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Them Mushrooms: 50 Years And Going Strong, Story Of Kenya’s Oldest Band

From the Kenyan Coast, to Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi and across the borders, Them Mushrooms band has had a transcendent music career. The band officially kickstarted in 1972 and will be celebrating their 50 year anniversary on 12th December, 2022 in a performance that will be hosted at Carnivore.

Here is the story of the successful band as told by WoK.

Humble Beginnings 

The band was a family music group that brought together several siblings under the stewardship of Teddy Kalanda. The other siblings who formed the band are: John Katana, Billy Sarro, Ruth, Dennis Kalume (deceased) and George Zirro (deceased). There were also a few non-family members.

According to John Katana who has since taken over the leadership of the band, they were influenced to venture into music by their parents. The family’s patriarch, Henry Gibson would play a guitar in the evening while the mother, Florence Mandi was a choir member.

“Music was in the family because our mom used to be a choir mistress while our dad would play a guitar in the evenings,” said Katana in a recent interview with KBC.

The group started composing music and then borrowing various instruments from established bands as they performed at the Coast. They had various roles: Teddy was the leader and composer, Dennis was the drummer, George played the rhythm guitar while Billy played the bass guitar.

Teddy Kalanda. [Photo|Kenyans.co.ke]

Just one year into their career, something tragic happened when they were attacked by their rivals during a performance. Undaunted, they decided to migrate from Kaloleni and went on to perform at various beach hotels.

Infectious Jambo Bwana song 

In 1980, Teddy Kalanda composed the evergreen ‘Jambo Bwana‘ song. The idea struck his mind due to the popularity of the Swahili greeting among foreign tourists.

It took no time for the band to release the song. However, most of their rivals rubbished the song and thought it would fade to extinction. But the song became the biggest hit that dominated Kenya’s sound waves; it earned them global fame.

That was the first song we ever recorded. We never thought at all that it was gonna be a massive hit. It just went around the world like bushfire,” recounts Katana.

Rogue studio owner 

Them Mushrooms however landed themselves into the hands of a manipulative studio owner who promised to record the song for them. He had been to the Coast and graced one of the electrifying performances by the band.

He then introduced himself as a studio director for Polygram Records in Nairobi. The band travelled to the capital and was elated to record their first song.

However, the studio director ensured that all the rights belonged to him, which potentially locked out the band of the windfall that came in the first 5 years of the song.

It was up to 1985 when we started to learn about royalties and copyrights. Since then, we had to fight because the song had been done by many other artistes,” says Katana.

The rise of Them Mushrooms and loss of band members

In 1986, the band landed a lucrative deal that saw them become the house band of Carnivore Restaurant. They performed for over two years, taking on the stage on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. And by 1987, the song Jambo Bwana had hit over 200000 sales.

However, in 1992 while the band was performing in Ethiopia, Dennis Kalume, the drummer collapsed and was transferred to Nairobi for medical attention. However, he passed on, leaving the band disoriented.

It took the intervention of their mother for the band to roar back to life. But they decided to let go of George Zirro because he would miss practice sessions and even go missing during various performances. In 2001, Teddy Kalanda retired. He is reported to have lost eyesight in 2009 and has since featured on the media over his deteriorating health.

Picking themselves up 

Despite the challenges, the band is still virtuoso. Them Mushrooms takes pride in starting a project that has helped identify and nurture talents.  They made a colourful tour to the UK in July 2022 and have been giving back to the society through charity works. The band is currently planning to publish a book about their music career besides releasing a documentary.

A past photo of Them Mushrooms. [Photo: Owaahh.com: https://owaahh.com/the-rebirth-of-them-mushrooms/]