By Fred Mbogo
Published September 8, 2013
It is almost a foregone conclusion that Fisherman’s Camp in Kenya’s Naivasha area, the venue of the Rift Valley Festival (August 30-September 1, 2013), gave room to music and culture enthusiasts to freely walk about and commune with nature. Conversation among the music lovers switched easily from one language to another; it was a feast of international interaction. One could hear German expressions interrupted by louder French exchanges. There were Chinese enthusiasts taking pictures; South African tourists discovering a piece of Rift Valley; American accents easily rolling off tongues, and so many more. In a word, the festival provided an arena for the performance of multi-culturalism.
And who to symbolise this multi-cultural composition better than Kenyan Afro-fusion musician Eric Wainaina and that increasingly well-travelling Zimbabwean band, Mokoomba?
In just under two hours, Mokoomba’s engaging performance came off as a neatly packaged bundle of exploding dynamo; so much in the likeness of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s super-fast nine-second dash over 100 metres. The energy, the choreography, the vocal prowess, and that charm of the lead singer’s personality that can’t be hidden, stole the show. The audience screamed for more, and the band obliged; but only for a song. It seemed then that there could never be enough of Mokoomba!
But it is in Mokoomba’s rather eclectic sound that questions of identity arise. One has to work hard to come up with an idea of the distinct Zimbabwean ring in the band’s music. Perhaps this has been made difficult by Oliver Mtukudzi’s rather individual signature sound in his string guitar. In a sense Mtukudzi, too, has a personal sound much clearer than what might be called Zimbabwean. This points us to the difficulty of classifying music as belonging to any specific country or region rather than to an individual musician.
In Mokoomba though, one get’s to hear echoes from as varied a place as Senegal or Mozambique. Some of the band’s songs have the Brazilian Samba music rhythm, at other times one is tempted to dance Cuban salsa to their rhythm. At some point in the performance the lead singer— Mathias Muzaza—drives into a solo prayerful rendition that is at once a call, a chant, a historical retelling, a mournful cry, as well as a West African’s griot-sounding expression of being. Of course there is the distinct sound of rumba within some of Mokoomba’s pieces, which sometimes is so close to Kenya’s benga sound. If you listen carefully you will hear some Harlem jazz-like pieces floating off the Mokoomba music. When the band goes into their heavenly a capella rendition, one’s mind is quickly lifted to the grounds trod by South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo; there is such a likeness even if only from a distance.
Almost everyone in the world then can claim to be related to some piece or other of Mokoomba’s expression. So, that legitimate question again: how much of Zimbabwe is left in Mokoomba without the languages in their lyrics? Yet, perhaps the suggestion that Zimbabwe is so very little in Mokoomba should be the exciting aspect of the band. After all, the group is composed of a sextet that is so very young; one that can relate very easily with a world where multi-lingualism, and especially multi-culturalism is the pot that brews the worldly all. The space that is the world has become smaller thanks to all our electronic gadgetry that so fascinates the generation that Mokoomba’s energetic sextet belongs to. Meaning is expressed by relating to others.
Makoomba’s presentation was then relevant to all. The band’s energy seemed to work with the venue’s suggested exploration of aspects of freedom. From the main stage and auditorium at Fisherman’s Camp, the site of the event, Lake Naivasha seems open and inviting. Some floating boats gesture at the prospect of riding away into the vastness of the waters. The fact that the venue is also a camping site where many revelers spent their three days and nights of the festival played within the organizers’ suggested theme that Naivasha is the “cradle of mankind.” Humanity, so circulated the feeling in the music lovers, had come to rediscover their roots. Makoomba then was at hand to push the idea of dancing with abandon within that “cradle.”
But one must contrast Mokoomba’s energy-sapping performance with Kenyan Eric Wainaina’s deceptively laid back singing that so easily seduces its consumers with its seeming simplicity. Though Wainaina was the other highlight at the Rift Valley Festival, he seemed to demand nothing of his audience. Effortlessly, his music persuaded without calling anyone to invest much energy in the process of enjoyment. His voice remains a suggestion that what he is singing a story. Perhaps that is what sells for Wainaina; that idea that there is always an ongoing story. It happens in the variations of his voice and of course the string sounds that remind one vaguely of an era, a period when the guitar was king! Yet, the pauses are what speak volumes; they give life to a life’s event; the life of a story told.
It becomes easy to listen to Wainaina without appearing to engage all your energies though the mind is taken to task. If you are a lover of stories then you will be carried away into that world that reveals to you characters, most often in anguish. Wainaina is a story-teller. That is where his forte lies; he broaches narratives that have real dramatic conflict in his songs. His singing is committed to speaking about conditions so much so that one of his songs—Nchi ya kitu kidogo (Country of small people who thrive on corruption)—was at one time banned from air play and public performance. However his other story, Daima (Kenya Only), became such a necessity in the 2007-2008 post-electoral period when Kenyans were in strife against one another. The song was played virtually by all radio stations that needed to reach out to their audiences with the message that they are Kenyans first before anything else.
At the Rift Valley Festival, Wainaina was at his element again, telling his range of stories while easily yoking them up with that sweet rendition of the popular “Yesu ni wangu” (Jesus is Mine) Christian chorus. But he was a showman too, inviting people to come onto his stage and dance along to his song , Mr Politician, another of the stories that’s so committed to telling the condition of that exploiter versus exploited situation. The fact that he tells such committed stories with a touch pushing us to the edge that is politics can be contrasted to the “feel-good” ring to it that is so easily inviting. His music does not demand complicated body maneuver in the act of dancing; a left and right move, one suspects, is enough.
Wainaina’s show-stopping rendition of Marianna was a performance to marvel at. The story told is of a man’s ambition to provide for his dream girl called Marianna. He gets a loan to buy a motor-bike for a bodaboda (public taxi transport) business, he starts a string of money-making enterprises which fail and in desperation he pays for a gun which he hopes to use to get rich quick; if only for Marianna’s sake. The story of the young man, Wainaina suggests, is narrated at his deathbed. He is dying after being shot, presumably by police in one of his burglary attempts. This is such a deep story which in typical Wainaina fashion is told in a swaying sweet style that at once invites listeners to sing along but also demands nothing from them. The story is cathartic, too, for it bears that finality of tragic narratives, giving us an escape from the worries of living. It works within that magical suggestion by the organisers of the Rift Valley Festival: to free, to let be, a different kind of freedom from Mokoomba’s rendition, but freedom all the same.
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches Literature and Theatre at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya.