The Times of Tanzania
Eastern Africa News Network, Breaking News Tanzania

East Africa Music Lovers Mourn Roger Whitaker

He sounded like Jim Reeves, looked like Kenny Rogers and posed like Don Williams.

East African veterans are mourning Roger Whitaker, the Kenyan born, British country music maestro who died recently in Australia.

Whitaker, who sung various hits including the famous My land is kenya song, has passed on, aged 87. 

A mercurial country music singer born in Kenya in 1936, Roger was famous for his “My Land is Kenya” song, “Indian Lady” amongst many other hits.

He had deep connections with the country.

Slater & Whittaker SuperMarket was owned by Edward Whittaker, a grocer, who was his father British.

It was demolished to make way for the building of one of Kenya’s oldest malls ; The Mall in Westlands Nairobi.

Whittaker studied medicine after doing national service in Kenya. While studying for his degree, he sang in local clubs and wrote his own songs.

But he left his medical course after 18 months and went into teaching, moving to the University of Bangor in Wales in 1959 to get a teaching qualification.

Whittaker went on to sell close to 50 million records and receive 250 platinum, gold and silver awards during his career, before retiring to France in 2012.

The 84 year-old father of Roger Whittaker, died in 1989 during a robbery at his Nairobi home. 

His parents hailed originally from Staffordshire in England: his father came from a family of grocers; his mother was a teacher. The music of Kenya left a mark on Roger’s childhood.

After completing his primary education, Roger was admitted to Prince of Wales School (now Nairobi School) in 1950. Within three weeks after leaving school in 1954, he was conscripted into national service and spent the next two years in the Kenya-Regiment fighting Mau Mau in the dense Aberdare Forest.

Roger was demobilised in 1956 and he decided to focus on a course in medicine, joining the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1956.

 However, Roger was soon to find out that he could not withstand the rigours of day-in-day-out study. 

After 18 months, Roger returned to Kenya much to the disappointment of his parents. He joined the education department to try his hand at teaching.

Roger enjoyed teaching at his former school and of course knew where the boys did naughty things, so it was easy to catch them. When the boys lost concentration, he would play the guitar for them and that made him quite popular. 

However, due to his limited qualifications he could not move up the career path in teaching; a university education was essential. The University of Bangor in Wales was suggested, and Roger thought it was ideal.

Roger moved to Britain in 1959 and for the next three years, studied zoology, biochemistry and marine biology with such zest that he ended up with the second highest grades of his year and a BSc. to boot.

During his early years teaching in Nairobi, Roger had continued to sing and perform in local clubs, notably the Equator Club situated in Corner House, York Street (now Kaunda Street), and by then he had started writing his own songs.

Before sitting his final exams at Bangor, Roger became involved in the University Rag Week where he was approached to compose some songs to sing in the Rag Show. In the process, he made a demo track that found its way to a major music publisher.

Before he knew it, Roger was back in the studio recording his first single, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Roger’s second release, “Steel Men” began to pick up radio airplay while he was sitting his exams and soon it entered the British charts.

Faced with the dilemma of which career to pursue, Roger approached his professor who advised; “Take your chance, have a try at show business and if you haven’t made it in 10 years, come back here and teach. I shall always have a place at the university for you.”

Roger took his chance in music and made people happy in what was the beginning of a remarkable career. Today, Roger, with his mellow baritone voice, is an internationally acclaimed entertainer who has reached the very pinnacle of stardom.

The music of East Africa left an indelible mark on Roger’s childhood. “In over 30 years of singing and playing musical sounds, the wonderful drumming, and those marvelous, infectious rhythms, have played a great part in everything I have ever written and sung.”

In 1982, Roger was persuaded to make a movie in Kenya and for six weeks the cameras rolled, following him throughout Kenya as he related the story of Kenya’s history through his own unique words and music.

The result, “Roger Whittaker in Kenya”, was screened in Britain by BBC Television in the autumn of 1983, and later transmitted worldwide. It was a great show to promote tourism in Kenya. Notwithstanding that Roger’s career took root and blossomed outside of Kenya in the glitter of showbiz, his heart is still in Kenya.

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