Over the past decade, an unlikely song has been meme-ing its way through Kenya’s pop music. J.B. Maina’s “Tiga Kumute” (Don’t Push Her Away), an early-’90s song sung in Kikuyu, the first language of less than a quarter of the country’s population, has been reinvented at least half a dozen times by musicians of various linguistic backgrounds, in urban, cosmopolitan styles ranging from dancehall to jazz.
In each new version, for reasons having little to do with Maina’s original lyrics, the song’s earworm-inducing melody is made to stand in for the idea of overcoming generational and ethnic divisions. The various covers show how music has become an arena for exchanging ideas about what it means to be Kenyan in the 21st century.
“Tiga Kumute” follows a 4-on-the-floor beat. A crisp lead-guitar part lays out the main melody, and well-crafted lyrics offer moral guidance. The singer is urging a young man to accept a woman who has a child from a previous relationship.
Stylistically, the song is an example of Kenyan benga, a genre that first emerged in the mid-20th century among the Luo of western Kenya before spreading across the country. Benga songs have long managed to garner a large, pan-ethnic audience across Kenya, but typically only if performed in a Luo style or sung in the regional lingua franca, Swahili. The broad popularity of “Tiga Kumute,” a Kikuyu song with a distinctly Kikuyu-sounding melody, is an oddity in this respect.
Maina’s video for the song, shot more than a decade after he released the single, plays up both the song’s benga-ness and its Kikuyu-ness. As female dancers show off a Congolese-derived style that would fit in any contemporary benga video, Maina sports his trademark Stetson hat, a popular accessory among Kikuyus from Central Kenya, where American country music is surprisingly popular.
Various covers of the song have aimed to make it urban, which in Kenya means stylistically connected to contemporary pop music of the US and Jamaica. To make a so-called “vernacular” song like “Tiga Kumute” into an “urban” track is to play with social as well as aesthetic boundaries: The division between these two categories in Kenyan music mirrors the division between the world of the ethnic community, or “tribe,” and the heterogeneous, cosmopolitan world of modern Kenyan cities. An urban version of “Tiga Kumute” is therefore a commentary on what it means to be Kenyan.
“Tiga Kumute” was first covered by other Kikuyu singers—mũgithi singers, to be exact. Mũgithi involves a solo singer, accompanying himself or herself on guitar, sometimes with a drummer. Along with Kikuyu gospel and secular popular songs, a typical mũgithi performance includes old Swahili songs and American country songs. Any and all of these—especially toward the end of a long evening—may get updated with new, bawdy lyrics.
Around 2007 the late Salim Junior’s cover of “Tiga Kumute” became a huge hit among mũgithi fans, reviving interest in Maina’s original version, which was then picked up by a local media company that was advertising the launch of its new TV station. The campaign brought the song to the ears of a wider Kenyan public.
The most famous urbanized version of “Tiga Kumute” came out in 2010. Veteran singer and producer Wyre, who happens to be Kikuyu, collaborated with Maina to produce a dancehall cut. Complete with lyrics in Jamaican Patois, Wyre and Maina’s new take, retitled “Mwanake” (Young Man), is a true stylistic departure from the original.
Many Kenyans took the collaboration as an attempt to mediate—if not bridge—the generational divide between old-school and new-school Kenyan pop.
“Mwanake” was not the first urban version of “Tiga Kumute,” however. Dan Aceda and Makadem, two singer-songwriters of Luo descent, began adding their versions to their live sets immediately following the success of Salim Junior’s mũgithi recording.
Aceda and Makadem both operate within Nairobi’s Afro-fusion scene. They emphasize live acoustics and seek to establish links with older styles of popular and traditional music. It is not surprising that they would both seize upon the same benga song to express an idea of Kenyan identity. What is less obvious is why two Luo musicians would both seize upon the same Kikuyu benga song for that purpose. The answer to that question lies in the close association that had developed between “Tiga Kumute” and mũgithi in Kenyan popular culture since the late 1990s. What had been an insular form of leisure among the Kikuyu evolved into a form of entertainment that, while still Kikuyu, actively invites participation from every Kenyan.
Dan Aceda began adding the song to his live performances in a playful manner in 2008, inserting it as a fast section within a cover of an R&B ballad by American artist Ne-Yo.
Makadem’s mũgithi cover, “Mogidhi Kona Kona” (The Train Goes Round and Round) is an urgent social commentary. First performed in the immediate wake of the violence that tore Kenya apart after the elections of late 2007 and early 2008, the song is intended to promote ethnic reconciliation. Makadem replaces Maina’s words with new lyrics in Luo, English, and Swahili that call for unity and understanding.
The most recent reinvention of “Tiga Kumute” is a jazz version by saxophonist Edward Parseen. Parseen’s performance of the song at the 2016 Safaricom Jazz Festival suggests that its status as an iconic Kenyan song has remained strong in the decade since it was first revived by Salim Junior.
In the video of the performance, Parseen can be seen coaxing the audience into first showing their recognition of the song and then taking over the melody from the band. It is only the Kikuyu in the audience who can oblige by singing Maina’s words. Meanwhile everyone in attendance, Kikuyu and non-Kikuyu alike, dance together.