Blink and you might just miss Henrie Mutuku. At a time when gospel and secular artistes look and sound alike, it is hard to imagine she exists in an image-conscious industry, where the artiste is a brand.
Evelyn Mutuku-Maina, 37, aka Henrie, a trailblazer in the gospel music industry, started off as a fresh-faced contemporary urban gospel musician. Her music revolutionised the gospel music scene and saw her win several awards. Today, she is a bare-faced
unassuming lyricist on the cusp of releasing an album that is like nothing we’ve heard before.
Titled Tena, the album is a selection of upbeat synth sounds consisting of 15 hits, ranging from danceable pop to a flawless fusion of electric music with hints of metal against heavy influences of what sounds like taarab and country music.
The soft-spoken artiste is pitch-perfect as she hits the high notes that soar above the instruments, making for a very different and surprising result, and she knows it.
“If you are strictly into African sounds like rumba or bongo, you might be disappointed, but if you are open to different sounds and musical experimentation, then maybe you’ll find it interesting,” she says.
LET THE AURDIENCE DEFINE MY STYLE
She, too, doesn’t know what to make of her sound. “I leave it to the audience to define my style. I try out different sounds, but the message is gospel,” she says.
Dressed in a comfortable caftan featuring bold African prints and no make-up, she does not look like a superstar, but her bearing is regal, with a small afro that her brother, Steve Mutuku, who doubles up as her manager, assures me is usually adorned with
a bow. Not today, though. She carries herself with the confidence of an artiste who has matured and come into her own and yet here she is, still the pioneer who burst onto the scene wearing a beads-and-cowrie shell chain around her waist.
She wore a forehead chain long before Kim Kardashian made it an accessory no Nairobi girl wanted to leave the house without.
Recently married, Henrie says that her new style of dressing is a conscious decision to let her music and the message take centre stage.
“My background is in church music, and I have been in choirs and worship teams for most of my life. I experimented with different looks, but found that this was distracting the more conservative members of the congregation, who then spent more time
discussing my clothes at the expense of the message.”
While she conformed in her dressing, the girl who took gospel to matatus at the turn of the millennium took the music and pushed the envelope, refusing to conform to anything remotely mainstream and looking to play to bigger audiences.
HEAVILY INFLUENCED BY R-KAY
“Simama, the first album I did, was heavily influenced by producer R-Kay, who insisted I write in Kiswahili. My first language of composition is English. It was also influenced by the fact that I hoped it would get played in matatus,” she explains.
A song like "Manzi wa Maana" was a response to Destiny’s Child’s music. Rufftone also features in two songs in the album, because, says Henrie, he was recording his album at the same time and place she was recording hers.
That was God-sent, because he lent street-cred to the hits, which became the massive successes that made him and Henrie household name.
Her refusal to be part of any tradition — even the ones she created — have made her the ultimate post-modern artiste, ironically making her an inspiration to successive generations. She recorded this album in the UK, where her producer allowed her the
freedom to do things her way.
“My intention is to offer my music to an international audience, so working with a UK producer seemed a good idea for a start. I guarantee you that this album is different. I have even seen someone refer to one of the tracks, Langu, as afro-celtic. On a lighter note, maybe I should style myself as the ‘Queen’ of Afro-celtic.’”
The new album, which makes a debut in April, marks her return to recording as, after walking away from it all in 2004.
“I was afraid that stardom was getting into my head, and I feared that God would bring me down from the pinnacle. I, therefore, decided to take some time away from the limelight. I also decided to focus on my family. Taking a break also gave me time to
write more songs. I also wrote a lot of prose and poetry; some of these works are with a publisher as we speak.”
During this time, she also fell in love, got married.
“Married life is wonderful. My husband, Charles Maina, is a youth pastor at Bururburu Baptist Church. He understands my ministry and is very supportive,” she says with a contented smile that brings out her dimples.
The self-taught pianist adds that her husband has influnced her music in a positive, has enriched it.
“He is also reintroducing me to classical music and jazz, and I like it. I especially like classical music. This and my other inspirations — the popular gospel music albums of Skeeter Davis,
Jim Reeves and the 70s gospel songs, Sandi Patti: Church choral music and the Winans, whom I discovered in my late teens, make for a great mix, and I hope to write even better music.”
The only regret she has is that she didn’t get study music in the US.
“I wanted to do a Masters degree in church music, the aim to learn more about congregational music, where all participate in communal worship, rather than one artiste who sings to
adoring fans, but it turned out to be too expensive, she explains.
Not one to whine though, the sociologist graduate decided to pursue a masters degree in international and diplomatic studies instead.
“It is all new to me. I did not care much for politics, but now I follow the news and current affairs and look forward to the next chapter of my life,” she says.
To her credit, Henrie has made headlines for just her music. The only whiff of gossip was the rumours that she had joined a cult, hence the change in her dressing.
“I grew up in church, and my spare time was spent there, or at home. I met my husband in church and therefore, there is little by way of scandal,” she reasons.
“I fellowship at the Buru Buru Baptist Church. At some point, I attended the Karen Baptist Church. Anyone is welcome to interrogate the doctrine and practices of these churches. You can listen to the lyrics of my songs and see whether there is anything that goes against the teachings of the Bible,” she adds.
She also wonders why anyone would have a problem with her dressing, or why it is such a big deal.
“Dress in what you are most comfortable with - this has always been my belief as far as fashion is concerned.”
Besides her new album, expect videos of her award-winning hits, which were ahead of their time, and therefore fit right in with today’s music. This music will also reveal the innocence that gospel music in Kenya once had, innocence that is long gone.
1. Best Female Vocalist, Ukumbi Awards, 1999,
2. University Arts Achievement in Music 1999, Nominated for Female Artist of the year 2002
3. Kora Awards, Best Artiste from East Africa, 2002
4. Kora Awards, Best Female Artiste, Kisima awards 2002,
5. Best Contemporary Gospel Artiste, Kisima awards 2002,
6. Chafua and a collabo, Nisaidie, became songs of the year in 2004 on Hope FM
8. Nominated for American Gospel Music Awards, International Category, 2004