Five years ago, three artistes met in college under conditions they describe as strange.
According to a fictional biography on their web site – which incidentally gives insights into their psyche and what drives them – Dan Muli had just returned to Kenya “from years of touring with a Touareg caravan led by a Nubian beggar”.
After an “attempted exorcism” he came back home to work as a comic book restorator.
The same year, Bill Sellanga woke up from “13 years of hypnosis”. When he came to, he found himself living in an “abandoned convent in the outskirts of Nairobi”. All he had in his possession was a guitar.
Jim Chuchu came to the city after “spending years serving coffee in Kilgoris and losing a close friend”. He sought solace in the “sewers of Nairobi” which, he says, have great acoustics.
These are fictional circumstances that Dan, Bill and Jim, who make up the music group Just A Band (JAB), say brought them together.
In the real world, the three met at Kenyatta University, where they were students, and decided to venture into music in a rather odd, yet interesting way which, they say, was never done in Kenya before.
Dan was studying fine art, and he decided to use the skills learnt to do animation. Bill, who studied Sports Science, is an accomplished guitarist whose skills came in very handy when they formed the band.
Jim studied IT but he chose the camera, becoming the group’s videographer. Music was their passion so they did not look for careers in the fields they studied at KU.
They rented a house at Adams Arcade, off Ngong road, and went straight into the business of making music.
Their effort gave life to the song Iwinyo Piny, for which they made an animated video. When they released its video, it received “zero airplay”.
They, however, appreciate the fact that with their kind of music, and its presentation, they are bound to encounter major hurdles along the way.
“One time I walked into the offices of a local TV station in a bid to promote the song and the video. A producer told me to check with him after five years. He said the video was ahead of its time,” Bill says.
Taking the cue, Dan says: “The rejection we received from the media forced us to become creative. We already had the product. We had to get a way of getting it out there.”
Seeing that it would be a while before their music got airplay, Jim says it was disheartening but they had to find other ways of getting their music ‘‘out there’’ and introducing themselves to the fans who they believed were ready for their music.
So they turned to the internet. They went to Facebook and put Iwinyo Piny on their profile page.
They then began a blog whose main aim was to keep in touch with their fans. They uploaded it on YouTube too and the response was better than they expected.
Iwinyo Piny received rave reviews from fans outside Kenya, who wanted to know more about the artistes.
“Soon, the Kenyan underground scene took note and news spread around about this experimental boy band via word of mouth,” Jim says.
This came at a price. Not everyone who heard about them liked what they were putting out. The trio says such a reaction was expected because they were coming up with a sound yet to be accepted by many of their would-be fans.
Airplay was not the only hurdle they faced. Funding has been a problem to them. To put their album together they depended on financial support from their families and whatever pocket money they received.
Gigs (functions) have not come by easily either.
“But that does not bother us much. All our energies are now concentrated towards our own concert early next year,” Bill says.
Scratch to Reveal features a mixture of funk, disco, jazz and hip-hop. With time, people began to like the Iwinyo Piny video and soon it was nominated for the Kora All Africa Music Awards for the Best African Video Clip and in the Best Urban Fusion Group category in the Kisima Awards.
“The nominations were a blessing. At least there is some bit of interest about the group. Now it’s up to us to produce more of our kind of music, which is what is expected of us,” Bill says.
At their house, a computer, a mixer, a keyboard and a microphone stand decorate the living room – an indication of their passion. The animation process has two sides to it. Dan says it is the most involving, but most satisfying.
“At first I used to do sketches on paper, then scan them and load them into the computer, but that took a lot of time. Now I do that on a padded computer, so speed is not an issue any more, it’s all about getting fresh ideas,” he explains.
Their latest video, Hey, is receiving much more airplay than any of their previous works.
Their album too is receiving impressive hits on the web and noticeable sales from music store shelves. They credit this response to a mantra they live by: if you want to get anything done right, then do it yourself.
They create the beats to their songs, shoot their videos and photographs, design their web site and do the marketing.
“You are the only one who will transform your idea into reality in the proper way. Every other person is bound to be an inch or two away from the original point,” says Dan, who is also a self-confessed hater of any kind of music or art that sounds or looks “normal.”
So what is normal? “Normal is not interesting, and that is why we have come up with our own thing, which is basically a new perspective to something that already existed,” he says.
Jim says they chose to go it alone to avoid sounding “predictable”.
He says new generation singers and producers dared to venture out of the then comfort zones of benga and rhumba into rap and other sounds. But, nowadays, almost everyone sounds the same.
“No one wants to experiment any more,” Jim says.
Though music is a big part of who they are, they believe JAB will not be confined to music alone. They plan to move on to “bigger” things.
“We can do all sorts of things. When we began, I could only do films and photos. Now I can put down a beat. Same with the others. We have all picked up skills from each other that will eventually give us more options in life,” Jim says.
They say they plan to put out three albums then move on.
“We want to quit while we are ahead. By that time, we are certain someone will be out there trying to copy what we will have already done,” Bill says. “Maybe a comic or an animated show. Who knows, the options are numerous.”
Their efforts are directed towards the success of their music locally and abroad. The digital version of Scratch To Reveal is available on more than five online stores, including iTunes and Amazon.com.
A single from the album goes for $0.99 (Sh80). The whole album retails for US$8.99 (Sh700.) It is also available locally at selected music stores.