By Fred Mbogo
Published January 14, 2013
There is a false belief that the further you move away from major cities in Africa the closer you get to the ‘authentic’ cultures of a people. That would mean that as you move westwards from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, into the vast Rift Valley region, you should dine, wine and dance to the tunes of the ‘authentic’ cultures of the KaMaTuSa (Kalenjin, Maasai, Turkana, Samburu) who live here. On the dictates of that fallacy, one can say that the spirit of African cultures lives away from the bustle and hustle of the ruthless commercial entity that is Nairobi. And in true ‘African’ fashion, one must conjure up ideas of keeping these cultures alive. But, no, things are not that simple.
It should be reasonable to imagine that a smaller town such as Eldoret, the fifth largest in Kenya and located more than 300 kilometres away from Nairobi, has an uncluttered innocence floating in and out of the buildings of its main streets. One wants to believe that there should be a rural feel that caresses the face and calms the nerves as one walks about the town. That should suggest that the buildings, parks, monuments and general design of the town bears a character that gives some sort of traditional African identity to Eldoret, the largest town in the North Rift Valley region.
Perhaps it is in the character of the entertainment spots–hotels, clubs and bars–that the absence of the rich history of the original or dominant inhabitants of Eldoret is most noticeable.”From the names of the hanging out joints, one could be excused if one thought one were in some Western city. Most of the names of these places are in English: The Spree, Signature, Paradise, Black Bamboo, Places, Clique, Cravers, Shakers, Trail Blazers, Foxie’s, Caesar’s Palace, Mama Mia, Opera Mini; none gives a clue of the identity of the space they occupy. Could the naming of these venues be a reflection of the need for the revelers to feel as though they were in some sort of ‘Paradise'”, lifted off, even if only for a moment, from circumstances that are difficult?
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Through these English names, Eldoret’s nightlife refuses to conform to the fallacious reasoning that it has a pure, untouched, or unspoilt African cultural touch. It embraces a possible reality that it might as well be cosmopolitan, even if its residents might ‘know’ one another as in a village setting. In as much as it is home to the communities collectively known as Kalenjin, the town has steadily grown to accommodate people from all over Kenya. Each new comer may add something to the story of Eldoret, but that story should retain some ‘authenticity’.
The problem, as captured in the naming of the town’s leisure and pleasure spaces, lies within the realities of business! The nature of discotheques all over the world is to move people from their everyday, mundane experience and transfer them to a magical hideout. This transport to the much sought after world of illusion is driven by an agreement between consumers and suppliers of the entertainment that ‘reason’ is suspended, at least in the duration of their being in the wonderland. So, the most successful discotheques are those that charm the revelers into imagining that they are in paradise. The names of such discotheques then must promise this heaven.
In Eldoret, for example,The Spree invites one to run with the idea that ‘life is short’ and one must spend and enjoy it to their satisfaction. It plays along the suggestion in Chop my money, a popular song by Nigeria’s P-Square that appears to say that maximum fun can only be achieved when one spends without a worry in the world. The main character does not regret that his ‘women’ are taking advantage of him. He is happy to simply spend without the fear of tomorrow. This seduction to spend is brought to life through a design that plays tricks on the reveler’s mind. Neon lights in various colours are bounced off white walls as roaming spotlights illuminate a patterned dance floor. Fog machines occasionally create the idea of smoke on the dance floor. Long counters displaying neatly arranged alcoholic drinks are backed by mirrors that allow consumers to see themselves- licensing them to practice vanity every minute they so desire when they check themselves out. The sound clouds out any conversation and is controlled by a disk jockey whose antics include bringing to life the music through images on screens located all over the club. Dancers can stop and watch the moves made by their favorite musicians. All other clubs have a version of this design or other. The main idea is to make clients believe that they have entered a bubble rising away into the heavens.
From its name, The Cave-creates an illusion of a space where a secret society must enter to share in the spoils of its toil whether legal or otherwise. The design captures this idea right from its entry which is made to look like a roughly hewn mouth swallowing whoever comes into it. Its walls are covered in a mixture of green and brown to suggest fungus, algae and all the little plants that can be on rocks leading into the interior of the earth. Fountains lead one along the path of the stairway up into an opening that is the club but which with a play of neon lights creates patches of darkness that suggest ‘occupied’ areas within a cave. The design is well worked out so that throughout one’s journey through the club a ‘modern’ feel is given through a display of a glassed shinny counter. A constant interaction with television sets throughout the club reminds one of the present as they focus on showing live sport.
Signature, is a club that started on mirrors on its walls throughout its space. It has since adopted a colour theme that is predominantly white. The walls and long cushioned seats light up the club in their whiteness. This might suggest a lean spot, untainted by the worries of the world when one includes the whiteness of the ceilings as part of the charm of the theme.
These names and designs of clubs in Eldoret give no clue whatsoever to the place in which they are set up. A visitor to the town would have to look elsewhere to find the ‘authentic’ Eldoret feel presumably based on the Kalenjin cultures. Perhaps the design of the revelers’s outfit should give an idea of the place in which the clubs are based. But no! The outfits suggest a more urbane crowd that isn’t worried about looking like the world. The dressing is inspired by what is happening elsewhere. Revelers dress sometimes like the performers of the music they are listening to in these clubs. But they also do dress to go with the theme of escape into that magical world proposed by the designs of the clubs. Sometimes this means that the dramatic is welcome in terms of hairstyles, for example, or make-up. It also means that the idea of being ‘sucked’ into that world of magic will flirt with that art of seduction. Tattoos in otherwise hidden parts of the body are revealed as girls show off more of their curvy parts. What might pass off as showing a little too much in the ‘normal’ world is the norm in these spaces. What might be taken for walking in a ridiculously ‘worldly’ manner is welcome. The alcohol, loud music, darkness and coloured lighting, strobes and the fog machine displays allow for the experimentation with the wild, seductive, carefree feeling that one gets in these clubs.
Perhaps, if the design doesn’t tell us where we are, then maybe we should get that from the music. But no, even the disk jockey plays the game of placing the revelers somewhere other than Eldoret. Disk Jockeys are ranked by the number of dancers on their dance floors. These people come with demands about what should be played. Often this will be fast-paced music which is ‘current’ or ‘latest’. The interconnected communication gadgetry including television, and the internet plus devices such as flash-disks, easily available CDs and smartphones, where music can be shared, have brought the world closer. The average Eldoret night-clubber certainly wants to be ‘with it’, and so will insist that the DJ play the latest music. Don’t be surprised if ‘gangnam’ style is part of the package. The DJ must always be ahead of the revelers. In these clubs, while all kinds of music is played, the local musicians are hardly given space large enough for recognition. For one to listen to local music one must wait for a concert or attend a live performance. And even at the live performances there will be a lot of ‘foreign’ music played as cover songs.
There is no hope then for anyone to capture the African spirit in an Eldoret nightclub. Nothing is authentic. Rap, reggae, raga, the blues, kwaito, soul, house, rock, rumba, bhangra, highlife, country, jazz, hip hop, can all be heard in these places. They are a melting pot of cultures, where ‘western’ tastes are predominant. Perhaps this is more as a result of the failure of the packaging methodologies of what is perceived to be African. Perhaps it is in the marketing area where the cultural war is won- so that producers in the West have mastered the art of selling their products to mass audiences. Perhaps the African music producers have not had success in bombarding its populace with sounds that overcome the loud marketing styles of the west. But, as argued by historians with a pan-Africanist bias, the truth might lie in the idea of that the colonialist (read the west) succeeded in systematically turning the tastes of the African so that there was now a worship of that which is ‘western’. The African therefore frowns upon anything that affirms his identity. He has been forced to be nervous about himself and instead must embrace western tastes to become complete. These pan-Africanists suggest that the only way to come out of that mental state is to allow for the decolonisation of the mind; for instance, to make African music the ‘in’ thing to listen to, if only for the purpose of continuing the process of creating personal identity.
But as long as the market forces are as they are, nightclub owners who want to make maximum profits will continue to create such nightclubs that cater to ‘western’ tastes. These tastes are the ones that sell after all, even to ‘authentic’ African populaces in such out-of-the-city towns like Eldoret. The realities are also that towns like Eldoret are mini-cities in themselves. They are not homogenous. They have people from many communities and races whose tastes are diverse. It therefore becomes agreeable that no one taste should dominate over the other. Yet, its situation in the thick of the Rift Valley should bear a story of its ‘authentic’ peoples. Perhaps there is nothing ‘authentic’ anymore. Just as there might really be nothing Western. It might be a collection or a mix of cultures but promoted in a ‘Western’ fashion. Then of course that means that there is nothing really ‘African’. It is all imagined. Nothing is real.
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.