June 29th 2017

Entertainment / Music

A true hero, Achieng Abura's music transcended tribe, borders

While she was Luo, she was born in cosmopolitan Eldoret and her world view transcended tribe from early on. As she gained fame for her musical artistry she only reluctantly embraced her Luoness, recording mostly in English and Kiswahili as she adopted more PanAfrican Afro-fusion and Afro-jazz tunes.

By Soilan Kenanaskenana@kenyafreepress.comFriday, 21 Oct 2016 15:54 EAT

The late Achieng Abura in action. (Photo: Courtesy/Her Facebook page).

Kenya’s social media pages have been swamped with condolence messages for musician Achieng Abura, who passed away yesterday at the Kenyatta National Hospital. Abura cut a colossal figure, weighing 180kg at one time, a physique that was matched only by her reputation and accomplishments. As the messages have showed, she was loved by millions of Kenyans who considered her a natural icon.

Even though her primary identity was as a musician, Abura performed music not as a full-time career but to to fulfill her talents and use her skills to advance causes she believed in and contribute to change in society. While she was a natural singer - recording her first album (I Believe) in 1990 - her first call, like with many young Kenyans, was to pursue an academic career, which incidentally prepared her for the roles she played in musical and social development. Abura was an alumni of Kenya High School and had an MSc degree in Philosophy and Environmental Science from Moi University and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University, institutions that imbued her with the spirit of excellence.

In the early 2000s, she went to further her studies in India, joining a pre-PhD programme but had to cut short her studies when her mother fell ill and was diagnosed with heart disease. Both the mother and father died in 2002. In the next several years, she lost seven family members, a toll that veered her deeper into music as she sought to cope with the deaths and her family's dwindling finances.

While she was Luo, she had been born in cosmopolitan Eldoret and her world view transcended tribe from early on. As she became well known for her musical artistry she only reluctantly embraced her Luoness, recording mostly in English and Kiswahili as she adopted a more PanAfrican Afro-fusion and Afro-jazz genres. Her first album mentioned above was a signature song on the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (then the only radio station in Kenya) and gave her a breakthrough in the music industry. The song was well received and listened to in Kenya and all around Africa. She followed up in later years with other albums, ‘Way Wonder’ and ‘Sulwe’. After shifting to Afro-jazz in 2002, she released one album, ‘Spirit of a Warrior’.

Abura was a topnotch artist with awards like Kora Awards that she won in 2004 as the best East African Female Artist and Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW) Presidential Award for contributing to music in Kenya in 2006. She was nominated for social responsibility category in 2008 (Kisima Awards) and also had a Jordan Foundation USA citation for contribution to music, social and economic development in Kenya in 2011.

But her greatest accolades came in 2008, when, courtesy of the Tusker Project Fame, sponsored by the East African Breweries, she served as the 'principal' of the TPF academy, a month-long reality show where prodigious young singers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi competed for training and recording prizes. The programme, which has since been discontinued, was viewed by millions across the region, and Abura distinguished herself not only for her powerful vocals, musical leadership and engagement with the learners, but also the way she bonded with the television audiences. That performance enabled her to reach and be embraced by many more Kenyans than had heard her songs.

From that peak, however, she receded to the periphery of national musical events, and unbeknown to many she was suffering in silence for most of that period until her death yesterday. Though millions of Kenyans paid homage to her music, her successes as an artist diverged from her low income and, painfully for her, inability to provide the medical care that her son, 23, who suffers from sickle cell anemia, needed badly.

According to an interview she did with Business Daily in July, she was not only anxious about her son's health but also had a feeling of neglect by people she had cared so much for, after her fundraisers for the son yielded much less than she required for his hospitalisation. "I’ve raised money for so many things and I was hoping that somebody in turn says, 'Okay, let’s support her.' I have learnt one thing from this experience; the people who don’t have that much are the ones who donate to help. But the people who you are certain have, they don’t give," she was quoted saying.

It has been reported that Abura died of depression and gastritis. Some fans have proposed a fundraiser for the boy’s treatment in her honour. Were that to happen, it would be a perfect sendoff for an icon who entertained Kenyans and also helped raise funds for so many causes, from animal welfare to environmental conservation. She had been a United Nations goodwill ambassador, chairperson of Kenya Musicians Union and also campaigned for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty.

In her charitable work, Abura believed that, despite the advances women have made in education, their human rights were still continually and systematically trampled upon, so her music and humanitarianism merged on the need to promote cohesiveness, environmental protection and poverty alleviation. Without a doubt, Abura was one of the heroes of our time.

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