Six years ago, a Kenyan musician stood before a Japanese audience at a hall in Tokyo. She sang not in English, Japanese or Kiswahili.
No, Suzanna Owiyo sang in Dholuo, her mother tongue. And the audience appreciated the music.
Something else caught her eye. A fan, swaying to the rhythm of her music, was in tears.
After the show, the fan walked up back stage with a translator and gave Owiyo a gift of a cup.
“I still treasure it today. I never knew my music could make someone shed tears,” Owiyo says.
Singing is a big deal for her. With Senegalese music producer Dudu Sarr at the helm as her manager, she is often on the way to a concert either in Europe or the US.
The London-based Sarr has worked with top African artistes, including Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour.
Owiyo is a competent guitarist. She has three album titles to her credit and has featured in numerous international concerts.
“Those international shows are good platforms for exposure and people get to know you,” she says.
One of Kenya’s most celebrated musicians best known for her hit Kisumu 100, Owiyo launched her third album, Roots, at Nairobi’s Carnivore restaurant on Wednesday night.
Zimbabwe great Oliver Mtukudzi, who has collaborated with Owiyo in the album, performed at the Nairobi launch.
The Saturday Nation caught up with Owiyo at Nairobi’s Godown Arts Centre. In the small studio, she fetched a nyatiti.
She then belted out the lyrics of her song, Idhe Wa Kamande, one of the 13 songs in the album, Roots. Then she switches to Matatu, another song.
“It used to be very rare for a woman to play nyatiti. Then a Japanese lady came to Kenya just to learn how to play the instrument; I was impressed,” says Owiyo, whose grandfather played the nyatiti.
Eriko Mukoyama was the Japanese woman, and, as a result of her mastery of the nyatiti, was nicknamed Anyango. Although the nyatiti dominates the album, she has not abandoned the guitar and percussions altogether.
“Each artiste colours music differently and instruments are also different,” she says.
Referring to Idhe Wa Kamande, a song she has sang in Kikuyu, a language she is fluent in, she says language is not a barrier.
She adds: “I wanted to experiment with something new in my songs.”
A big poster of the celebrities she has met during her musical tours around the world hangs on wall. Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Nicholas Sarkozy, and US President Obama are among the many big names that she has met.
She practices every day, waking up every morning for a walk and a jog before she drives to her studio at 8am to join the band members.
She stays in the studio until 1pm when she breaks for lunch and resumes practice until late in the evening.
Unlike West and South African musicians such as Youssou N’Dour and Hugh Masekela, few Kenyan artistes, apart from Owiyo and Ayub Ogada, have made a breakthrough in the US and Europe.
In March, Owiyo shared a stage with N’Dour at a concert in the US. She has sung alongside Angelique Kidjo in two Nelson Mandela concerts in London and New York in the past three years.
He latest album features the tracks Gonya, Anyango, Osiepna, Usife Moyo, Dhano Le and Abiro. Others are Jamer, Maria Matakatifu, Uyie, Tumekataa, and Ng’ato gi Mare.
Singing together with Jua Cali, Matatu explores how the Kenyan youth have been reduced to beggars. She has also collaborated with Ogoya Nengo, a woman in her 60s from Nyanza in Anyango.
Owiyo began her fruitful music career a decade ago in Kisumu.
It was not until 2001 that she was tasked to compose a theme song for the Kisumu centennial celebrations. She coined hit song Kisumu 100.
Tshala Mwana, Tracy Chapman, Miriam Makeba and Angelique Kidjo, she says have influenced her music.
For some time, Owiyo has been performing abroad regularly, and Saturday Nation asked her whether she had forgotten about her local fan base.
She said: “In 2009 I dedicated time to have a show every week at Sippers. My time schedule doesn’t allow me to have regular events but I hope to resume local shows soon.”