|Article by Ogova Ondego
Published January 23, 2008
Yunasi, a Kenyan Afro-fusion music band that in December 2007 won BBC’s Next Big Thing competition, is one of the 39 groups set to perform at 5th Sauti za Busara Music Festival in Stone Town in Zanzibar (February 7-10, 2008) ahead of its other big gig at Bluefest, Byron Bay, Australia (March 20-24, 2008). This Blues and Rhythms event is said to be the biggest music festival in the Southern Hemisphere and Yunasi will be the first ever Kenyan band to appear in front of an estimated 80,000 music lovers, according to their website. OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Yunasi, who sing in languages ranging from Dholuo, Luluyia, Teso, Kiswahili, Ekegusii, French and English and are the pioneers of a music style they call SESUBE (derived from sega, isukuti, benga), have since 2001 performed in Kenya, France, Germany, Belgium, Mayotte, Djibouti and Tanzania. Their shows blend instrumental and vocal harmonies with contemplative, soulful and pumping rhythms.
The group has recorded two full albums, Nang’i Amana and Nairobi: The Sound of Sesube. It is Ndi Ndi Ndi, off the second album, that earned them the BBC’s Next Big Thing award in 2007.Members of Yunasi are Benson Mutua, Thobias Imani, Dominic Odhiambo, Erick Odhiambo, Davis Ngala, Simon Maranga, Mathew Omondi Rabala, and, since 2005 Estelle Lannoy the accordion player.
This article, however, concentrates on Nang’i Amana (My land, my life), the 12-song debut album recoded by Yunasi at Tedd Josiah’s Blue Zebra Records in 2003.
At the time of this review, Yunasi were just six young men from informal settlements in Eastlands, Nairobi, Kenya.
Though Yunasi’s music revolves around hardships in the slums, these young men also use music to communicate the message that one need not be weighed down by sorrows and frustrations.
With hard work and discipline, one can turn the lemon the world hands one into lemonade, as they have done.
Asumbuka (She suffers), the first Kiswahili song on their album, catalogues the suffering of African children at the vagaries of life.
While Jamais loin (Never far) calls for unity among humanity, Yamala (Shunning responsibilities) is a song of anguish by children lamenting their plight after their father goes to town and never comes back to take care of them. One feels this is the song that should have made the title track but for reasons best known to the producer it did not. It is well arranged, rhythmical and highly danceable as befits good African music.
The Ekegusii Aseki (Why?) and Iteso Echagala are equally appealing rhythmically. While the latter is a song of celebration, the former questions the status quo.
Ji Opogore, a slow, lushy, and contemplative song that has also been captured on video, calls for contentment and cautions people against comparing themselves with others as they may not be fully aware of what the people they are comparing themselves with went through to be where they are.
Approchez (Draw closer) is a praise song performed in Kiswahili and French, thanking God for the numerous blessings He bestows upon humanity. This song appears to take the group to its original mission, contemporary African gospel music.
Mama wee (Oh mother) is a song of lamentation. A child who has been away chasing the wind yearns for one’s mother when the wind goes faster than the child had imagined. The suffering drives him back home into the hands of the mother.
Other tracks on the album are Mon amie (My friend) and Ngima Ma Dala (Country life).
The recording winds up with a brief speech by Jomo Kenyatta, the founding father of the Kenyan nation. The 1963 address calls upon Kenyans to defend their African government after the British grants the East African nation its political independence.
This 12-track debut album with contemporary African tunes was released in September 2003. It was a follow up to Yunasi’s four-song album in 2001.
The songs have been done in Kiswahili, Ekegusii, Luluyia, Dholuo, Iteso and French.
Yunasi (which should be two words–Yu Nasi–meaning God with us) is a Kiswahili translation of the former name of this group, Emmanuel’s Clan.
Yunasi was formed in 1998 at the Teens Challenge Department of a Nairobi church.
In early 2003, the group signed a recording contract with Tedd Josiah’s Blu Zebra Records for Nang’i amana, a project co-financed by Alliance Francaise.
Yunasi say they have been inspired by artists like Senegalese Youssou N’Dour, South African Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Beninois Angelique Kidjo.
Beginning as four a cappella performers before meeting two rappers to bring the number to six, Yunasi began by singing in churches, at weddings, in schools and at charity events. Their songs, then, conveyed Christianity as well as spreading the message of love, hope and trust.
Though no one has ever said it, perhaps it was with their desire to go mainstream that they broke out of the church mould, pitched tent at Alliance Francaise and are now one of the main afro-fusion bands to watch in Kenya and East Africa. This may also explain why they have ceased to be Emmanuel’s Clan (God with Us, i.e. Jesus Christ’s Group) and started performing and recording music with universal messages and appeal.