Written by Phanice Chepkemoi
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Tony Ndiema needs no introduction in the districts around the slopes of Mt.Elgon in the two counties of Trans-Nzoia and Bungoma, and members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, because he is a household name.
The Kitale based artist, better known as Tantan Areet in Kalenjin gospel music circles from the title of his trademark hit that goes by the same name is indisputably the father the Sabaot gospel music industry. Tantan areet loosely translates to ‘narrow road’
As it is often the case with musicians, Tony, Born in 1964 at Chesinende village, Kaptama division, Mt. Elgon district, he began dabbling in music at a young age. But unlike other gospel artists, his career did not begin at Sunday school. He says he owes his musical prowess to his father and traditional music ceremonies he attended as a child.
He says his father Jacob Ndiema Nyokie was a renowned bukantiit, “a six stringed traditional Sabaot guitar-player” and soloist. He notes that his father on noticing his keen interest in the traditional music instrument, he encouraged him to try and play it. His love for music endeared him to his old man a small scale farmer and cattle keeper.
As a 10 year old, he recalls accompanying his father to homesteads that brewed traditional brew where the old man used to entertain patrons. Coming from a conservative community, I point out him that this was not possible and highly unlikely because young men, in Sabaot community traditionally were not allowed to hang around where aged people were imbibing their favorite drink.
He clarifies, “Our Kaboywo village at the foot of Mt. Elgon was densely forested. Elephants and other wild animals used to roam freely and as a young boy, I could not stay alone at home.”
“I used to sit in a stool outside, waiting for my father and only ventured into the house when it rained.” It is during these occasional and rare moments that a young Tony mesmerized and wowed the drinking wazees with his bukantiit strumming skills.
“Being a green horn at times I got stuck in singing, but the maestro (dad) came in handy, taking over each time I had difficulties.” he reminisces with nostalgia.
He also attributes his musical career to cultural dancing ceremonies famously known as seeriet that he used to attend as a young man. He says during these ceremonies which are no more, traditional music artists used to compete. Themes of the songs at the well attended functions revolved around love, politics and patriotism.
“Compositions which were in the Sabaot language with powerful and touching messages were on anything, boundaries, and the fertility of the land, boundaries, cattle and goats.
In 2002, he produced his first album- Marching to the Lord, which is purely instrumental catapulted him to fame not only in Kenya, but internationally. In the album, he has improvised beats and melodies using a piano to produce an instrumental of 18 songs from the hymn book.
Tracks from the album have been used by the pathfinders club of the Adventist church worldwide in their marching drills and played in the yearly Camporees-congress held for Pathfinders at national or international levels.
Apart from performing locally and in the East Africa countries of Uganda and Tanzania, he has been to Zambia, Egypt and the United States of America. He has been to America twice, first in 1999 and 2004 and he performed in Oshkosh Wisconsin, St. Louis Missouri and Rangers Park in Oklahoma.
“So impressed were the directors of Pathfinders with my performance at Wisconsin that they proposed that his tracks be universally adopted by the Adventist Church and distributed worldly,” says Tony, but adds that when he came back home, he has not heard a word from them and his subsequent follow ups have been in vain.
For a man who credits traditional music as his inspiration and for one from such rich background, it is not surprising therefore, that he has solely chosen to sing in his native language in his second a volume.
Listening to Tony singing his August 2008 Taantan Areet runaway hit, that he says captured the mood of the whole Kalenjin nation, at a prayer rally recently in Kitale, it is hard to fathom that he started out as a bukantiit player, then a pianist .
In the track, he talks about the narrow road which you cannot pass with heavy luggage or burdens. He says the heavy luggage is symbolic of sin which one needs to offload before sojourning to heaven via the narrow road that is.
The musician, who singles out Pastor Joel Kimmetto a celebrated Kalenjin Musician as his role model, goes on in the song to remind his listeners that life has many challenges and they ought to be careful and tread carefully because there are thorns and holes in the way. The thorns and holes he says are symbolic of challenges in life journeys.
“Christianity is like any other journey and it is only those who persevere that will reach heaven, he says.
I learn that the name of his 8 member Kondit Gospel Mission singers that he is often found performing with is, symbolic.
“Kondit is sabaot for trumpet. I borrowed it from the book of Isaiah 58:1. I am like the trumpet, loudly singing and spreading Gods word through my music. The band is actually made up of four families, four men and our wives and I am the composer and soloist. I also play the piano and guitar.”
Tony, who has entertained President Mwai Kibaki, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, former President Daniel Moi and many other dignitaries that have visited North Rift and Western Kenya, is not about to slow down anytime, he reveals that his 4th album which he calls Maloo Miisin (It is not far) will soon be out. He goes ahead to reveal that in the volume, he has done a track, narrating his experiences in the U.S.A and his life after the trip.
He says, “Singing from experience is very educative. When I flew abroad people expected me to come back with loads of cash or even a car, when I came without any of these, I was taunted and mocked.”
He relates his experience to the biblical dove in Noah’s story that was send out and came back with good news in the single. He says it was the church that took him there and it was deserving that he comes back home.
His other immediate plan is to shoot his first video before June this year. He says this has been his major handicap and greatest challenge because of lack of finances and the prevailing hard economic times.
The musician is married to Josephine Chepkwemoi and together they have been blessed with six children.
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