To write that Eric Wainaina is one of Africa’s finest musicians would be an understatement.
To proclaim that his song, Daima (always referred to as ‘Kenya Only’) should be Kenya’s national anthem would be stretching it too far.
But to write that he is a humble achiever who is so down to earth that you probably have to dig him up for him to speak about himself is not further from the truth.
While many celebrities would sell their parents to print flashy wedding cards and invite hordes of journalists and crème de la crème to their weddings, the invite for his February 28, 2008, wedding to Sheba Hirst, the mother of his two children, was a text message — which ended with “Don’t tell.”
Eric, too, does not “tell” much, instead he lets his music speak for him, and for itself.
How can you play when the ground’s uneven? / When the rules are made behind your back; / When the judge, the jury and the referee/ Are the only beneficiaries?/ How can you run when you’ve never walked? / How can you sing- they won’t let you talk;/ It’s the law of the jungle in the city/ When the cries of the people meet no pity.
Consider those conscious lines from Revolution Time, the first track off his latest and third album, Love and Protest, which has been in the making for four years, and which will be “released” today.
If those lines strike a note in your heart, then you will love the soulful way they have been delivered, the horns belaying them — and just as you start getting lulled, pacified in to a trance, Zion Watchman’s chants bring you back to reality: Got to chant them down ka’ dema spread confusion/ The widow and the orphan the needy and the sick/ They never give protection/ Lying on the mic/ Stealing people vote/ Killing I and I dream.
Bel canto! If your vision is not clouded by smoke from ethnic fires, you will see Eric’s words transform into images, to remind you of our past as a nation, and to inform you of our bleak future if we continue whipping up tribal passions and stoking fires of ethnic hatred.
There’s the sound of a train in the distance/ But it won’t go beyond this point/ There’s a rumbling in the bellies of the young men/ They are up to their chins in the status quo/ And the status quo I tell you man is smelly/ So they tear up the railroad in desperation.
Deep as the lyrics may sound, Love and Protest is marked by some a simplicity which, ironically can only be described as complex.
Each of the 14 tracks is a story worth telling; a story which should have been told yesterday; which will make sense today and tomorrow because it is a timeless, everyday story which we have deliberately refused to tell, but Eric has the courage to tell it.
You live and you learn/ You can’t please everybody/ In fact there’ll be those who’ll spit on your dead body/ You take all the advice that you can take/ Then one day you’re done baking/ everyone else’s cake/ And living other people’s lives.
Those are lines from Other People’s Lives which bears the “one drop” Roots Reggae beat and accompanying percussions which give it an all-rounded sound you are only likely to hear in songs composed by seasoned reggae musicians.
But what do you expect from a man who understands not only music, but musicology and the business of music, so much so that when every local musician in his generation was going “up market” with flashy CD sleeves and expensive covers, he went the River Road route because “I am selling music, and not the physical packaging,” he said of Twende Twende, his second studio album which was released in 2006.
With the third album, he is on a different riff too, in terms of the title and marketing. While the first two albums had resounding titles of Sawa Sawa (2001) and Twende Twende, this title describes the type of songs in as much as it has love songs and protestations.
When it comes to marketing, he has taken advantage of the 21st century’s technological advances and the album will be digitally released today on iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify and Nokia Music stores for the international market and on PewaHewa for the local market.
The CDs will be on the shelves of Nakumatt Supermarkets from December 3, with Eric and his band, labelled The Best Band in Africa, performing at select venues.
While it would have been better to describe every track in Love and Protest, listening to it is much more fun, for it will take you back to the days of twist with Hii Ngoma (Twist) and as you dance, you will find yourself singing along to the modern tunes with The Road, featuring Baaba Maal and Fancy Car, which those who used to attend Eric’s live shows at Club Afriquè are familiar with, even though they might refer to it as Mr Politician.
Ideally, Kenyan music has come a long way, and there are musicians who helped speed its growth, but the Berklee College of Music-educated Eric has added quality to it, given it an international tempo and made listening to it worthwhile and pleasurable.
To ensure that Love and Protest has a well blended rhythm, he has worked on it with several local musicians including Atemi Oyungu, Tim “Ennovator” Rimbui, Nanjira Sambuli, Neema Ntalel and Aaron “Krucial Keys” Rimbui, among others.