Tribute \\ Sali Oyugi|Kenya’s gospel music revolutionary

Singer, songwriter and mentor: Kenya’s revolutionary gospel singer  takes final bow

Sali Oyugi is a name that commands a lot of respect in Kenya and beyond, she was among the most innovative acts in the Kenyan music scene and was a pioneer of the contemporary gospel sound. The singer was also a mentor to many musicians among them Suzanne Owiyo. Apart from her musical contributions, she was also vocal when it came to social activism.

The singer who passed on August 26 aged 48, leaves behind a great legacy; she started performing at a tender age. According to Ketebul label’s literature on the singer, she started out experimenting with different rhythms as a young artist, and would expressively tap into her dual heritage-daughter of a Kenyan father and Tanzanian mother-to create sounds that borrowed from Luo people of Kenya and the Zigua of Tanzania. The singer would master her craft and with her guitar at hand, she would take on the world as both a musician and a mentor to a host of other influential artists.

Most people who were adults or ‘aware’ in the 90s would remember her being part of Hart Band alongside her country-mates singer, producer and now pastor Pete Odera and respected Kenyan producer Tedd Josiah and Esther Muindi; a revolutionary gospel group that churned out music, at the time was considered ‘too hip for God’. The band’s radical approach to gospel music would have them craft music fashioned with the urban taste, pop style and borrowing from western influences and an Amen to boot. They set the trend for the current wave of pop-gospel artists in Kenya. In a tribute article by music journalist and researcher Bill Odidi on Kenya’s Daily Nation, the singers recall that they received a lot of condemnation from the church due to their music.

The group had their first album Miya Ngima released in 1994 under the then popular Samawati Studions followed by Xtatic which was released in 1995, singles like; Show You Love, Hakuna Pendo, and Heavenly among others helped put the band on the map. The band was at their peak and performed in various stages within and outside Kenya. The group would split later around 1996, the four artists would then pick on their individual careers. 

Under the late Achieng Abura’s wings, Sali would create her own route, she roped in the likes of Suzanne Owiyo who was then her backup singer and Susan Wajiru of the Gogosimo Band. She has performed at various local clubs and art hubs such as; Goethe Institute, French Cultural Center in Nairobi, Safari Park Hotel where she shared stages with renowned South African musician Hugh Masekela. This then led to a UK trip in 1997, where she performed at a Solar Energy Convention.

The singer then moved to the United States around 1998 and married Mark Hanson. While at the US, according to her Ketebul profile, she shared the stage with the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi and performed at The Cambridge River Festival, The Central Square World’s Fair Festival, Wake Up The Earth Festival and the April Festival in Memphis Tennessee.

After her stint in the US which saw her create more music experiences at places like Berklee Colllege, and performances with some notable local names, she returned to Kenya a little over 9 years ago and set up Leko Foundation, an organization whose objective is to support music education for children from the disadvantaged families.

The singer’s music journey saw her feature and perform alongside Malian Kora player Balla Tounkara on her debut project Vuma and also made an appearance on Tounkara’s Yayoroba album. 

Sali later worked on The Return which was released in December 2007. The Uromo album was recorded at Ketebul Studios in 2016.


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#This story first appeared on the Afroway MagazineAfroway Magazine Issue 03

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