Traditional music instruments come alive at Kenya’s Mipigo

Okot p’Bitek in the ‘Song of Lawino’ describes a dance that is akin to the modern day disco. This traditional disco was performed in different communities to give boys and girls a chance to interact and find suitors. Among the Acoli, of Uganda, as Okot puts it in the ‘Song of Lawino’, such dances were common place. The dances were organized by professional drummers and musicians and the sweet sound of the drums would lure young men and women to the jig of their lives. In the book, the persona Lawino nostalgically remembers that, Ocol her husband fell in love with her because of her tantalizing beauty and moves on the dance floor. Such sounds that made Lawino melt Ocol’s heart were brought alive at Mipigo event last Friday. The missing part was a clearing, a hearth and spinning bodies but the rhythms swayed mother earth into an evening full of love, tapping, nodding, clapping and ‘wow’ from the audience.

The event at Goethe Institut brought together a collective of experienced international drummers to Nairobi Kenya on November 18 for a stunning and entertaining show courtesy of Debe Debe, a collective of percussionists and drummers based in Nairobi Kenya. The group is made of Charles Obuya (Charlo-T), Daniel Mburu Muhuni (Mbutch) and Zahir Nathoo (Zaza), trainers, and traditional music enthusiasts who have over the years tried to carry on the huge legacy of transferring traditional drumming skills from rich cultural backgrounds in Kenya to the modern day. 

The drummers showcased their amazing skills on sets which included diverse drums ranging from; the Mbumbumbu to Djembe. The rich heritage embodied in the trio that runs Debe Debe speaks of the desire for rebirth in the performance art that was and partly remains a hallmark of the African society.

Mipigo, was the third of such shows but the first to showcase solo and duet percussion performance. During his opening speech, Debe Debe Director Zaza told of how it was difficult to keep the wheels of cultural performances alive “unless you have a stable social, political and economic background.” he posed. This is evident based on the few cultural events held in Kenya and the fact that these events have been reduced to a spectacle that comes alive during national holidays and displayed as a form of tourist attraction. Nonetheless, as far as societal appreciation goes, there has been an upsurge of culturally infused performances all over Africa. In West Africa, the likes of Rokia Traore have exclusively used traditional instruments in their performances, the ‘Kora’ rings loud in most of her performances while the likes of Kenya’s Susanna Owiyo have popularized the ‘Orutu’ in her songs and the revered Ayub Ogada has made the ‘Nyatiti’ an admirable instrument. The downside is, these artists, especially in Kenya have little national backing and recognition. 

The mention of Rokia Traore and Owiyo opens up another angle to in musical appreciation. Traditionally, playing instruments was a reserve of men. In fact in some communities, instruments had unique religious ties hence a no go zone for women. Mipigo show went beyond boundaries with amazing female percussionists showcasing their skills. The women performers included Viona Dumas (Vee Kafi), Philipa Crosland-Taylor, Doro Butchi, Kasiva Mutua, Emille Basez and Tatyana Atyan. Tatyana Atyan and Vee Kafi had a spectacular duet. Both are in an all-female band known by the moniker Motra Music. They delved into their deep canyons of poetry and drum skills to lift the room like a spirited exorcist to the admiration of the audience who were ready to engage with clapping. Another performer, Kasiva Mutua, in a solo, titled ‘Pakashenzi’ used the conga, djembes and splash to conquer uplift and shake a leg or two. She is indeed a master of her craft.    

American Emille Basez who hails from Austin Texas, brought with her the ‘Pandeiro’ a Brazilian instrument with two amazing performances centered on her encounters in Brazil and Rwanda. The remarkable ‘Pandeiro’ player’s performance presented the best from the ‘Afro’ cultures much to the amazement of those at the event. Her performance was stunning and brilliant in execution as the ‘Pandeiro’ resonated with the songs in the astonishing of ways. The vocally blessed Basez is part of the ‘Ley Line’ band, a multilingual folk and soul band from United States.

Mipigo also brought in another twist in the night’s performance, with a teacher-student collaboration which saw Mbutch engage his protégé Phillipa in a ‘drumalogue’. Their synchrony was brilliant as they explicitly delivered a unique blend to the ‘Djembes’. In the showcase, the co-ordination and dexterity was beyond teacher-student imagining, delivered in the most sincere of ways. 

Chalo T and Doro would simulate a rather wonderful tune using ‘Djembes’ and ‘Congas.’ Chalo picked up Doro at the national theatre and apprenticed her into one lovely bundle of musical symphony. Their duet dubbed, The Way It Is, went with the quake of the earth shaking the raindrops off the trees bellowing a musical experience that left a loud silence kind of meditation among the audience. Chalo T and Mbutch are both accomplished drummers whose experience runs deep and their dedication to keep music alive remains unrivaled.

Besides the teacher-student duet, Zaza engaged Jonathan Fox in grueling masterfully crafted echoes of mother earth with the Djembes. Their performance was frenzied, energetic and engaging. It resonated with the traditional African shake, move and stump dance. Jonathan Fox, the Australian has managed to work with Ghanaian Bortie Okoe (Ghana) of the African Soul and Ivorian Jean-Marc of the Sun of Africa. 

The evening also brought in the experienced Sven Kacirek. Kacirek is unafraid to wade into the world of music; he has previously recorded two albums in Kenya and has worked with a number of artists throughout the world. Together with Jonathan Fox, Kacirek shows that music is not confined within the construct of a culture but can be performed and appreciated by anyone. His performance involved instruments from Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. The performance dubbed small pieces for metal, glass and wood was a kind of meditation accompanied by breathtaking movie sound effects. What was intoxicating to watch was how the German worked his instruments (Kiring’ong’o, soft percussion and electronics) like a master.

It would be incomplete if the event ended without a modest touch of modern musical elements, talented acts like Michel Ongaro, Blinky Bill, and Joji Porgy were given a chance to show their mastery. Ongaro performed ‘Confused Journey Man’ on the drum sets with adroitness of an accustomed musician. Joji and Chalo-T did an infusion of the Djembes and drum set letting out a well-articulated sound that spoke of the skill levels the two have and the chemistry they had working together at the Coke Studio. Finally, DJ, Producer and Musician Blinky Bill electronic sounds fusion would rend the air as the show ended on a magical tone.

Mipigo in itself opened a platform of deep thinking and reinvention of African Music. It provoked a dire need to rethink and re-examine East African music, which in itself sends one into limbo when a radio belches half-backed and a poor imitation of western music. With such great talent as displayed at Mipigo, one wonders why, very few traditional musicians from East Africa do not make it to the international platform. It is now inevitable, for Musicians and Music producers in the East to recreate a platform where traditional African instruments are an integral part of music. To enjoy music as a social cultural tool that not only brings people together but moves along the ages while engaging and invoking the spiritual, the physical and the emotional. It has its place in the souls of human beings where it doesn’t die down, but lives forever. That is why it is prudent that African musical instruments should become tools of day to day modern performances.

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