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Back to our roots

In a greatly mainstreamed industry where music creation and production has been digitalised, it’s quite a sight to come across musicians crossing boundaries the unconventional way. Labdi Ommes, Kasiva Mutua, Moseh the Drummist, Idd Aziz, Daniel Onyango, among others, dove into the art of percussions and have not gone unnoticed, writes Cynthia Mukanzi

Even the best of mainstream musicians in the country struggle to make a successful cut in the industry. Imagine what alternative percussionists playing unconventional and sometimes, traditional African instruments could go through. And yet, some of them, with a dauntless spirit, have defied odds and followed their heart into music that makes sense to them.

Labdi Ommes wanted an instrument that could complement her voice. The Nyumba ya Ghorofa singer found that in Orutu, a Luo musical instrument. “I wanted something that was authentic and from my community. Orutu is exactly what I was looking for. Four years later after I took it up, I have never been happier,” she tells Spice. Ommes says that culturally, it is taboo for women from her community to play the instrument, but that wasn’t reason enough to stop her.

“When I took it up, I didn’t particularly care about what people would say. If I want to do something different then I will do it and that’s how I live,” she says.

Those impressed by her music have often compared her to other well-known legendary percussionists. She understands that her music might not fit in everybody’s playlist and so she moves with those who feel her vibe. “I really want to popularise the instrument and others. I want children to think beyond the conventional instruments. Focusing on such is redundant to me and so we should teach them to embrace our instruments so that they don’t die off,” says Labdi.

Kasiva Mutua traces her love for percussions back to her childhood in the arms of her grandmother who taught her to pay attention to every sound around her.  With over 10 years of professional drumming, Kasiva, who has become an international sensation, says the drums chose her.

“In playing mind to sounds, I would find rhythm in them, especially if they came out simultaneously. I would then translate them into music through drumming and that’s how it all began,” she says.

She acknowledges that the industry is kinder to male percussionists, but her fearless passion couldn’t allow her to settle in their shadow.

“It was absolutely tough when I started out.  There were times people would slit my drums open or steal my other instruments to disarm me, but I was relentless,” she says.

She met incredible musicians with similar interests who welcomed her. “One of them was a drummer called Matthew. He took me under his wing and showed me the ropes in the scene,” she recalls.

Kasiva studied journalism but drumming is where her love manifested. She compares it to an addiction she couldn’t run away from. “Drumming is therapeutic to me and that is why I gave it my all. I wasn’t playing to make money but I can’t deny that it has started paying,” she says.

Kasiva, whose beats border on afrobeat, zouk, samba, reggae and soul, has been regularly sought-after to play at massive events such as Safaricom Jazz Festival, Coke Studio Africa and Africa Nouveau. The TEDGlobal 2017 Chapter fellow is part of The Nile Project, which features percussionists from various countries.

Another instrumentalist who has attracted a lot of traction is Olive Karmen. She does not necessarily play traditional Kenyan instruments, but hers is a trap set of drums, which is impressive because there are not so many women doing it. Karmen once said that performing at Coke Studio led her to the right opportunities. “It has opened my eyes to new ways of creating new sounds with some of Africa’s most influential artistes,” she said.

Talking about percussionists without mentioning Idd Aziz is a fault. This powerfully voiced singer, songwriter, guitarist, flute player and drummer is also revered. His live performances are always exhilarating with a set based on several sounds. Aziz’s musical experience exhibits his prowess as percussionist, instrumentalist and singer. The Vale singer’s return to the country to pursue his solo career after having worked with global musical phenomena such as the late American star Whitney Houston was not an easy move. He has worked so hard at winning the crowd. “People here embrace commercial music recordings more than they do soulful and timeless content and live music. I’ve slowly managed to curve a niche for myself and I intend to keep growing my fan base with every new music release and live performances,’’ he said in a past interview.

With his bare hands beating up the drum, Moseh the Drumist has enjoyed international love. His face is a famous one at live concerts. Moseh has a compilation of recorded percussion-made tracks. The drummer’s captivating sound has seen him go on tours across the globe. He has played at big festivals in Italy, Dubai, Portugal and even Spain.

This is certainly a music revolution that deserves applause and support.

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