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Celebrating ‘Them Mushrooms’ at 50.

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“Nyama choma, nyama choma na moja ya baridi…teremsha, lete raha, wazee wakumbuke!” I spoke to John Katana Harrison, Them Mushrooms’ band leader, on them marking 50 years (an achievement that stands alone). Their story…

Them Mushrooms’ journey started in 1972, in Kaloleni (Kilifi County), when five brothers…Teddy Kalanda Harrison, Billy Sarro Harrison, George Zirro Harrison, John Katana Harrison and Dennis Kalume Harrison initially founded the group. Our own version of ‘The Jackson 5’. Talent begets talent, their father played the guitar and their mother was a choir member. They served as inspiration. Why ‘Them Mushrooms’ and not ‘The Harrisons’ maybe? Them Mushrooms sounded unique. Other contemporary bands at the time had names like The Spartans or The Vikings. ‘Mushrooms’ was also to represent their origin, naming themselves after mushrooms that grow wildly across the depths of Coastal and African forests. They of course outgrew the Kaloleni scene and moved to the beach hotel circuit in Mombasa before a move to ‘convenient’ Nairobi.

As John Katana Harrison states, “We wanted to access the mainstream media as well as the only broadcasting station (VoK now KBC) easily for promotion of our music. We wanted to conquer new grounds”. Not because as is commonly said that the Coastal scene isn’t rewarding enough. I can’t think of a Kenyan band representing our best export of music more than Them Mushrooms, or rather who did it first. It would take a day to go over all their achievements but John Katana (who himself has a Head of State Commendation from Pres. Kibaki in 2009) indulged me. Jambo Bwana’ (Kenya Hakuna Matata), the band’s biggest hit recorded in 1980 earned the group gold, silver and platinum status (discs) for sales exceeding 200,000. The song also entered the charts in 7 different versions, the notable one being the one by disco group Boney M. And whenever you watch the box-office hit movie Lion King and hear the ‘Hakuna Matata’ song remember that though it is Jimmy Cliff and Lebo M. (Elton John as writer) who composed it for the 1994 film, the ‘Hakuna Matata’ slogan was borrowed from Them Mushroom’s ‘Jambo Bwana’.

Other accolades include; The Battle of Kenya Bands’ Trophy 1987, M-NET 2000 Award-Kenya’s most favourite band, Kisima Award 2004-best group from Kenya’s Coast, Lifetime Achievement Award 2012-Coast Music Awards. All the while also recording signature tunes for BBC radio (UK). Them Mushrooms are also a Kenyan band of many firsts that can serve as inspiration to create impactful music. In 1985 they composed, recorded and produced a song for Save the Rhino campaign and donated the proceeds to Kenya Wildlife Service. In 1988 Them Mushrooms became the first band in Africa to compose and produce an AIDS sensitization and awareness song, whose proceeds they donated to the Ministry of Health. They have also been involved in many other charitable causes.

It has not always been smooth sailing for the band, they have gone through the demise of two brothers and band members, Dennis Kalume and George Zirro but have kept going both to honour their memory and for their fans of 5 decades. Their brothers and parents would be proud. The entertainment industry can also be unforgiving at times. A promoter in Burundi once disappeared with their pay and they had to pay their air tickets back home. Plus cases of hiring equipment beforehand only to be told on the day of performance that a higher bid was accepted. They also learnt a hard lesson when they signed off the rights to Jambo Bwana. They fought for 5 years before getting them back. John Katana, “Young musicians should strive to understand the basics of copyright & related rights. They are lucky info is readily available online”.

Why the brief name change to ‘Uyoga’ then back to Them Mushrooms? John Katana, “The name Uyoga was a marketing decision. Our European tour booking agent proposed the band adopts an African name to make it marketable in Europe. We used that name for about 3 years while touring”. I asked John Katana what the secret to their longevity is. His answer? “God’s grace, not only working hard but working smart as well”. Congratulations to John Katana and Them Mushrooms for a remarkable 50 years in music.

SUPPORT: We are a non-funded entity kept alive solely by our readers’ thirst for the undocumented and not adequately documented aspects of our past. The logistics of getting these stories can sometimes be a challenge. We would appreciate your support. To support Pwani Tribune’s history and culture research plus content creation…M-PESA till number: 8627478 Contact: +254726860693

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