January may be the hottest month in Kisumu, Kenya's city by the lake. It's certainly the driest, meteorologically and otherwise. Any money saved throughout the year has been spent during the December holidays, and when January comes around it seems like this bustling port town goes into sunlit hibernation. The crowds at the clubs thin out, the flow of drinks ends and the sun bakes dirt into dust.
I was in Kenya to record the pilot episode of "Raw Music International," a new TV show about underground music around the world. I was living with Ozzy, the Rastafarian director of the Yawa Dance Company, and his girlfriend, Emma. We'd spent the last month conducting heavy "research" at studios, bars, and clubs of ill repute. Together, we'd recorded three generations of Kenyan music -- from an 83-year-old blind guitar legend to teenage rappers raised on 50 Cent and New York swagger. Our goal was to present a more nuanced, human side of a part of the world normally overlooked between natural and social disasters. And to drink.
But when January rolled around, the music in Kisumu dried up with the booze. Things looked dire. Forced financial responsibility does not make for a bustling music scene.
Ozzy had a solution. Music in Kisumu city is centered around clubs and studios with all their attendant costs -- electricity, speakers, cover charges, angry bouncers. But only a few miles outside the city limits, music takes on a different form. In the villages, all you need for a concert is a calabash gourd, fishing wire and a highly talented old man to put it all together and play. These elements exist in abundance out in "the bush," so Ozzy and I gathered our gear and headed for the countryside.
We had one more problem to overcome. We had no soundman. The stoned Rastas we'd been using thus far had really failed at their task -- great guys, but they often turned off the audio recorder when they meant to push record. In their semi-blissed state, they refused to acknowledge the gravity of this issue.
So we grabbed LaFam, a local rapper and producer, to give us a hand. One of the few Kisumu rappers who was able to afford university, LaFam has a degree in sociology and a keen global outlook inspired by pirated American documentaries, Internet news, and the musical wisdom of Tupac Shakur. And like most sociology grads worldwide, he was effectively unemployed and available for musical adventures.
So it was that on a scorching day in January, a Rasta, a rapper, an Iranian guy from Iowa and a camerawoman fresh from Louisville arrived in the farming village of Nyawara in western Kenya looking for musical enlightenment.
LaFam was unusually quiet as we approached the center of the village, a cluster of leaning tin shops jutting from a dirt path. "You know, I'm kind of out of place here," LaFam told me by way of explanation. I looked over at my friend. In his baggy jeans and Texas t-shirt, his long hair picked out and pulled into a ponytail, he could look at home in New York. In Nyawara, I realized, not so much. I looked over at the usual gang of gawking village kids. For once, they weren't staring at me.
Hip-hop, and its attendant dress, haven't made the same inroads in the country as they have in Kisumu city. The reasons are practical -- jeans are expensive, electricity and radios scarce. The level of English required to understand rap is not easily attained at village schools. Standing in the middle of that village, LaFam seemed closer to me than to these kids who grew up 15 miles from him.
We had come to the countryside to find traditional sounds, but we had inadvertently brought a major part of the city with us. While we filmed a legendary 80-year-old nyatiti (traditional harp) player named Orono, a group of young people gathered to scope out our impromptu soundman LaFam. The kids in the village wanted to hear the young rapper's music, and eventually I proposed a duet. Would Orono be willing to provide some backing tracks for a LaFam freestyle?
Orono spoke no English, so LaFam asked on my behalf. When the laughter died down LaFam translated for the old man. "I don't do that ndombolo shit," he said, referring to a vigorous Congolese dance that, if there were justice in this world, would become the next Midwestern health club craze.
Eventually, Orono relented, and the resulting cypher was one of the highlights of our trip. Keep in mind the man is spitting improvised wisdom in his third language:
WATCH: Orono and LaFam freestyle:
Kenya is a country of massive diversity -- socially, economically, musically. 42 tribes, each with their own language and music, share an area the size of Texas. Urban Kenyans have widespread Internet access and speak on average three languages. Snoop Dogg gets more radio play here than in the states.
While urbanites watch the cities grow at astonishing speed, their brothers (often literally) in the countryside live much as they did 49 years ago when Kenya finally gained independence from Britain. In the countryside, traditional lifestyles, music and even languages that are quickly disappearing from the cities live on in varying degrees.
These worlds combine on a regular basis. Bankers from Nairobi go home to the village and pull on work clothes. DJs bring mix CDs to the countryside. And sometimes guys like LaFam find themselves rapping along to a nyatiti in the middle of a subsistence farming village.
Cultural traffic often flows one-way -- Western-inspired styles from the cities spreading slowly to places like Orono's village. Increasingly, however, people are returning from the countryside with new inspiration as well. Young people like LaFam are savvy cultural consumers, but they're not just absorbing western music. They're reciprocating -- combining international pop with thousands of years of musical tradition to create something truly unique. While the village kids were learning from LaFam, LaFam was learning from Orono.
This is a relatively new trend, but LaFam is not alone -- dozens of young people are beginning to appreciate the sounds of Kenya's past again, and new genres and mashups appear weekly. This rabid synthesis of the world's music is part of what makes Kenya's one of the most vibrant and exciting modern music scenes today.
On that blazing day in January, the Raw Music International crew had the privilege to see this cross-generational, cross-cultural collaboration in its most primal form. Through music, we learned about technology, class and the creep of modernity in one of the oldest cultures in the world. And we saw the beginnings of a funky new genre LaFam is still working to perfect. These are the stories (and songs) we'll continue to search out around the world.
LaFam took a sample of Orono playing nyatiti and flipped it to create the theme song for Raw Music International:
Learn more about Orono, the nyatiti legend, here:
Hear LaFam's newest song, Aduwa, from his upcoming mixtape, here. The chorus of the track is part of an ancient Luo victory song, and the track is done in three languages.
Hear tracks by Orono, LaFam, and many other underground Kisumu artists on the Raw Music International mixtape, free for download here:
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