Fr Katana: The Priest with the Kayamba

Fr Kayamba

Like many men from his Giriama, Fr Katana is short in stature, the kayamba he holds to his side almost coming to his full height.

In the archdiocese of Mombasa he is fondly known as Fr Kayamba.  You will not miss him in any high level Catholic Church event in the region.  He is priest who will be playing, dancing and jumping to the rhythm of the Kayamba.

It is no surprise that he graced the occasion of the installation of Archbishop Martin Kivuva on February 21 2015.  And he played his heart out at one time putting his instrument aside to just enjoy a jig.  Watching Fr Katana in action you realize that to him the kayamba is not just an instrument.  Playing it also involves dancing and jumping to the rhythm of the music.

If you stop Fr Katana on the way, a good bet is that he will be having one of his kayambas in the boot of his car.  His kayambas range in size though all are unusually big; made to his specifications and requirements.  He picks the kayamba he will be using for the day depending on the size of the congregation where he will be playing.  The bigger the congregation the bigger the instrument will be.

Papal visits

A quick look through photos of Pope John Paul II visits to Kenya 1980, 1985 and 1995, and you will spot Fr Katana right there on one of the raised platforms playing the kayamba during Mass.

To Fr Katana, the kayamba is part and parcel of pastoral work of evangelization.  He says it helps draw people to church.

“When I go to the small Christian communities, I go with the kayamba which I play and it helps to draw people,” says Fr Katana adding that many people around his Giriama Catholic Parish are either Muslims or practicing Traditional African Religion.

“Whenever my fellow priests within the diocese and beyond are being ordained, they invite me to play the kayamba.  I have gone to Tanzania, Dublin Ireland.  Whether they have a band or choir, I join them with my kayamba.  As long as there is rhythm in the music I am able to join and play along with them even when I do not understand the language they are singing in,” says Fr Katana.

He has played it at the Vatican, in Munich Germany and even in Israel, where he jokingly says he baptised one of his kayambas in river Jordan.

“A group of neo-catechumens in Kenya were going to Israel for an event where John Paul II was they invited me along to go play the kayamba at the event,” he says.

So how did he start playing the kayamba during Mass?

“I was in the seminary at St Thomas Aquinas when the rector asked us to bring to school traditional instruments that could be used to accompany the Mass.  I went to my father who played the kayamba in the traditional entertainment group called msego and asked him a kayamba which I then took with me back to the seminary.”

“The rectors at that time Silas Njiru and Nichodemus Kirima accepted the instrument and I was allowed to use it during the liturgy.”

Fr Katana hails from Watamu, in Malindi where the traditional msego dance is part and parcel of the culture.  It is played at all special events like funerals, weddings and even parties.

“In the traditional Girama msego dance, each member has to pick a nick name and my father was known as bishop.  I used to watch him play so I knew how to use it.  I played the kayamba even in primary and secondary school.  The headmaster allowed us to form a small group and play the msego,” he says.

“At the beginning some people were against the kayamba.  Some missionaries thought it had to do with ushirikina (witchcraft); I had to explain the kayamba to them.  Even at the seminary some of the priests would tell me to stop playing and sit down but with time they came to accept it and I have been playing ever since,” he says.

Father’s resistance

Although his father was at the beginning not amused by Katana’s choice to become a priest, the old man still played the msego at his son’s ordination and even later got converted to the catholic faith.

“Of course at first he did not want me to be a priest. There was a lot of resistance.  My parents were adamant because I was the first born and being a priest meant I would not marry and they would not have any grandchildren.  My mother was so angry she said she would commit suicide but of course she did not. With time they came to accept my journey into priesthood.  When I was ordained priest he came and played the kayamba for me, and even composed a song in my honour,” he says.

Fr Kayamba also stands tall as the first to be ordained priest from the mijikenda community.

“I knew about priesthood from St Mary’s School Lushaghonyi where the headmaster and most of our teachers were priests.  It was there that I developed the interest to become a priest,” he says.

What is the Kayamba made of?

The kayamba, a traditional musical instrument, originated from the mijikenda community from coastal Mombasa.

The outside of the kayamba is made of special reeds that are found near rivers, these reeds are dried then tied together to form an enclosure inside which small black and red seeds called thurithuri  are put and the instrument is closed up.

The beautiful music that comes from the kayamba is as a result of the thurithuri seeds running along the dry reeds as the kayamba is moved back and forth.

Fr Katana’s kayambas are specially made by one Christopher Kakoti who picked up the job after his father Harry Kakoti died.

So should more traditional African music instruments be included in Mass? I ask Fr Katana.

“Yes, as long as they help in evangelizing.  When you sing you pray twice, it’s even better when you play an instrument alongside,” he says.

This article was written by Lourine Oluoch at https://oluochlourine.wordpress.com/

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