Always well-shaven and smartly dressed, Raphael Kipchamba arap Tapotuk indeed was not a typical village musician. His resolve to educate the Kalenjin nation was so huge that he did it wholeheartedly to his last breath.
The celebrated musician was born in Kapsirich village, Olbutyo, Bomet County in 1937 as the first-born son to the family of the late Mugulaya Tapotuk arap Sitienei and Tapsabei Kobot Kipchamba. He had a brief taste of formal education at the then Kaplong Intermediate School, presently Kaplong Boys High School before dropping in 1955 due to lack of school fees that were then Ksh. 105 per year. It is important to note that Kipchamba was an avid learner with an absolute focus on academic performance albeit he immensely loved athletics.
Being the first born in the family, Kipchamba enjoyed the privilege of staying close to his father. A man who had a vast knowledge on the history of the community. Kipchamba was inclined to the senior members of the community in his youth life. It is said that he used to sleep at the feet of the elders. He could listen to elder’s vivid narration of the events that occurred in the Kalenjin land and the neighboring communities like Abagusii, Luo and Maasai. This probably catapulted his career in music.
Kipchamba was initiated into Sawe age set in 1955. His age mates adored and admired his prolific music prowess. He stood tall and became a point of reference among his age mates. Immediately after his circumcision, he went to Njoro in Nakuru County where he worked at a European farm. This is where he learnt how to play an acoustic guitar. His European boss encouraged him to venture deep into the music industry after discovering Kipchamba’s flair and glare in music. At some point, he would entertain his boss’s guests.
Later after leaving the service of his European employer, the charismatic and humorous musician formed his Koilong’et band together with his close friends Oriango Arap Chepkwony, Francis Arap Langat, Morris Arap Mainek and Sageri arap Talam. They started recording their songs at Chandarana Records Limited in Kericho. When the music marriage collapsed in 1959, Kipchamba continued singing alone.
Kipchamba was a family man and a responsible father. He married his first wife the late Esther Chepo Kapkweei in 1962 and ten years later, he got married to his second wife Ann Chepng’eno. They were blessed with three daughters and seven sons. Kipchamba educated most of his children at the time when the Kalenjin community was not taking seriously matters to do with education.
Kipchamba was indeed a Kenny Rogers of the Kipsigis. Like the renowned English artist, his band grew into a reputable and formidable art. He triggered something of a cult following among his fans in the 60s and 70s with his highly popular hit songs that remained fresh in the minds and lips of his fans.
The legendary musician will be remembered for his songs which were occasionally harsh commentaries on culture, political environment, education and economy. The songs are pedagogical and source of entertainment and moral lessons. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kipchamba avoided the rather straightforward romantic content in his compositions. His songs carried redemptive messages on contemporary issues. To date, Kipchamba’s music continues to resonate with the Kalenjin people.
His music fascinates, soothes and deliberately provokes in equal measure. These rare attributes kept him at the zenith of his career until his untimely death in 2007. Kipchamba was neither proud nor an attention seeker. Although he was not honoured the way he deserved, his spirit was never dampened since he sang not for money but to entertain, ridicule and educate the society.
His music was timeless and dynamic. In his last song, lane one, he urged other musicians to sing the songs that would withstand the taste of time. Even if he never attempted to venture into politics, the shrewd Kipchamba knew the rights of his community. He abhorred the colonialists’ unscrupulous siphoning of Kenya’s wealth as captured in one of his tracks, Baane Rogoroni.
Some of his songs teaches the significance of balanced diet and hygiene in the society. He encouraged the community to work hard with a central aim of improving their livelihoods. Notwithstanding his limited education, Kipchamba emphasized the need to acquire formal education. He even encouraged the elderly in the community to join the adult education program as captured in his track Kumbaro. This succinctly shows that Kipchamba was more of an educator than a singer. However, in one his tracks, madam, Kipchamba urged husbands not to be enticed by the flamboyant educated women until they forget the importance of a polygamous man.
The renowned artist was a suave, pragmatic and selfless man who sacrificed a lot for the good of the community. He always believed in imparting knowledge and wisdom to the young generations. For instance, he once reportedly converted one of his rooms into a classroom which he used to teach the youth how to play a guitar and other musical instruments.
Kipchamba was also conservative and religious and strictly observed Kalenjin culture and traditions. To say Kipchamba deserves the “Father of Kipsigis music” is to understate his power of brilliant career in music. As a religious man, Kipchamba urged others to be baptized in preparation for the second coming of Christ as echoed in one of his songs which he gives the year of his baptism and the name of the priest who baptized him at Kaplong Catholic Church.
In the year 2000, the acclaimed artist was proposed for an honorary award by Moi University. However, it is not clear why he was never given the award. He continued oozing wisdom to his last day. Among his best songs are: Hamba, Teret ab Kogo, Mukeni, Mokori, Moset, Kiruk Yosin, Kamaiwa, Chebut Ing’wot and Chesibit. By the time he passed on, he had managed to produce close to 1000 songs.
As fate would have it, Kipchamba died on 7th April 2007 at Tenwek Mission Hospital following a short illness. He was laid to rest a week later at his home in Nyatembe village. He was given a heroic send off in the presence of the who and who in Kenya. Retired President Daniel arap Moi, Deputy President Dr William Ruto, Hon John Koech, Hon Franklin Bett, the late Hon Nicholas Biwott and the late Kipkalya Kones were among dignitaries that graced the occasion. The curtain fell prematurely but Kipchamba left an indelible mark in the Kalenjin music arena. To date, his music tracks still ooze wisdom that inspires the youth, men and women from his fan base in the Rift Valley.