The contrast between the occupants of the two booths separated by a glass panel at Ketebul Music Studios is remarkable.
On one side is a young engineer called Jesse Bukinda, who is expertly handling a huge console with a host of controls.
He is your typical urbanite; he is wearing a pair of denim trousers and a trendy T-shirt, wears his dreadlocks in a ponytail, and when he speaks, it is clear that he is town bred.
Bukinda is recording a song by a Sabaot quartet that is performing in the booth on the other side of the glass panel.
Dressed in predominantly brown traditional costumes accessorised with generous beadwork, Ben Kisinja Chebin Band is from Mount Elgon.
It comprises three women and a man playing a stringed traditional harp known as bukandiit. The four represent a world that stands in stark contrast to Bukandi’s and the recording studio that has brought them together.
Lately, Bukandi has been working with several other similar groups in the studio as he tries to put together a piece of work that draws heavily from local cultures while at the same time targeting a contemporary audience.
In other words, he’s working on a new genre of music for Kenyans, at least more boldly than those who have tried to do the same before him. In addition, his production is more reflective of Kenya’s cultural diversity.
Preliminary listening suggests that the rich and deep local rhythms, vocals and messages can, indeed, be successfully combined with modern acoustics to produce a unique sound that could well give music from this part of the world a specific identity.
If things go as scheduled, Ketebul music director Tabu Osusa and the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre (FCCC) will release the fourth volume of Spotlight on Kenyan Music by the end of this year.
This time round, however, it is a compilation of authentic, deep, rich, traditional Kenyan cultural music produced in a way that gives it a modern touch and makes it appealing to the contemporary audience it is targeting.
From the last week of September through much of October, Bukinda and Osusa have been recording 12 groups, duets, and individuals who made it to the finals of this year’s Spotlight on Kenyan Music annual competition concert.
They include Kanindi Wawo Band from Rongo in Nyanza Province, whom we had met earlier as they struggled to fit into the studio environment, as well as an all-women quartet from Garissa in striking white stage outfits calling themselves Bismilahi Galgalo.
Other finalists who will feature on the album are the Kesses duet from Eldama Ravine, Koko Band and Shikilia from Nairobi but representing the Maasai and Kamba respectively, Samuel Namutate from Bungoma, Lawrence Muthuri from Meru and Bin Kalama from Mombasa.
A French-funded annual event that has been seeking out unexposed music talent from the the furthest corners of the country since 2005, this year’s Spotlight on Kenyan Music has taken a rather different approach from the three previous editions.
This time there is greater focus on authentic traditional African music done in vernacular rather than the more familiar soft “Afro-fusion” type that has tended to be the attraction.
Oususa says that Spotlight on Kenyan Music Volume IV has deliberately gone for traditional songs and rhythms for a much richer blend of African roots music into contemporary arrangement to seek out a genre that could become typically Kenyan.
“We believe this is the way to go,” he asserts before adding, “The reason music from West Africa has been generally successful and easy to identify, for example, lies in the fact that the artists there borrow heavily from traditional cultural styles.”
He says musicians like of Salif Keita of Mali and Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour owe their successes to this very fact. The same could be said of music from South Africa, which is easily identifiable from the first note.
“We need to adopt a similar approach to attract a unique appeal,” Osusa says.
And as Osusa and Alliance Française continue working towards giving the country a musical identity, Sali Oyugi, whose music draws a lot from traditional sounds, could have her third album out by the end of the year.
She says her latest production will be even more deeply enriched with traditional rhythms than the previous ones, and will feature her double heritage from the Luo of Kenya and the Zigua of Tanzania.
Oyugi may not be a prolific musician, but the few songs she has released, coupled with her stage performances, have won her praise, especially abroad. The marks come from her African style, according to reviews.
When she began her music career in 1993, she too received valuable sponsorship from the French government through the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre in Nairobi.
The centre has made quite a name for itself in Kenya as a sponsor and organiser of cultural events, especially in the area of performing arts.
Budding musicians, especially those who are culturally oriented, often find a welcoming attitude at the centre. Indeed, the number of musicians who focus on this type of music, and who have used French support as a springboard to the limelight and useful exposure, both locally and internationally, is worth noting.
Musicians like Abbi Nyinza, Suzanna Owiyo, Iddi Achieng’, Yunasi, Achieng’ Abura, and Makadem,are among those who have received significant sponsorship from Alliance Française.
The centre receives support from the French Embassy in Kenya for cultural and artistic exchange projects, and the gardens at Alliance Française have come to be identified as a regular entertainment spot for culturally-oriented events, so much so that it has lately been attracting a following of evening revellers who have interest in such performances.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I get this feeling that we are overdoing it,” a staffer at Alliance Française once remarked during a chat about their consistent support for Kenyan performing artists.
Indeed, the expansion of performances in Kenya that blend authentic African styles with contemporary forms, often in music and pure dance, is to a large extent the result of the organisational and financial support the emerging groups receive from the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre.
When contemporary Maasai dance performer and choreographer Fernando Anuang’a toured a number of African countries last year, the logistics — both financial and planning, were handled by the FCCC.
Also worthy of mention is Germany’s Goethe-Institut, which has also given Kenyan artists considerable support. On November 2, the Goethe Institut will host the relatively new, three-member Rateng Band as they launch their debut album titled Thumology.
According to a brief from Goethe-Institut, Rateng Band, formed in 2006, is comprises three members whose style transforms “traditional Luo music into a contemporary acoustic sound.”
It is ironical that news about an emerging “Afro-fusion” band in the country should be broken by a foreigner, who also supports traditional rhythms.
If it is not the French, it is the Germans, who have even sponsored these groups abroad to expose them, and in a wider sense, display Kenya’s creativity out there.
When the German ambassador, Walter Lindner, was posted to Kenya more than two years ago, one of his familiarisation activities within the first three months of his arrival was to meet with mainly Afro-fusion and Afro-jazz artists in the country.
The ambassador, himself a musician, promised them support, and he has kept his word.
Indeed, the enthusiasm with which the French and the German cultural organisations have embraced and supported the preservation of Kenyan music is worth noting.
It makes one wonder what role the government, through the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture’s Department of Culture, plays in all this.
A call to the Department of Culture about the government’s lack of visibility received an immediate and elaborate response from Edward Swanya, the deputy head of performing arts.
He said that while Alliance Française had been receiving a lot of attention thanks to Spotlight on Kenyan Music, for example, that did mean that the government was not doing anything to support and promote contemporary work that preserve Kenya’s heritage.
He asserted the Spotlight on Kenyan Music project was, in fact, initiated by the Department of Culture, which then teamed up with the French government.
“It is a joint venture,” he offered. “It is our initiative; it is a baby of the Department of Culture.” Thereafter, he went on to explain how the ministry came up with the idea of identifying and nurturing talent from all communities in the country.
“We realised that there were musicians out there who needed exposure,” he said.
“We are the ones who identify them through our district offices, while Alliance Française and its team are the technocrats who then organise the auditions to choose the ones to compete in concerts. It is a joint venture between the Department of Culture and Alliance Française.”
According to Swanya, this is just one of the activities his department is involved in to support performing artists around the country, adding that in September, for instance, it sponsored Kayamba Afrika to a cultural event in South Africa.
with regard to talent search, he says his department recently embarked on organising “community-based dance workshops to bring out originality” among local dancers towards the same effort of reconstituting an authentic Kenyan music style.