Welcome to Singing Wells' Top 20 Moments
It’s been nearly 10 years of travel, discovery and music. We’ve travelled across East Africa with the aim of bringing traditional music to a wider audience. With our Youtube channel now surpassing 5 million views, we wanted to celebrate the last 10 years of sharing the beautiful music of East Africa with you. Each week, we will post a new video counting down our Top 20 Singing Wells moments and memories. We hope you enjoy reliving them as much as us!
#15 - When African Rhythms met Taarab and Jazz
Part of our mission has been to preserve and encourage the performance of the rich musical heritage of East Africa. But we also know the magic that can be created in bringing musicians together to create something new. We witnessed this first hand when we brought together Kirundo, a group of student musicians mixing traditional rhythms with contemporary African sounds, and Tarajazz, who create an African fusion of Taarab and Jazz. Taking inspiration from elders and pioneers of music, such as Siti Bindi Saad, these young musicians are bringing traditional sounds into a current contemporary style using a combination of traditional instruments such as the Tanzanian drums, Kaliba, shakers and sticks alongside more Western instruments such as the piano, saxophone, cajon and high hat. When we brought these two groups together, they created magic all of their own. It’s moments like this that proved to us that music is always changing, always growing and is something that must always be protected, nurtured and shared.
Here’s what Jimmy had to say about our Influences sessions that are part of our work at Singing Wells…
“From our first trips with Singing Wells, our Influences program has been critical. We love to bring young musical artists with us on our trips to be inspired by our field visits, by the music we discover.
These artists bring their own styles and influences and met local musicians in the villages and often we get magic. We also love to bring musicians we discover the field together and see if magic happens. It did in Zanzibar, at the Dhow Countries Musical Academy when we brought together Kirundo and Tarajazz to record together.
It happened in Entebbe, when we brought together James, Jovah, Matia, Passy and Jacinta to record childhood lullabies;
It happened in Kisoro when Jesse and Frances worked together:
It happened when one of our partners, Abubilla Music brought one of their songs from London to Nairobi to be ‘covered’ by Winyo and Olith (with a music videos created by visual artists from across the globe – see one of them below!)
On the subject of influences, we are often asked, “Is a goal of Singing Wells to find the ‘roots of music’?” Our answer is no. We are not searching for roots, because that implies that music is like an archaeological site, where the more you dig, the closer you get to ‘source’. It implies that has we travel to remote villages, we are somehow going back in time, to how music was. This simply isn’t true. Everywhere we go on our travels, we are seeing music today, influenced by thousands of sounds and artists. For us, the image we prefer is that music is the wind, blowing here and there, hot and dusty when it comes from one direction, cold and wet when it comes from another direction. But you don’t bottle wind and explain it in one way, nor do you try to find the source of wind and have a discussion of linear origins.
In Zanzibar, we loved the name of the Dhow Countries Musical Academy precisely because they used the wind to describe Zanzibar music. The Dhow is a sailing vessel. The Dhow countries are all the countries that sailed to Zanzibar over centuries. The music academy is the result of all the Dhow Countries blowing onto the island, leaving their instruments, their styles and blending them with what was already on the island. When we record fusions, we are simply recording two styles mixing into each other and turning into a new wonderful breeze. This is why we love the video of Kirundo and Tarajazz, playing in the breezes of Zanzibar, on the top floor of the Dhow Countries Musical Academy.
#16 - Returning the Lost Tapes
When we started Singing Wells, we took great inspiration from the work of Hugh Tracy. From 1930-1960 he travelled across East Africa recording music as he went, to document and preserve what he found. In 2012, we worked alongside the International Library of African Music to repatriate and reunite some of these recordings with the artists and musicians that had originally recorded them. You can watch part one of this series below.
There is no joy in saying that on our mission to capture music across East Africa, we have also captured and recorded a lot of final performances of the artists we have met. However, we know it is integral to our mission that we have shared these performances and feel honoured to have been a part in documenting and recording these traditions, as Hugh Tracy did almost 100 years ago.
A word from Jimmy:
In part, Singing Wells was inspired by Hugh Tracy and his early work defining the field of ethnomusicology. We wanted to honour him in two ways – a) work with the International Library of African Music (ILAM) to help repatriate Tracy’s early recordings to the villages where he first studied and b) by telling the fuller story of Chemirocha, one of the most amazing stories of ethnomusicology ever told… This inspired our ‘Lost Songbooks’ series, which also included our story of the Royal Drums of Uganda. While singing wells has brought many influences artists with us to villages (see for example Winyo and Fadhilee), we also had a fantastic time bringing Kahithe with us; she has 8 years of experience in ethnomusicological research in East Africa, with a special focus on dance traditions of Kenya. This led to one of our favourite moments when she rejoined her village in dance…
The story of Chemirocha is one of our favourite moments of Singing Wells history. It’s been said that in the years previous to Hugh Tracy’s travels where he recorded different village musicians, British missionaries had travelled with a wind up gramophone playing country music, and that of Jimmie Rogers especially. Here’s Tabu’s telling of the rest of the story in Muzik:
“And then the big bomber: the song I consider Tracey’s single most outstanding recording, “Chemirocha,” a paean to Jimmy Rogers (yes, the country singer) by some Kenyan girls. The song is haunting but made more so by Tracey’s introduction on the LP record (not included on the CD): “The mysterious singer and dancer Chemirocha has been turned into a local god Pan — a faun — half man, half antelope. He is urged by the girls to do the leaping dance, familiar to all Kipsigis, so energetically that he will jump clear out of his clothes… Who could resist such an offer?” Tracey concludes. The charm of the spoken introductions is they make each record like a radio show with real educational value.“
Take a listen to the recording below:
In 2012, ILAM, Ketebul Music and Singing wells decided that these recordings were probably never even heard by the musicians that were part of them. They set about to return these recordings to the musicians, their families and the villages who became such a huge part of musical history.
#17 - Johnstone Mukabi & The Great Songwriters of East Africa
The Mukabi name is something that strikes a chord with many music lovers in East Africa. George Mukabi is one of the most prominent figures in Luhya musical history, and is known as the founder of the Omutibo genre of music. He had a unique finger picking style of playing guitar that struck a chord with many musicians that succeeded him. One of those musicians was his son Johnstone Mukabi. After his father passed, he went to the studio to re-record his father’s music and has continued the Mukabi musical legacy for generations to come.
We saw this for ourselves on our trip to Kenya, when we brought our influences artist Fadhilee to the field. Fadhilee’s reaction to this last session of our trip was worth the wait, as he discovered the author of “Kweli Ndugu”, a song he had done a cover of years ago. We brought them together to play this song together and you can watch the video below.
Muturi wa Wandindi
Muturi wa Wandindi’s actual name is Geoffrey Mutwiri, Mbaraka. He is originally from Kigane Village, Nkevene Sub-location, Nicwene Division. He started performing in 1964 and is from the Meru Ethnic Community. He plays the Wandindi (thus his performance name), which is a ‘tube fiddle’, or what the Luo call the Orutu.
Matia is 70 years old, plays the guitar he bought in 1972 and knew Dr. Albert Senior in late 70’s. Matia was taught to play guitar by a priest called Father Mugambe from Mulajje Parish in 1966. He is living in Kampala and sings in Luganda and Kirwahdi, C&C Busega, C&C Kibuye. He has recorded in 1971 in Polygram studios in Nairobi. His peers include Dan Mugula, Christopher Ssebaduko, Vincent Muwunge, Sulayiman Mayanja.
Born in 1947, this elderly man hails from Shianda location of Butere sub-county (Kakamega County). With age he unfortunately lost his sight, but he still continues to play omutibo. Raised in a family of musicians, Amimo started playing in early childhood. He recorded his first single in 1964 with David Amunga as producer, in a studio owned by Andre Crawford and Betty Tete. His second record was produced by Sammy Osere for Lamore record label, while his third song led to his fall out with Polygram records in 1974. After that, he started producing himself and established his own label entitled African Beat.
#18 - The Youth of East African Music
We continue our countdown with a celebration of the energetic and talented Youth that we have encountered over the last 10 years. In video 18, we introduce you to two amazing groups comprised of children only, Ker Kal Kwaro in Northern Uganda and Ndagwa Msanga in Tanzania. Most of the groups we meet are adults or elders, preserving the traditions of their ancestors. It’s so refreshing to see the youth get involved in this in such a proactive way. One of our missions at Singing Wells is to help develop music groups, especially within the younger generations, so that they can use it to sustain and build their communities through music. It’s so heartwarming to see how these children have taken that baton and run so far with it.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 18 celebrates the youth in performances, while also warning us of how vulnerable this music is. From the early days of Singing Wells we took so much energy from the incredible performances of youth groups, including the Ker Kal Kwaro of Northern Uganda. We know these performers are the result of generations of musicians before them that inspired them and passed on their songs. But we also know that there are fewer and fewer youth groups, and there’s daily risk that when an older musician dies, the music forever dies with them..”
Ker Kal Kwaro
Ker Kal Kwaro is a full dance band with amazing percussion. The great thing about this band is its youth, with most of the dancers and percussionists under the age of 15. This was such an energetic and wild group, especially as most of the groups we had recorded before then were older people. Only when we got to Northern Uganda did with see the power of the youth groups and gained some confidence that, in some areas, the music was still owned by the young. Seeing the music being performed with such a youthful energy brings a real relevancy to the music, and vibrancy to traditions which are decades old.
Watmon Cultural Group
The Watmon Cultural Group is a collective of musicians led by Amone Watmon Matthew, which promotes the preservation of Ugandan cultural heritage through dance. The group is made up of up to 50 members, the youngest members being only seven years old.
Matthew lived in Awedi until 1991, when he moved to Kampala, due to the rebel fighting. He started a small group of dancers, performing Acholi traditional dance which he had learnt when he was young, both from grandfather in his village and from watching dancers at village events. He went around his district in Kampala, telling people he would like to start a dance troupe, and was met with a positive reaction. Eventually he had people coming to him asking to be a part of it, and from that point the group became an institution. In the fallout of the war against Idi Amin’s regime, many people were looking for an escape, and the troupe presented just such an opportunity. His aim is to teach his children (even those that are not his own) the music of his heritage.
Nowhere does music come alive better than with Serengeti group, which we filmed in Tanzania. They play in the Ritungu style – this style refers to the form of dancing where the two lead dancers ‘nodded’ their head in almost a trance like way to the music and to their large eight-stringed instrument. We were mesmerized. Their instruments included the: Zeze, Virandi (shakers), and Ritungu (eight stringed instrument, huge Nyatiti). The group had three musicians in ‘red’ and two dancers in ‘white.’ The athleticism of these dances were very similar to what we’ve seen in Uganda and very special.The coolest cats on the planet who simply make you want to dance.
Ndagwa Msanga are a group of young girls from Msanga and the Wagogo community. The group was formed in 1994 to encourage the young of the Wagogo tribe to embrace and appreciate their culture. Their style of music makes up all the musical styles of the Wagogo community. Their instruments are all about percussion: Ngoma (Drums) and Kayamba (Shakers). These young performers are amazing and if they are a sign of what’s to come, then the future of Tanzanian music is alive and well!
#19 - Makunga & The Visuals of Singing Wells
The Makunga are from Dodoma and the Wagogo Community, which they argued is the main indigenous community of Tanzania (always from the land, never migrated into Tanzania.) The group was formed in 2018, but was built on a much older group.
They perform in the Wuyina style. Their instruments/costumes include the: Ndulele (Horn), the Nindo (Shakers), the Mbega (Animal Skins), the Muheme (Drums), the Kabati (Shakers), the Kalimba (Thumb Piano), the Zeze (Orutu), the Izeze (5 string large instrument), and the Muhongwa (Wooden water troughs, played on ground like calabash, which was used in last song).
The group started their performance with the most extraordinary set of customs – human shakers!
Our original intent at Singing Wells was to continue the incredible work of Hugh Tracy, a man who travelled East Africa creating audio recordings of different groups between 1930-1960. An initial idea of travelling with a mobile recording studio was quashed when we realised that a van full of equipment and the soaring heat was not an ideal match. However, once we started recording visually the unique and captivating performances we found, we realised that we couldn’t continue Tracy’s legacy unless we developed it. To separate the visuals from the music was a disservice to capturing the real performances.
Not only do we see the importance of visuals in the performance of Makunga, but we’ve seen this proved multiple times on our travels.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 19 celebrates the importance of…well…. Video. Influenced by the great ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracy (who inspired Alan Lomas), we first thought of Singing Wells as an audio project. We even spent time designing a mobile recording studio in a truck! We quickly learned, however, that to capture these performances accurately we needed multiple cameras and videographers. We discovered the language of the dances, starting in Kisoro Uganda, and the power of firelight in story telling in Fort Murchison, Uganda. And in Zanzibar, we were blown away by a young band, brought together by a fashion designer, to turn song into a beautiful visual dance of arms and hats…”
Scheduling on our trip to Northern Uganda in 2012 meant that we didn’t get to record the Cieng Dwong until late in the evening. However, this moment was a revelation. Not just because we were inundated with large insects, but also because we realise a lot of these performances were meant for villages in the evening. The dancers and singers would use fire light as part of their performance. Our recording doesn’t do the experience justice.
Another completely different performance, which was also visually so beautiful that it almost needs no introduction. The synchonicity of the movements of the Urithi adds so much to the performance, that without the visuals we would be taking away so much of the magic. You can watch their enchanting performance below.
#20 - Okumu K'orengo and the Nyatiti
We start this countdown with this incredible performance by the legendary Okumu K’Orengo.
Okumu’s talent is renowned across East Africa, and in 2011 we had the immense pleasure to bear witness to this talent personally, and record one of his final performances – within weeks of this video being filmed, he passed away.
This tragic story reminded us of exactly one of the reasons why we started Singing Wells – to archive and remember the incredible musicians and musical traditions across East Africa.
However, this story does have an uplifting ending. Okumu K’orengo’s legacy lives on, not only through these recordings, but in the form of his son who plays the Nyatiti with the same passion and expertise as his father.
What is the Nyatiti?
The Nyatiti is an 8 stringed lyre from East Africa, played by Luo musicians. As well as playing the nyatiti – the musician also wears ‘gara’ or bells on the foot and an ‘oduongo’ metal ring on the toe, which is tapped against the edge of the nyatiti to form a beat. Nyatiti players will also typically sing during their performance. There is symbolism in the 8 strings of the Nyatiti in that the lower 4 string represent the first 4 days after a male’s birth and the upper 4 strings represent the first 4 days after a male’s death.
For us at Singing Wells, it is the instrument that became the foundation to our mission. It brought us together with our partner organisation, Ketebul Music, and led us to one of their most prominent Influence artists, Makadem. The Nyatiti created a ripple through commercial music, when Benga was born. It is the soul of what Singing Wells is about: keeping traditions alive, but also relevant for today’s musical styles.
A word from Jimmy:
“Video 20 starts our celebrations with the Nyatiti, a legendary East African instrument. It gave birth to Benga, which inspired the soundtrack for East African dancehalls and radio stations for decades. And it was the chosen instrument of Ayub Ogado and Makadem two of Kenya’s most critically acclaimed musicians.”
Other Notable players
Ayub Ogada, who played on our 71 Hours to Monday re-mix, spent time in the UK and provided music for the film The Constant Gardener.
Japanese artist Anyango became the first woman to play the Nyatiti – as traditionally it is only played by men.
Nyatiti – The Queen of the Clan
Our documentary below, filmed in 2017, delves into the history of the Nyatiti, as well as the players who are keeping it at the forefront of East African music.