The Kenyan Band That's Blowing Up the Charts
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Sauti Sol is the Afropop party in your earbuds you never knew you wanted.
By Taylor Mayol
It’s late — that’s how Kenyans like to party — at the kickoff celebration of a friend’s wedding in a swanky neighborhood in Nairobi. Rumor has it a special guest is set to perform. The guests, decked out in suits and cocktail dresses, wait, sipping cocktails and smoking hookah. Finally, the band walks out on stage, and everyone goes crazy. The performers, in fitted white suits, cozy up to the microphones and start crooning. People pull out their cellphones to take Snapchats and videos. So … house party with Drake? Better — Sauti Sol is one of the hottest African acts right now, but you don’t have to travel to East Africa to hear them.
Sauti Sol is a Kenyan Afropop group that formed in 2005, while bandmates Bien-Aime Baraza, Willis Austin Chimano, Polycarp Otieno and Savara Mudigi were still in high school. “Sauti” is Swahili for “voice,” and “sol” is Spanish for “sun,” so the name translates loosely to “voices in the sun,” which works, as their voices are like hot melted butter. The Nairobi-based group has launched three albums; last year it made Live and Die in Afrika available to its fans for free, as an early Christmas present. Some 400,000 of them downloaded it over 48 hours.
Sauti Sol has played venues from South Africa to London to Austin’s SXSW; the group is now touring the African continent after becoming the first Kenyan band to play a countrywide circuit — showing the love to their hometown fans. “Sauti Sol is an obvious crowd-puller. I mean, they were picked to perform for Obama!” says Ken Njuguna, a Kenyan lawyer at the Nairobi wedding, referencing the group’s 2015 performance when POTUS visited Kenya. Sauti’s getting international acclaim, too. Last year, it was nominated for a Black Entertainment Television award — the first for an East African band — and, in 2014, the band won the MTV Europe award for Best African Act.
Though the band is Afropop, its sound isn’t defined by that of the genre’s original founders like Fela Kuti, or by the top 40 club beats from the likes of Nigeria’s P-Square or Wizkid. Sauti Sol’s sound is a mix of dance, soul and R&B, and its powerful vocals reveal some unlikely roots: an a cappella group. Like the global nature of Kenya’s Swahili coast itself, the group’s music mixes flavorful sounds — saxophone and Spanish guitar with drums — in pop melodies and ballads. Influences include Malian singer Salif Keita, American vocalist Jason Mraz and Brit band Coldplay. While some global artists invoke the cheesiest of international pop culture in their music, Sauti Sol’s transformation of the American mainstream is breathtaking. Take the ballad “Isabella”: Peppered with lyrics like “young, high and in love” and “spend all my money on you, baby,” it has the smoothness of true romance. Never has YOLO sounded so good.
The singers are so deft at moving across themes and harmonies that you might not realize when a song switches from lilting English to Swahili, or to local languages — even to French. Njuguna says he loves how they “play around with genres, the poetry in the lyrics, the relatable topics, as well as vocal range and prowess.” The band’s influence on both new and established Kenyan artists is obvious, he says.
When the title track “Live and Die in Afrika” comes on, no matter where I am, suddenly I’m back in Nairobi, transported to a bar, a Tusker in one hand. “There’s no place I’d rather be / I wanna live and die in Africa.” It’s a love song to the continent and one that just might make you book a flight.