Chelele’s voice silenced but music lives on

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The late Diana Chelele

The Kalenjin secular music industry has never been the same again since the sudden departure of Chelele on the cold night of 7th January 2016. Light-skinned and slightly slim, Diana Chemutai Musila, was an epitome of a magnificent queen. The seamless smiles, soft words like those from a child and the elegant gait made her an admirable star of all times.

Her revolutionary music, spiced with piano beats, then a new thing in Kalenjin music, still lives on. The curtain fell at a young age of 28 leaving an indelible mark in the Kalenjin nation. She was born in 1988 at Mugango village in Bomet County. Chelele defied odds to become an outstanding female musician in Kenya and perhaps the best Kalenjin secular artist of her time.

The renowned artist will be vividly remembered for living on the fast lane despite harboring a deep-rooted pain, grief and unfulfilled dreams. Before her untimely death, Chelele’s music was almost in every one’s lips and permeated the airwaves from the Kalenjin vernacular radio stations, pubs and households. Her music traversed all generations and even reminds many of the old good days of South African music.

The staunch fun of Yvonne Chaka Chaka is celebrated for fusing Kalenjin, Kamba and South African rhythms into her songs thus creating a unique fast-paced genre of her own.

Looking at Chelele, one could hardly believe that she had had her big share of trials and tribulations. At the tender age of seven, life for Chelele became unbearable that she could not imagine a life afterwards. Her mother, Juliana Rono, went down with heart problem. An illness which forced her to be taken to Uganda where her husband, Paul Rono, worked as a businessman. Her medication period lasted for five years. This spelt doom for Chelele the first born of five who was left with a burden of fending for her younger sister, Beatrice who was four years old then. “No relative wanted to see us then, so we stayed in a neighbour’s house for two years then he kicked us out,” Chelele once told Journalist.

They then went into the cold and spent one year living in a cave in a place called Motigo and surviving on wild fruits and weeds under the care of a stranger, an old man feared by many people because he was scary and intimidating. The man would go out hunting wild animals during the day while Chelele and her sibling go to school. After a year of real trouble, they were saved by her maternal grandmother who took care of them for two years before their parents come back to Kenya.

Drop Out

Between 1994 and 2006, Chelele attended Njerian Primary School and Chebonei Girls High School where she terminated her studies while in form three. During this period, she took part in various music events and won awards for herself and her colleagues. By the time she was in secondary school, music had become something of an obsession for her and it seemed her education was relegated to an insignificant corner of her mind.

No one questioned her otherwise ridiculous act of switching to music, as she was always known for insisting in doing what she wanted to do. Her teachers said that it was okay for the astute singer to make good use of her talent. By the time she was leaving her formal education, she had already built a name hence the time was ripe for her to make money out of her flair.

She started her career by doing contemporary music that was typical for every artiste in the Kalenjin Nation. Albeit she showed potential, she was nowhere at the top of the chart. After the fusion of South African beats into Kalenjin lyrics, Chelele made a name and transcended the boundaries and controlled the airwaves of vernacular stations.

Journey to the Industry

After high school, Chelele had a short working stint with Kiwi Company for six months and later left the company citing poor payment. One day in 2007 while relaxing at home, Mugango village in Silibwet where she was born, she heard that Philip Sigei and Makiche were scheduled to perform in Bomet town. She joined the two musicians and exceptionally performed Chelele a song sang by Philip Sigei. The performance branded Diana “Chelele” a name she came to like and personalized.

Sotet ab Subembe by Scholar Chepkorir was largely inspired by Chelele. The collaboration is about a real story in which Subembe’s girlfriend was snatched by another man. The song is a response to the man that the girl is a by-product of Subembe. Chelele ushered Scholar into the music industry.

In the songs released some few months to her sudden demise, Chelele seemed to talk about her troubled life when she referred to her estranged lover who had gone away after taking away everything from her. She also subtly asked for help saying that she was no longer mentally fit.

In her last album, she included gospel for the first time. It included a gospel track, Kamangunet in which sheseemed to have surrendered everything to the Creator thus succinctly painting gloom picture of her life. She said her enemies were celebrating her downfall but she was looking ahead for a better life.

With regard to her music, she was creative and constantly looked for new ways of doing things that would appeal to a vast audience beyond the confines of her traditional Kalenjin base. By 2007, the end of her teenage years, Chelele had become more or less household name among music lovers particularly after she blended her music with distinctive and rhythmic South African mbaqanga. 

The music resonated well with her fans and propelled her to the zenith. In fact, knowingly or not, what Chelele was doing was not unlike what Paul Simon, the renowned American Musician and song writer had done in 1986 when he incorporated mbaqanga into his own songs and received international accolades.  

By the time of her death, she had gained a fervent following of her own that was the envy of her competitors. Some of the hit songs that placed her in the ceiling include: Toreton Elifut (please give me a thousand shillings), Igaigaiyan (pacify me), Meus Kwondo (never mistreat your wife), Rib Boyot (treat your husband well) Mapenzi (Love), Mashabiki (fans) the list is endless.

Among the Kalenjin secular singers, she ranked the top and her fame rivaled that of the celebrated gospel artist singer Emmy Kosgey. But as fate would have it, Chelele was not to live long enough to savour her sterling success. Her life was cut short when she was murdered in cold blood allegedly by her estranged husband in January 2016.

The mysterious death of the renowned singer marked the end of the journey for a fast-rising local musician whose life took tumultuous turn a few years ago but whose songs continued to woo and warm the hearts of many. The lyrics of her music are truly moving, the voice wantonly sweet, the diction carefully chosen and her body movements matching her words. It is really hard to tell why someone in their right state of mind would kill such a talent. The fact remains the same anyway. Red earth is blood, red earth is life, red earth is what takes and keeps safe the lives we lose. Peace be upon you Chelele.

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