Meet The Musicians And Storytellers Of Kenya

Jul 8, 2014
Originally published on July 9, 2014 10:29 am

One musician traces his ancestry by playing his nyatiti while another uses his powerful vocals to express his frustration toward Kenya's politicians. A storyteller makes the crowd giggle and roar as she shares timeless tales of domineering lions and clever hares. These were three Kenyan artists who gave visitors a virtual trip to Kenya during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer.

Eric Wainaina: A Million-Selling Musician Who Tells It Like It Is

Dressed in ripped jeans, T-shirt and fedora, Eric Wainaina quietly slips into the seat behind his keyboard. His smooth, powerful voice soon silences a chattering audience as he moves into his first performance at the festival – a song aimed at the politicians of Kenya.

"You wind up your window of your fancy car/ Turn on your AC/ You can't feel the potholes/ You can't feel the heat."

He's definitely not shy about making politicians feel the heat. "Fancy Car" is about Kenyan officials who use taxpayers money to buy luxury goods.

The 40-year-old singer is one of the most popular musicians — and political activists — in Kenya. His songs are often banned on state-run radio but remain widely requested on private stations. And his award-winning albums are among the country's top-selling records: His first sold more than 2 million copies. He's even been appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Environmental Programme.

While studying at Berklee College of Music, Wainaina wrote "Kenya Only," which became the country's mourning song following a 1998 terrorist attack that killed more than 200 people in the capital city of Nairobi.

Since then, his music – a fusion of pop and benga, a Kenyan genre known for its fast-paced rhythmic beats and upbeat guitar riffs – has caught international attention. The lyrics reflect Wainaina's social and political indignation and resonate with the millions who disapprove of Kenya's authoritarian and corrupt political culture.

But he says he hasn't received strong reactions from the government – just the occasional polite requests to stop playing certain songs, particularly if the president is in the audience.

Number one on the "don't play" list is his 2001 hit that criticizes the government for taking bribes. Kenyans, on the other hand, loved the song so much they've adopted it as their unofficial national anthem.

The song's title, "Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo," means "land of small things," and in Kenya, "small things" is slang for bribes. Police officers, state officials, even health care workers and school teachers often demand a little something – maybe some tea or soda – from citizens. What they're really thirsty for is money.

Wainaina says that people initially used the phrase to request a small tip, usually some sort of beverage, for their work. "But people began to demand that for essential services that the government should be providing," he says.

When the police found his lost ID card, Wainaina had to bribe the officer to return it. He recalls her warning: "'If you don't give me 200 shillings [about $3], then it could get lost again.'"

"I'm happy to say that that was the last time I paid a bribe," he says. "My wife said to me, 'When you pay a bribe, you give people more power than they have.'"

The song pokes fun at greedy officials, telling them that if they want tea, they should go to the town of Limuru, where tea leaves are grown. If they want soda, they should drink Fanta.

Not all songs are anger directed at politicians; Wainaina wrapped up his performance with "Revolution Time," a ballad that serves as a peaceful rallying cry for political reform and an encouragement for Kenyans to take action through protests and elections.

"Should we shrug our shoulders in indifference/ Should we sit there and suck our teeth/ Throw up our hands and surrender/ And take opposition on the fences/ We cannot sit down when the ground is shaking/ Trembling from below, the earth is breaking / It's time to put on our uniforms / Sign up for the revolution."

--Linda Poon

Alumbe Hellen Namai: A Storyteller Who Knows Why Goats Run From Buses

You've got the mighty lion. And you've got the small animals of the world – the hares, the hyenas, the ants.

The lion will always win, right?

Not according to Alumbe Hellen Namai. She's a professional storyteller. And in her stories, the little animals figure out how to beat the maned bully: They band together and fight back.

Namai raises her eyebrows and her voice when she tells the lion tale at an intimate arena at the Folklife Festival, where a couple of dozen adults and kids sit on benches arranged in a semicircle.. She gestures broadly, her orange robe rippling. And she definitely can work a crowd. She chants and gets her audience to join in: "We have strength! We have to win! Let us roar!"

For Namai, stories aren't just fun. They're "life lessons." As part of the Kenyan storytelling group zamaleoACT, based in Nairobi, she loves to share her stories with children. She hopes they'll learn their own strengths and weaknesses and will gain insights into how to make decisions when, as teenagers and adults, they face a crisis.

Also, they'll learn not to sneak on a bus without paying.

"Do you know why goats run away if they see a bus?" she asks me when I interview her after the performance. "The goat took a bus. He didn't pay his fare. And when he sees a bus, he thinks, 'The conductor wants his money.' "

Namai thinks stories help you to know yourself. So I ask her: What does it mean to you to be Kenyan?

"To be truthful to myself and follow what I love."

I wondered if a storyteller might have an idea about what to call the "developing world." Many people object to this label. One reason is that everyone is developing. Another reason is that many parts of Africa are developed. Check out Nairobi's skyline.

For a moment, the very animated Namai is still. She pauses. She thinks. And then she says:

"We are the patient continent. We take time. We are not in a hurry. It's okay. Now we are here. What can we do to move on?"

Sounds like the start to a very good story.

--Marc Silver

Ayub Ogada: Finding His Roots In An Ancient Lyre

One day in 1982 musician Ayub Ogada wandered into an African music shop in his home country of Kenya.

There on the wall, he saw his past and his future: a stringed instrument called the nyatiti, which his people, the Luo tribe of western Kenya, have played for hundreds of years.

Ogada was an accomplished drummer and founder of the African Heritage Band, which mixed rock and soul with traditional Kenyan music. But he'd never seen the nyatiti before. It's an eight-stringed instrument, about half the size of a guitar. The circular base is made of papyrus, cow hide and banana plant bark, and its strings were fashioned from nylon (although he later found out that the original strings for the instrument were made of fishing line or cat tendons).

"I walked in and said 'Wow, that's beautiful, how come I hadn't known about this?'" Ogada, 58, says of his first encounter with the instrument he now calls his "wife."

And so began his love affair with the nyatiti. He learned its chords and its songs, which tell of his tribe's travels from Mesopotamia down the Nile River to what is now Kenya. Those songs, he said, taught him about his Luo heritage, which he felt he needed to explore after spending his younger years in the United States.

He notes that the nyatiti resembles an ancient Egyptian lyre seen in hieroglyphics. When he plays it, he often unrolls his pharaoh-like beard, which he usually keeps tucked underneath his chin, to show his deep connection with the ancient Egyptians.

His ancestors' knowledge has been passed down through the music, and he said that in return, he will continue to pass it down.

Nyatiti means "daughter of the clan" he says. The plucking of its strings creates a sharp noise that Ogada says sounds like "nya" and "titi."

"When I play the instrument it actually sings its name," he says. "It praises itself; this is an instrument that sings praise."

The nyatiti is used at life cycle ceremonies like weddings and funerals. With the sharp sound of the lyre and his deep, smooth vocals, Ogada sings the praises of his clan.

For decades, Ogada traveled the world and performed in places like London and the United States. His music was featured in movies like The Constant Gardener. Back in Kenya, he's now one of the country's most famous folk artists.

For Ogada, tracing his heritage through the music of the nyatiti is a feeling that he cannot describe: "You just know you're arriving home."

-Nicholas St. Fleur

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