Analogue elders face off with digital singers to create music

Kenyan musicians Iddi Aziz, John Nzenze (middle) and DJ Greg Tendwa . PHOTO| BILL ODIDI

What you need to know:

  • At the end of a day of recording different sessions, the analogue recording was brought into the digital studio so that the producers and DJs could combine that with the digital sessions to create two completely fresh recordings.

An interesting experiment to lay the foundation for building bridges between different generations of Kenyan musicians took place last month at a Nairobi studio.

This project involved the setting up of two separate studios at Ketebul Music in Nairobi, one catering to the digital generation and the other to veterans of the analogue era.

John Nzenze and Peter Akwabi, who between than have a combined experience of over 100 years of recording music, did their sessions in the analogue set up while a group of contemporary artistes like Iddi Aziz, Alai K. and Atti Sanna recorded their tracks in the digital studio.

At the end of a day of recording different sessions, the analogue recording was brought into the digital studio so that the producers and DJs could combine that with the digital sessions to create two completely fresh recordings.

The experiment was organised as a practical means of exploring the possibilities that exist in getting old and young musicians to work together and benefit from different approaches.

Kenya has struggled to identify its sound in the context of the global music market in the manner that say, South Africans or Malians or Nigerians have.

Tabu Osusa, the executive director of Ketebul Music, has consistently expressed strong views about the failure of Kenyan artistes to carve out their own identity from the diverse rhythms played across the country. According to Tabu, the contemporary Kenyan artiste sings or raps in Kiswahili or one of the local dialects combined with English or Kiswahili, but everything else about them is a combination of Nigerian, American and Jamaican imitations. “Language does not constitute a genre,” says Tabu.

He was speaking during a forum called “Analogue elders and digital natives” which brought together a panel of artistes, producers, and journalists on the second day of the project that had began with the experimental recording sessions.


Ketebul Music, a production house dedicated to archiving and preserving East Africa’s musical heritage, organised the event together with Santuri East Africa a network of DJs, producers, and performers

Robert Waweru aka Wawesh Mjanja, an urban music producer, took a divergent view from Osusa on the question of identity. “The generation before us did not surrender the blue print and so there is no legacy for young musicians to build upon.” His view is that the young generation of artistes naturally play the music that is easily accessible to them and that which they relate to, in this case imitations of hip hop or West African hits.

“Lazy!” responded Sali Oyugi, a musician who is of Kenyan and Tanzanian heritage, who says the youth must be ready to spend time and energy researching distinct styles within Kenyan communities and use this as a base for creating modern music.

She recalled that a Japanese musician had come to Kenya years ago and spent close to a year in the villages of Western Kenya learning how to play the nyatiti, the eight-stringed instrument that is played by the Luo community in Kenya. Today, Ericko Mukoyama, who adopted the Luo name Anyango, has mastered the nyatiti, which she plays at concerts around the world while ironically the number of musicians in Kenya who can play the instrument is fast dwindling with the passing of the older generation of players.

“The current generation must reach out for the baton because it sure as hell is not going to come to them,” warns Oyugi. “The younger musicians must learn the nyatiti and other instruments and find innovative ways of playing them for a new generation.”

Using his own example from five decades ago, veteran musician Peter Akwabi, said established musicians must mentor the next generation to take the baton from them.

He recalled the long struggle of persistence before he could cut his first record at the Africa Gramophone Service (A.G.S) in August 1963, just months before Kenya attained Independence.

Akwabi’s task would be to carry the guitar for older musicians like George Mukabi and his fellow panelist John Nzenze, both of whom were already established musicians that he was understudying.

“This was my introduction to how music worked and I picked the best skills from the maestros,” he added.

Tabu said he was pained that Kenyans had shunned their own brand of guitar music known as benga, yet a similar style still thrives in parts of Southern Africa, thanks to Kenyan records that were distributed in that region by legendary producer, Oluoch Kanindo, in the early 1970s. The music came to be known as “kanindo” because of the name that appeared on his label, and is still played by Zimbabwean musicians like Moses Rwizi and Kanindo Jazz Band.

“How do you tell a celebrity that he does not know what he is doing?” asked Makadem, an Afro pop performer and a member of the panel. His argument was that the hip-hop culture had so permeated the music scene in Kenya and turned many young artistes into stars. To many of this kind, the mere suggestion that they needed to change or even introduce new elements to their music would be ludicrous.


However those East Africa artistes who in recent years have been embraced beyond the region have done so by introducing some elements of authentic rhythms innovatively into their music. Uganda’s biggest act Jose Chameleone retreated to the rural Uganda to draw inspiration for the single Wale Wale while Eddy Kenzo has been a phenomenon with Sitya Loss an innovative mix of dancehall and traditional rhythms.

The success of the single Sura Yako by Kenya’s Sauti Sol, a group whose first two albums were produced by Wawesh, is thanks to a rhythm that is heavily influenced by a traditional dance from Western Kenya known as lipala.

Wawesh insisted that any meaningful process to address the generational gap in Kenyan music must not just be the responsibility of the “digital natives” but should take place on the terms of both the young and their analogue predecessors. Just as the two day event had been.