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Sauti Sol’s Midnight Train paints a colorful portrait of Kenyan pop

Friday June 26 2020
Sol

Sauti Sol. PHOTO | COURTESY

By LUCY ILADO

You have to hand it to Sauti Sol. The highly decorated outfit seems to have long since given up worrying about what country purists think of its music. With their new album Midnight Train, they have made the music for a party that we are all invited to, and it’s not their fault that we can’t attend.

With this new project, the group has provided a fantastically cohesive, entertaining work that is a thrill from start to finish. Its authenticity and genuineness is exactly what the East African pop music scene has craved since their debut album Mawazo in 2008.

Back then, they were a sharp singing group bolstered by the precision of a newly minted pop-music juggernaut.

Their hits were inescapable. The slow-tempo deep cuts such as Lazizi were fascinating experiments for a young audience. Still, they did not make quite as much impact in the region and the continent. Nevertheless, four more albums down the line they are older, wiser, and have reached the point in every boy-band journey where the gap between the age of the group and the age of its following starts does not really matter; the music appeals to all age groups as they channel clever lyrics, modern production and positivity.

Midnight Train does anything but chase popular musical trends in Kenya. The album is 42 minutes long and represents the group’s earnest effort to diversify their sound and its impressive precision demands attention and respect – they weave through a maze of songs that are fast and slow, relaxed and upbeat. 

The success of the single ‘Suzanna’ earlier in the year hinted that this album was going to be massive but nothing could have prepared you for how big this album is.

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Each track has a sure capacity to stand alone, but the thick and ever-present guitar is the undeniable heartbeat that ties the album together. The band’s vocals continue to grip listeners’ souls in every song, creating a chilling effect.

The storytelling is extremely vivid and imaginative, and the lyrics are beautifully crafted and give the listener a lot to think about and, in my view, most are up to personal interpretation.

‘Intro’, which demonstrates some of the groups best harmonies and the album title ‘Midnight

Train’ complement each other and act as one cohesive song due to how well the former’s effective and beautiful strings arrangement transitions to the latter’s band-driven, ambient, and vague lyrics about seeking God and self-fulfillment. 

The band does slow it down a bit on ‘Feel My Love’ and ‘Insecure’, which offer listeners beautiful guitar ballads. To me, ‘Sober’ offers the album’s tear-jerking moment. 

Elsewhere, the record gets spiritual in ‘Brighter Days’ which features South African award-winning Soweto Gospel Choir. It is a song that portrays people’s determination to progress in spite of adversity.

The verses drive home the sentiment that not everyone is up to making lemonade when life delivers lemons but it is important to remember that setbacks are temporary.

Although there isn’t a weak section of the album, ‘Rhumba Japani’ doesn’t pack quite as much of a punch as you might want, but its Congolese rumba music influence makes it worth  mentioning as It is a reminder that the group still loves the music they grew up with. Nostalgia is a powerful force.

It would be disappointing if the album finished in anything other than dramatic fashion.

Thankfully, the group signs off in style with the truly energetic track ‘Disco Matanga’. The production on this is killer, you can hear every instrument and nothing is drowned out.

Featuring South Africa’s Sho Madjozi and Black Motion, it is the best collaboration in the album and one that shows how multi-faceted this band - a fine example of what can happen when a bit of boundary stretching goes well.

As mentioned at the start, Midnight Train is a truly massive album but it needed to be. With five albums, Sauti Sol has had a steady climb with each release expanding their horizons, skills, and creativity.

It is safe to conclude that the album is a fantastic summary of their accomplishments so far, and charts a path forward to an exciting new era for not just Kenya but the East African pop music scene.

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