Veteran Rhumba singer Laban Juma Toto passed away last week at Kenyatta National Hospital. The singer had been admitted for a head surgery at after falling and hitting his head on the pavement near his home in Jerusalem Estate, Nairobi. He is suspected to have had a brain haemorrhage.
Fellow artistes described Toto’s death as a big blow to the Kenyan music scene, saying he not only came from an experienced pre-independence generation of musicians, but was also still active in the art.
He was also the chairman of the Kenya Music Association and is credited for forming the Music Copyright Society of Kenya (MCSK) to fight for the rights of musicians and artistes in the country.
One of his greatest achievements, the MCSK, collects royalties on behalf of authors, composers, arrangers, and publishers of music. It collects royalties for public performances and mechanical reproductions. Until his death, Toto was Kenya Musicians Union (Kemu) chairman; an organisation which brings together both long-serving and up-and-coming artistes.
Toto will be fondly remembered by many older music lovers for a popular song FC Gor Mahia, which he composed in honour of the Kenyan football giants in the early 1970s.
Deemed as one of the pioneers of rhumba among his peers, the 70-year-old helped mentor many budding singers to stardom. Toto was in the class of a few surviving veteran musicians, who in the 1960s and into 1980s, excelled with performances of popular dance beats at various hotels across the country.
“He was a great man, good singer and a cultured man who together with Ochieng’ Kabaselleh established the foundation of Rhumba music that has been taken up by many modern-day musicians,” said veteran music producer Tabu Osusa.
Osusa produced some of Juma’s best songs, including Sele, Orudo and Jaber Rossy in the album collection called Nyako Ma Ok Osomo.
Benga music producer George Ouma of Jojo Records said: “Toto will be remembered for his resilience despite the challenges he encountered.”
Following his demise, former Kenya prime minister Raila Odinga said: “The death of legendary rhumba singer Toto has robbed the country, Africa and the music industry of one of its most gifted and prolific musicians.
““I join Juma’s fans in mourning his sudden death. May God grant peace and strength to his family at this moment of grief,” said Odinga.
Iconic music record house, Ketebul Music, eulogised Toto, saying the gap he left would be hard to fill.
“He was a gentle, profoundly passionate man whose heart carried the spirit while his voice bore the smoke of his beloved country. A big man has gone and left a big hole, but he leaves behind a lot of warmth and many beautiful songs,” said the label.
Toto’s fans also expressed sorrow after learning of the death of the former leader of the Toddy National Band.
Toto, a staunch crusader for musicians’ rights, was born in Gem, Siaya County, and moved to Nairobi in 1966 to start a national music career. He had to quickly learn how to compose his music in Kiswahili since he had been used to singing in Dholuo. According to the Shades of Benga book, Toto’s professional career began in 1966 with the Maishani Beach Boys in Nairobi. A year later, he left the group and joined the Stereo Phoenix Band. In early 1968, he briefly joined the Blue Shade Band, which was led by the late benga musician Gabriel Omolo.
In August 1968, he joined the Hodi Boys Band, which remains to be one of the greatest Kenyan bands to date. With the group, he released hits such as Jaber Mama Rose and Gombato. His most popular release is FC Gor Mahia that he composed for the Kenyan football club of the same name.
Spreading his wings
In 1972, he left the Hodi Boys Band and teamed up with Kenya’s most celebrated rhumba musician, Ochieng’ Kabaselleh, with whom he formed Todi National Band, but band politics forced the two musicians to part ways.
In 1992, Toto teamed up with Osusa to produce two LPs – From Man to Man and Nyako Ma Ok Ososmo – the latter of which included the title song that was recently sampled by Kenyan Afro-fusion musician Makadem on ‘Orudo Aye’.
In 2010, Toto released his last album Oyundi Ni Se Se, which was recorded in Swahili and Dholuo.
“Music needs proper research, time and patience,” he told The Standard in 2010. “I feel the quality of local music has gone down. Current musicians should emulate the likes of George Mukasi of ‘Mtoto Si Nguo’ fame, Ochieng’ Kabaselleh, Fadhili William, Gabriel Omollo and Daudi Kabaka if they hope to make an impact.”
Juma Toto, a staunch crusader for musicians’ rights, was born in Gem, Siaya County, and moved to Nairobi in 1966 to start a national music career. He had to quickly learn how to compose his music in Kiswahili since he had been used to singing in Dholuo.
His contemporaries include David Amunga, Shem Tube, John Nzenze, Fanuel Amimo and Peter Akhwabi.
One of the stars to emerge from Toto’s tutelage is talented guitarist Okello Jose, formerly of Les Kinois Band of Samba Mapangala and who later joined the Ivory Band. Okello, who later went solo, now lives in Australia.
Toto will be fondly remembered by many older music lovers for FC Gor Mahia, a song he composed in honour of the Kenyan football giants in the early 1970s.