Behind the scenes: What Eric Wainaina has been up to 

Eric Wainaina
Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • Eric Wainaina has been away from the spotlight for a while, but this isn’t to say that he hasn’t been behind the scenes.
  • In the realm of storytelling, Eric has been involved in creating musical theatre projects under Rainmaker Limited.

On first learning of TeleVision, Kenya’s new musical duo, they had a photo of a vintage clock up on Instagram with the caption, “Tell Your Mother”. This provocative phrase is the title of their new track featuring Eric Wainaina, a legend in the Kenyan arts industry with a career spanning 20 years.

The song itself is a musical marriage of sorts, both as a collaboration of artistes to produce a catchy, timely love song for the ages but also a meeting of creative minds with much to learn from each other at this point in their careers.

Eric has been away from the spotlight for a while, but this isn’t to say that he hasn’t been behind the scenes shining it on a new generation of artistes, expanding the breadth of his knowledge while he shares what he has learned over the years. A group of such artistes — Rushab Nandha, Mbogua Mbugua Mbugua, Timothy ‘Tim’ Arinaitwe and Vinny Ngugi — accompany him for this interview with Lifestyle.

All have a rich background in the Kenyan art scene, with a combined catalogue of playlists, music productions and audiovisual content in their portfolios.

The ‘T’ and ‘V’ in ‘TeleVision’ are derived from the names Tim and Vinny.

While “Tell Your Mother” feels like the beginning of something new, it is actually the culmination of years of working together that makes the song and TeleVision’s future a harmonious work-in-action.

“I don’t usually compliment myself, but I think I’m good at identifying talented people,” Eric says.

Eric met each of the group members in different settings as creators, but it was only a matter of time before the magnetic pull of a shared musical vision became apparent.

“Tim and I gravitated towards each other while we were working on a musical called Kabaseke for the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative,” says Vinny— one-half of TeleVision — who is a composer, singer and songwriter.

Tell Your Mother

Their song-writing practice is a full-time job where they meet and brainstorm over new ideas each day, improving on their own concepts and seeing what works sonically. Some of these songs go to other musicians they work with.

“We have a library of songs, and while we’re usually ready to sell some of them to other artistes, we also realised that we can perform some of those songs ourselves,” he says.

As for whether “Tell Your Mother” was one of these songs, its composition turned out to be an illustration of some of the many different ways a collaborative song can come together.

“Different songs work out in different ways; I had a couple of ideas for a verse and decided to play it for the guys. Then I left the room, Rushab put a kick-drum on it and then these guys (TeleVision) wrote a chorus. When I came back two hours later — ta-da!” Eric says. “That’s just how it worked for ‘Tell Your Mother’, but songwriting can really go anywhere— the permutations are endless.”

When asked about the future work of TeleVision, singer-songwriter Timothy speaks of their “genre-less” ethos, where audiences are kept guessing about the kind of music they will produce as a result of their experimentation.

“We are songwriters first, so we’ve freed ourselves from the restrictions of genres or styles. We’re trying to explore as many ideas and spaces as we can,” he says.

While the music is expected to be diverse, fans can expect certain elements to remain familiar, with Vinny chiming in that TeleVision’s overall brand identity can be defined in one word: Sexy.

TeleVision and Eric also launched a record label — Rain Records — together with producers Rushab Nandha and Mbogua Mbugua Mbugua (M³). Rushab was once a student of Eric during his time at Brookhouse School’s music programme, and Eric has known M³ for years, having sung at his parents’ wedding. The collaboration was seamless. 

“We have a set of singles we’ll be rolling out in the next couple of months that tap into nearly every genre you can find across streaming platforms, some with Eric and some with TV,” Rushab says.

Timothy Arinaitwe and Vinny Ngugi

Timothy Arinaitwe and Vinny Ngugi, otherwise known as TeleVision.

Photo credit: Pool

This diversity of the genres they are able to fit into, he says, makes them compelling collaborators.

“It’s great how you can give them anything to work with and they’ll give back something amazing,” Mbogua says. “Working with them, seeing their journey and being a part of it has been extremely beautiful. I do believe that TV is going to be one of the biggest duos in Kenya,” he adds.

“It helps that they’re also clear about what they want,” Eric adds. “As an artiste, if you’re walking into a situation where you’re working with a producer who has either been working as long or longer than you have, or are as adept at what they do like Rushab and Mbogua, you can become intimidated. But I’ve seen them stand their ground in the studio and direct the music where they’d want it to go, and I really respect that,” he says.

According to Eric, the depth of their musical roots, coupled with this professional self-esteem, makes for a good formula in their career as a duo.

When he’s not trading knowledge with today’s emerging and established artistes, Eric, now aged 48, is farming.

“My mainstay is agriculture, although there are still a few records we’ve been putting out over the past couple of years — like my last project, Dreams in Stereo,” he says, speaking of his 12-track album released in July 2018.

In the realm of storytelling, Eric has been involved in creating musical theatre projects under Rainmaker Limited, which he co-owns with his life partner, Sheba Hirst. They are currently involved in the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative, which brings together artistes from diverse backgrounds to write and shepherd 14 original Kenyan musical theatre projects. 

“Coming into the entertainment world, one of the first places I went into was the theatre. Even while I was growing up, the school I was in put up a lot of musicals,” he says, speaking of his time at St Mary’s School in Nairobi.

Songwriting

Storytelling is important to him, and musical theatre even more so, describing it as “close to [his] heart”. Even in looking for a record deal in Europe in the 1990s, at a time when he said there was “a lot of pigeon-holing”, where record companies controlled what artistse could and couldn’t explore, he had always felt that he could do more with his career.

This is part of that rebellion, including the formation of this record company and getting the right components in place to create space for the music of others.

“Putting out other people’s music is not just about being able to record it. That’s just the beginning - there are media relations, making sure the music is getting played and continues to get played even after that first interaction with the radio station,” he says. “There’s a lot of legwork and teamwork involved, and getting that team together has been the main agenda.”

Eric speaks fondly of being a father and a husband. He also sees himself as a teacher who is both open to, and encouraging of, learning from his students and the youth in general.

“Even when I teach 17-year-olds in a songwriting class, you always have to think ‘what can we teach each other?’ Because they know so much,” he says. “When I think of children like my daughter; she’s now writing these ridiculously good songs, and I’m like, ‘I went to college for that!’ And she’s just doing it for herself.”

He uses this to illustrate the ways a teacher can opt to learn from the student’s method, rather than be condescending as an expert of their craft.

As for work, he says he’s now geared to working in artiste collectives.

“It’s much more fun. It reminds me of Five Alive (his first group) in many ways — the camaraderie and all, it really brings back the same feelings,” he says of his experience with the team at Rain Records.

Theatre and music

He speaks to this as a continuation of the work he has done and a way to leave an imprint in the industry that reproduces itself long rather than staying ephemeral.

“When I look around at my predecessors, a lot of their work has ended with them because they didn’t put the mechanisms in place for it to carry on after them. For me, it’s important that if I drop dead now, the music in my immediate sphere of influence is still being made.”

Finally, what happened to The Elephant? The venue along Kanjata Road in Nairobi had long been a hub for artistes and culture enthusiasts alike before its eventual closure in 2019. While the last few years of activity featured harassment from city county security officers during events, he says the departure from the venue was amicable.

“We had been there for 10-plus years, and the changing face of Nairobi meant that what used to be residential was then becoming commercial,” he says.

Soaring rent increments in the city led to their eventual move to Silole Conservancy at the edge of Nairobi National Park. “It’s a very inspiring space,” he says, adding that it’s not uncommon to encounter wild animals while leaving the studio after darkness.

So inspiring is this space that Mbogua released an EP of the sounds in the area titled Silole, currently available on Spotify.

“‘I think we landed on our feet, and we’re doing really well,” Eric says. “We’re still trying to figure out whether it would be possible or even responsible to have events over there, being a natural habitat, but there are possible partnerships with other establishments in the area like Rolf’s Place and Maasai Lodge to see what we can do.”

As for the varied shapes of his activism, Eric chooses to create more art in both theatre and music that is anchored around the human condition, reflecting on the ways Kenyans are living through the Covid-19 era.

“It’s becoming clearer to me that how we live is important. People are important. Activism and patriotism, even, is part of that — what are people doing, what are people feeling, how we respect people. It’s all connected.”

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.