My name is Christian Longomba. I grew up in a musical family but was the shy, soft-spoken one. Initially, it was not fun for me. I would compare my life with those of other kids and it was not cool that my dad was a musician.
Most of my childhood friends’ fathers were doctors, lawyers, or policemen; so I wanted my father to be like theirs, working from 8am to 5pm and then coming home to spend time with us, or read the newspaper or watch the news. Still, dad was fun and often brought his band home for practice.
That made me develop a keen ear for music.
Because of the nature of my father’s job, we had to move from one country to another often. That’s how I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo while by brothers; Richie and Lovy, and my sister Elly, were born in Kenya.
Even though my life revolved being around musicians, I never thought of myself as musical. I felt I did not measure up to the rest of my family. Lovy was a natural born singer. My sister Elly had music in her DNA while Richie was super talented.
My dad died in 1996, just as I was entering teenage years. His death left a big void in the family. He was the coolest dad in the world.
My mom was the strict one though, but super fun, and after dad’s death she stepped into the role of breadwinner. She did everything she could to put food on the table. Even though she could not fill the emptiness and emotional gap, she ensured we were comfortable.
I NEVER IMAGINED A CAREER IN MUSIC
When I got into music, I never imagined I would make a career of it. I got into music because I was strongly drawn to it after going to Samawati Studios where my dad recorded some of his music and would watch him and other artistes perform.
I would also learn music by watching our cousin, Nasty Thomas, of the group Deux Vultures. This motivated me to write a song called Dondosa.
The funny thing is that when I wrote it, I wasn’t looking around me – my family and the numerous possibilities for partnership(s) at my disposal.
At Samawati Studio, I met a guy with whom I decided to record the song. However, the first release was not pleasing. I felt there was something missing, a “flavor” I could not get. It was frustrating, we parted ways and I went back to the drawing board.
That is when it dawned on me that my brother Lovy was a musician! I reached out to him and we agreed to collaborate, and that is how we became the Longombas.
Since we were still in school but had big dreams of exceling in music in a society that saw music as a worthless career, we had to be smart. We would skip school and come up with all kind of excuses.
We put in so much work on “Dondosa” that by the time we felt it was ready for a demo, we were on the seventh version. Lovy and I were speaking the same language; we both knew what we wanted. The only problem was getting a producer who could turn our dreams into reality.
At about the same time Deux Vultres had recorded a song called “Mona Lisa”, which was doing very well. We reached out to our cousin Nasty Thomas, and asked him to link us up with their producer.
He took us to the Ogopa DJs Studio in South C. But to record our song, we needed money so we sold most of our belongings to raise money. This helped us raise half the capital and Richie gave us the other half.
Notably, the producer, Lucas Bikedo, was still operating from his parents’ home, so when we knocked on the door, it was his dad who ushered us in. Lucas must have been sleeping so we had to wait.
A while later he showed up and asked what kind of help we needed. He told us to continue waiting and must have gone to sleep some more. He showed up again and we gave him the CD with our “Dondosa” demo.
He then asked us to leave saying he would contact us. We were surprised because after waiting for so long, we expected a more interactive approach. But we had no option so we ushered ourselves out.
We hadn’t even got to his estate’s main gate when Lucas came running and told us; ‘Men, I have listened to your track. I don’t know who was working on it before but it has potential. Please let us go back to the house.’
So, we followed him to his little studio, played the song over and over and we could tell there was something about this song that was right. Lucas then asked what we called ourselves and we told him, The Longombas.
He introduced us to his networks at KBC and Capital FM. I remember Capital FM’s Eve de Souza was the first radio presenter to play our song. Soon, Dondosa found its way to KBC’s top Kenyan music countdown.
It did not take long before the song started playing on Kiss FM, Nation FM and other radio stations. But even though it was doing well on radio, we still hadn’t figured out how to reach our listeners.
Nobody knew us beyond the song. We were growing frustrated, wondering how musicians secured shows. We wanted to show our fans what we were capable of but knew no promoters.
Once again Nasty Thomas came to our help. Their song Mona Lisa had become a national hit and they were performing countrywide.
Deux Vultures gave us a deal that was too good to refuse – to curtain raise for their shows without pay. We signed on.
The day for our debut appearance as The Longombas finally came during an event called the “Tusker Pool Challenge.” It was here that we would meet Big Ted, who used to work closely with Deux Vultures.
FANS DEMANDED AN ENCORE
Our performance was so well co-ordinated that after all the acts were done performing, fans demanded an encore.
Big Ted was pleased and asked us to grace another show he had at the Ngong Racecourse a few weeks later. At that time we were still not thinking about making money.
We wanted to build a rapport with the fans. Big Ted would become an important part of our journey. All this was happening even though all we had was that one one track.
As our name became synonymous with Kenya music, we saw it fit to sing about things society was grappling with. In addition, our music has all been about setting the mood for any occasion.
For example, the song, “Vuta Pumz”, has a club or dance feel to it, yet it tackles responsible sexual behaviour and calls on partners in a relationship to be faithful to manage the spread of HIV/Aids.
Lovy and I later moved to the United States. We felt we needed to explore a different way of making music, to think outside the box. We wanted to take our music beyond Kenya and Africa, to expand our horizons.
Besides, there was no use being popular with nothing to show for it. Our vision led us to move to America. It is important to note that pursuing a career is a journey, so people should not imagine that we would achieve success overnight.
If you look at what Nigerian musicians do, you will realise that they have very good songs and a very supportive fan base. Their publicists are very aggressive and take them to different countries where they meet famous musicians from those countries.
Take for instance the recent videos showing Alicia Keys dancing to Wizkid’s music. All this is due to good management and aggressive publicists. We lack that in Kenya. The Longombas wanted to go much further than Kenya.
Most of the things we were doing were almost for free. We were spending a lot but not getting anything in return.
Even when Nigerian artistes network with celebrated musicians in other countries, specifically in America, they don’t look at it as a bridge to reaching the American market; their focus is still on Africa, which makes sense because its a market of nearly a billion people.
But these networks end up showing their fans back home that their stars are mingling with their peers from around the globe, and that’s what this industry requires.
At the moment, very few African acts attract international audiences – Femi Kuti, Angelique Kidjo and Youssou N’Dour – not a very long list. These artistes have demonstrated that music knows no borders.
Whether they sing in mother tongue or any other language, even those who don’t understand that language will still fall in love with their music because these artistes are not trying to be what they are not! Our song, Queen, which we recorded in California, is a sign of how far we can go.
Like everyone else, I have undergone trying times. I have generally been a healthy guy, save for the occasional headache for which I would take pain killers. Sometimes I would vomit, but I put it down to something that I had eaten that must have upset my tummy.
There were moments I would get tired during the day but thought that was a sign I needed to rest.
One fine afternoon I called a friend to come over so that we could spend some time together because I was bored.
We prepared a meal but then, as I was sitting on the couch, I lost consciousness; I had a seizure. Luckily my friend is a nurse so knew what to do and then called the paramedics who took me to the hospital.
After undergoing many tests over several days, I received a very serious and life-threatening diagnosis – I had a brain tumour. I was dumbfounded. I could not believe this was happening to me. I had read stories of such tumours’ growing in other people’s brain but I never imagined it would happen to me.
It was big, so the hospital kept monitoring as it waited for a specialist’s opinion. The neuro-surgeons later told my family that had never seen such a big brain tumour, so they needed time to study and plan how to safely remove it.
Two weeks later, I underwent surgery. Since the surgery was major and invasive, it was fraught with risks. But I told the doctor to do his job, and that God would do the healing.
The surgery went well but there was a little setback; I suffered internal bleeding, which necessitated another surgery to remove blood clots from my brain.
My recovery was so amazing that I realised that God was there for me. My illness has taught me a lot, especially faith in God. I have learnt to appreciate every little thing God has given me—the ability to smile, mobility,and even the ability to go to the bathroom. People take these little things for granted, yet for some people, they are luxuries.
I want to thank my family; my wife Bella Yetnayet Ketema, my son Prince, and my daughter Elly, for their unwavering love and support.
I don’t know how to thank my father in-law Benjamin Onyango, and my mother-in-law Elizabeth, who have been there for me through this difficult period. They have been my second family.
My brother, Lovy, and his wife, Ida, have stayed true to me and supported me all through. I cannot forget the prayers, love and warmth I received from Kenyans from all walks, and even from non-Kenyans. I appreciate all the support I have received, be it financial, spiritual or moral.
But I would like to conclude by saying, watch out for the Longombas’ album coming out soon.
This article, written by Mukurima X Muriuki, first appeared in the Daily Nation: