By Megan Iacobini De Fazio
When I first arrived in Kenya a little over three years ago, blinded by the city’s less than shining reputation as a sprawling and chaotic concrete jungle, with high crime rates and deathly traffic, I was surprised to discover that Nairobi moves to the sound of music. Old-school American hip-hop and old Jamaican reggae hits blaring out of matatus – the infamous minibuses which bounce and weave their way through traffic; South African gospel rising out of churches; the rhythm of Kikuyu songs played at a local fruit stall; and the ever-present dancehall beats, getting those booties twerking in the many clubs downtown.
The live music scene, too, was fun to explore. Being the economic hub of East Africa, Nairobi has attracted musicians from all over the region, and, as well as local musicians performing in Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba or Swahili – just some of the country’s many languages – there are nightly gigs by Congolese musicians, who never fail to draw a crowd with their bopping soukous and provocative dancing.
But as the novelty started wearing off, I sensed the disconnect between more traditional East African sounds – the rumba, funk and benga– and contemporary music revelled by the younger crowds: highly commercial, western influenced R&B, Jamaican dancehall, and South African pop.
Unlike the ever-popular sounds of Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Ghana, all of which have successfully exported their music to the rest of the world, or the unmistakable melodies of Ethio-Jazz, the East African region seemed to lack a distinct musical identity.
But already in early 2013 there were the rumblings of musical renaissance. Sarabi, a young Nairobian afro-fusion collective, was blending traditional Kenyan rhythms with western sounds, and Makadem – who represented Kenya at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington DC – was playing his mixing benga, rock and throwing his nyatiti, a traditional string instrument, into the mix. But the line connecting it all – the traditional to the contemporary, the new to the old, and the region to the rest of the world – was tenuous at best.
Fast forward three years, and the East African music renaissance is, undeniably, under way. New festivals championing alternative African music are popping up all around the region, young self-taught DJs are sampling traditional instruments, and secret Facebook groups are dedicated to the discovery of obscure music; there are workshops about finding an identity in East African music and about marketing oneself online, and events whose line-up include musicians from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and abroad. This last year has also seen the rise of NuDar es Salaam and NuNairobi, two movements which encompass various creative realms, and are characterized by a highly collaborative spirit, experimentation, and innovation.
“It just felt like two or three years ago there was a call to action” says Hiribae, one of the five young DJs who form East African Wave, the Kenya-based creative collective. “The internet played a crucial role: seeing other people around the world doing awesome stuff is empowering. Plus, thanks to the ‘college of Youtube’, free music and software, there are fewer barriers and impossibilities”.
Tired of having to fight against corrupt systems and resistance from global gatekeepers, creatives in the region started using the internet to connect to global networks outside of the mainstream, share their music, and experiment. It is through the internet for example that Ukweli of EA Wave produced a track with Willow Smith, and through the internet that Mahoyo- a Stockholm based creative duo – heard them for the first time and invited them to perform in Sweden.
“Santuri Safari was kind of the blueprint for that” says Hiribae, referring to the spirit of collaboration and global networking which characterizes the recent creative energy coming out of East Africa. By running workshops, pairing artists from different backgrounds, creating a regional network of producers, DJs and musicians, and producing cutting edge tracks in makeshift pop-up studios, Santuri Safari helped kick-start the revival of a music scene which had long been dormant. Over the last few years, the realization that working together can unlock new opportunities has led to an increase of arts collectives, better events, and edgy new music.
Not only that. While commercial music still tends to look to the outside for inspiration, more and more musicians are drawing their sounds from a multitude of East African traditions, using traditional instruments and singing in local languages. Starting from Greg Tendwa’s Bengatronics, which seamlessly mixes electronic music and Benga rhythms, through to Labdi Ommes, who plays the orutu, a one string fiddle from Western Kenya, to Msafiri Zawose, who stays close to his Gogo traditions, and Checkmate Mido, who performs in Sheng, we are witnessing a new appreciation of East African identity in music.
And it is no longer the limited, static conception of identity once imposed by traditional gatekeepers, like the ‘world music’ promoters, music labels and festival organizers, who were once the only way for African musicians to gain global popularity. Without these limitations, East African youth are free to experiment and come up with their own, contemporary identity.
The last three years has also witnessed various attempts to take stock of the region’s musical and creative industry. Initiatives like East African Soul Train (E.A.S.T) and the Alchemy Sessions offer opportunities for creatives from around the region to gather, network, collaborate and discuss the challenges and opportunities within East Africa’s creative sector. Projects like these have given new energy to the music scene in Nairobi, and together with Jojo Abot’s Afri-na-ladi residence, and spaces like Creatives Garage and the Alchemist, is one of the many catalysts behind the new movement to push boundaries and collaborate.
But the scene is not limited to Nairobi. Dar es Salaam is home to an eclectic group of musicians, hip-hop artists and musicians, while Kampala has a burgeoning electronica scene, of which club Hollywood is the spiritual home. And these scenes are becoming increasingly connected, with DJs and musicians often crossing borders to perform and collaborate. Nyege Nyege – the Ugandan festival now in its second year – and the regular Boutiq Electorniq nights have also had a large part to play in supporting emerging artists and fostering global collaborations, much in the same way Santuri Safari has done and continues to do.
The music scene in East Africa has come far over the last three years, but there are still obstacles for artists to overcome: it’s close to impossible for non-commercial music to be played on the radio, and most young musicians and DJs find it hard to translate their underground success into even a meagre living. But with so many exciting developments over only a few years, the idea of an innovative, creative and independent East African music scene does not seem farfetched.
Written by: Megan Iacobini De Fazio
Follow Megan on Twitter: @MeganIacobini