Do You Remember?

Mercy Mkhana Simiyu

We meet every Thursday to dance and type furiously in the comments section. The DJ is spinning records from his basement in Delaware, his phone camera perched up high but trained on him and his equipment. His Facebook page is the entry to this club of sorts and us, the Kenyans jostling in the comments section, are his club attendees. Some of us are in Kampala, others in Osaka, most spread out across the United States and others in Nairobi. One can tell the different locations when some people pop up in the comments.

This is Githastay Thursdays.

Fuelled by what the DJ refers to as the Apple Juice Crew, these Thursday sessions have been going on since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns limited movement globally in March 2020. Those logged in stay running some deep, funny and spot-on commentary in the comments section of Kimani Watari’s FB page. Kimani spins records for about 10 hours or so, starting late EST time every Thursday night and wrapping up when it is mid-morning EAT time on Friday.

I came to music late, given that my parents did not really play records while we were growing up. My dad would play these traditional Luhya, Lingala and rhumba cassette tapes in the ubiquitous white Peugeot 504 sedan when we would be heading to the countryside every August and December when schools shut down for holidays. That was the extent of my musical engagement – what we listened to in the KUT 698. Then Rare Watts happened.

Do you remember when Rare Watts competed in the 1990 Win-A-Car Dance Competition in Nairobi, Kenya? When we had only one television channel courtesy of our one-party democracy? We crowded around our television set with the aerials and the fuzzy picture and watched in amazement as these three men dressed in traditional Maasai garb danced to Robin S., Nightcrawlers’ Push the Feeling on, Black Box’s Ride on Time and countless others that were heavy on the beat and the bass, distinctly different from the Lingala and rhumba cassettes played by my dad in the white KUT. They placed second and the entire country almost went on strike. The music they danced to, and the way they danced, stay seared in my memories. Kimani taps into those memories each Thursday night he logs on from his basement DJ space. That memory tap lifts me up, as it does for others, and by the time the weekend is over, we have connected with others like us who may be sequestered away clear across the world from us.

Come Friday, Kimani hands the baton over to DJ Steve Nizzo and DJ Slim, spinning from their North Carolina and Oakland bases. Where Kimani stays firmly in the 80’s and 90’s dance and house music lane, Nizzo walks us into 90’s New Jack Swing, R&B, Hip-Hop and early 2000 jams and manages to remind us of the days when we fell even more in love with music. We were 16 or 17, entering clubs with confidence only to order cold Fanta Orange and spend the entire night on the dancefloor with boys who would break our hearts later on when the music stopped. On occasion, Nizzo leads us to The Barn; he plays rock selections and pulls out some Bhangra for some unusual and scintillating mixes that, for some of us back then, was the first time we’d heard of these genres.

COVID-19 has us barricaded in our houses where we sit, wary and quietly observing the world falling apart around us. Some are essential workers, putting their lives on the line as doctors, nurses and service personnel. We all meet in the comments sections of the Soul and Old School FB group that plays host to a number of DJs from across the diaspora and in Kenya, and COVID-19 disappears for a few hours. In those moments, when those familiar beats drop, you are taken immediately back to the days when Namba 9 and Namba 58 matatus would be moving discos, bass thumping, wild colours on the side, flouting names such as Shadow, Hell-Raiser, Raiders or Rainbow, Ivy Coach, Baby Coach and Golf Club. They remind you of the time when Mrefu, the most handsome tout ever (even with his one missing eye hidden behind a black patch), let you ride for free and you felt like you were the flyest girl to ever step onto a Namba 9 matatu.

Omondi Nyandat, a strong 80’s and 90’s connoisseur, will sometimes spin on Fridays. A grandfather of Soul. He warms us up then hands us off to Nizzo. He plays songs that time forgot. For some of us, we met him when he was a DJ in the US known for spinning what we called Soul. I grew to love Soul when I landed in the States because of DJs like Nyandat and Kabugi the DJ.

In 1999, Jersey-based Kabugi shared out a Soul mixtape. I am not sure where I got that CD from but I played it in Wafula, my green Toyota Corolla, from 2000 to 2012. When I first came back to Kenya in 2007 and boarded some matatu in downtown Nairobi heading to Eastleigh, the driver was playing Kabugi’s CD. I messaged him right away. I played that CD in every Emergency Room that I worked in from 2005 to 2010 – Kabugi introduced me to the song that each of these DJs now knows to play for me when they see me enter their FB set. Paradise by Diana Ross was the wrap-up song on Kabugi’s CD mixtape, and I play it now when I need a pick-me-up. If I was to request a song, this would be it. And I do. The DJs now all know this and will play it for me even when I am tightly asleep in Kampala, given the time difference. I wake up to numerous tags and mentions asking me to wake up and listen to my jam. We have become a community, a special place where looking out for each other means I tag you or request for your favourite song to be played, even when you are offline, knowing you will likely listen once you awake. COVID-19 can’t take that from us.

We all swarm in the comments to recall when boys jacked their parent’s cars, picked up the girls, and cruised to Bubbles, Choices, Visions and Madhouse nightclubs; clubs that no longer exist in modern day Nairobi but held our secrets for over decades. Our secret crushes, the boys we met on the dancefloors, the girls who broke hearts within those walls, the parents who showed up after 1.00am to look for their daughters on the strobe-lit, smoke-filled dancefloors. Some of us with no access to vehicles stayed dancing until 6.00am or 7.00am, waiting for the Kenya Bus Services blue monstrous buses to start running so we could go back home. These were the days when we went out wearing jeans, bodysuits, checked flannel shirts and sneakers because we were told girls who wore miniskirts were whores. We went to Florida 2000 nightclub right in the middle of downtown Nairobi, and there, we met with real sex workers who could corner you in the bathrooms if they felt your miniskirt threatened their business. It was a quick introduction to a side of life some of us had never seen. Some of us had not fallen in love with music by the time Boomerang Club and Ainsworth Hotel in Westlands played host to DJ Paco, a Spaniard who made Kenya his second home for decades, spinning a mix of house music, dance hits and top-40’s from the 70’s to the 80’s. Kimani and Nizzo take us back to those days. Paco even featured on a few sets on the FB page, playing from Spain but showing us how his heart is in Kenya and with Kenyans who appreciated his sets from so many years ago.

When Nizzo wraps up three hours after his start, DJ Slim takes over and proceeds to play a mix of records from those traditional Luhya songs that immediately transport me to those 10-hour plus rides we would take with my dad and mum to Bungoma, to blush-inducing Kikuyu mugithi songs, to energetic Kamba songs and then he brings us to Lingala, dips into old-school reggae roots and then turns around and drops the Lost Boyz tracks we all loved, plus some Tupac and Biggie for a proper 90’s trip. Slim engages with his audience, speaking into the mic and, at times, video-calling some of his logged-on listeners. Slim comes up with themes that keep us engaged through the week, tagging some folks on his posts – a wedding theme where he selected a groom, wedding planner, bouncer, personnel coordinator, bridal party members but no mention of who was the bride. We ate it up and played out our roles in the comments section – Slim played for almost 9 hours straight. It was incredible.

Each DJ is so different, but the end result is the same. We leave happier and, perhaps, a bit more apple-juiced than when we started on Thursday. With each DJ, your memories are triggered; you recall your first ever boyfriend, your first kiss, your first heartbreak, those sausages and grilled chicken pieces we’d pick up on our way home as we discussed what stories we would weave for those of us with strict parents. For some, it takes us back to just last year when we had no inkling that things were going to change drastically. It takes me back. Even way back further than just before COVID-19.

Do you remember where you were when Pango went on strike? The whole of Kenya was taken aback when our Nairobi-based school, Pangani Girls High School, was highlighted on television and immortalized in the national newspapers. That May day in 1995, Nairobi downtown was dotted with blue skirts, white shirts and navy-and-white neckties; we walked to Nation House, having pushed through the school gates, chanting South African freedom songs and pushing the breath out of our lungs, pleading for better conditions at the then-overcrowded but nationally renowned high school. This was the time when I truly discovered and fell in love with music. Most of the students ran out of the school grounds, and Michelle convinced me to not go home but to go with her to her house in Parklands area. That night, Michelle and I boarded a matatu from her house, with her mother’s blessings and advice to not leave our drinks unattended, and five minutes later, we poured out at the junction and we walked into Jungle. I had never seen anything like it. It was dimly lit, the music was loud, the Fanta Orange was extra cold, the entire crowd was moving to the beat. I was 16 and had never had so much fun before. I sat down at one point, sweating buckets, trying to adjust the bodysuit top loaned to me by Michelle and the disco lights caught her still on the floor, moving to Aaliyah’s Back and Forth. I remember smiling so hard. DJ Nijo and DJ Pinye were playing that night and we danced till the sun came up. It was incredible. Any time that Nizzo or Slim dips into the 90’s, it brings me back to that night when we danced away any tiny worries. Naivete was our middle name, and we had no idea where we would be twenty years later, dancing to the same songs in the middle of our living rooms in all these countries, our kids long asleep and completely unaware that we are attempting dance moves from decades back.

The pandemic has slowed down the world to a standstill. We all have our own personal thoughts about the reported numbers, those who have succumbed, the talk around potential vaccines, Bill Gates’ agenda, the politicisation of the pandemic in some countries, but when Githastay Thursdays and Flashback Fridays kicks in on Facebook, the music brings us together in the same way it brought us together when we moved abroad when we were teenagers at 18 or 19. Back then, because of our ages, we couldn’t really party in the regular clubs especially in the US. Our time then at Le Tusker in Los Angeles and the after-hours spot called Masandukuni is what these online parties remind me of now. These online sessions bring more than just music to us. You can see people engaging in the comments section, dropping stories from back then. You can see some relationships blooming in the comments sections too, if you watch carefully. But the thing is, at this delicate time, nobody but the FB copyright police is on anybody’s case. Folks are typing away furiously in the comments, pushing dance and love emojis when the DJs drop songs they have not heard in years. It is an incredible coming together of community. Something that COVID-19 has been splitting apart since early in the year.

Working entertainers who relied on event-heavy earnings have had to readjust to this new normal. As everyone else is figuring out how to tap into digital innovations to continue earning their keep, or to keep projects and programs going, our Kenyan DJs are adjusting and coming online to entertain and earn, like so many others across the globe – for example, there is a Jamaican community online as well as a Burundian one where DJs are spinning the songs and records that take those communities back to an earlier time, pre-COVID-19. Copyright issues abound of course, with sessions cut off and FB videos deleted or blocked by the powers-that-be and Kenyan authorities demanding that Kenyan DJs pay a fee for playing music on a free online platform but still, we gather and support and ask for different ways and channels to access the music and the entertainment from the DJs. Terry the Hippiie with her amazing prowess for taking us deep into the 90’s, Babu who had been spinning online every Wednesday even before COVID-19 hit, and his TakeOverDJs partner Fully Focus, whose mashups are legendary, and A-Dubb dialling in from India to entertain us are only a few examples of Kenyan entertainers adjusting to this normal and responding to the hunger amongst their listeners for music and community. Other DJs from other countries have also tapped into this and, at any given moment, you can look online and find a DJ from anywhere in the world on the FB platform playing jams and entertaining their followers.

Yes, I can play my Paradise in my house in Kampala but it makes it that more special to be able to engage with Michelle in the comments, reminiscing about our Jungle days and our boyfriends from back then and “Oh, remember the time some guy tried to punch Dorcas in the face when we were heading to Zig Zag?” type of memories. Michelle works as nurse in the US, and I am in public health in Uganda. We have known each other for over two decades and the coming together in the comments section has only served to strengthen our bond as sister-friends. I am sure many others can say the same.

Bob Marley said it best: “One good thing about music…when it hits you, you feel no pain.” When our favourite DJs come onto FB Live, or now on Twitch, to play sets, we heave a collective sigh and dive in. We are free to laugh, reminisce, plan, poke fun at each other and it’s a place we gather where there is no pain. You forget that the world is a scary place especially now and you become laser-focused on the music. By taking you back to a time of innocence, a time of simplicity, when your world had not evolved beyond your 10-shilling matatu route and your crush in the neighbourhood, and Mint-Choc chocolates, and sneaking sips from your Uncle’s Kingfisher wine cooler, all the DJs playing online have inadvertently given us an avenue through which our hope can spiral and grow.

A hope that better things are coming. Back then, we had no idea what was coming but most of us made it and thrived. Now, we have no idea where the world is going or what’s going to happen tomorrow. But as we dance and reminisce and think of those days long ago, we hope for the best.

For now, grab your apple juice and let’s meet on Thursdays.

Mercy Mkhana Simiyu is a storyteller from Kenya and a public health specialist.

 

*Image by Alexander Popov on Unsplash