Kenyan musicians appear to be re-inventing themselves after missing out on awards at continental music events like the pan African music festival (Fespam) in Congo Brazzaville and KORA All Africa music awards in South Africa, OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Urbanative artiste Poxi Presha says Kenyan musicians must experiment with genres without which they will continue to be ignored.
“We have to experiment with music all the time as our fans do not tell us what they like or want. It is only though experimentation that we are likely to connect with their hearts,” he says. Queen Jane (Jane Nyambura) agrees that innovation is necessary in music but cautions that this should not be done to the extent of losing one’s identity. “Musicians must perform or the people rather than for themselves,” she says.
Tabu Osusa While some musicians are going back to the roots of Kenyan music, others are reviving the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s. Still others–by far the majority–are fusing, not copying, contemporary styles with traditional ones. Examples of such artistes are Christian music Alfred Mtawali and music consultant Tabu Osusa.
Mtawali may be a 30-year-old translator with a Christian organisation but he has never turned his back on the traditions and customs of his Giryama ethnic community. Instead, he taps into them to make tantalising music. Lovers of traditional African folksongs will just be carried away by his two albums in his vernacular, Kigiryama, and Kiswahili whether they understand the languages or not. The two-Bwana Yesu (The Lord Jesus Christ) and Jeshi (Army)-are a potpourri of lovely songs in taarab, bhangra, reggae, soul, gospel, rhumba, country, soukous, and benga. Many of the songs are melodious and highly danceable with soulful vocals coming up strongly, captivating and keeping the attention of the listener from the beginning to the end. While the song Asante Yesu appears to be a blend between Maasai and Zulu, Dambi Kaifaha Bule takes the listener down memory lane with the late Mbaraka Mwinshehe and the Kinyonga brothers-Wilson and George Peter- who revolutionised East African Kiswahili music in the 1970s and the 1980s.
The saxophone, cymbals and drums blend well with the soaring soulful vocals of Mtawali and his back up musicians. In Kinyonga-like flawless Kiswahili, he urges the listener-through Kilio cha Mtu wa Mungu- to be patient no matter what they may be going through as their saviour is soon coming back to comfort and console them. The song’s slow, lushy jazz beat washes over a listener’s soul and flies with it in intimate worship and contemplation. For the evangelistic minded, the song for them is Na Ujumbe which employs story-telling style in presenting the Gospel. Mtawali, who soothes, teases and seduces the listener with his music, is backed by his wife Hellen Akoth, a versatile, multi-lingual artiste who has backed numerous Christian artistes in Kenya and Tanzania.
The albums have benefited immensely from her rich Aretha Franklin/Miriam Makeba-like vocals. The two albums are likely to appeal to everyone regardless of age, gender or language. Mtawali says he fuses traditional beats with contemporary ones because he wants to reach both the elderly and the hip hop-loving youth. His primary audience, however, are the Giryama whom he says were among the first to hear the gospel from missionaries in the 19th century but that they are among the least receptive Kenyans to Christianity opting to cling to their culture and traditions. A translator with the Nairobi-based Bible Translation and Literacy, Mtawali laments that the Church Missionary Society imparted the Gospel wrongly to the Giryama. Through his music-which is basically an adaptation of traditional Giryama songs-he says he hopes to influence them to embrace Christianity. Creating music in Kenya calls for courage and conviction.
One should not expect to get help from established musicians,” says Mtawali who has self-produced his albums and is distributing them through religious meetings locally known as evangelistic crusades where he usually performs. Osusa, a composer, arranger, singer, producer and consultant, has used his experience to advantage, packaging the 13-song album Nairobi Kaboum Boum for every ear. The project, featuring Idi Achieng, Padi Makani, Presha and R Coyo, mixes old tunes with new ones. While Kenya’s first gold disc winner, the 1972 Lunchtime (Luo benga) song by Gabriel Omolo has been left intact, Le Boucheroun by Congolese star Franklin Boukaka has been given a rap rendition as has been a Luo folksong, Jamriombo, which has been dressed in soukous. The danceable Somo to Somo is Rhumba-styled. Judging by the massive play the album receives from local and international media, Osusa’s effort has hit home.
Pundits have always accused Kenyans of being in a hurry to make money that they sacrifice their art at the altar of mammon. “They have simply been copying well selling international artistes and then rushing to the studio to record a 12-song track in a few hours in a country lacking in quality equipment,” says a Nairobi music critic. Osusa says Kenyan music had for a long time lacked direction. A consultant on the French government-funded Made in Kenya album that is meant to promote the country’s music on the global market and which is also being broadcast by international media, claims that benga musicians-who are the backbone of Kenyan music-are culturally literate but musically illiterate while their younger hip hop counterparts are musically literate but culturally bankrupt. Appealing to the two groups to work closely, Osusa says the only way forward for music in Kenya is to cross over into the global market through fusing traditional styles with contemporary ones.
Besides Mtawali, taarab singer Malkia Rukia (Rukia Abdulrahman) appears to have taken the cue. With her modern crossover taarab, Rukia is edging out erstwhile supremos like Malika Mohamed of the Wape Vidonge vyao fame. Everyone is likely to find a suitable song on her recordings which fuse traditional taarab with rap, slow jam and other hip hop styles.
Malkia Rukia at a social function
Since last year (2000) when the World Bank proposed to fund music as an engine for development in poor nations like Kenya, there has been renewed interest in the performing and visual arts in the East African country. The scene is abuzz with research, seminars and workshops being held by arts organisations, cultural arms of Nairobi-based foreign missions and by individuals. So far, research proves that western Kenya continues to be the bastion of Benga, a style that was borrowed by the Congolese and modified to produce the highly danceable and tuneful melodies from Congo-Kinshasa, and omutibo.The coast is predominantly a chakacha, taarab and bango region while Nairobi thrives on Western styled music, fusion and African contemporary styles. It is hoped that artistes will bear this in mind as they go about their work.
Presha urges his compatriots against being a little too selfish with their music. “Marketing involves giving away some music for free so that consumers may ‘taste’ and see if they can buy it,” he says. “We should not be too careful to the point of selfishness just because we want to make lots of money from our art. I believe Kenyans are losing out in music because they tend to be too careful, not wanting their music to be used by any one for free.
He appeals to Kenyans to join him in marketing their music on-line. “There is no harm in giving e-commerce a try and walking away if it doesn’t wash,” he says, adding that this is what experimenting in music is all about. He cautions that unless Kenyans are aggressive, South African Kwaito will take over where Congolese soukous, rhumba, and ndombolo left and drive Kenyan music into irrelevance. Kenyan musicians appear to be re-inventing themselves after missing to grab awards at continental music events like the pan African music festival (Fespam) in Congo Brazzaville and KORA All Africa music awards in South Africa.