Matata – the name means “trouble” in Swahili, and in retrospect it was well chosen. The story of this African funk band who took London nightclubs by storm, jammed with giants of soul, jazz and Latin music and then splintered apart not once but twice is enough to make any half- decent scriptwriter sit up and take notice. At its heart is the music – a pulsating brew of black American funk and African rhythms that help define an era whilst still making people dance more than forty years later.
The band has its roots in the Congo although it formed in Nairobi in the mid-sixties, not long after Kenya gained Independence. Jomo Kenyatta presided over one of the most politically reactionary countries in Africa. It was a place where political exiles from all over Africa gathered, and Nairobi – known as “the Green City In The Sun” because of the palm trees lining its modern streets – was brimming with ideas, hope and music. Saturday evenings meant a trip to the Starlight Club, on the corner of Milimani and Valley Road. That’s where you could hear the best upbeat party music, drawn from African music and American jazz and rhythm and blues. The club had proved a great success since opening in the summer of 1965. Twelve thousand patrons went through its doors every month and owner Robbie Armstrong, a white Englishman, recruited some of the biggest bands in Kenya like the Ashantis, Cavaliers and Air Fiesta Matata.
“Kenya was booming when it came to music and the Starlight was really popular,” recalls singer and keyboard player Anwar Richard. “There was a bar in the building and dancing, and then you walked to the big, massive garden for a barbecue. They didn’t just sell beef or chicken, but meat from wild animals like elephant, lion and ostrich… We’d be there, playing Congolese music and funk, Tamla Motown and Earth, Wind And Fire… I was listening to records by all those artists and James Brown was massive, let me tell you…”
Anwar is from Mombasa, eight hours drive away on the coast. He’s the son of a police commissioner but the lure of music was too strong and when his cousin offered him a lift to Nairobi one day, his life would change forever.
“When we got to Nairobi I said for him to drop me at the Starlight Club. Matata was already established by that time. They had a singer who was known all over Kenya but I went up to the stage and asked if I could sing something. After I did that, people were saying, ‘oh my God! Who is this kid?’ The manager called me into his office and signed me straight away, so I stayed in Nairobi after that.”
Anwar was following in the footsteps of other singers from Mombasa like Ishamel Ali Jingo, who had a residency at Gloria Africana. He and Matata’s Steeleson Beauttah were fierce rivals but neither enjoyed a superstar lifestyle, despite their high profile. “Playing these residencies, we’d play eight hours a shift,” says Anwar.
“Can you imagine playing every night for that long? There were eight or ten of us – I was lead singer for soul music, and we had different singers for the African music. Congolese music is great for dancing with all those guitar riffs and harmonies, y ‘know? Our language was Swahili but songs in Congolese were very popular in Kenya back then.”
The group retained elements of traditional music by incorporating instruments such as the ngoma (a large drum) and an eight stringed guitar-cum- harp called the nyatiti. This brought something different to their sound and as the sixties drew to an end they were regulars on Kenyan television and enjoyed a national following.
“We were still playing at the Starlight every day but we had original songs as well and so when the BBC had this competition to find the best band in Africa, we submitted a song and came first! We were sent tickets to visit London; performed at the BBC and then stayed around to do some gigs. A lady called Pearl Connor took over our management from there.”
That was in 1971, and Matata’s line-up was as follows: Steeleson Beauttah (vocals and bongos), Jacques Kalunga (vocals, drums and congas), Isaac Kisombe and Toby Kombo (lead guitars), John Otieno (rhythm guitar), Nashon Gandani (tenor sax), Patrice Oluma (vocals and bongos), Sammy Kagenda (bass), Gabby Wamala (drums) and Anwar, who started out as a singer but then learnt to play guitar and keyboards. He says the group quickly acclimatised to their new surroundings, and calls London “a different world.
“So many things were a shock to us, but we loved the clubs, the music and the clothes… We grew our hair in these Afros and I had all these chains on my wrists… so many rings as well, but that was the fashion back then. I had both ears pierced, I was wearing pink and red cat suits and I looked like a pimp! Oh, and I forgot to mention the six inch heels! And those bell bottom trousers were so tight man…”
Blaxploitation movies showed at the cinemas and British pop was in the throes of glam rock at the time. T-Rex, Slade and Rod Stewart dominated the charts but it was the cross-fertilisation taking place between musicians from many different genres and nationalities that brought such vibrancy to cultural life in the capital. Matata arrived in London just as Assagai and Osibisa – groups led by African musicians who also played a fusion of styles – released debut albums. The timing was perfect and after years of playing at the Starlight the band was tight and well rehearsed, with a wealth of material and a dynamic live act to its name. Leaving those pink cat suits in the dressing room, the musicians wore traditional dress on stage, including monkey skin headbands, and armbands made out of beads and ostrich feathers. They were a visual, as well as musical feast and quickly became favourites at several well-known London nightclubs.
“There were so many clubs in London at that time,” says Anwar. “There was the Roaring Twenties and Candy Box in Carnaby Street… the Marquee was always special, but you also had Tiles, Gullivers, the Flamingo and 100 Club… Matata played at all of those clubs. In those days it was all about gigging and there was so much happening. We were regulars at Ronnie Scott’s and the Cue Club and then there was Hatchetts, which was a basement place in Covent Garden. We played there so many times! We must have played at around twenty clubs in and around town, playing to mixed crowds.”
Manager Pearl Connor was a well-known London theatre impresario, and she kept them busy for the rest of the year – not just around the capital or the rest of the country, but throughout Europe.
“We did a residency in Norway for three months and then another in Switzerland, in Gstaad,” says Anwar. “That place was packed every night. David Niven and Ursula Andress used to come there, and then we jammed with Miles Davis in Cologne. I’ll never forget that session. What he was playing was so different, but he was fascinated by what we were doing as well, y ‘know? He wanted to be a part of it and so he came on stage, took out his trumpet and just started jamming with us. He even invited us back to America with him.”
Davis played at the Sartory Festsaal in Cologne on November 12 th 1971 and his band – featuring conga players Don Alias and Mtume – was especially highly charged and funky that night. Matata were a hard act to follow and once back in the UK, they signed a two-album deal with President Records. Matata was the only African act on their roster and Pearl Connor’s influence proved decisive. That same year she married Joe Mogotsi and appointed him their producer, together with Ram John Holder. Mogotsi was lead singer, main songwriter and founder member of South African harmony group the Manhattan Brothers, whilst Holder was a Guyanese singer turned actor who’d recently released two albums of folk songs and starred in Leo The Last – a race conscious comedy set in Notting Hill.
To the initiated, Matata’s first album stands as a classic of its time, and anyone who appreciates African and funk music will love it. Lead single Wanna Do My Thing has been described as “an Afro funk explosion” on account of its call and response vocals, James Brown like screams and rasping sax. It was a hit in the Netherlands, Belgium and France and credited to Matata (Air Fiesta), but that name and even its meaning would soon change.
“Matata means worries but our manager said we shouldn’t tell people that, and we should say it means fire,” recalls Anwar, laughing at the memory. “Those Congolese guys in the band had brought the name Air Fiesta Matata to Kenya with them. I don’t know where it came from but we shortened it to Matata after a while.”
Each of the songwriters sang lead in their native tongues and this meant there were songs in three African languages on the album – Mijikenda, Lingala and Swahili – in addition to English. Wowo Woswo and Mosala Tokosalaka are sung in Lingala, which is commonly spoken in the Congo, and it’s easy to understand why music from there was so popular as the rhythms switch back and forth, accompanied by a cocktail of percussion, flute, and guitar. Congolese music is full of melody but there are also songs on the album inspired by Kenyan Independence, and which sent out positive messages concerning nation building – hence Mosala Tokosalaka, which refers to work and achievements.
The language switches to Swahili for Vijana Africa and Maendeleo Ya Kenya, although it shares the same spirit. The former pays homage to African youth and is set to a swaying, tropical rhythm whilst Maendeleo Ya Kenya is all about advancement, and development. It starts off gently with undulating guitars before Matata shift through the gears and use whistling and catcalls to rack up the excitement. It’s the same kind of recipe that will later fuel the go-go scene in Washington, led by bands like Trouble Funk and Rare Essence. We’re talking about music aimed at release that’s forever urging us to let go and experience the moment. That driving sense of urgency, unrestrained excitement and rapid changes of pace and tempo – powered by conga drums – was reminiscent of Santana, who’d recently starred in the Woodstock film. Latin, African and Caribbean rhythms were gaining acceptance and Matata’s role in achieving that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Their first album contained two instrumentals – Beautiful Burra, featuring some wonderful interplay between sax, conga drums, guitar and flute – and Jungle Warrior, which blends vocal chants with birdcalls and the sounds of nature. It’s earth music, whilst Wild River is “twisting and turning, angry and stormy…” Tumbling percussion, strident horns and exuberant vocals are Anwar Richard trademarks and he’s at it again on You’ve Gotta Find Me, which Wilson Pickett would have voiced in a heartbeat had he strayed into those Matata sessions. Steeleson Beauttah wrote the brassy, insistent I Need Somebody – another track that blurs the lines between rock and soul, whereas Mayo Mayo is sang in Mijikenda and conveys a sense of longing with every drawn out note. The closest they got to making a straight pop song – albeit with a hint of reggae – is Picha Yako which means, “send me your photo” in Swahili. It wasn’t a single but perhaps should have been as the band’s lack of commercial success would prove a continuing source of disappointment. Wanna Do My Thing hadn’t charted, despite its popularity in the clubs and throughout Europe, and that elusive breakthrough just wouldn’t come.
“We used to think, ‘if the discothèques are playing our records, then why aren’t we getting any airplay?’ We couldn’t understand it. We didn’t know why we weren’t being played on the radio, and it was so depressing. You had to go through a lot of politics to get played on the radio in those days.”
After their visas expired the band returned to Kenya for a year where they had an encounter with the Godfather of Soul. “James Brown is my idol!” enthuses Anwar. “You can hear it in the way that I sing. He was performing in some African country and he stopped over in Nairobi so we went to the airport and set up our equipment to play for him. He came over to us as we were playing and we jammed together. That was like wow! James Brown was massive throughout Africa at that time. He was the man!”
Brown was in transit to Zambia, and Kenya’s Embakasi International Airport was packed to the rafters that day. Matata were still signed to President, who released I Need Somebody and the hypnotic instrumental Empty World as singles whilst the band was away. Pearl Connor eventually cleared the necessary paperwork and secured them a lengthy residency in Hong Kong, playing at a flagship hotel. This was in February 1973.
“We had a residency at the Excelsior hotel in Hong Kong and it was brand-new,” says Anwar. “We opened that club; it was in the basement of the hotel. One night Sergio Mendes came there. He’d gone to Hong Kong to play a few gigs and come to see us. He loved the congas and the drums, and we played all night with him. We were in Hong Kong for nine months and then we came back to England. That’s when we started writing new songs and recorded the second album.” Not all of the band members had travelled to Hong Kong. Some of them had families to care for and so they stayed in Kenya. Anwar was now the band’s lead singer and main songwriter, and he lost no time in recruiting replacements once Matata were back in London.
“Toby Kombo, John Otieno, Isaac Kisombe and Sammy Kagenda – they all stayed but there were some Kenyans living over here and one of them was a very good drummer, y ‘know? I knew him from Nairobi and he had the right look, with the bushy hair and all that. Pearl’s husband Joe, he knew these South African guys who were big all over town. They did sessions with a lot of different artists there was this man called Eddie – a big, heavyweight guy, six feet six – who we got to play congas and tom toms. The line-up changed, and that’s why the sound of that album is different from the first one.”
The follow-up album would be called Independence, and this time every track was sung in English. Anwar wrote all of them except for the languid call for peace that is Love Is The Only Way, written by Sammy Kagenda. It’s a collection full of irresistible rhythms, snappy vocal hooks and horn arrangements, plus everything else needed to get dancers working overtime. The sax player was Dudu Pukwana, who’d recently released the Afro-jazz classic In The Townships. He and trumpeter Mongezi Feza had played with South African jazz group the Blue Notes and both were members of Assagai. That said there was more of an American influence on Independence and the first thing you hear, placing the stylus at the start of side one is “People over there, get ready. I’m coming!”
It’s a line straight out of the James Brown songbook, but then Anwar always did wear his influences on his sleeve. The new line-up took Matata’s marriage of percolating African rhythms and James Brown style funk in another direction, and delivered one butt-shaking, finger-popping club hit after another on tracks like Return To You, I Want You, Getting’ Together and lead single I Feel Funky. The latter can still fill a dance-floor to this day, but then the same can be said for the swaggering Gimme Some Lovin’ or a handful of tracks that echo the Godfather’s liking for social commentaries. I Don’t Have To Worry is a song of brotherhood, as Anwar urges black people to keep trying. “I don’t have to worry because I’m going to get there,” he sings. Like so many other Matata titles it’s about self-assertion, only this time it’s allied to a vision of unity as heard on Good Samaritan, Talkin’ Talkin’ and Good Good Understanding, which is a plea for world leaders to make peace, not war.
Not for the first time, Matata stir a little reggae into their musical gumbo. They use it to sweeten the heartbreak on I Believe Her, which is surprisingly sad and restrained by their standards. We’ve mentioned Santana already, and the reverb-laden guitar solos and fluid conga playing heard on Something In Mind bears testament to just how influential that band was in 1974. The fast, driving beat and African style vocals were Matata’s own of course, and this song became the latest in a flurry of 7” singles issued on President’s bright yellow label.
The majority of these tracks would resurface on a 1974 compilation called Best Of Matata. French label Soul Posters also issued Good Good Understanding and I Feel Funky on 7”. The latter had a picture sleeve proclaiming “Black Power” but that era was over, and President had already begun to turn their attention to early disco sides from Miami.
There would be no further Matata recordings and the band split for good soon afterwards. Following this Anwar formed Sawar and continued to play at London clubs like Hatchett’s, the Cue Club and Dingwall’s but then the gigs dried up and the group disbanded. To say they were under-recorded is an understatement. What’s The Stuff and Funky Feeling, credited to Prince Anwar and Sawar, are little-heard funk gems although they retain little of the African influences that Matata started with.
“I joined the Chosen Few after that,” says Anwar. “These four guys came from Jamaica and they switched from reggae to funk but two of the guys didn’t want to do funk so they left and went back to Jamaica. We signed to Polydor and I was part of them for five years.”
There’s an unreleased funk album by the Chosen Few, waiting to be discovered in the Polydor vaults. The group’s next stop was Hansa, who wanted them to be another Boney M. That proved another dead end and by 1984 he was singing in clubs and bars throughout Texas with a band called Ritchie Rich and the Atomic War. They were funky as hell but it didn’t work out and Anwar returned to London, where he’s lived ever since.
In 1983 a new Matata rose from the ashes in Munich, led by former singer and conga player Patrice Oluma. This revised line-up recorded the tracks Mbongo and Ulimwengu in 1989, with production by Klaus Schmid and Rainer Preuss.
Sadly Patrice died ten years later. Jacques Kalunga also started a band (called Mopaya) after resettling in Newfoundland. but other former Matata alumni fared less well. Steele Beauttah and Sammy Kangenda returned to Kenya.