Features

Back to my roots

Nairobi-based artiste, Mary Hamboga aka Almaz, has taken a bold step defying prevalent trends to break ranks and swim against the tide by specialising in Pokomo music. She speaks with Emmanuel Mwendwa

For a long time, composing traditional influenced music was regarded as the forte for mostly rural-based artistes.

This scenario somewhat inadvertently edged the bulk of indigenous songs into the fringes of mainstream urban music scene.

In search for lyrical inspiration, the captivating singer imbued with engaging stage presence embraced live studio recordings. She also tapped into her Pokomo community’s cultural roots.

“Indisputably, there is growing preference for afro-flavoured songs, thus opening up new options for audiences seeking variety,” says Almaz.

Her debut 11-track album titled Muyogi slated for release later this year, mirrors both the artiste’s creative and lyrical advocacy sensibilities. Some of the tracks featured include Mvuya
Ndzo
(plea for rain),
Muchuchula
(beer), Majimfu
(money),
Mseto
(blend),
Kachia
(gone),
Kitoko
(Pokomo dance)
and
Tu
Sawa
Tu.

“The option for cultural influenced music is a refreshing alternative for those eager to dance to or sample an array of homegrown songs,” she notes.

As a performer, Almaz can also sing in French and English. However, she has a preference for her indigenous Pokomo dialect and Kiswahili songs.

Whereas her lyrics express day-to-day experiences, she intends to stir up conversations and shed light on her marginalised community’s diminishing cultural heritage.

“I ventured into the local music scene when sampling foreign-flavoured influences was widely in vogue and considered fashionable,” she remarks.

But with consummate ease, she dabbles in serving up subtle jazz-inclined, Afro-fusion songs – grounded in her ethnic Pokomo cultural roots. This resolute focus has carved her niche as sought-after vocalist in Nairobi’s burgeoning music circles. Almost every week, she earns consistent gigs and bookings at different venues.

Almaz performs regularly with the Latapaza Tunes Band at various hotel nightlife lounges, besides lighting up weddings and corporate events with her mellifluous vocals range. These stints have borne fruit, with successive years of exposure accrued on a competitive corporate and hotels circuit, which requires skilful in house bands.

“Having to entertain different audiences at varied venues, entails learning the finesse to gauge varied clientele musical tastes to satisfy their individual preferences,” remarks Almaz.

One of the seasoned background vocals (BGVs) singer-turned-vocalist’s memorable concerts – is a Save-A-Child charitable fundraiser dinner event held at Fairview The Norfolk a few months ago.

She captivated revellers with the audience comprised distinguished, high-profile guests such as the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta.

“From where I stood, everyone was thrilled having a great time out dancing and occasionally singing along to the songs we performed,” recounts Almaz.

Upbeat audience response is hardly surprising for the artiste, whose music career started off singing BGVs for several local bands.She gained immense exposure at an early age listening to Southern African artistes Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie and Oliver Mtukudzi’s songs.

Her dalliance and interest in music peaked when she joined elder brother Iqwo Mzugueller, a keyboardist, for gigs with hotelbased acts in Mombasa. She shared stage with Indian singer Amar, and one-time Mombasa Roots band vocalist Dala Hamisi – then resident act at African Safari Club.

“This gig was my debut show singing in public. I endured stage fright but gradually gained confidence. It served as a launching pad for my musical career,” recalls Almaz.

They later formed a sister and brother band, Oasis Duo with Almaz learning the ropes, growing in stature fired up by sheer determination to succeed. Their authentic vocals and versatile on stage capabilities, earned the duo resident band contracts at varied hotels along the coastal strip.

In pursuit for greener pastures, they shifted base to Nairobi in early 2000 landing short-term gigs at the Green Corner and Windsor Hotels.

Over subsequent years, her vocal abilities and singing prowess blossomed, earning Almaz regular stints with different bands.

These include Sweet Waves, Rafikiz, Hot Rod, Pressmen, Boda Boda, Kayamba Africa, Twin Tunes, Big Flame and Basi Tu. Notably, she was also enlisted as a background vocalist [BGV] for the Idols East Africa contest 2008 edition and Alliance Française’s Spotlight on Kenyan Music series projects. 

In 2010, Almaz embarked on a solo career. She performed one-off gigs with Suzanna Owiyo, Iddi Achieng, Burundi’s Kidum, rock guitarist Markus Kamau, Zimbabwe’s Andy Brown and mbira player Queen Mashie, among others.

Her parting shot: “Every focused artiste has to grow professionally, hence the need to chart distinctive musical identity is of paramount importance”.

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