This weekend started- as most of them do- with Choices.
Choices: should I party hard this Thursday or save myself for the weekend? Should I go and see my new idol Binyavanga Wainaina and Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin performing in Westlands or go and listen to some quality live music at Treehouse?
As it turns out, the weekend –which for me now starts on a Thursday-, did indeed begin with Choices.
The occasion was the regular Thursday Night Live, easily one of my favourite events in Nairobi.
Choices is an amazing place. Driving up to it you might think you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. This little gem is hidden away in the Nairobi’s Industrial Area, behind Nakumatt Mega and alongside a number of boarded up businesses. You can tell you are close when you can smell the succulent barbequed chicken, the smoke wafting from beneath a massive tree draped in fairy lights.
You enter through a red-lit portico, through a narrow corridor and into the bar where the magic happens. The place has an eclectic, always lively feel to it. Photos of musical legends hang on the pebble dashed walls and the arches and columns the divide the place up give it an intimate feel.
The crowd is a good mix of all ages and not too trendy and self-conscious.
Tonight was even more packed than usual. Not a surprise, since it was Gogo Simo gracing us with their presence. Gogo Simo are a band from Mombasa led by married couple James and Susan. They blend hip-swaying chakacha rhythms with Congolese Soukous, Caribbean Zouk and a non -negligible splash of soul and funk.
They were amazing. Susan’s powerful vocals and James’s energy soon got the crowd to their feet. To my embarrassment James at one point jumped down and pulled me into some sort of ass-shaking, twirling dance. If only I could keep up with you Kenyans. You don’t know how blessed you are to have rhythm flowing through your veins.
It was a great beginning to one of the most musical weekends I have had in a long time.
I had been looking forward to Friday for weeks, ever since watching and falling in love with the band Sarabi. They would be performing again tonight at Alliance Francaise, together with Eric Wainina, Makadem, Just A Band and Juliani.
The occasion was the release Ketebul Music’s most recent compilation ‘Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest’. This Nairobi based not-for-profit NGO was established in 2007 with the ‘vision to carry out research and promote the diverse fusion of traditional sounds of Kenya and East Africa’, and to this end they have released several compilations which thoroughly dig into the history of Kenya’s various musical traditions, whether it be ‘Benga Blues’, ‘Funky Hits’ or ‘Kikuyu popular hits’.
Their latest release looks at the soundtrack of a country which has been, and still is, on a journey towards true independence, social justice and equality.
I love music for music’s sake. I love dancing, having a good time, drowning out my worries (not that I have many) with loud bopping rhythms. But the songs that send shivers down my spine, that bring tears to my eyes and make me want to stand up and do something are those which are inspired by social injustice, anger and the need for change. Thankfully the struggle for freedom has been accompanied by powerful soundtracks the world over, thus leaving us with a rich heritage of musical poetry.
The great thing about this compilation –which includes a CD, DVD and book and is now sitting beside me, looking all shiny and beautiful- is that, although it digs deep into the history of Kenya’s songs of protest, it gives a great deal of attention to young artists and their role in fighting the country’s social and political injustices.
The gig kicked off with Eric Wainaina, author of ‘Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo’, one of the country’s biggest anti-corruption songs and only one instance of his crusade against corruption and injustice. His poppy sounds were a good start to the evening but failed to get crowds to their feet. I was beginning to fear that these trendy looking kids were to cool to dance.
At this point Alliance was seriously filling up and I was bitching and moaning to my friend James because he had chosen a shitty spot. When he could take it no longer we made our way right to the front, underneath the stage and by the speakers.
Makadem was the only one on the line up I hadn’t heard of, and he was an amazing surprise. Although he is actually known for fusing various music genres with his native Luo Benga music, his performance at Alliance had a distinctly Jamaican reggae riddim flavour to it. He ran onstage dressed in military gear, sporting sun glasses (at night. But I forgive him- he’s just too cool) and powerfully screaming out the defiant lyrics of his hit ‘Weka Taya’. His song ‘Teachings’ Makadem attacks politicians for being cheating opportunists, whilst in ‘Mapambano’ he reminds Kenyans that the struggle for justice and equality is ongoing and urges the listeners to participate in the electoral process. His charisma on stage really got the night going and even the cool kids could not resist getting up to jump about. Maybe I say these words too much, but I LOVE HIM.
Next up were my favourites Sarabi, who, by starting off with Kenya’s national anthem, forced even the most reticent to get their asses of the floor. Talking about on stage presence, these guys have it in bucket-loads, the lead singer twisting and winding his lean body in improbable ways, the skinny percussionist banging out fast paced and entrancing rhythms. It was at this point that I noticed a small guy dancing manically, passionately and with impeccable rhythm right next to me. From beneath his green hood I could just about make out his dreadlocks whipping up and down. Dreadlocks you say? Oh hello
I hardly noticed him leave, captivated by the first few notes of my favourite song ‘Sheria’, Sarabi’s new track about the state of Kenya’s politics and the failure of Kenyans to take responsibility for their part in it. I was anxiously waiting for Juliani to come out and do his bit when suddenly the same small guy who had been rocking it out next to me bounced on stage. He was there, the whole time, my idol (yes, I have many idols)!!
‘Ok, when he comes back, I will say something clever to him’; ‘that was soooo cool’ is what I managed to mumble when he reappeared next to me. Wow. Cool Megan, cool.
Anyway…Sarabi’s performance ended with the crowd screaming for an encore, which was denied by the kind of awkward, posh spoken presenter.
Next up were Just A Band, the trendy looking house/funk/disco/jazz/hip-hop/afrofusion (you name it, they do it- just listen to this mix-tape) collective who brought the tempo down a little but definitely kept the spirits up with hits like ‘ha-he’ and ‘Huff+Puff’. I love how creative these guys are, not only with their music but with their videos, aesthetics and campaigns. One of the guys- Jim Chuchu- recently left the band but has kept on doing amazing things, many of which you can see here.
Finally it was Juliani’s turn to close the night. As you’ve probably noticed a musical connoisseur I am not- I hardly know the difference between a guitar and a base guitar and, beyond using the words ‘amazing’ and ‘rocking’, I have no idea how to describe a gig. But I am sure that even the most seasoned of musical journalists would struggle to find the words to describe this guy’s performance. Juliani was so full of energy he was literally bouncing off the stage. His little body would bounce straight back up as soon as it touched the floor, sending him high into the air. If I didn’t know he was ardently religious I would think he was on drugs.
Such energy, his face twisted into a grimace like a growling bull dog, shaking his head so hard and fast into a frenzy of lashing dreadlocks, you would never guess he’s actually singing gospel. His smooth and fast lyrical flow and his electrifying performance, as well as the socio-political content of his songs and his passionate involvement in a variety of worthy causes have won him a special place in my heart.
Fast-forward one day and I am at the GoDown gig and there he is, just standing there being all smiley and dreadlocked. As I try and work up the courage to go and speak to him he looks at me from a few metres away, smiles, waves and says ‘hi’. And what do I do? I wave back pathetically and look down at my feet. Smooth.
The Go Down Gig. Because after making me sweat buckets two nights in a row and turning my feet into blistered swollen hooves, Nairobi still tempts me with offers I could not refuse. The Go Down Arts Centre is a big converted warehouse and exhibition space not too far from Choices and it attracts a rather hip-looking crowd.
The atmosphere was great, it was good to see a few known faces and mingle with the cool kids. The beer was cheap and almost cold, a welcomed if momentary respite from the sweltering afternoon soon.
Dela kicked the music with a chilled and soulful set. It was great, but at this point I had already broken the seal and spent most of the time either going for a wee or buying more Tusker. Tusker baridi sana please.
That stopped being a problem when Yunasi took the stage, as I began to sweat the beer out rather than piss it out. Seriously, I had to keep asking my roomie Aisha whether the massive sweat patch on my back was visible. ‘Hmm…errr, it’s ok’ she lied.
Yunasi are an amazing all-boy band that plays a musical style called Sesube, a mix of Sega, Isikuti and Benga (the internet says). With their mix of modern and traditional instruments they manage to create explosive, fast paced sounds that got everyone dancing.
By the time Kidum came on I was knackered. He was cool and I actually recognized some of his tunes but it was his backing singers who really caught my attention. At one point one of the girls turned her ass towards the audience and started shaking it in a way that made it seem as though it was detached. I really don’t understand how one can mover their ass independently from the rest of their body like that. One day maybe I will get it…until that day I will practice in my room in front of the mirror. A girl can only dream…
All photos in this post are by the amazing Quaint Photography