virtual appearance, saluting the fans from his home in Kaloleni. He was unable to attend because of health complications, and had to contend with watching his younger siblings perform via a virtual feed.

Them Mushrooms band is Teddy’s brainchild. The eldest of the seven Harrison siblings alongside his family including Ruth Kadzo, Billy “Chief” Sarro, George Zirro, John “Bishop” Katana, Betty Kang’ombe and Dennis Kalume, started out on home-made instruments fashioned out of tins and goatskins. The family band surmounted huge challenges as they morphed into a full-fledged band that has stood the test of time.

In the early years, Teddy was highly influenced by Osibisa and Bob Marley, whose traces can be felt in the band’s earliest oeuvre as they experimented with style and genre. Their early sounds swung between genres from all corners of the globe, but often rooted everything in their traditional nzele music of the Miji Kenda people who live along the Kenyan coast. Their music draws influence from a motley of genres, notably the chakacha and mwanzele music of the Kenyan coast, sega music from Mauritius, pachanga and rumba from the Congo, omutibo and benga music from Western Kenya, West African Highlife, reggae and Western pop sounds, all brewed together to give the special stew that they call ‘supu ya uyoga’ (mushroom soup).

They started out performing at village dances popularly called ‘bomas’. In the early days, their sister Kadzo turned out on bass, but she was later discouraged by her mother from taking up music full time. She passed on her bass guitar to Billy, who made it his instrument of choice after he mastered it. John would later turn out on keyboards and vocals, with the youngest, Dennis, handling the drums.

In Mombasa at the time the biggest bands played the tourist hotel circuit, and every budding musician dreamt of landing a contract with these hotels. Them Mushrooms were no exception. But it wasn’t easy to get in.

For one, the bands playing at these hotels tended to specialize in cover versions of songs that were popular in Europe at the time, with very few playing their own original music. There was the other angle of race. For some reason the hotel managers preferred ‘Waswahili’ musicians who were lighter-skinned and of Arabic stock. These were the glory days of Slim Ali (Salim Ali), Sal Davies  (Salim Abdulla Saim), Faisal Brown (Faisal Khamisi Mwinyikombo) and Kelly Brown (Abdulkadir Mohammed).

And so when Teddy tried to secure a contract for his indigenous Giriama band, he was forced to contend with this reality. Further still, even though they could do covers, Teddy was determined to play their own original music. It proved a hard sell with the haughty hotel managers.

The other thing that played against them was their equipment. The band had inherited a dilapidated set from an uncle, and whenever they turned up for auditions, they were almost always turned away by the hotel managers because of the state of their equipment.

But Teddy was determined nonetheless.

One saving grace for the band, and its bedrock, was their mother, Florence Mandi Harrison, who often offered counsel and encouragement to the siblings throughout their career. When she saw how frustrating it was for them to get gigs with their old instruments, she took the bold step of securing them a loan of Sh400 (nearly Sh50,000 today) from KCB bank that enabled them to buy their first spanking new drum-set.

They then approached a family acquaintance, Mombasa Town clerk by name Bakoye, who agreed to lend them his keyboard. And as their arsenal grew, the band started taking shape, with the brothers settling into their instrument of choice. Their first keyboard player was Ahmed Timbo, who trained the adventurous George to play the instrument. Dennis was still very young, barely out of primary school, when he learnt to play drums. The young protege was taught by an older musician, Dennis Mdoe, who would sit him in his lap as he took him through his lessons since his feet could barely reach the foot pedal.

Their very first professional gig was arranged for them by their father at his Changamka bar in Kaloleni. He paid the hiring fee for the instruments and a generator, which they could not afford  at the time.

And as they gained their stage feet, they started training their sights on the beach hotels, which paid better. At some point before they acquired a full set they were loaned some instruments by Mombasa Roots band. But just when all was going well and gigs were coming in, Mombasa Roots turned up to claim their instruments. It forced them to figure out how to buy their own.

It was during this experimental period in the late 1980s when they were playing low-key gigs in the village that Teddy got his first eye injury that would later lead to his blindness. They had been hired to play at a New Years’ Eve party in Batani, Kilifi on the North Coast. It turned out that the organizer of the well-attended event wasn’t willing to pay them, and so he organized a gang of local hoodlums to start chaos during the event. In the ensuing melee an object was thrown at the bespectacled Teddy, breaking his glasses. A shard from the glass injured his left eye, causing him to be rushed to Aga Khan hospital. Much later, he would slip and fall while in the bathroom, leading to the injury of his other eye. A series of operations on his eyes would follow, some done in India, which unfortunately could not save his eyesight. He gradually lost his ability to see and had to learn Braille and to adapt to the use of mobile apps for the blind.

It was after the Batani incident that the band put a stop to ‘boma’ performances and instead opted to focus on professional gigs.

From ‘Karisa’ to ‘Harrison’ 

Their fans may be baffled by their use of the family name Harrison. The ‘Harrison’ name has a history of its own, derived from the Giriama name Karisa. The senior Harrison, Henry Gibson Shadrack Harrison was born and raised at the Rabai Mission. His own father, Karisa, was an early convert to Christianity. He had accompanied his father on a trek from Kwale to Rabai, where they settled and he enrolled in school. Karisa’s name was first corrupted by the missionaries at Rabai to ‘Karison’, which eventually changed to ‘Harrison’. It has since stuck, passed down the generations to Them Mushrooms and their children, who also bear the surname.

Initially the band members had day jobs, with Teddy and Billy working at Bamburi Portland Cement Company and John working as a Preventive Officer at the then Customs and Excise Department (now Kenya Revenue Authority). After clocking off work they would rush home to change before heading off to practice or to gigs. It was very punishing, and eventually, when it proved unsustainable, they made the decision to quit their jobs and go into music full time. The matriarch, who always came through in their crisis moments, advised them to think very carefully about what they wanted to do. She told them, were they to choose music, that they should do it professionally to the best of their ability and, more important, regard it as work. They chose to go this path.

In the middle of this transition their father passed on, and Teddy, who had since been admitted to the  then-prestigious Makerere University to study for a bachelor of Arts degree, had to give up his studies and come back home to assume the old man’s role in the family. Death would later stalk the family again, claiming Dennis in 1992 when they were on tour in Ethiopia and their mother and bedrock, Mama Mushrooms in 1995. It is Dennis’ demise that almost broke up the band, with the brothers withdrawing into themselves in mourning until their mother snapped them out of their reverie and ordered them to start playing again.

Before the brothers quit their day-jobs they secured a bank loan and traveled to Nairobi to buy equipment. They were keen on British equipment considered superior, which could only be found at Shankardass Store on Moi Avenue, and which were very costly. The alternative shop was Assanands, which stocked Japanese equipment that the band felt was of a lesser quality. They settled for the superior British equipment. The rest of the equipment was acquired from Rufus Gaetano, an Italian businessman who owned a string of clubs, among them Visions and Forrester Magnetica.

Now that they were fully kitted they signed up with Severin sea Lodge and Hotel for a grueling contract that saw them play six days a week. On their off-day, Wednesday, they played at the Cave NightClub (now Tiffany’s) at Ambalal House in the CBD.

Initially, they used to hire a mkokoteni (handcart) to cart their equipment from their Tudor home to wherever they had landed a gig. But by 1979, they had saved enough to invest in  a used Nissan E23 van christened Ndogo Ndogo, which became their troupe’s carrier and signature in the parking yard of whichever venue they were playing at.

The making of a hit

The one song that stands out for the band, and which gave them international recognition was Teddy’s composition ‘Jambo Bwana’. When the band first played it at the Severin Sea Lodge where they were the resident band for six years starting 1979, the other more experienced bands then calling the shots on the Mombasa beach hotels circuit dismissed it as a nursery school rhyme. But to their puzzlement the easy-to-sing-along song with its catchy lyrics proved to be massively popular with the tourists, who would repeatedly request for it to be played. Soon these doubting Thomases had no choice but to play it as well!

One day they were playing it at the Shelly Beach Hotel when a gentleman who was then on holiday in Mombasa, approached them. He turned out to be the financial director at Polygram at the time, and he asked Teddy if the band would like to come to the studio in Nairobi to record. The band struggled not to show their excitement as they agreed on a travel date, because that is the one opportunity they had been dreaming of, and it had brought itself right out of the blue. They agreed to send a demo tape of the song made at their Tudor house to Polygram as they made plans to travel to cut the vinyl, which would also contain the song ‘Bonde kwa Bonde’ on the flipside.

Of note about this hit song was that when they got to the studio the Polygram A&R manager, Isaiah Mwinamo, similarly dismissed it. But the financial director overruled him and the band went on to cut the disc.

Several renditions of ‘Jambo Bwana’ have since been released, including by Mombasa Roots, Safari Sound band, Khadija Nin and Mani Kollengode, among others. But the most notable one was by the pop band Boney M. The song’s lyrics ‘Hakuna Matata’ have graced the silver screen, used in the Hollywood box office release Lion King. At home the tourism ministry has ran with it, turning ‘Hakuna Matata’ into an effective slogan to market Kenya as a tourism destination; albeit without paying the originators of the phrase a cent! It is said that had Teddy been paid a shilling every time the phrase pops up on merchandise or a webpage he would be wallowing in his retirement millions in Kaloleni!

On tour

Although they were versatile and mobile enough to perform anywhere in the country, the one place where they made a mark was at the Simba Saloon at The Carnivore, where they played for a long time, and where they came back for their huge 50th Anniversary gig this December. After their stint at The Carnivore they decided it was time they extended their reach outside the country’s borders. In 1982 they traveled to West Germany on an invitation from a friend who they had once housed at their Tudor house, eager to see if they could find gigs in Europe. It turned out tougher than they thought. For one, they ended up sharing a one-room apartment, the six of them, and unlike what they expected, gigs were hard to come by. A friend, cabaret singer Joe Mwenda, secured them a gig in Zurich by a company called “Rent a Show” and although the Kenyan band the Ashantis, who were resident in Switzerland at the time, had earlier agreed to loan them their instruments they later reneged, and it ended up being a no-show.

Still they did not give up. Now that they were in Germany Teddy felt they could try and record another version of ‘Jambo Bwana’ for the European market. Actually he was already in touch with the executives of Polygram in Hamburg, who had agreed to record them. But then there was a hitch. They needed to get permission from Polygram Kenya, to whom they were signed, before they could get into the studio. Unfortunately the two sides could not agree. It was a lesson to the band on how the international music business works. They had wrongly assumed that it would work out smoothly, given the two companies shared a name. 

Frustrated at the turn of events, Teddy next tried to secure gigs in London through his friend Ted Osei of Osibisa, who even agreed to house them. But again London failed to work out when a South American tour came up for Osibisa and they had to leave. With things looking grim at every turn and seeing as they were running out of money they decided to return home to strategize.

Earlier while in Germany they had shown a recording of ‘Jambo Bwana’ to Frank Farian, the high-flying producer and songwriter who founded the pop group Boney M, hoping that he could help them secure a recording deal among his circles. It turned out he wasn’t very keen. Unknown to them, Farian had already seen the song’s potential and arranged with Boney M to cut a rendition of it without consulting them. It was the band’s rude introduction to the intricacies of the international music business. Their friend who had invited them to Germany would later surprise them with a Boney M album that contained the cover of their song.

Back home, they returned to their old beach haunts to keep the bills paid as they worked out their next move.

In July of 1982 they traveled to Nairobi to cut the single featuring their new releases Maisha Marefu and Mushdance with Polygram. They had also been offered a six-month contract to perform at Safari Park and Cantina clubs.  But before they started work they received a call from their mother- who was acting on her unique maternal instinct that had come through for them on numerous occasions. Mama Mushroom ordered them to return to Mombasa immediately. When the band landed in Mombasa they learnt that a section of the Kenya Armed Forces had staged a coup, trying to overthrow President Daniel arap Moi. This is how they escaped finding themselves smack in the mayhem that was Nairobi during the short-lived coup.

Later that year, after the country had calmed down following the failed coup the band was on the move again, touring in Tanzania and later Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. It is after they returned that they would commence performing at the Carnivore as the resident band, a phase during which the band were no doubt at their peak. They signed up at The Carnivore in February 1987 to replace the Congolese band Vundumuna, who were facing problems from the authorities regarding work permits, given they were a Congolese band. During their successful stint at The Carnivore that lasted until 1989 Them Mushrooms introduced the hugely popular ‘Coast Nite’ that featured bands from the Coast, accompanied by delicacies from the Coast and traditional mnazi wine. It is this concept of a tribal or regional theme night that has since been adopted by other entertainment venues. And as if to stamp their arrival in the city, the band were voted the top band at that year’s Battle of Kenyan Bands, beating some of the then popular bands in Nairobi like Musikly Speaking.

Between 1991 and 1995 the band embarked on rigorous tours outside the country. While still signed to The Carnivore the band got a chance to tour Ethiopia in 1990 at the invitation of the Ethiopian government, who wanted them to perform at a Leather Trade Fair in the capital, Addis. The tour turned so successful they would return for repeat shows after their music connected with their Ethiopian fans. Part of the reason for this was the band’s adapting of local Amharic songs, with John’s keyboard imitating the sitar.

From Ethiopia they would proceed to Dubai and later Switzerland, before returning again to Ethiopia where, unknown to them, the tragedy of the passing on of Dennis awaited them. It was at a Lion Group’s party in Addis when Dennis, who had been looking unwell for a while, took his place at the drums and started playing, reassuring his elder brothers that he was well. Midway through the performance the beat started slowing before the kick drum suddenly stopped. Dennis rose with difficulty and dragged himself out for fresh air. The music stopped and the band rushed to his aid, given he was now very pale and clearly very sick. 

He was put on the next plane and rushed back home and straight to Nairobi Hospital, where he later succumbed to jaundice due to a failing liver. This and the passing on of the Mushroom matriarch three years later were some of the most tumultuous moments in the band’s history, but which they recovered from and got back the show going.

Mushrooms at fifty

As part of the series of events lined up to mark their 50th anniversary, the band recently had a successful tour of London. When the Kenyan High Commision learnt that the band was around they invited them to play for Kenyan athletes, an indication that they still packed quite a punch even at 50!

However, it is not to say that they transcend generations. I know the band well because I grew up in Western Kenya listening to their music on the government-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), which was the only national broadcaster back then. I have also interacted with them in several other music projects, and they clearly are no strangers to me. But from my interaction with younger music-lovers popularly known as ‘millennials’, some of them don’t know about these legends. The cabbie – a young lady in her early twenties- who drove me home from conducting a pre-gig soundcheck interview with the band at The Carnivore had never heard of them, same to my cameraman’s assistant, again another ‘millennial’. Clearly there’s a demography – most likely the young urbanites who patronized the Carnivore in the 1980s, and who are now in their fifties and sixties, form the core of their fanbase.

Many non-family members have played with the band at various stages, among them Pritt Nyale, Nassir ‘Nassoro’ Mbarak, John ‘Sodhe’ Jillo, Betty ‘kidosho’ Githure, Dave ‘Mobb’ Otieno, Juma ‘Tutu’ Abdalla, Ben ‘Yoyoma’ Mutwiwa, Nassiri Kunazi, Ahmed Timbo, among others. Some, like Juma ‘Tutu’ who honed his sax-playing skills at the band have since gone on to launch successful solo careers.

As for recognition the band has been well decorated, with Jambo Bwana earning Silver, Gold and Platinum discs. In addition they have earned several awards, among them the M-Net 2000 Award and the Kenya Band of the Decade Trophy in 2002.


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