“Jua Cali is one of the most celebrated urban Kenyan artists of our time. He has stayed relevant until now and introduced a sound that has forever changed the landscape of the Kenyan music.
I have had interactions with him many times over and I came to admire how his fans relate to him. He is "Mali ya Uma", the fans own him and vibe with him in a way many musicians only dream of. Recording the song, Si Siri, with him was really a defining moment in my career, because I got to see him in the kitchen. I got to feel his vibe and understand why he is one of the best at what he does. He is a pioneer, making timeless pieces of music and he does it all with a gentle soul.”
The Calif Records beginnings were as humble as you could imagine. Jua Cali and Clemo were both in school and had no money. Equipment and studio time were expensive. There was no music software like there is today. They decided to divide and conquer, Clemo focused on production and Jua Cali focused on writing really good songs.
Eventually they saved up and bought a keyboard, their first ever piece of equipment. They would record each part of the song individually on the keyboard and then sequence it all afterwards. For their first songs, Ruka and Nipe Asali, they knew that the quality wasn’t great and they compensated for this with good lyrics and ingenuous production.
Their first ever media interview was through an introduction from Clemo’s uncle. Bernard Otieno hosted them on Nation FM and played their song on air. A very disgruntled call came in right after the song and went kind of like this: “Hiyo ni nini mnaimba? Don’t play us such rubbish!@#”. It was heart-wrenching.
Thankfully, Bruce Odhiambo, legendary producer and philanthropist, was listening from Kisumu and he called in with words of encouragement, urged them to ignore the hate and keep going. This gave the duo morale to invest back into the music. Their first show was an Insyder Magazine production, where they earned Ksh 3,000 and used that to make t-shirts. Low quality but functional.
Clemo’s parents graciously allowed them to turn their living room into a low-key recording studio. Jua Cali remembers, after they saved up and bought a writer, the first time he had his music in CD form. He went home and played it for his family who were excited for him.
Whenever they had studio time, they would rehearse the songs over and over for about 2 days straight, to maximise on doing the most while in studio. At the end of a session they would have about 14 songs ready, all done in one take each.
At this point, the software, Fruity Loops, was in the market but they avoided it because it had a signature sound they did not want to be associated with. This meant they needed better equipment. They were starting to blow up and uniqueness was essential.
Ngeli Ya Genge
Radio interviews became more frequent. Jua Cali noticed that they would always be introduced as: “...another local joint..” and this did not sit well with him. There was no name for their genre of music. They considered themselves industry players and felt obligated to make their contribution to the scene.
After brainstorming for a while, they came up with the term ‘Genge’. It got them excited but surprisingly, the world out there didn’t really agree with them. There was uproar. Who are you? What name is that? Where are you from?! But something else happened, other genre names started coming up in retaliation, e.g. Boomba and Kapuka.
Unfazed, they embraced the term Genge and made it a Calif thing. We all remember the song, Ngeli Ya Genge. Genge was mentioned in all their songs, including artist collaborations, in media interviews and in other artists’ songs that they produced. They ended up creating an identity for themselves.
In their continuous pursuit of individuality, Jua Cali and Clemo noticed a trend where Kenyans cared more about production and dancing to a good beat than what the contents of the songs actually were. They decided it was time to add some shock value to Calif Record songs to force people to stop and listen.
It started with using words that weren’t the norm at the time to grab attention. Songs like We Kamu by Nonini and Vile Tafanya contained explicitly vulgar lyrics. Listeners were up in arms, which was the goal- to make sure they paid attention to what the artist had to say in addition to enjoying the beat.
Next, they added nuances to the music, where the actual message wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone, e.g. in Nyundo. Someone actually called in during a radio interview thanking Jua Cali for recognising carpenters in his song!
Slowly, Calif Records was gaining ground and beating out the competition (Nameless and Ogopa DJs). They made great songs that everyone was listening to, like Bidii Yangu, Kiasi and Kamata Dame, always referencing the genre name Genge.
The Corporate World
Neither Jua Cali nor Clemo expected to gain the interest of corporate companies. First came Motorola, when they were introducing the Motor Razer phone into the market. Jua Cali was flown to South Africa for the photoshoot. What he got was a pleasant culture shock- a huge, plush house entirely dedicated to photo shoots and arrays of clothes for him to choose from. The result was his face on billboards around Nairobi.
Not all deals went smoothly. Trust Condoms had an ongoing dating show and invited artists, Jua Cali, Prezzo, Nyashinski e.t.c to be brand ambassadors. After walking across town all the way to Upper Hill for the meeting, Jua Cali was greeted with questions such as what car he drove (someone say number tisa mathree!). Needless to say, Prezzo got the job.
That encounter was unsettling, leaving him to wonder whether it was about work or about swag. He went home and cried and cried. There was no room to quit though. His and Clemo’s families were fully supportive and disappointing them wasn’t an option. The Motorola deal came after that awful experience. They were professional, did a good job and made USD 7,000.
One major milestone was a collaboration with Orange. It started out with a show in Kisumu where Jua Cali got to perform alongside Suzanna Owiyo and the crowd went wild for him. The success of the show invited Jua Cali and Clemo into the biggest partnership deal any East African artist had ever made with a corporate organisation at the time.
While other artists made music in English to attract these companies, Calif Records’ sticking with Kiswahili gave them the unique advantage of appealing to all demographics around the country. Jua Cali fans were everyone’s target market.
Being professional and punctual at all times was important to them, they knew just how far they had come and what was at stake. They took everything seriously and always did a good job. Corporate companies are constantly swapping employees, their good work led to the continuity of those relationships.
For any artist, your phone is your office. Client relations is crucial. Jua Cali says, any deal is between you and your client, fans don’t know the details and they don’t care. Him and Clemo negotiated tactfully, never said no to money. They agreed to amounts based on what the client had to offer e.g. the Orange gig was in the millions, club gigs are between KSh 100k- 120k, remote clubs pay around KSh 80k.
They stayed mindful and consistent in quality. Said yes to shows. Never missed a show they had committed to.
Investing Back Into The Music
The money they made from the Motorola deal was invested back into their craft. They bought a Yamaha keyboard, microphones and worked really hard to improve the quality of their music. Remembering their beginnings, where they were treated like ignorant children during studio sessions, they opened up their own studio to be accessible to younger artists.
The crowd they attracted ended up being a testing pool for new songs. They would know what songs were bound to be hits just from reactions they got. Clemo worked with the younger artists, which helped improve his own technique. Artists they worked with included Flexx, Pilipili, Jimwatt, Ratatat, Nonini and Size 8. As Calif Records grew, they worked hard to stay humble.
Staying relevant in a crowded industry that is constantly changing requires standing out. Not many artists could write lyrics like Jua Cali and this was his edge. With Clemo, they made their sound unique without becoming strange.
Jua Cali decided that his music would continue to target every Kiswahili speaker, basically, the ordinary Kenyan. Thanks to this, reception all over Kenya is the same, everyone sings along. His audience continues to be who the corporate companies are targeting and that stone keeps rolling. Aligning with the corporate world, helps with staying relevant through appearing on billboards, in TV commercials and other forms of advertising. Everyone becomes attracted to him.
Many artists choose not to make albums. For Jua Cali, albums are important. They give him a chance to explore new topics and new sounds. He releases albums every 2-3 years, filling the time with recording and performing. Each new album is a challenge because it has to be different from the last. Moving on is a must. Clemo as well challenges himself on the production, careful not to produce beats that sound the same.
His first album, Jua Cali Center was released in 2007 featuring songs such as Pekee Yako, Kiasi, Vile Tafanya and Kamata Dame. Second album in 2009 was Ngeli Ya Genge featuring the songs Kwaheri and Bongo La Biashara. The third album, Tugenge Yajayo, came out in 2012. The fourth album, Mali Ya Uma has been building up to its release with the singles Safi Sana, Moto Sana and Karibu Nairobi out and performing really well.
The more publicity one gets, the more relevant they become. Singles are ultimately what sell albums, but an artist who only releases singles remains one-dimensional. They become repetitive and get to a point where they can’t go further and they burn out.
Jua Cali performances are energetic and engaging, he leaves all issues behind and focuses. This excellence attracts more bookings and makes fans always want more. Keep your word. Once a show in Narok was booked right after Jua Cali had just toured Europe. Unlike what most artists would do, he followed through with the Narok gig as promised.
Relevance isn’t just about the music. Public relations matter. Relevance also means consistency. When a fan loves an artist, they naturally want to hear from and learn more about them. Jua Cali takes no political sides. His performances at political rallies are purely as entertainment and not a form of endorsement. He likens himself to the sound systems in place. Picking a side would mean eliminating a section of his fans, which is not his goal.
The future is looking bright for Calif Records. They have embraced technology and the different forms of music consumption today. They are staying up to date with trends and going where the fans are going e.g. Instagram, Facebook, streaming services. We can expect more albums from Jua Cali.
Jua Cali is praying for good health, and remains thankful for what music has been in his life. Where he grew up, cocaine was a menace and overdoses were frequent, music was his way out. It exposed him to what more there was to live for in the world, allowed him to travel. Allowed him and Clemo to build side-by-side homes. He has a family and is raising his kids comfortably.
The music continues to take care of them, so long as they continue to respect it.