Kayamba afrika director Juma Odemba. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Microphone in hand, Juma Odemba, is the uber master of ceremonies. He is funny and irreverent, surprising and provocative. At wedding receptions—champagne in hand — he dances, jokes and swaggers around, wielding his charm and chutzpah.
He is at ease, switching between various local dialects, knowing what to say to whom and when and why. He is a trained teacher by profession but an entertainer by choice. Kayamba Afrika, which he founded with others, is 27 years old now.
Any wedding he is currently emceeing this month could be his 2,808th by estimation. Kayamba Africa is like a monument of art that over time has sprouted into five different groups with a set of 30 musicians.
They have a live band, a traditional dance group, and a deejay and MC-ing outfit. A truism: are many like them, but there can only be one Kayamba Africa. “We sing and entertain,” he told JACKSON BIKO recently. “And now I even sing in Chinese”.
Has the idea of a wedding gotten better or worse over time?
Before weddings were never about money, they were very modest. Nowadays, weddings have turned into showmanship, razzmatazz, and glitters. The wedding industry has changed. When I started, there were perhaps one or two wedding MCs— both of them deceased.
Now, out of our influence, we have hundreds of MCs throughout Kenya. And they’re earning money, which is a good thing. Before the best MC could be your uncle. Now everybody is hiring professionals; musicians, MCs, decor people, wedding planners… It’s created a whole industry.
Do you think couples still wed because of love or vanity?
A month ago, the wedding we met at, the couple had lived together for 11 years before they were wedded. That’s enduring love. I still want to believe that when two people come together at the altar it’s because of love and not anything else. I have to believe in love because it’s what drives my business.
What does it take to be a good MC; to have a crowd eat from your palms?
A good MC does not talk to the audience. You don’t give instructions. You talk with your audience. You create a rapport with them to a point where they trust you with the instructions you give them. Many MCs, and I’m sorry to say, the younger ones are more about the hype. The shouting, the cheering, and talking throughout. Nobody wants monotones.
Read the room, most wedding crowds are multilingual, multicultural, multi-sectional. Speak a language that speaks to all of them. Finally, a good MC must dress the part. [Laughs]
How have you managed to remain relevant for so many years?
I was very bitter the first few years when I started getting competition. I used to think, ‘No, this is my field, go away.’ But then I realised that the industry is so big that I cannot be able to satisfy it myself. The competitors were simply copying me. They would pick my CD, play it or sing over it. Nothing new.
This went on for about five to 10 years before I realised that what we did as Kayamba Africa was going to last generations. The best you can do to competitors is send them blessings.
You are 57 years old now, no longer the young man who could have a good time at wedding after wedding, drink in hand, dancing until late. Have you started feeling the toll weddings take on your body?
[Laughs] The first thing you must be ready for in this industry is to wait for the client to say ‘fine, we are done, let’s call it a night.’ Many of them don’t say that. I’ve learnt to persevere, to be with the client. However, I take breaks. For example; this past weekend I had a wedding on Friday and Saturday, working till 4 am.
On Sunday, I had to be at a wedding at 10 am. After doing a series of events, you must take breaks. You also must exercise; dancing on stage is not an exercise. I walk for about half an hour every day, at least three times a week. I also go out dancing knowing that it will help in flexibility, strengthening my bones, and it makes me happy.
What do your agemates think of what you do?
A lot of times people think music—what I do —is a hobby. It’s not. My friends have come to respect me for that. And some of them say I took the right path. I may still have been a teacher but I had to sacrifice one for the other.
Do you have children and a wife?
Oh yes! I’m very happy. My first-born daughter is 27 years old, she’s the same age as the group. She graduated from JKUAT and now works in Mombasa. My second born is 11 years old. I also have a five-year-old and a three-year-old.
You had the last ones a bit late, what happened there?
I was married for about three years then broke off from the marriage. I stayed for 17 years before getting married again in 2011. It’s working.
How were those 17 years in the wilderness before you got married again, with this kind of profession?
Let me be honest with you. It’s discipline. Discipline is not just how you behave outside but also how you behave inside.
Your consciousness has to be disciplined. That is what has carried me through. I have my weaknesses, of course, I do enjoy a lot of Rhumba music. I go out to a club to enjoy Rhumba music. But when I’m there, I’m also still Juma Odemba the public figure, Juma Odemba the State officer, Juma Odemba the group leader of Kayamba Africa, Juma Odemba the citizen who wants others to be like him.
So you’re sort of a celebrity?
I don’t know what that means. (Laughing)
What’s been your most difficult wedding and why?
I did a wedding of a gentleman who came to the office and selected a set of songs. The songs were very slow. At no point in that entire wedding was there any level of excitement, any level of dancing… And I was like, what’s the problem with this client?
Are there weddings that just made you sad to officiate?
Yes. A couple came for a meeting in my office but the gentleman never listened to the opinion of his fiancée. The lady was distressed. On the day of the wedding, the man came with an entourage of luxury vehicles. The bride never showed up.
Do you sometimes get bored during some weddings?
Yes. The weddings where people come and give tonnes of advice to the couple. Where everybody wants to hold the microphone and say something, speech after speech after speech. Weddings are about fun.
What’s your opinion on religion and marriage?
We’ve done weddings of a Muslim marrying a Christian, an Indian marrying a Kenyan, a Kenyan marrying a Russian. All these boil down to love because for you to be religious you must know what love is. Love transcends religion.
Did you ever do a wedding of your own and who was the MC?
Oh yes! I even overshoot my budget. The MCs were Big Ted and Churchill, one of the best in the industry. I also got lost in people coming in to offer free services. My wedding was what you call a labour of love.
So how did you overshoot your budget?
Because I invited everybody. If you knew me you were welcome. You just come and say, ‘I’m Juma’s friend…’