New album shines light on Kenya's marginalised communities

Saturday June 29 2024

The sleeve cover for the “Mapolomoko” album from Ketebul Music. PHOTO | KETEBUL MUSIC


The groundbreaking album titled Mapolomoko, from Ketebul Music captures the unique traditional music of the marginalised indigenous pastoral communities in Kenya.

Mapolomoko is a collaborative music project between UK-based Congolese guitarist, composer and producer Fiston Lusambo and Tabu Osusa, music producer and founding director of Ketebul Music (a non-profit organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya).

Supported by the Arts Council of England, the project seeks to showcase the traditional music of the marginalised communities living in remote regions of Kenya, with a focus on pastoralists from northern part of the country.

During these recording sessions, Lusambo and Osusa liberally experiment with ‘alternative sounds’ by replacing conventional instruments with indigenous instruments. The drum kit is replaced by percussions like the sanduk (sound box), while the obukano and the nyatiti (two types of Kenyan lyres), play the role of the electric and bass guitars respectively.

Featuring various artistes from the El Molo, Turkana, Borana, and Munyoyaya communities, the album was released in May 2024 under the Ketebul Music label after one year of recording sessions.

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The musicians and their instruments are Abdi Rashid Jibril (calabash, shakers, conga and bukarabu); Akuku Danger (egg shaker); Dennis Dancun Mosiere (obokano); Gabriel Odhiambo (nyatiti); George Achieng’ (orutu, ongengo and sanduk); Kazungu Charo Shutu (marimba); Peter Mboya Orinda (abuu and oporo); and Theo Ottweke (kalimba).

The eight published tracks are "Iyaya Iya Iyie", "Epuute" (Fishing net), "Lila", "Akwai", "Murasana", "Congea", "Nyatiti" (ft. Winyo), and Mwa Bana (ft. Kabongo Tshisensa).

"Iyaya Iya Iyie", a song praising the uncles and aunts of the clan, is presented by the Gurapau Spirit group from the El Molo people. “My uncle of the Marle clan, head of the blessed mountain from which the harpoon was brought,” goes the lyrics in part. "I praise my aunt for blessing me and giving me two ropes to use with the harpoon for fishing, especially the Nile perch fish."

The Loiyangalani Stars from Turkana have "Epuute". Composed by Longori Awol and Akolong Nyang’Ayo, "Epuute" is about the fishing net, a very important item for the people of Lake Turkana, the Elmolo, the Ngilapoko, and the Ngimarkorio. They know how to use and protect it well because it is their source of livelihood. They use it in a way that they can conserve the lake and its ecosystem.

Love song

Malaika from the Borana people have two songs "Lila" and "Akwai".

"Lila" (originally called Similangi) is a love song in praise of a woman called Torino from the Sakuye community. The singer, in search of love, crosses rivers and thorny bushes to find the woman. The same song mentions other beauties from the Borana and other neighbouring communities.

"Akwai" is literally about a maize plantation. The singer equates planting and cultivation of maize seeds to one falling in love.

The Munyoyaya people have "Murasana", a wedding song and "Congea"a harvest track.

As to how this album has been received by the public, Lusambo, said, “It has been well received especially in Europe where I am, comments from every music lover are very good, they are saying that it is unique. Anyone from Africa who first listens to it loves it.”

Just like it important to know the right season for planting the seeds, one must also know the right time and with whom to fall in love. The singer regrets having loved the wrong person at one time but is much wiser now and swears not to repeat the same mistake.

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Murasana is a Munyoyoya wedding song in praise of both the bride and groom. The singers rejoice as they gleefully perform during the wedding ceremony, exulting the various virtues that every couple may need in order to make their marriage successful and a happy one.

Congea is a celebratory song performed during the harvesting seasons. The singers are jubilant and thankful for the rains that made it possible for the community to harvest bountiful food produce.

As to what makes the music of these pastoralists unique, Lusambo says, “It is unique because it is music which unites different tribes that have come together to record this album. We used instruments of various tribes to back songs for different tribes. As you know Africa has a problem with tribalism but this style of music will push different tribes to come together to perform songs because they need each other. This will promote good relationships between tribes in Africa or between African countries.”

Asked about the importance of experimenting with ‘alternative sounds,’ Lusambo responded: “The importance was to show the world community that in Africa we have our own instruments which are able to back any song coming from different parts of the world. This project gave chance to people who play those instruments to also perform and record internationally. This will enable them to believe and improve their talents, and develop their instruments so they can also teach next generation of African youth. I have observed our youth following and copying too much of the Western music but this project will help them to express themselves with their own music.”

Asked what difference the indigenous instruments make in this project, Lusambo, replied: “The difference is that those instruments have been used for generations by these tribes to back their own music. But now they are mixed with instruments of different tribes and backing songs of different tribes. The mixing of different tribal instruments backing one song makes the music sound unique.”

“The genre of this experimental music is called ‘Ajawa’ a musical style that started in Homabay County situated along the southern shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya,” said Osusa.

“The Ajawa music style got its name from a Luo traditional shaker instrument. It is characterized by its rhythmic complexity and rich use of traditional instruments. The style is from the original Ohangla music,” the Label Manager, Ketebul Music, Nick Abonyo says.

When asked why he took part in this musical project, Lusambo replied: “This project reflects what I was thinking to do for a longtime but I did not have any finance. It is only when Tabu Osusa, the director of Ketebul Music and I succeeded in getting a grant from the Art Council of England that this project was made possible.”

“The project was about replacing European instruments the world often use to back songs by African traditional instruments, like the lead guitar with the orutu, the rhythm guitar with the nyatiti and the obokano the bass with the abuu, the kick with the calabash, the hihat with the ongengo and shakers, congas with ditumba, djembe, and bukarabu. I also added other instruments like the marimba, likembe, and oporo,” Lusambo added.

“I had also included animal voices. Most of those instruments are from the Luo, Giriama, and Kisi tribes from Kenya and the Baluba tribes from DR Congo. I used them to back different tribal songs by the Turkhana, Borana, and the Munyoyaya tribes from Kenya, and the Baluba tribes from DR Congo. That is also why I have included the word trans-ethnic in this project because of mixing instruments of tribes from different countries together to back a song,” Lusambo further added.

When asked he plans to replicate this project elsewhere in Africa because the continent has many more unique sounds that have not been recorded for the rest of the world, Lusambo responded: “Yes, it is my dream to do that in all Africa, not only Africa but anywhere in the world where it will be possible. But as I am African let start home first.”

Arranger and founder of Congolese dance band, Zong Zing, Lusambo is a technically gifted musician with years of experience that has seen him perform alongside Grace Jones, Sting and Mose Fan Fan.

Ketebul Music is a record label, video production facility and recording studio, based at the Go Down Arts Centre in the industrial district. It exists to carry out research and promote the diverse fusion of traditional sounds of Kenya and East Africa through the documentation and archiving of the work of musicians.

Osusa is the founding Executive Director of Ketebul Music and for the last 30 years has been involved in the music industry as a promoter, producer, composer and band manager. He has been actively involved in shaping the careers and running some of the top recording and performing bands and artistes in the country, including the much acclaimed Orchestra Virunga and The Nairobi City Ensemble, and more recently Iddi Achieng,’ Makadem, Suzanna Owiyo, Olith Ratego, Ogoya Nengo, Gargar and Winyo to mention but a few.