Kenya (Coast): Day 4 – the road back to Nairobi

We used the long ride back to interview Tabu, Steve and Andy about the Singing Wells project.  Worth a read…

We’ve finished our trip and had our long ride back from Mombasa.   We used the opportunity to interview some of the team about the Singing Wells Project.

Jimmy to Steve Kivutia (Singing Wells Project Manager):

Q:  So, first tell us about your self and one thing surprising 

SK:  I was born in Nairobi.   I am one of four, the youngest.   Both my brothers have been in the studio and like what I’m doing.   But my mom keeps telling me to get a real job and is pushing advertisements toward me.  A real job to her is doctor, lawyer, teacher – not someone involved in music.   In terms of something surprising, I have two birthdays.  All my life I knew my birthday was December 12.    But when I went to secondary school I had to bring my birth certificate.  It said December 15th.  So my actual birth date is December 12, but my recorded birthday is December 15th, when my mum actually filled in the forms.

Q:  How did you get involved with Ketebul and Singing Wells?   

SK:  I set out to be a graphic designer in multi-media.  I was in college for Graphics Designs and met a lot of musicians there and started with music production, music software, starting with Fruity Loops.  I remember the first song I was produced was a song called Msewangu, which is slang for my ‘buddy.’  During the time I was in college, I had a friend who was in a band; she knew an Indian singer who  had a project with a temple.  She wanted to do a fusion between Indian and Kenyan music.   A common friend brought her to the studio.  She liked what we were doing and she told us about Tabu Osusa.  There was a function that Tabu attended and I went as well to me.  I brought a demo CD and he  listened to it .  This was a Friday and on Monday I went to Ketebul and was hired.  Told Tabu that I didn’t have experience but wanted to be a pro studio engineer.  He agreed and I joined as apprentice in 2005 and I was 23.

The cultural side started in 2007.   We started the spot light on Kenya music and other initiatives with Ketebul Productions, the Ministry of Culture and Alliance Francaise.  We picked artists from all over Kenya to create an album.  This is first move to culture things.   Tabu was on the committee for Spot light and he would go out to select folks for the later recordings but the recording happened at the Go Down Arts Centre.

The Spot Light series brought up the whole richness of Kenyan music.  Some of the groups were very large, but because of  budgets we could only bring a small number.  We had good production but we couldn’t get the whole band in their element .  Gargar was an example.  Huge women’s group with lots of culture things – women’s rights … we could only work with four.  We realised it would be better to take the studio to them.  We would get a better view and get a more authentic sound.

Then Abubilla Music contacted Tabu for a project and we discussed the idea of a mobile recording studio.  From that discussion,  we established Singing Wells.   We thought something might happened because Tabu was pretty sure – but it was odd to get this e mail out of the blue.  But then Andy came down in October 2010.  First time he came to studio he was very business like.  He had a checklist that he wanted to go to.  He wanted to get his to do list out of the way.  He was very business like.  Then in the evening we went to slippers to watch Winyo.  We pumped some Tuskers into Andy and then relaxed a bit.  He opened up more and we liked him.

Andy now jumps in with a little more detail…

AP:     To be clear, that was the first time I’d been out of Europe and I was definitely nervous.  The first night in the hotel, I practically curled myself up in the corner with a chair barring the door!

I’m from the North and came south in 2001 and spend four years at Uni, one year of which was in industry.  After graduation, I  worked as technical engineer and got more into engineering  the audio side of sounds, vs. the technical side.  Someone I had been working with passed on an email from Jimmy.  So I went and met Jimmy and Martyn at Jimmy’s office in London.  We had a chat and I started I was more excited by the office supplies in that first meeting then Abubilla.   I’d never been in a big office and I couldn’t believe they’d just leave pads of paper our and pens.

All along there was a side idea about a project to Africa.  I was very sceptical.  I didn’t want it to be some holiday project.  I have lots of friends who did the ‘gap year’ thing pretending to help in Africa but actually just going on a trip.  I didn’t want to do it.  I made it clear I would only do it  in a way that was for Africa and not some one off experience with no benefit except to ourselves.    But we did a great job launching the new Ketebul website and designing Singing Wells.

So we then booked the flights to visit the Ketebul team.   We met with Guy in UK and then flew down    My first time out of Europe.  Ngadia met me at airport.    I was very nervous and didn’t know what to expect.  I could tell there was a lot of poverty – and in UK if you went into poorer neighborhoods, you’d be nervous about everthing.  Here it didn’t seem to be an issue at all.  It wasn’t easy leaving my bag in the car.   I started quite formal, but then the team got some Tuskers in me and things got far better, more relaxed.    The second time, coming here for the pilot phase I was excited.  I know the team and was quite confident I could get myself around Kenya.

Jimmy talks to the whole car now…

Q:  So guys, we’ve finished the pilot phase… how do you think it went?

AP:  I’m pleased with the quality of sound and equipment.  The fact that we recorded something at all is a good sign considering we had to bring everything including power.    The fact that it sounds detailed is better.  From a purely logistical point of view we’ve learned a lot .   But we recorded 8 different groups and clearly have a DVD worth of material.   The main thing we’ve learned is how to organise the team better in terms of accountability for recordings (both video and audio).  Logistically, handling all the cash required has been more painful then it needed to be.  We’ll fix that.

SK:    With this ‘pilot phase’ we’ve now covered a lot of the ground.  We’ve really proven that we can do it and we believe this is much bigger than we thought.  We are collecting a wide range of material that we can use on multiple projects.  We think the music is far better than we thought – both sides.  The traditional music is beautiful and thank goodness the artists are still around.  But we’ve also been able to record with the artists, through Winyo, on a more modern sound..     We’ve done a very good job recording, especially day 2. We had no issue with equipment and the team was trained very quickly.  I think the main area to improve is to emulate a studio even more, isolating certain sounds so that we can really capture individual vocalists and instruments.

We did an amazing job of archiving the full performance, in video and audio way.  Going forward, we should work to use our second studio to capture individual sounds.    On the video side, we need a main crew focused on the performance and a secondary crew focused on Selling Wells, archiving the stories of the music and the artists.

TO:    The pilot was a success and proved we were right – take the studio to the talent not the other way around.    This trip also confirmed that this mission is critical.    As Steve said, the music was beautiful and the artists fantastic.  But they were also older and no one from this generation was actively participating.   There’s a complete disconnect in East Africa between traditional music and new music.   And this is going to kill our traditions.

In South Africa and West Africa, the best modern artists are completely rooted in the heritage of their country.  Their music is fresh and relevant, but the traditions are completely built into the song.   You can hear the instruments, the rhythms, the harmonies, the melodies.   Our young artists want to sound like 50 Cent.  They seem almost embarrassed by the village music.  This terrifies me.

SK:  Singing Wells can’t just be about archiving.  We can’t be fossil collectors.  We have to also make sure we can bring these traditions into modern music.   We are doing this with Winyo.  He really does bridge the traditional with the modern and you saw the reaction of the villagers to working with him.  They felt he  completely respected their music.

We used a lot of the car ride to build a big to do list of things we could do better.  But it was important to also discuss the future.

Q:  So is this worth it guys?  [This is a pretty relevant question 470 kilometres into a 800 kilometre journey back from the coast to Nairobi]

TO:  We have no choice.  We have to do something and I don’t see anyone else doing what we’re doing.  We’ve got to get three things right going forward:  we have to get the audio right.   People need to hear the music like we’re hearing it in the field.   We’ve got to get world class at this.   Second, we’ve got to get the video right.  This is a visual performance as much as an audio one.  Third, we need to package this right.    Our DVD’s and website have to do justice to these artists.  They deserve it.

SK:   This has got to be one of the main things we do going forward.  Our team and our artists all believe in this and we think we’ll attract better people to our projects.   And we need to make these traditions relevant to the next generation.  That means fusion.  We’ve got to make it appealing and relevant.

AP:   I’m up for it.  As long as we make this about local artists contributing to this and making it relevant here.   Music is music and the more exposure we all get to the vast differences in styles and cultures of music the better we’ll all be.

Q:  Yeah, but is the Ketebul-Abubilla Partnership Relevant?

SK:   Ketebul gains a huge amount.  The funds do matter and they matter a lot.   Abubilla Music has  access to different sources and the combination is more credible then the parts.  But Abubilla  also have different technical background.   They have access to the best equipment and don’t compromise.  This matters to us.    Abubilla challenges us to do things differently.  And I think we challenge them.

AP:  Yes it is relevant and it is working.   We’re a good team and like working together (sometimes even without Tuskers).    Ketebul knows the music, has a feel for the artists, has full access to people that know the best communities to work with.  We have none of that.  But we bring different musical backgrounds and that helps.

TO:    Yes it works.  And we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for the next phase!   Good team.  Diverse team.  But a shared passion for music and commitment to help even in a small way to revive the musical heritage of East Africa.  It is not enough to archive.   We must revive and refresh our great musical traditions.

At this point, we are weaving in and out of cars and trucks coming at us at 140 kilometres an hour.  Jimmy suggests that Tabu go back to focusing on the road so we arrive ‘refreshed’ in Nairobi.  The rest of the car agrees.

Jimmy, on the road between Mombasa and Nairobi, 1 April 2011. 


Published on