Meet the Griot: Grandmaster Masese

Written by Faith Oneya

I first watched Grandmaster Masese perfom at a Kwani? Open Mic event. He delivered a fascinating piece…half in English and half in ekeGusii  , while playing a rivetting tune on his Obokano. What shone through, more than his brilliant performance and brilliant smile ;-), was his passion and love for what he was doing. Literary Chronicles feels  privileged to have struck up an acquaintance with this extraordinary artiste.

Grandmaster Masese is an Obokano player, Kisii comical poet, writer, dancer and musician. Obokano/Obokano/Obokhano is an eight stringed lute-like instrument from Kisii.

LC: What did they call you as a child?

GM: Most of my close family members call me Dennis .My grandfather called me Kanasi, after his son from his first wife who was murdered by his step-brother because of land disputes which led to the whole family disintegrating completely! .The name is being given to new borns and some of my close family members are still being called by it.It is only me who is not known by it and it is not in my official records.

LC: Why the name Grandmaster Masese?

GM: I was an all-round student. I loved doing arts, sports and academics. I was way more visible than any other student but what stood out was my prowess in poetry,music,drama(acting) that earned me the nick name ‘Master’ among my peers. Since I play Obokano) a traditional instrument that is played by the elders in Gusii) decided to use Grandmaster instead of Grandfather as a testament to my mastery of the instrument. I naturally transferred the mastery in skills that my new name demanded to sports, arts anything else that I touched from then on.

Masese is from Atei Moturi Sasi’s (my mum’s dad) brother who was a gentleman if I ever saw one. He was reserved and very intelligent. Actually his name was Sese and I added Ma before it to show that we can have many gentlemen in the society in Africa. So this name gives me a great African identity that am proud of .I live more through this name than the other names I was given.

LC: Tell us more about yourself…

GM: I am a passionate artist and reader and leader and social justice activist. My goal is to see and lead the youth and other African people out of the material brainwash by showing them skills for self-reliance that can better them. I like people who are gentle and with a sense of humor.

I am currently volunteering to teach and share skills with the youth in Nairobi and Arusha.I have been carving Obokanos for children and youth at United African Alliance community center-UAACC, Arusha.I am teaching children and the youth on how to play the Obokano especially girls and women as a form of empowerment. In Nairobi’s Mukuru slums where I live, I started teaching youth on environment, by clean-ups every week. I also have a mentorship programme with them. I teach them creative writing as well to help empower them.

At times I submit stories to Pambazuka News where I receive training on editing as well as Awaaz magazine.

Finally, I am recording with my student Mama Charlotte O’Neal in Arusha.

LC: What are your passions? Hobbies?

GM: Volleyball, football, martial arts, writing acting, making fun, reading, watching movies and listening to conscious music, meeting great people and making friends.

LC: If you could have a room full of any one thing, what would it be?

GM: Books

LC: What book(s) are you currently reading?

GM: SMS uprisings from Pambazuka Press, I just finished a book on Bob Marley and The Wailers. Reading Mahatma Gandhi, experiments with truth, The Last Man Standing and collections of poetry from Patricia Jabbeh Wesley,Yusef Komunyakaa,Tony Mochama, Sitawa Namwalie,etc.Not forgetting several magazines and journals and online.

LC: Have you ever fallen in love with a fictional character from a book? Tell us about it.

GM:Yes on several occasions in different books, though I am not sure I would call it falling in love. For example in Matigari I like Matigari .When A Man Cries by Siphiwo Mahala of SA. I loved the characters in Song Of Lawino  and Across the Bridge

LC: What is one book you haven’t read but want to read before you die?

GM:Franz fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Anta Diop’s book on African Civilization 

LC: What kind of poet are you?

A griot or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) – like a historian. A keeper of history, values and traditions. It means more than a poet in present day forms. You see my poetry keep changing according to situations and happenings and places. So I am a Ghetto griot in Nairobi, a Gusii griot. In the simple urban terms they call me a poet and I never accept it as I see myself as poe-trait with the traits of a griot.

LC: Do you sit and think through every word of every stanza or do you just write freely and allowing the words to flow?

GM: Free is better but thinking of the plot mostly and the best way to present it. When writing rhymes however, you need to think of every word before you commit the crime of rhymes like what they do in Kapuka and Genge and Stammer styles in Kenya.Either there is lack of thinking about rhymes or the crime itself is a norm.

LC: Where can we watch you perform?

GM: You can catch me at many events even when am not on stage but Slam Africa in Westlands, Wasanii at Kenya National Theater-Kikaaoo, Kwani? And others as well.

LC: When did you first start writing and were there any incidents in your life that made you want to write?

GM: I began writing early but it was those school compositions and some of them were likable as they happened to be on things I saw. I started writing later however to be at peace with myself as there were many things I was not comfortable telling to people. I just got bolder later through it. It was exciting to do it.

LC: Who is your favourite writer/poet and for what reason are they your favourite writer?

GM: Recently I have seen some Wanjohi Makokha’s work and it’s exciting. There are obviously many great poets and writers such that it makes it difficult for me to choose one. I can just throw random names.Ngugi, Achebe, Farrah, p’Bitek, Saro-Wiwa and many more.

LC: Do you have a fauvorite poem among those you have written? If so, which one. Please write down a few lines from it 


But what was my real value
Cigarettes and rum
guns and ammunitions
A mish mash of tribal chieftains
Humanity was long smoked out of their brains
bargains for bayonets
Beaten but up and rising again
Like the sand dunes of Sahel
I wish I could kill Israel once and for all
Silence the bombs dropping in Palestine
Like a genius shuttle poet,
Drop bombs of words
And destroy A Merry Car,I can’t drive
It is not Christmas in Madagascar
If I was a global Lord
I would declare independence
to the islands suffocating under the ass of Zarkozzy
All the islands traumatized by the queen’s menopause

If I could pray ……………….

LC: If you could choose one of your personality traits to pass on to your children, what would it be?

GM: Writing and reading for self realization and change to enable a better future.

LC: What question have you always wanted to be asked as a poet and how would you answer it?

GM: Why poets are not published in Kenya and the answer is because they want to maintain the status quo in arts and culture to preserve the culture of the ‘other’.


Author: Faith Oneya

Lover of the written and spoken word.

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