Is it individual musicians or collectives that do the trick and get to live out their dreams as far as musical success is concerned? Alfayo Onyango reviews the meritocracy of the issue
Them Mushrooms, African Heritage Band, Mombasa Roots, Safari Sound Band, Necessary Noize, K-South, P-Unit, Just A Band, Tattu, Elani, Moipei Quartet and Sauti Sol; isn’t this what greatness looks and sounds like?
By early 70s, Kenyan music ensembles were destined for world recognition with bands such as Them Mushrooms producing platinum hits including the classic Jambo Bwana. The accomplishments by Kenyan groups cannot be swept under the rag, as is the case mostly for any Kenyan musician.
This is because, many have toiled and boiled for their voice to be heard, while some go ahead and produce some of the most culturally-shifting music. Their ethic, therefore, can never be dismissed or catalogues vilified to some certain extent.
It is easy to find out who are the most popular acts in Kenyan music at any given time or period and one can’t fail to find out that groups are at the pinnacle of proceedings.
Ethic, Sauti Sol, H_art the Band, Ochungulo Family, The Kansoul, you name it. These are some of the most dynamic, unpredictable and post-modern groups offering a variety of sounds at the helm of mainstream music in Kenya.
No disregard to the underground and potential future leaders of culture such as collective EA Wave, ADFamily, TNT, Kaskazini, Wakadinali and defunct parties such as Le Band and Camp Mulla.
They have also had their fair share of the spotlight and continue to pursue the arts more individually, finding themselves even more through music. It can hardly be an argument that 254 really see strength in numbers.
Even so, there is still a room for individual brilliance. Otile Brown, Khaligraph Jones, Nyashinski, King Kaka, Akothee, Victoria Kimani, Mayonde and Octopizzo, and a host of newbies such as Ayrosh, Nviiri The Storyteller, Naiboi and Stonee Jiwe are among the names proving and challenging the narrative that individuals can only go so far.
“With Just A Band, we were free to do whatever we wanted without the attachment of what the public wanted and we were never afraid to do new stuff, something that I have rolled over to my solo stuff,” Blinky Bill tells Spice.
Just A Band, a jazz hip-hop electronic experimenting group, were the epitome of what bands from Kenya achieve. Alongside cementing not only intimate relationships with fans through their music, but also as band members, it gave them an edge many groups desire in order to gel and propelled them to world renowned success.
From world tours, to giving Nairobi unforgettable moments whenever they took to stage, they are arguably one of Kenya’s most critically acclaimed groups. In a heartfelt show during Blankets and Wine concert featuring American artiste Aloe Blacc in April 2016, the group announced a two-year hiatus.
“I guess we ticked so well because we had been band mates for six years, but friends for like 10 years, so we really did things like brothers do. To me, the satisfaction we got from making music together is irreplaceable,” singer Charisma of Le Band recalls his times with the crew.
The Afro-fusion singing, canorous, guitar-stroking group Le Band has been one of the most eminent groups of this decade for Kenyan music. Its unorthodox creativity blended with their eclectic range and trademark bass voices made them darlings of music lovers.
Since their inception, the group headlined a lot of major shows in the capital including opening for American R&B sensation Omarion in 2017 before deciding to go separate ways.
“We didn’t really split, although that’s the impression from the outside. We made a consensual decision as a group that we should focus on solo projects, be it music or anything else, and this has honestly helped us a lot because people are now discovering individual strengths they did not know they had. Le Band music is coming soon. Actually, an album might even be in the works,” says an excited Charisma.
It is said that if you want to do something right, do it yourself. Individualism is always a tough task because there are always more demands and the workload is sometimes overwhelming. Managing a group is not always easy; it seems to be tailored for the most impavid in life.
“For instance in life, when you invite someone to your house, it’s easy to get prepared for one person, where as for a group, you may have to readjust things even by going out of your way in order to satisfy everybody. I feel the music industry is best suited for individuals to prosper more than groups,” shares ADFamily honcho Musau Mumo.
He adds: “Logistics in regard to groups makes work harder and expensive and that’s why groups can also struggle to get shows, endorsements and such. However, I still believe if you want something, you have to work for it, so it’s all just how you play the game. However, groups are important.”
Individuals that have left groups such as Nyashinski (Kleptomainiax), Blinky Bill (Just A Band), Eric Wainaina (Five Alive) and Wyre and Nazizi (Necessary Noize) have walked on eggshells for sustainable periods before finding their feet to continue the musician’s marathon.
They tour, get endorsements, produce quality and give Kenyan music a worthy shot. From this analysis, therefore, it is easier to say solo music career is rewarding than when it’s pursued collectively.