By Lars Russell (Follow on Twitter)
Like near everyone who saw Just A Band's music video "Ha-He," otherwise known as "Makmende Amerudi!", I was captivated. Grainy B-style gangster-film parody, all stances and stage punches. Delicate, absurdist, almost phenomenological subtitles ("Are you a dreamer?" for example; or this charming double-negative, "It's not passive to not respond verbally"). Then there's the mythical Makmende himself. A swarm of elements struck the right chords, astonishment with affirmation, to bring the video's spread to critical mass. CNN and the Wall Street Journal followed dozens of blogs in praising Just A Band for being the first Kenyans to light so widespread a Twitter-fire and gain 100,000 YouTube views in such a hurry.
This was all very cool for East Africa's technological reputation and, of course, augured a resurgence for, or curiosity about, Makmende as a cultural concept. But has any of it to do with the music?
"Ha-He" may be Just A Band's first international success, but it was already the second video off the group's second album 82, released last year and distributed for the first time in the United States in February. The track is catchy enough as it goes, ushering itself onto the scene on a tumbling barrel of bass chords that give way to splashing drum fills and jerkily looping vocals. Still, I wondered if the song, with its unprecedented (by African standards) reach over the internet's Long Tail, was a proper ambassador for Kenya's richly complex urban music scene, or just an artifact of nifty filmmaking blended with some pulp-hero nostalgia. So I undertook to hear the rest of 82. What I found was the sign of a generational shift.
Just A Band are creators of what used to be called Afro-fusion. All music is cross-pollinated -- at the same time as James Brown heard the accented first-beat in West African rhythms that became the foundation for funk, a Nigerian music student named Fela Kuti was discovering Fillmore Jazz and Black Power in California. East Africans have for decades swallowed their pop with a multivitamin of influences: from a scattering of tribal dance styles, Western soul, jazz and rock, to Egyptian-inflected Ta'arab and even South Asian rhythms. More recently, like everywhere, American hip-hop invaded. Afro-fusion is a pop hybridization of local tradition with foreign forms; an admixture.
The sounds on 82 bear traces of this fusing action. "Save My Soul," the opening track, is an electronic version of Kenyan "gospel" (more like pop R&B than America's harmonized church choirs). "Huff + Puff" could be a collaboration between Outkast and Scottish avant-gardist Momus. Other tracks feature elements of late (and early) Michael Jackson, Esau Mwamwaya or Daft Punk. But the Makmende phenomenon illustrates why Just A Band are not themselves specially importing, or receiving, foreign additives. They are instead absorbing them from a culture that exists already, locally, in Nairobi.
"Makmende" is explained as a sheng (Kenyan slang) term derived from Clint Eastwood's famous line, as Dirty Harry, "Go ahead, make my day," but, as one blogger puts it, "that depends on your age and where you grew up." The word has a Western-media source, but for the Kenyan bloggers and twitterers who seized on the fantastic character as a champion returned, the source was their own memories, their childhoods in urban Kenya. "Makmende was a term used way back in the early to mid 1990s to refer to someone who thinks he's a superhero," that blogger says. "For example, if a boy who's watched one too many kung-fu movies on TV." This became the source for Just A Band's "dreamer."
The combo named their album 82 because 1982 is the year all three members were born ("Sudden Impact," the Dirty Harry movie, came out in 1983). It's also the year of a failed uprising against Kenya's then-president, Jomo Kenyatta's successor, which helps draw a line between their generation and the generations that came before. "Americans are very literal about their music," Jim Chuchu, band member and producer, and "Ha-He"'s co-director, told afromusing.com, "Band X fits into this genre and you shouldn't ask where they're from or why they're doing this." Just A Band draw on foreigners Stevie Wonder and Jamiroquai in their music, but its members came of age when Stevie Wonder and Jamiroquai already lived, so to speak, in the daily, urban Kenyan culture. Their music is in that way not a hybrid, but wholly Kenyan.
The African continent is today rapidly installing infrastructure to help catch up to the developed world in internet connectivity and bandwidth, among other resources. But the lasting contribution of these communications development in Africa may not be, as many think, the availability to Africans of Western media and information. Makmende caught on, the first time around, before memes were "memes," and trending topics could not be tracked by RSS feeds but traveled by word of mouth and speed of feet. Greater connectivity will provide Africans not just access, but an active digital voice. The difference made by a plugged-in Africa might be, instead, letting the rest of the world in on what already happens there.