Day Kenya first danced to its own tune

The December midnight cold hammered them.

Beneath the glow of the few erected floodlights that split the moonless darkness were thousands of ululating and jostling wananchi: all waiting for the birth of a new nation. The Union Jack flapped over their heads for the last time.

They counted hours, minutes… and then seconds. The time had come.

For years they eagerly and impatiently waited for this day. A day they could sing their own National Anthem, and stand attention to their flag. There was song, and there was dance.

Those who had gone to school before this day, December 12, 1963, had sung God Save the Queen, Long Live our noble Queen every morning.

On this day, in the modern-day Uhuru Gardens on Lang’ata Road, a new tune would be unveiled. But only a handful knew its lyrics – and the tune. Nobody seemed to care on the details.

Occasionally, some political honcho would grab the microphone and chant: Uhuru! And the thunderous crowd would roar back with deafening applause- music to their ears.

As the countdown began, the army band took position and the crowd inched forward. The dancing stopped.

At the stroke of midnight, and without any warning, all the floodlights went off! For a few seconds, darkness enveloped the Lang’ata plains as the Union Jack was for the last time hurled down in semi-darkness. Then the floodlights were switched on again and the band played a previously unheard tune as two soldiers unwrapped and raised the new Kenyan flag.

The story of the crafting of the national anthem would only be told later.

While in Uganda and Nigeria the composition of the national anthem had been opened to public competition the Kenyatta Cabinet had decided to take another route.

It was Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Tom Mboya, who advised the Cabinet to shelve plans for a national competition for two reasons. The first, according to Cabinet records, the whites might enter the competition and win! And lastly, there was no time.

Mboya, then only 33, had been picked to head the ministerial sub-committee to coordinate Independence celebrations. In the beginning, he was asked by the Cabinet to set up a committee of musical experts “to consider the form and method of organising a public competition for a national anthem.”

In the first few weeks, Mboya found that it was becoming hard to reach a consensus on a suitable national anthem.

He told the Cabinet in a new brief that they should not open the anthem to competition because of the risk that it might be won by a European.

“I understand that in Nigeria two separate competitions were held, each of which provided very substantial prizes for words and for the music separately. In the event the competition for the words was won by a European secretary employed in Kampala and for the music by an English woman who had not visited Nigeria”, Cabinet minutes quote Mboya saying.

“This I believe gave rise to considerable criticism in Nigeria and we should certainly avoid a similar occurrence in Kenya.”

Mboya had sat with his friend, Graham Hyslop, who was Inspector of Music, and they picked a small team to come up with a national anthem. Interestingly, Mr. Hyslop was never told about the white fears. But in the Cabinet, Mr. Mboya endorsed Hyslop as a musician who “had already composed music based on traditional African tunes [and] should produce the music for consideration in the first instance by the Committee and for approval in due course by the Cabinet.”

Hyslop had recorded lots of traditional tunes among the Pokomo and, perhaps, it was no coincidence that the tune picked for the national anthem originated from a Pokomo lullaby.

The Mboya committee for the national anthem included Thomas Kalume, a music teacher at St Pauls Theological College (he later became an MP) and is credited as the man who floated the idea that first stanza of the national anthem start with “Oh God of all Creations…”.

The other was a Ugandan resident in Kenya, Dr George Zenoga Zake, first East African to enroll for the prestigious Licentiate of Royal Schools of Music (LRSM) in 1956. He later became a professor of music at Kenyatta University.

Also in the team was Nat Kofsky, a director East Africa conservatoire of Music, Mr Peter Kibukosya, a music teacher at Eregi teachers College who had graduated from Mills College and Queens University, Belfast. Another was Dr Washington Omondi, a music graduate from Edinburg University and an expert. To join this team was F.A, Thorntorn, a bandmaster at Kenya Police.

This Committee had already told Mr. Mboya that “laymen” could not be able to come up with an anthem in “four part-harmony”. In the event of a public competition the Cabinet had agreed that “it would [still] limit [the entries] to those with considerable musical knowledge.”

After several weeks of listening and researching on different tunes, the commission presented its work to the advisory committee. Many traditional tunes were considered but they short-listed three tunes from which a Pokomo lullaby was selected.

The commission then crafted the Kiswahili and English versions, and also agreed that the opening stanza be prayerful. And with that they composed the first version of the National Anthem, which was presented to the Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta and the Council of Ministers in August 1963. The anthem was sung in unison in Kiswahili and English by a double quartet with the Police Band playing.

With the tune accepted, Kenyatta was not happy with the second verse and asked the Commission to revise it and add a stanza on devotion and readiness to defend Kenya. This was due to the emerging secessionist demands from Somalia. It was also suggested that more drumming be added to make it sound African.

The commission retreated to St Paul’s Theological College where Thomas Kalume was a lecturer and it is here where the final anthem was crafted.

Hyslop’s All Saints Cathedral choir was picked to record the English version while Railway Training school did the Kiswahili version. They were also to perform the songs to Kenyatta at his Gatundu home on September 4, 1963.

Some other two people had been commissioned to do two separate anthems. These were Peter Colmore and Mr Gerishon Manane. After all the three presentations, Kenyatta turned to the crowd to pick one tune. They picked the Commission’s tune and Kenya got a new National Anthem.

The final version of the anthem was recorded in Kiswahili and English on September 25 and 26, 1963. The Kiswahili version was sung by the Railway Training School Choir conducted by Senoga-Zake, while combined choirs of the Alliance High School, the Alliance Girls’ High School and the choir of the All Saints Cathedral Nairobi, conducted by Hyslop, sang the English version.

On the night of December 12, 1963, only this group knew about the anthem. Everyone else was in the dark.

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