Monday, July 23, 2007

Visually impaired composer encounters success!

To be visually challenged may be an impediment but it should not stop one from pursuing other gifts that life has accorded them.

This has been a guiding fact for one Joseph Osumba. He is a blind choirmaster who has entertained three
presidents from East Africa in the past 37 years.

Mr Joseph Osumba.Today a retired teacher, Osumba 59, was promoted by retired President Daniel Moi following his string of compositions.

Osumba’s only regret, however, is that he never saw the standing ovations he received in the packed stadiums and halls.

The visually impaired composer and instructor of the once popular Prisons Choir is the brainchild of patriotic songs that were once the epitome of national day celebrations.

Osumba recalls these special days, when mammoth crowds turned up at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi and listened to his compositions.

He argues that music is natural

His well known compositions include Meli ya Nyayo and Lugha ya Mama among other songs
"I conducted the choirs that entertained presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Moi of
Kenya as well as Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania during his visits here," says Osumba.

Mr Joseph Osumba (left) with the Prisons Choir. Pictures by Titus MunalaHis attempt to add President Mwai Kibaki to his list of VIPs hit a snag at the State Lodge in Kisumu last month when he was told that ‘Mzee was tired’.

Kibaki was on a three-day tour of Nyanza Province after launching the Lake Victoria Basin Commission.

The composer started out with Gospel songs and had trained the Kodiaga Prisons Choir to present a song titled "Kibaki: Kiongozi Mwenye Kipawa" but failed to accomplish his mission.
"State guests that I entertained with the Prisons Choir are too many to name. The group was considered among the most patriotic in the country," Osumba recalls.

Osumba argues that music is natural. He does not use a baton as is the case with other conductors and often dances along to the music when conducting choirs at times hitting his legs with his hands.

"I do that to show my appreciation of music because I am usually in my own world when conducting a choir that sings the right codes," he says.

Talent has made him rub shoulders with the high and mighty

The choirmaster, who says his talent has made him rub shoulders with the high and mighty, singles out Moi as a leader who appreciated music.

"I started teaching as a PI teacher in January 1970 before Moi ordered the Teachers Service Commission to push my grade up," says Osumba.

A similar directive by President Kenyatta at State House, Nakuru, to have him promoted in 1977 landed on deaf ears.

"I composed, conducted, instructed and presented a choir before President Kenyatta in 1975 titled, Kenyatta Muana wa Muigai, which he loved," Osumba says.

The then Nyanza Provincial Commissioner, Mr Ishmael Chelanga, had led a delegation from the area to State House, Nakuru.

"The eight teachers who accompanied the choir were to be promoted by one grade while I was to be promoted by two since I was the choirmaster," he says.

At the time, Osumba was teaching at the Kibos School for the Visually Impaired and headed its choir, which also entertained Kenyatta and sang many songs including Kenyatta Mlima wa Kenya.
"Kenyatta was so impressed with the compositions. He said I was a blind man who saw his development more than those who could see," says Osumba.

Moi saw to his promotion as a teacher

The artist also recalls the late Nyerere’s appreciation of his songs during his visits to Kenya in the 1970s.

Osumba, who composed and conducted 50 songs in praise of Moi between 1978 and 2002, says the former President always paused to listen to the tunes.

"I was always at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with the Prisons Choir to either send off or receive Moi from his tours abroad," he says.

He sang other compositions during national days, which he says were a ‘must-attend’ during the Nyayo era.

"Most of the songs were in support of the Nyayo philosophy. They promoted the then newly introduced 8-4-4 system of education, family planning and the free ‘Nyayo milk’ introduced in primary schools by Moi," he says.

It is Moi who saw to his promotion as a teacher from grade P1 to S1, a precursor to other promotions, before Osumba’s
retirement two years ago as an Approved Status Teacher One.
Although he did not earn a salary at the Prisons Choir, Osumba says the administrators ensured that his ‘palms were always greased’ after performances.

"Leaders like Moi would not let you go empty handed after presentations," he says.
His talent in music is inborn

Osumba and his group were regular visitors to Kabarak home on weekends, often to entertain the former Head of State and his high profile guests.

"We (the choir) were also invited to perform at several weddings and corporate functions which made the group constantly occupied and in demand," he says.

Despite being blind, he has a sharp ear that easily detects members of the choir singing out of tune.

Osumba, who is married to a former member of the Prisons Choir, says his talent in music is inborn but may also be passed on.

"My grandmother used to sing but I believe I was also born with the talent which I sat on for a long time until I joined college," he says.

Osumba recalls that his first recording with a choir was in 1975 when he took pupils of Kibos School for the Visually Impaired to a studio at Mfangano Lane in Nairobi.

The retired teacher attended Thika School for The Blind before joining Thika High School in 1965, where he shared a class with students who are not visually impaired.

"Thika School for the Blind (Secondary) was started when I was in Form Three. I learnt in Braille throughout my schooling," he says.

He plays the keyboard and flute

It was at Thogoto Teachers Training College where Osumba formed a choir with four other men. Female students later joined the group.

"I composed a song that competed at the national platform for colleges with the then esteemed Siriba Teachers College and we were the runners up," he says.

Osumba says he sings to his wife, Janet Awino, at their house in Kisumu. He hails from Kamanga village, Rachuonyo District in Nyanza Province.

He plays the keyboard and flute and says he is not about to retire from music any time soon.
"I am not yet done. I still compose songs late in the night today as I used to 37 years ago and they are just as sweet," he says.

Osumba has never travelled abroad but says he almost went with the Prisons Choir to Israel after composing a Jewish song. "An Israeli taught me a few Jewish words that helped me compose a song that promoted peace in the troubled
Middle East. The trip, however, did not materialise," he says.

The composer of the hit Anyango anapenda Samaki na Ugali says the Prisons Choir recorded several songs over the years.

Stevie Wonder and Mary Atieno are his role models

He says that though he may have left a mark as a choirmaster, being visually impaired has had its challenges.

"I can only compose songs in Braille, which means I have to hire a translator for members of the choir to read and understand," he says.

The musician, who is also good with musical instruments, was the pillar behind the construction of an academic block at St Francis School, Kapenguria.

"Moi called me aside and gave me Sh200,000 after I put together a group of pupils to sing for him a patriotic song during a visit to Kapenguria in the 1980s," he recalls.

It is after Moi gave him the Sh200,000, which, the school used to construct a
tuition block, that he ordered for Osumba’s promotion.

Osumba is today a choirmaster of the Kodiaga Prisons Choir and Kibos School for the Visually Impaired, which he has so far led to the annual national schools music festival.

He cites internationally renowned singer, songwriter, producer, humanitarian, and social activist, Stevie Wonder, and local gospel songstress, Mary Atieno, as his role models.

"Stevie Wonder was an inspiration because is also visually impaired. The same goes for Atieno who has sang exceptionally well to date," says Osumba.

Other musical groups that inspire him are the Arusha Mjini of the Sodom na Gomorrah fame and Mwanza Town Choir of Tanzania.


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