Version classiqueVersion mobile

Music and Dance in Eastern Africa

Kahithe Kiiru
Maina wa Mũtonya

Part I: Dance and the Forming of a Nation in Colonial Kenya

“Dancing is Part and Parcel of Someone who is Cultured”: Ballroom Dancing and the Spaces of Urban Identity in 1950s Nairobii

Bettina Ng’weno


If you read any city guides about Nairobi in the 1950s you will be struck by the listings of places to dance where live music is played. It was obviously a large part of the social life of the city. What is less obvious at first sight is that these reference dancing available to European audiences only. Was everyone else dancing? Africans resident in Nairobi indeed were dancing. They were dancing to similar and different music, getting their styles both from traditional music and dances of Kenya and across the world through films and through travel. As the end of the decade approached along with the prospect of an independent Kenya, musicians transformed music from outside to develop a particular urban Nairobi sound. This sound made it to the radio and stage changing the sound to which people moved. This chapter looks at ballroom dancing and the music that sustained it in Nairobi, in the spaces of African residential estates and the social halls that hosted the dances in the late 1950s, to understand the spatial layout of dance activities in Nairobi and the urban identities these activities created.

Texte intégral


  • i I would like to thank Garnette Oluoch Olunya, Njane Mugambi, Joyce Nyairo, Julia Kunguru, Makau Nzi (...)

1I am seated in Loresho, a leafy neighborhood of Nairobi, in a house on the edge of town interviewing a lady who lived in Makongeni (African Railway housing) at the end of the 1950s. As she recalls the dances, her 80-year-old face lights up. She smiles and with a twinkle in her eye she tells me: “The slow waltz. The slow waltz was my dance” (ML 2013). She stands up and starts to sing, swaying her body to the music. I imagine this elegant woman dancing, full of fire and grace, to a slow waltz. I see her in the umbrella ball gowns she told me she had worn and which she had made for others, copied from dresses ordered by catalogue from Britain. Her skirt twirls around her, lifting up into an almost horizontal line as she turns. A pearl necklace at her neck.

2Today I imagine that she is dancing with someone she probably never knew. I interviewed him in Karen, an upmarket suburb of Nairobi. I see him dressed in the white tuxedo jacket he told me he got a tailor to make the first time he traveled to England. Black trousers and patent leather shoes. The soles of the shoes leather-smooth. Socks matching his trousers exactly. He glides across the floor, improvising as the music changes, attuned to every detail of the song. Hair parted at the side. A bow tie at his neck.

3They would be surrounded by similarly dressed dancers. Men in double-breasted suits, in either black or white. Women in calf-length skirts in floral patterns that billow out toward the horizontal as they turn. Some women would have a shawl around their shoulders. Elegant and dignified. They dance as couples on the polished wooden floors in a dance hall, which has tall windows lining both sides like a church. There would be a band playing on stage and drinks served at the end of the hall. Chairs would line the hall in a single row for dancers to return to once tired. They would be dancing in a social hall in one of Nairobi’s African residential housing estates. They would be dancing ballroom dances, Continental and Latin American. Their dance would be inflected with movements and gestures revealing their ancestry in different parts of Kenya as they danced to a unique Nairobi sound.

4If you read any Nairobi brochures or city guides about Nairobi in the 1950s and 1960s you will be struck by the listings of places to dance where live music is played. They list “dancing nightly except on Sunday” at the Equator Club, Queens Hotel, City Hall Gardens, Flamingo Club, Mogambo Club, Ambassador Club, Boomerang Club, the Planter Punch, La Mazot, Sans Cinque Tavern, the Swiss Grill and the Stanley Grill (Nairobi City Council 1957; Nairobi City Council 1962). In addition, there were “night clubs which are open till the early hours of the morning for dancing and good eating although in these cases membership is necessary” (Nairobi City Council 1962: 21). One was able to dance to live music almost any day of the week. Photographs show bands with full grand pianos, trumpets, cellos, guitars, saxophones, maracas and drum sets. The dancing couples are finely dressed and look well off. Dance was obviously a large part of the social life of the city.

5What is less obvious at first sight is that these venues were segregated and reference dancing available to European audiences only. Right from the beginning, parts of Nairobi were reserved for European settlement. Nairobi is often, even today, referred to as a European city. The colonial government tried to curtail the presence and permanence of Africans in the city (Achola 2002). Not only was housing scarce, insecure and substandard but the colonial government made every effort to limit the amount of time Africans spent in the city and the attractions of the city to Africans. Nevertheless, Europeans were never the majority population of Nairobi. In 1931 the city of Nairobi had an 11 % European population – the largest percentage reached (Omenya 2011). Considering the information on dance places in Nairobi makes references European clubs, were other people going out to dance? If so, where? And to what were they dancing?

6This chapter examines ballroom dancing in Nairobi in the spaces of African residential estates and the community halls that hosted the dances in the late 1950s to understand the spatial layout of leisure activities in Nairobi and the urban identities these activities created. To do so, it looks at the social, economic, political and architectural context of the spaces of music and dance in colonial Nairobi of the late 1950s. Through the African residential social halls’ role as leisure and entertainment centers, the social halls helped form a certain modern, urban, African, Nairobi identity. This chapter looks at how these social halls provided a space in which this modern urban identity was best expressed, in the form of ballroom dancing; the music developed that supported the dancing and gave voice to the identity; the art and styles of being it enabled; the advertising and industries that recognized its power becoming instrumental in its promotion; and the people who made it their own, retooling the dance, music, and social halls for local and national political purposes.

Housing Labor in Nairobi

7Burton (2003) argues that urban colonial policies that promoted social halls grew out of British government experience of 1930s Britain and the rise of fascism. He states that, “community centers were first established in the UK in the1930s, particularly associated with fostering ‘community life’ on new housing estates arising out of slum clearance schemes” to occupy the idle urban dweller (Burton 2003: 348). In Eastern and Southern Africa this fear of the idle urban resident took on particular colonial form and concerns. In settler colonies like Kenya or Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), control in urban spaces was based on ideas of racial difference and segregation and this included the control of recreation and recreational spaces. Similar to Rhodesia, in Kenya, the “building of African recreational facilities in the cities was therefore a matter of pragmatic ‘native’ management. The facilities were designed as infrastructures of control” (Chikowero 2015: 114).

8Frederiksen argues that, “work in the form it was needed by Europeans, wage labour, presupposes a certain way of computing time, of dividing a day in one’s own and somebody else’s time. And a certain view of space, accepting one place for work, and another for reproduction and free time” (1994: 9). Creation of recreational architecture like social halls enhanced these notions of time and space. Institutions such as the Railways, with the schedule of the trains, excelled in the control of time and space, not just in the timing of the trains and workers’ shifts, but the architecture of workers’ environments and the relationship between work and home. As such, colonial authorities and institutions invested in recreational and educational services provided through housing estates.

Spaces of Leisure in a Working City

9In Nairobi, a standard feature of African residential housing estates was the estate social hall. At first the community center provided a venue through which to resettle returning soldiers, whom the colonial government wanted reintegrated into local life (Frederiksen 1994). From the 1930s through the 1960s, almost every housing estate built for Africans had social halls. This was not only a desire of the colonial governments; African workers also came to want and control recreational spaces. The majority of these estates are located in what is now known as Eastlands, a short distance from the Railways.

10One of the first and most important social halls to be built was Memorial Hall in Pumwani built by the Municipality of Nairobi Council in 1924 (Muchugu 2016). The name of the area, Pumwani, means “resting place” (White, 1990) “derived from ‘pumua’ (breathe, relax)” (Muchungu 2016: 1). Pumwani as a planned Native Location was built in reaction to the “1921 rise of the East African Association of Harry Thuku, Kenya’s first real ‘urban protest movement’” (Myers 2003: 39). The Railways’ Muthurwa or Landhies Social Hall became and has remained an important feature of the area as well. These halls were followed by the social halls at Shauri Moyo (1938), Tobacco Village and Bahati.

11Later, as Nairobi approached city status under the new 1948 Nairobi Master Plan, Ziwani, Starehe, Kaloleni and Makongeni halls were built. Kaloleni, the new upscale government housing for Africans, was the largest and most magnificent. Kaloleni housing estate was built between 1945 and 1948 and “borrows heavily from the Neighborhood Unit Concept (NUC) proposed in the1948 Nairobi Master Plan” (Macharia 2012: 171). First used in 1947, “Kaloleni Social Hall was the largest of all the community halls opened in Nairobi” (Frederiksen 2002: 229). The Railways expanded their housing accommodations for workers in Nairobi by building Makongeni estate to house 5,000 workers in the late 1940s. Anderson describes the new walled estate of Makongeni as having communal kitchens but it “could boast welfare clinics, a club, a library and reading room, a dance hall and tea room, football ground and even tennis courts” (Anderson 2002: 147).

12The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a huge expansion of the Railways and of the civil service that brought Africans, especially educated Africans, in larger and larger numbers into Nairobi. During the decade of the 1950s, “Nairobi’s population almost tripled” (Burton 2002: 21). The expansion of Nairobi’s population accompanied a changing wage structure, increased industrialization, private entrepreneurship, development of trade unions and the creation of class-differentiated family housing (Atieno Odhiambo 2002). Because of the timing of this expansion – that coincided partly with the State of Emergency between 1952-1958 which limited the movement of people from certain areas of Kenya – many immigrants to the city came from three regions of Kenya: Nyanza, Western and Ukambani. These three regions were thus to have the most direct influence on the music and dance of Nairobi as immigrants brought with them their traditions, sounds and rhythms.

Out Dancing in Nairobi’s Social Halls

13The social halls in African residential estates held performances in traditional dances, but when people spoke of going dancing, they referred to partner dances in ballroom styles danced to live music. To raise money, ethnic organizations, other businesses and the halls themselves hosted the dances (Owens 2016). While there were dances held in all the social halls, Pumwani, Muthurwa, and Kaloleni were the most famous. Because of the segregated form of the city, these three social halls are in close proximity to each other (as well as to the halls in Shauri Moyo and Tobacco Village). One resident who moved from Muthurwa to Kaloleni in 1945 when it was “brand new” remembers the destruction of the three football fields between Makongeni and Muthurwa to build Kaloleni (HJO 2016). Often, people went to the nearest dance hall to dance, but they also crossed the city for dances, although “Railway people mainly stayed within the vicinity of the Railways” (MOO 2014).

14Residents describe Pumwani of the 1950s as having “hotels which were open, all night… with music going on” and they remember “attending ballroom dances, cinema going, and listening to bands hired by the municipal authority” as well as “orderly dances in the Pumwani Memorial Hall, supervised by teachers and social workers” (Frederiksen 2002: 229). In addition, in 1958 “Kenya’s first jukebox was installed in Memorial Hall” in Pumwani (Frederiksen 2002: 229). People from all over Nairobi came to Pumwani to dance. One Nairobi resident recalled sitting in her aunt’s house watching her prepare for the dance at Pumwani although her own father would not let her go there (GW 2015). To give an idea of the scale of leisure activities at social halls, “in1956/7 five hundred films were shown in the Pumwani Memorial Hall, and in1957 alone one hundred and ten dances and three hundred meetings were held there” (Frederiksen 2002: 229).

15The music and dance created in the social halls of the new housing estates and older African residential housing came from two sources: outside international influences from especially radio, film and travel; and internal vernacular influences from the different regions of Kenya that workers in Nairobi brought with them. Both the external and internal influences were circumscribed by the politics of British colonialism. Outside influences were limited to music that was considered safe in the politics of 1950s Kenya and the internal influences were limited by the mobility of different people due to, first, the historic regional pull of the Railways; second, to the location of educational facilities across Kenya; and finally to the restrictions of the State of Emergency.

The Nairobi Sound

16Stapleton and May argue that, “the real beginnings of modern Kenyan pop date from the end of the Second World War, when Kenyan soldiers, returning from the front, brought back disposable cash, guitars and accordions” (1987: 226). Until that moment local music that was not hymns or marching bands was stigmatized as wrong and evil. Stapleton and May state that, “After the war gramophones became popular, and so did GV records, which had a strong influence on East African musicians. The chief promoters of the new music were the army and police bands, the best-known being that of the King’s African Rifles, all of whom included rumbas and cha cha chas in their dance repertoires” (1987: 226). These army and police bands played in venues such as City Park to a diverse urban audience (ML 2013; HBN 2014; Nairobi City Council 1957). Musicians such as Fundi Konde, who was sent to Burma, and groups such as the Sudanese Brass Band came out of these military backgrounds. “After the war, musicians who had been trained in brass band instruments went increasingly into dance-music groups” (Gerhard 1981: 92). In addition, one resident of Nairobi in the 1940s remembers Italian prisoners of war in bands that entertained in the Muthurwa Social Hall (AO 2014).

17In the same way, soldiers coming back from the World Wars brought with them ideas of dance that were influential throughout the 1950s. One signature style that came from the military influence was the manner in which you asked someone to dance. A man would bow when asking a woman to dance and offer his hand (SMO 2015). Many Nairobi residents describe the formality of asking a woman to dance and the crushing feeling if rejected. “You would cross the big empty hallway to where the woman is seated. Once you get there you bow and extend your right hand saying, ‘May I have this dance.’ But if she is to say no, you turn around and have to face this endlessly big room to cross back alone” (DA 2013; Cpt O 2015).

18In the 1950s finger picking styles of guitar playing became popular across East Africa (Low 1982). The guitarists were often accompanied by the rasp and ring of a rhythm section made up of a Fanta bottle. This first generation of guitar and bottle musicians drew heavily on Luhya rhythms and progressions associated with the sukuti percussion music. They included John Mwale, Jim Lasco, David Amunga, and George Mukabi (Stapleton & May 1987). Luhya guitarists also borrowed for the guitar the sukuma and umotibo dance rhythms (Low 1982: 21). While guitar music was popular across Africa at the time, Low argues that these Kenyan finger-stylists “developed their own distinctive styles, easily recognizable from those of other countries” (1982: 19). Later urban bands combined rhumba rhythms and two-part harmonies (Stapleton & May 1987). In addition, musicians such as Olima Anditi “pushed Luo dance rhythms into the acoustic guitar” forming the beginnings of what would eventually become the Nairobi music style benga (Stapleton & May 1987: 231).

19Kenyan musicians were also influenced by southern Africa picking up kwela, twist, sinjonjo and township jive (Low 1982). In addition, few escaped the influence of Congolese guitarists Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Eduard Masengo, who were promoted and recorded in Kenya, and who sold all over East and Central Africa. As a result, Kenyan guitarists came to copy the Katanga style from records (Low 1982). And in the early 1950s, in “Kenya, music from Cuba and other Latin American countries was available on the ‘GV’ label: rhumbas, cha-cha-chas, sambas and other dances, became enormously popular with African people” (Low 1982: 23). Throughout the 1950s there was sustained interest in Latin and Congolese rhythms and by the 1960s the influence of twist, based on South African kwela, was noticeable in most of the Nairobi music (Stapleton & May 1987). People danced to Congolese, southern African and Tanzanian musicians who were resident in Nairobi such as Mwenda and Masengo (Congo), Peter Tsotsi (Zimbabwe) and Frankie and Sisters (Tanzania) (HJO 2016; Low 1982; Atieno Odhiambo 2002; Stapleton & May 1987). In the 1960s came Calypso and the influence of Harry Belafonte. Finally there was the influence of western music generally.

The Art and Style of Dancing in Nairobi

20Importantly the music produced in Nairobi was always music to dance to and was performed at dances by live bands. In this manner dance drove the production of music and vice versa. To the cosmopolitan mixture of music people danced Kenyanized ballroom styles including waltz, quickstep, foxtrot, merengue, chachacha, samba, rhumba, and tango, in addition to rock and roll, twist, and calypso as social dances (HJO 2016). Some also danced these styles in competitions held in the social halls. Different residential estates would organize teams to compete in ballroom dances for prizes. Some of the competitors would represent their estate and Nairobi in competitions elsewhere in the country. People could even make a living teaching ballroom dancing (Owens 2016). One Nairobi resident remembers coaching a dance group from the residential estate of Ziwani in the late 1950s. The group won a competition in Kaloleni in 1956. The next year he won a competition in Nakuru and in 1961 he won a ram at 1: 00 am at a competition at Ofafa Memorial in Kisumu opened by Jomo Kenyatta (HJO 2016).

21Although the music and the style of dance, ballroom, were derived from abroad, innovation was an important factor of style and allowed for the mixture of genres and the creation of personal style and identity in dance. Improvisation allowed dancers to combine their heritage with this new form of dance. Frederiksen quotes Dedan Githegi, Assistant African Affairs Officer in the 1940s discussing why Africans did not enthusiastically take up colonial recreation activities at first, “in the old days Africans used to spend their leisure time in Dances which include: a) Ability to show skill in the way they danced, b) Ability to decorate oneself, which is an inherited instinct, c) Attraction of young girls” (1994: 16).

22However, the distinction between the new and the old dancing was perhaps one needing explanation to colonial officials and not necessarily in dancers’ minds. The ballroom coach in Ziwani, explained that he never learned how to dance, rather, he said, “dancing is part and parcel of someone who is cultured” (HJO 2016). He went on to emphasize that his mother was an amazing dancer and so was his elder sister. His mother was a leader in traditional dances and he got his ability from her. Then, when still in school, he joined his cousin as part of a dance troupe in the countryside for two years. His cousin was a great orutu (one string violin) musician and wandering entertainer and performed with an entourage of dancers made up of his younger relatives. As an elderly man recalling ballroom dancing in social halls this ballroom dance coach made no distinction between these forms of dance. Dance was an ability to respond to music as art. When I asked him if he danced the twist he replied “The twist? There was no art to it. No art at all” (HJO 2016). He went on to explain that in order for a dancer to demonstrate skill in improvisation, movement and rhythm – as art – the dance, whether traditional or modern, needed to be complex.

23Urban Africans in Nairobi were also able to translate the elements of dance that Githegi references (competition, style and sexuality) to their weekly ballroom dances through improvisation. To create new steps that impressed others was part of the fun and competition of dancing. One Nairobi resident recalls being asked by his friend, -who would later become one of Kenya’s attorney generals- about one of his signature steps. He replied, “Just watch. One day I will teach you. One day” (SMO 2015). Part of the skill of the dancer was to move with the music, especially if it changed (HJO 2016). Therefore, the dancer had to both listen and have a repertoire of steps to deploy when needed. To do this they drew upon traditional steps as well as improvising new steps to add to learned ballroom steps. In dance competitions this is what made or broke the competitor. In line with African dance traditions Nairobi ballroom dancers incorporated improvisational steps, drawing on local tradition styled in a ballroom context.

24And dancing was not an inexpensive past time. People who came to dance in the social halls dressed up. Women had special dresses for dancing; either long ball gowns, or shorter less formal dance dresses depending on the occasion. One Nairobi resident remembers that the skirts had gathers so that it would rise to the sides when you turned, like an umbrella, and which they called “umbrella skirts.” For competitive dancing, dress was as important as the steps. Thus, even the color of your socks mattered. In addition, how you dressed was a sign of class. Many people stressed their attention to the details of style, of grace and fashion as a statement about who you were. As Nairobi’s population accumulated more and more educated Africans working in the Civil Service during the 1950s, class distinctions became more and more important. Some residents who grew up in Railway housing said that the Railway manual workers with some money – people like train engineers or firemen – received complaints from women because they would come to the social halls to drink apparently with soot or grease from the train engines and did not conform to the ideals of style.

25The social halls did not only host dances; they hosted movies as well. Similarly, films were part of what defined urban life and modernity in Nairobi (HBN 2013). Due to the ubiquity of films, people in Nairobi were receiving the latest dance and dress styles from abroad. Musicals and Westerns were some of the limited commercial films authorized to be shown to local audiences by the colonial government and were consumed eagerly in Nairobi (HBN 2013). Although by the late 1950s dancing to live music in other parts of the world such as in the US had started a decline, (Craig 2014) it was kept alive in musicals through the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. So with films, and the growing economic autonomy of city people and access to “international circuits of style and wealth” (Callaci 2011: 367), came ballroom dancing on the grand scale.

26In Tanganyika, social halls were also used to host ballroom dances. Burton points out that “by the early1940s, the African Dancing clubs (and others) were pre-empting later colonial initiatives by organizing ‘European type’ dances (dansi) at the Alexandra Hall [in Dar es Salaam]” (Burton 2003: 337). In fact, in Tanganyika “to the consternation of many of the Europeans involved, however, dancing – ‘of the European sort, but to African bands’ – was the most popular activity at the centers as well as being their principal source of revenue” (Burton 2003: 351). These dances were originally organized by African dance clubs that, “invited fellow dance lovers in the town, with cards, where the guest couples were designated the kind of Western clothing they should wear. They rented halls and hired dance bands, i.e. African ‘ jazz bands, ’ whose main repertoire was Latin-influenced guitar-based dance music, rumba, usually sung in Kiswahili” (Tsuruta 2003: 201). Callaci argues that through the medium of dansi urban Tanzanians expressed concerns about racial uplift in the context of racism but also “struggles over pressing matters such as social inequality, the boundaries of urban belonging, female virtue, and male access to intimacy with women” (2011: 367).

27Musicians and dancers in Nairobi worked through similar issues through ballroom dancing. They sang about the difficulty of being urban – a theme that was to last after independence. They sang about the lack of jobs, prostitution, violence, overcrowding, poverty, marital problems, housing, love, having to hustle in the city, and the “changes that town life brings” (Low 1982: 24; Atieno Odhiambo 2002). These urban musicians sang in Swahili and in some cases partly in English. Unlike rural musicians, who sang mainly in vernacular, the urban musicians used Swahili to reach the expanding cosmopolitan and multilingual working class audiences of the city.

28All the halls charged for entering dances, about the same amount as going to the cinema, so they drew from a salaried audience. Usually, if a couple went to the dance hall, the man would buy the tickets. While the men were in line for the tickets, they would first buy the ladies sodas, so they would not just be waiting with nothing. However, there were many more men than women because of the restrictions on women in Nairobi and the colonial expectation that workers were bachelors or, being temporary in the city, had left their wives at home in the countryside. So for men who were not married they would dance alone (SW 2014). Often single men would come and ask the waiting woman to dance while the husband was in line. Although the situation was recalled in terms of respectability where all men respected the woman’s response, the gender imbalance of the city of four men to every woman, caused tensions among men expressed both in song lyrics and dance and sometimes in fights. Pumwani social hall was famous for fights, which broke out often (White 1991). One Nairobi resident remembers that her husband, who was a boxer, loved going there because of the possibility of a fight, while she avoided it for the same reason (MOO 2014).

29Muthurwa, being one of the oldest halls, was very popular for music and for boxing. It was also the hall closest to downtown and the European and Asian areas of town. The social halls at the Railways were situated in very clearly bounded spaces, which meant that they were more easily policed. One resident mentions how he was able to buy chang’a (moonshine) in Kaloleni, although more upscale, but not in Makongeni because of its surrounding wall (NM 2013). Muthurwa represented the Railways and recorded radio shows such as Happy Hour and Railway Showboat that drew large crowds. It also hosted many political as well as union meetings, and of course films. Along with the ballroom dancing the social halls hosted traditional dances (especially for weddings and funerals) and allowed people to set up their own concerts and comedy theatre shows (MOO 2014).

30Kaloleni, home to mainly Nairobi City Council workers, was thought of as an upscale area whose social hall was distinguished by class and size. It was here that some of the most important dance competitions were held, although participants came from housing estates across the city. In this manner, housing estates and their social halls structured competitive engagement across class and occupation.

Tapping African Modernity through Music and Dance

31The dance halls were also spaces that helped create a unique sound. Low argues that from a “melting-pot of influences gradually emerged distinctively Kenyan styles” (1982: 24). In agreement, Stapleton and May state that “despite its outside influences, Kenyan music in the 1950s and early1960s had a feeling of its own” (1987: 229). Not only was it distinctive but it was also popular, for “during the heyday of finger-styles, which lasted roughly from1958 to1962” elite urban guitarists earned good money in concerts, bars, hotels, dances and advertising as well as on the radio (Low 1982: 30). One reason for this distinct sound I would argue was that it was also the first moment of popular music played on the radio targeting a nationally conceived audience – whether through advertising, record studios or railway propaganda. It was a moment, driven by the demands for independence and making the most of a rising consumer class, of using the radio to create a certain kind of national audience.

32As guitarists moved from acoustic to electric guitars, “Kenyan musicians were consciously struggling to develop a truly national music and at their best produced dynamic, original and very exciting dance tunes” (Low 1982: 30). In order to have a national name, to participate in the new economy and to talk to an international audience, musicians produced new sounds that targeted a national audience. One of the best examples is Western Shilo by Daudi Kabaka that manages to be regional and national at the same time. Low goes on to add that, “quite a lot of the credit for the successes of the ‘60s was attributed to Equator Records and to its producer Charles Worrod in particular, who was felt had given a strong lead to local musicians” (1982: 30).

33Charles Worrod came to music through advertising, building a new sound for Nairobi through a growing industry. The growing Nairobi populations of the 1950s and their developing classes and consumer society allowed Africans to be seen as consumers for the first time. Atieno Odhiambo points out that along with other cosmopolitan items, “HMV and Columbia gramophones were popular acquisitions” (2002: 255) and that these “affluent urban residents were in a position to kula raha – to consume leisure” (2002: 257).

34The adman Peter Colmore and his team of Charles Worrod as producer and Ally Sykes as his partner from Tanganyika, saw an opportunity to mobilize entertainment – both music and comedy – to sell products. Sykes notes that, “Peter Colmore built some products into household names around East Africa. The best musicians East Africa had ever known were used to promote these products” (Sykes 2004: 1). Ally Sykes was the perfect partner for Colmore. He was “not only a political activist, being one of the17 founders of TANU [Tanganyika African National Union], but also… a musician in his own band, the Merry Blackbirds” in Tanganyika (Tsuruta 2003: 212).

35In the 1940s, Sykes’ father, Kleist Sykes, had started the controversial Tanganyika Islamic Jazz Club that was part of the complicated system of ballroom dance clubs known as dansi. Kleist Sykes had to change the name of the club, but in starting the club “through dansi, Sykes sought both to create a kind of social status based on pan-urban cosmopolitan culture, and to link Muslim identity with emerging forms of prestige” (Callaci 2011: 373). In Tanganyika, much like in Nairobi, “dancehalls were spaces of conspicuous self-display where young urban men and women deployed fashion, dance moves, and an elaborate slang vocabulary based largely on foreign loan words from cinema and imported music as a way of claiming a new urban identity based on consumption, romantic courtship, and privileged access to cosmopolitan cultural knowledge” (Callaci 2011: 375). Not only did this provide willing consumers but “by the late 1950s, businesses attempted to capitalize on dansi’s modern connotations by using images of dancing couples to market elite consumer items” (Callaci 2011: 375). Considering the structure of dansi in Tanganyika, Ally Sykes was well aware of the power of dansi and music to both sell products, proclaim a modern identity and to form an audience and community.

36With Sykes, Colmore became a very successful media and entertainment businessman and in 1961 founded his own recording company, High Fidelity Productions Ltd., which promoted bands from across East Africa (Sykes 2004). In 1961 Charles Worrod bought up the assets of East African Records (Jambo Records) and launched Equator Sound Studios Ltd., which was to record some of the best-known Kenyan music of the time with the intention of providing “East African Music for East Africans” (Odidi 2013: 1).

The Sound of the Railways

37The audience for both the advertisements and the music was boosted by a growing radio culture. Kenya had its first regular radio broadcasts starting in 1927 that broadcast to European settlers (Wilkinson 1972). By the 1950s there were many more radios in Kenya, heavily promoted by the colonial government. Africans in Nairobi frequently bought radio sets for community centers, cafes, and bars. Radios were also “given free of charge to individual Africans thought to be influential, or might be hired at a reasonable price” (Frederiksen 1994: 28). However, during the State of Emergency broadcasting served the interests of counter-insurgency policy (Amour 1984).

38In 1959 the Kenya Broadcasting Service came into being, with broadcasts in English on one service, Hindi and Gujarati on another and Swahili on a third, with regional vernacular services from Nairobi (Kamba and Kikuyu), Kisumu (Luo and Luhya) and Mombasa (Swahili and Arabic) (Amour 1984; Soja 1968). With the setting up of commercial radio in the form of the Kenya Broadcasting Service, recording studios were able to make money promoting sponsored programs and advertisements (Harvey 2003). As such, the radio also became the platform to promote musicians and entertainers. The radio and recording studios began to influence both rural and urban guitarists.

39Civil unrest also influenced what was played on the radio. In the later part of 1959 labor relations deteriorated in the ports and harbors as well as across the East African Railways, reducing rail passenger journeys by about 87,000 journeys (a 1.4 % reduction) (East African Railways & Harbours 1960). By late 1959, the East African Railways and Harbours were faced with a massive strike that was East Africa-wide. In 1960 there were continued strikes and work stoppages, contributing to an additional loss of 779,000 passenger journeys (a drop of 12.7 %) (East African Railways & Harbours 1960). The loss of passenger journeys took place predominantly in third class, that is to say, among African travelers.

40So soon after the end of the Emergency, any civil unrest greatly concerned the colonial government who feared it would restart violence. Keenly aware of this, the Railways tried to counter any popular support for the striking African railway workers through entertainment propaganda. “Railway strikes necessitated intensive day by day coverage and information was disseminated to the public through the media of the press and radio” (East African Railways & Harbours 1960: 29). As part of this public relations campaign, the Railways started the radio show Railway Showboat. The 1959 Annual Report describes the Railway Showboat as follows:

“Railway Showboat” – a weekly feature broadcast of interest to both staff and public – was first produced in October on the Kenya Broadcasting Service. A measure of the success achieved by this initial attempt at African radio entertainment was demonstrated by the allocation of the peak listening time to this program (East African Railways & Harbours 1960: 29)

41This program was not just recorded in a studio. Photos in the Railway Museum archives show some of the newly famous African artists, such as Fadhili Williams and his sister Esther, performing to a live audience on stage at Muthurwa Social Hall. Fadhili and Esther sing in front of a full Latin band set up with congas, bongos, triple base, a brass section and drum set. The Railway Showboat logo and title is displayed behind them on the wall.

42By this time radio was already used ubiquitously in the Railways. The radio was continuously broadcast on loudspeakers at every railway station all day long. This was a signature feature of railway travel. In addition, every residence in Muthurwa, while not having internal electric lights, had wired radios in each one-room house (HBN 2013). Thus, radio news, entertainment and music were readily available to every Railway worker and traveler. The Railway Showboat was not a first attempt in broadcasting either; rather, the radio program Happy Hour was already broadcast once a week from Muthurwa. It featured Railway worker-musicians who had formed an orchestra and it drew about 500 people to the recording sessions (Frederiksen 1994).

43The Railway Showboat featured local popular music, mainly in Swahili but with a few songs in English, and it played nationally. Its aim was to appeal to a national audience; the music could therefore not be reduced to a narrow ethnic sound and it was by local artists. Because of its association with the Railways, Swahili was a natural choice both for artists and those producing the show. The Railways were not local by any means – they were East African in scope and reach, and through this program helped spread the music of artists like Fadhili Williams and his sister Esther, John Mwale, Daudi Kabaka, George Mukabi, Gabriel Omolo, Fundi Konde and others across East Africa. These artists would later to be synonymous with what became known as “zilizopendwa” (golden oldies).

44Owens reports that, “as urban laborers returned to the countryside, they brought with them new tastes and influences from the city” (2016: 168). Reaching beyond a vernacular audience, the combination of urban themes, movement on the railways and the use of Swahili meant that in the 1950s music heard, and danced to, all over Kenya was disproportionally about Nairobi. Even rural guitarists sang about Nairobi, its money, women, education and love, the very themes expressed in music and dance in social halls (Low 1982). In 1993, doing fieldwork in coastal Kenya, I remember that people in the village where I lived sang songs of Nairobi to their children by moonlight – songs made famous in dances in the 1950s and passed down from generation to generation by their grandparents.

Dancing is Part and Parcel of Someone who is Cultured

45In 1959, in fear of civil unrest in Nairobi and a return to violence, the British colonial government did a sweeping dragnet raid on a number of political activities in the city of Nairobi. They raided offices of the Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP), which were also the offices of the Kenyan Federation of Labor, and of the newspaper Uhuru. Thirty-four Members of the NPCP were detained and some exiled to Lamu at the Coast for sedition, others rusticated to their supposed “home” in the countryside. The man connected to all three entities (party, union and newspaper), Tom Mboya, was held at home in Ziwani, along with visiting Julius Nyerere, who later became founding president of Tanzania. Finally, all political rallies were banned by the government (Goldsworthy 1982).

46Mboya was a Nairobi politician who represented the “non-customary, urban developments” expressed by the dances in the social halls (Parkin 1978: 239). At the time Mboya was the Secretary General of the Kenya Federation of Labor, founder and President of NPCP, which produced the newspaper Uhuru, a member of the Legislative Council (LegCo) representing Nairobi (one of 8 African members), and Secretary of the African Elected Members Organization (AEMO) of LegCo. He was 29 years old. In response, “just two days after the raid he coolly circumvented the current ban on African political meetings by calling an ‘African song and dance meeting’ in the Kaloleni community hall” (Goldworthy 1982: 113). Frederiksen describes Kaloleni as “perhaps the most important meeting place of nationalist activists in the late1940s and the1950s, becoming colloquially known as the House of Parliament. What had been planned as an institution aimed at the betterment of urban Africans became a center not only for the nationalist elite’s plotting, but also for political meetings of Nairobi’s African masses” (2002: 229). Mboya turned this song and dance meeting into a political rally, where people sang about Kenyatta and freedom, and where Mboya started every remark with “’as you know, I am not allowed to make a political speech’” (Goldsworthy 1982: 113).

47A song and dance meeting, however, was not something unexpected for Tom Mboya. Rather, Mboya is described by those who remember him from the social halls as a “lifer,” that is to say, someone who lived life to the fullest in all aspects. Mboya is remembered by most people as “musical” and an “amazing dancer,” their voices softening and their heads nodding in recollection. He is also recalled as a sharp dresser, “always well turned out,”smart from his head to his shoes,” a man of style “in a class of his own”. A very young politician representing Nairobi in the late 1950s and a powerful trade union leader, Mboya appears in the few photographs of Kaloleni (as dancer, musician and politician) and Muthurwa social halls (holding a union meeting) that still exist. There are pictures of him playing maracas with a band in a recording studio and stories of his guitar stolen from him in Kaloleni. At Mboya’s mausoleum on Rusinga Island where he is buried, there is a museum in his memory. On a shelf of the museum is a silver trophy cup for a dance competition in Nairobi bearing witness to his ability as a dancer. Mboya most completely embodied all the aspects of social halls in the late 1950s, their dance and youth culture, their class and gender dynamics and divisions, salaried workers, their style of music, their cosmopolitan and international outlook, and of course their urban politics that became national.


48At the time the social halls in African residential estates were built, many recreational facilities in the city, including private and public clubs, bars and movie theatres, were segregated spaces. Chikowero argues that British colonial policies on music and dance in urban areas of settler colonies sought to control Africans in the city and to produce a certain kind of urban African. But that African urbanity was hard to control. Owen argues that, “the social halls, municipal football leagues, and weekend dances became spaces where Africans explored new expressions of socialization, leisure and identity within Kenya’s urban centers” (2016: 171). Africans transformed these spaces from what they were intended to be – spaces for the domestication and control of African labor – to spaces of protest, innovation and creation.

49Callaci (2011) emphasizes that dance halls can’t be seen simplistically as spaces that transcend difference and create shared national identity. Rather, she argues, they are multiple embodiments and claims about community boundaries. Social halls in Nairobi, I would argue, were also a claim of urbanity and a claim to the city denied to the majority of its inhabitants, that, along with the Nairobi sound defined Nairobi and partly defined Nairobi’s dominant position to articulate Kenyan modernity and imaginary.

50While Nairobi is often still imagined as European, the idea belies the ideology that tried to make it exactly that, and the people, dancers included, that resisted and transformed the urban spaces to make them their own. In much writing on East Africa inland of the coast, the urban African is someone ill-fitting and maladapted to a city that is somehow not African. There is little attention to long-term residents and what they made of the city. The architectural layout of colonialism in 1950s Nairobi established social halls in African residential estates for leisure activities segregated by race. While meant to placate and domesticate an African labor force, due to the Mau Mau, the demands for labor of the Railways and colonial fear of urban civil unrest, social halls, I would argue, became a site for urban identity formation that bypassed and transgressed colonial imaginations. Rather, the dancers and other users of these spaces made them their own, creating sounds and steps that were uniquely Nairobi.



Amour, C. 1984. The BBC and the Development of Broadcasting in British Colonial Africa 1946- 1956. African Affairs 83 (332): 359-402.

Anderson, D.M. 2002. Corruption at City Hall: African Housing and Urban Development in Colonial Nairobi, in Burton, A. (ed.) The Urban Experience in East Africa c.1750-2000. Azania Special Volume XXXVI-XXXVII. Nairobi, The British Institute in Eastern Africa: 138-154.

Atieno Odhiambo, E S. 2002. Kula Raha: Gendered Discourses and the Contours of Leisure in Nairobi, 1946-63, in Burton, A. (ed.) The Urban Experience in East Africa c.1750-2000. Azania Special Volume XXXVI-XXXVII. Nairobi, The British Institute in Eastern Africa: 254-264.

Burton, A. 2002. Introduction: Urbanisation in Eastern Africa: An Historical Overview, c.1750- 2000 in Burton, A. (ed.) The Urban Experience in East Africa c.1750-2000. Azania Special Volume XXXVI-XXXVII. Nairobi, The British Institute in Eastern Africa: 1-28.

Burton, A. 2003. Townsmen in the Making: Social Engineering and Citizenship in Dar es Salaam, c. 1945-1960. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 36 (2): 331-365.

Callaci, E. 2011. Dancehall Politics: Mobility, Sexuality and Spectacles of Racial Respectability in Late Colonial Tanganyika, 1930-1961. Journal of African History 52: 365-384.

Chikowero, M. 2015. African Music, Power, and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe. Bloomington, Indian University Press.

Craig, M. 2014. Sorry I don’t Dance: Why Men Refuse to Move. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

East African Railways and Harbours, 1960. Annual Report for East African Railways and Harbours 1959. Nairobi, East African Railways and Harbours.

Frederiksen, B F. 1994. Making Popular Culture From Above: Leisure in Nairobi 1940-60. Occasional Paper 145, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Frederiksen, B F. 2002. African Women and Their Colonisation of Nairobi: Representations and Realities, in Burton, A. (ed.) The Urban Experience in East Africa c.1750-2000. Azania Special Volume XXXVI-XXXVII. Nairobi, The British Institute in Eastern Africa: 223-234.

Gerhard, K. 1981. Neo-Traditional Popular Music in East Africa Since 1945. Popular Music 1: 83- 104.

Goldsworth, D. 1982. Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget. London, Heinemann.

Harvery, F. 2003. Jambo (East Africa), in Shepherd, J., Horn, D., Laing, D., Oliver P. and Wicke, P. (eds.) Continuum Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World: Performance and Production Vol. I. Media, Industry and Society. London, Continuum

Low, J. 1982. A History of Kenyan Guitar Music: 1945-1980. African Music 6 (2): 17-36.

Macharia, PA. 2013. Design Strategy and Informal Transformations in Urban Housing: A Study of the Contribution of Design Strategy to Dweller-Initiated transformations using Comparative Case Study Analysis of Buru-Buru and Kaloleni Housing Estates in Nairobi, Kenya. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 28 (1): 167- 186

Muchugu, F. 2016. Pumwani Social Hall Gets New Lease of Life. The Star 7 March 2016. August 27, 2016).

Myers, G A. 2003. Verandahs of Power: Colonialism and Space in Urban Africa. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press.

Nairobi City Council. 1957. Nairobi: City in the Sun1955/57. Nairobi, Nairobi City Council.

Nairobi City Council. 1962. Nairobi: City in the Sun1961/62. Nairobi, Nairobi City Council.

Odidi, B. 2013. The Golden Years of Kenya’s Music. The Daily Nation online Monday August 12th 2013. (Retrieved December 23, 2017).

Omenya, A. 2011. The History of Nairobi 1900-1950s: Colonial Capital in Nairobi: An Exploration of the City by Photographers and Writers. Nairobi, Kwani?: 2-3.

Owen, C. E. 2016. Lands of Leisure: Recreation, Space, and the Struggle for Urban Kenya:1900- 2000. East Lansing, Michigan State University, unpublished PhD diss.

Parkin, D. 1978. The Cultural Definition of Political Response: Lineal Destiny Among the Luo. London, Academic Press.

Soja, E W. 1968. The Geography of Modernization in Kenya: A spatial Analysis of Social, Economic and Political Change. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press.

Stapleton, C & May, C. 1987. African All-Stars: the Pop Music of a Continent. London, Quartet Books Ltd.

Tsuruta, T. 2003. Popular Music, Sports, and Politics: ADevelopment ofUrban Cultural Movements in Dar es Salaam, 1930s-1960s African Study Monographs 24 (3): 195-222.

White, L. 1990. The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Notes de fin

i I would like to thank Garnette Oluoch Olunya, Njane Mugambi, Joyce Nyairo, Julia Kunguru, Makau Nzioka, Bill Odidi and Fleur Ng’weno for their help and support and also especially all the people who so generously answered my questions about their life in 1950s Nairobi (including ML, DA, GW, HBN and HJO in Nairobi, NM in Mbitini, Sw AO, MOO and GW in Funyula, and SMO and Cpt. O in Kisumu quoted in this chapter) who for confidentiality reasons are not named here.


Is associate professor in African American and African Studies at the University of California, Davis. Trained as an anthropologist she works on issues of space, property, identity, social justice, citizenship and states within Latin America, Africa and the Indian Ocean region. She received her PhD in Anthropology from Johns Hopkins University and her Master’s degree also in anthropology from Stanford University. At the moment, she is writing a book on Nairobi that focuses on long-term residents, and the time and space of the city.

© Africae, 2018

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search