Them Mushrooms, the band that gave the world the iconic song “Jambo Bwana,” is making a comeback.
This story was first published on Sage Magazine [Link]
One breezy seaside evening in 1979, a tired Teddy Kalanda Harrison sat at the pool bar of Severin Sea Lodge. Instinctively, he eavesdropped on a conversation between a barman and a group of tourists. Then his brain went into overdrive. He had an idea, an idea so simple it seemed almost unreal.
A few weeks later, Teddy and his largely family band, Them Mushrooms, bellowed out what would become an anthem of Kenyan tourism, and perhaps the most famous song from the 1980s. Four decades later, the song “Jambo Bwana” is still iconic, and Them Mushrooms are planning a comeback.
On a cold Tuesday morning a month ago, Teddy’s younger brother and bandmate John Katana and I are seated across each other at a coffee shop on Kenyatta Avenue. John is a dapper man with long, flowing dreadlocks emerging from under his trademark flat cap.
As all conversations about Them Mushrooms go, ours quickly turns back to the song Teddy Harrison begun composing that night at the pool bar 37 years ago. Test audiences, mostly other bands, John tells me, hated it. It sounded like a nursery rhyme, and no one but the band singing it thought it would appeal to anyone older than five. But it did.
In fact, the song was an instant hit with tourist audiences. They demanded it night after night, and soon it was clear Them Mushrooms had hit pay dirt. Although the band has 15 albums to date and hundreds of songs, their most iconic tune remains “Jambo Bwana”, a song so simple in its composition and yet so catchy that it broke records and was redone in seven different versions.
What’s amazing about the song is that it was written, almost verbatim, around the conversation Teddy heard in 1979. It was a common conversation between bartenders and curious tourists eager to learn Kiswahili.
Them Mushrooms Sprout in Kaloleni
By the time Teddy wrote the song, Them Mushrooms had existed for a decade in one form or the other.
Teddy begun playing professionally, in Kaloleni’s ‘mabomani’ party scene, in 1969. His sister Ruth played the bass guitar, a short lived first in many ways because “Music was taboo for women in those days, at least instruments, so Ruth went back to vocals” as John puts it. “All 7 of us, the siblings were musical,” he adds, “Ruth taught me how to play the piano, which is why I am the keyboardist in the family.”
Their brother, Billy, replaced Ruth on the bass guitar. Another brother, George, came in on the rhythm guitar and then John joined, on the keyboard. The last in the string of brothers from the Harrison household, Dennis Kalume, followed on the drums. The ensemble also consisted of non-family members Arthur Okoth and Pritt Nyale. It was complete in many ways by 1972 but it would be another eight years before they hit success beyond Mombasa.
Them Mushrooms’ journey from Kaloleni to global success begins with a disastrous show on a dark night in 1973. That night, the band was attacked by rivals during a sold-out show. Only Teddy suffered an injury, but that incident cemented something they’d all known for a while. They had already outgrown this underground phase of their existence. In 1974, Them Mushrooms moved to the beach hotel circuit. Unlike the high energy chaos of mabomani clubs, beach hotels offered more money for fewer hours, and a lot less commotion.
The Loss of “Jambo Bwana”
In Mombasa’s beach circuit, Them Mushrooms thrived.
One night, an audience member approached the band after the show and offered them the deal of a lifetime. He was a director at a top studio in Nairobi called Polygram Records. So one day in 1980, the band gathered at Polygram’s busy studios in Nairobi’s Industrial Area and bellowed one of the most iconic songs from Kenya in the 1980s. Its simple structure and transcultural appeal was now packaged as a proper record, ready to spread its wings beyond beach hotels.
But by the end of that day, Teddy made an expensive mistake.
Among the papers he signed off on that day as band leader was one that signed off the rights to the song. It was typical predatory behavior from a studio house, choosing the end of a grueling recording session to make musicians sign critical legal documents.
It was an expensive mistake. In the next year “Jambo Bwana” sold 50, 000 copies, going up to 100, 000 copies three years later. In that time, it crossed borders and was redone even by fledging Euro-Carribean group Boney M.
Them Mushrooms only got the rights back to the song five years after losing them in 1985. In 1987, the song became the first Kenyan record to go platinum, selling a total of 200,000 copies.The success of Jambo Bwana, despite the legal hurdles, didn’t dampen the five-brother ensemble.
By 1986, they had outgrown Mombasa and its beach hotels the same way they had outgrown Kaloleni and its mabomani clubs more than a decade earlier. They auditioned at the most prominent club in Nairobi at the time, Carnivore Restaurant, in December 1986. The next year, they became the restaurant’s house band.
They announced their arrival in Nairobi properly by winning a prominent band competition called “The Battle of Bands” held at Bomas of Kenya. The five children of Henry Gibson Shadrack Harrison and Florence Mandi Harrison were now unstoppable.
A Family Ensemble
In the decades since, despite the five-year debacle with their greatest song, music is the financial mainstay of the bulk of the Harrison family. “We initially made money from gigs. Performances were the only revenue stream,” John says. They experimented with a music studio and merchandise, mainly T-shirts, for a while. John tells me that as studio director, he would work full days at the studio and rush home to prepare for gigs in the evening. “It was a grueling time,” he says, staring at something beyond me, “It became hard for me to be creative because I was working 14 hour days, at the minimum.”
Today, the band’s music is available across 10 online music platforms, and they’ve invested in many non-music areas. Much of that work, John tells me, fell on Billy, the third born in the family. Billy is the only one who doesn’t compose, but then he has other talents, mainly a financial mind that filled a critical gap in the family’s journey to musical success.
Being a largely family ensemble is perhaps why, after more than four decades, Them Mushrooms is still alive. Teddy, the eldest of the brothers, was the founder and bandleader for its first three decades. He was also its main composer, although everyone else contributed.
Teddy, John tells me, was always the right man for the job. “Teddy has always been good at giving names to people and things,” John says of the band name, which was also Teddy’s idea. The band wanted to name itself after the magic mushrooms growing all over, but every other band playing in Mombasa at the time had the article “The” before their name. John adds that “To Teddy, ‘The Mushrooms’ was too bland a name.”
The next morning after they came up with the core of the name, Teddy came back with a genius of an idea, why not call themselves “Them Mushrooms?” It was grammatically incorrect, but that was exactly what was catchy and unique about it. In Mombasa, the band became simply “Them.”
John tells me that in their four decades together, the most interesting place they ever played was Ethiopia, at the main stadium in Addis Ababa. “There were 35, 000 people in that stadium, and we were the main act,” he says with a glow on his face, “we had done a version of Jambo Bwana with a popular Ethiopian musician, in Amharic, and the entire stadium just couldn’t get enough of it.”
John reminisces on the time when “In the mid-90s to early-2000s, we would be out of the country for seven months touring at a time.” They had an incredibly busy schedule, one that saw them cut across continents, performing sometimes to audiences who couldn’t understand the words but were mesmerized with the music itself, and the energy on stage.
What John leaves out about Ethiopia is that it holds a tragic place in the history of the band, an event that nearly ended their career together. During one of their first tours there, in 1992, Dennis, the drummer collapsed on stage. His brothers got him to Nairobi a few days later, but he died of jaundice within the week. The loss of a key pillar in the five-brother band broke them apart for three months. Their mum reunited them in December 1992 but a lot of things changed.
The next year, the band asked George Zirro to leave. Nicknamed “Mr. Extra” because he always wanted more out of life, George had become problematic, missing band practice and sometimes, even gigs. So in 1993, he moved back to Mombasa and started his own band called Jabali Jazz.
There were now only three brothers in the band.
Tragedy, and the Future
In 2001, when he turned 50, Teddy retired from the band. Only Billy and John now remained of the original five siblings. For a time, the band used the Kiswahili translation of its name “Uyoga.” Although it still played, much of its music had aged, and the band wasn’t evolving with the times.
In December 2015, George Zirro died as the band was planning a comeback. Another long term non-family band member, John Jillo, died in October 2016. He was the drummer who replaced Dennis. Teddy, the founder of the band lost his eyesight in 2009.
Despite these setbacks, the remaining band is now planning a proper comeback, led in part by their newest single “Ni Jumamosi.” The song, John tells me, is youthful in its beat and style, but retains the band’s iconic sound. It’s a party song rooted in Kenya’s 1980s nightlife, but written for the 2016 partygoer.
“Our kids are old now,” John says, “so we thought it’s the right time to hit the road again.”
Today, Them Mushrooms band plays a cocktail of genres with Afro fusion including Zele, Chakacha and Benga. Through these, they’ve covered everything from love to disease and landmines. Zele, one of their lesser known genres after Chakacha, is a modernized version of the mwanzele tune. Among coastal communities, Mwanzele is a “call and answer” type of rhythm, where a lead vocal calls out and backup singers answer.
The band, John tells me, has archived everything that has ever bore their name. They have T-shirts, news articles, and most interestingly, a BigG chewing gum wrapper from the 1990s that had the question “Which band sang “Jambo Bwana?” with the answer “Them Mushrooms” printed on the inside of the wrapper. Perhaps someday soon, John ponders, they will put them all up in an exhibition for the world to see their four-decade, five-brother journey through music.
When I ask John about their legacy, he is at first taken aback. It hits me midway through his answer that to him, music is still an incomplete journey, perhaps too soon to even consider talking about legacy. He does anyway, describing his family’s desire to make “ageless” music.
Is “Jambo Bwana” still a hit song? You have no idea, John tells me as he sits back into his seat. “It is the show stopper everywhere we play,” he answers, and then adds “Wait, have I told you Jambo Bwana was not even our original title for the song?” The title was “Kenya Hakuna Matata” but fans kept referring to the first part of the chorus, so the band decided to stick with it.
All images courtesy of John Katana of Them Mushrooms.
One Story is good,
till Another is told.