Why you should care
Because its unique sound should not be drowned out.
Wearing a brown leather jacket and newsboy cap, Tabu Osusa looks like a relic from times past. And so he is: With Kenyan funk musician Sal Davies crooning in Swahili from his silver boom box, Osusa nods with the beat, reminiscing about the 1970s, when the rhythmic groove of East African funk, and smoke from Barack Obama Sr.’s pipe, filled the Starlight Club, the most popular bar in Nairobi. “For anybody who loved African music, it was the place to be,” he says. But Western record labels pulled up stakes in the 1980s, and Kenya’s vibrant music scene disappeared with them.
Now, for the first time in nearly four decades, East African artists are making their way back onto the continent’s music stage and beyond, and traditional beats from the region’s musical heyday are coming with them. Dormant after the Starlight’s closing, Nairobi’s live music scene is back in full force, with gigs nearly every night of the week. It’s not exactly time to call the folks at the Grammys, yet, but the region was home to a record number of music festivals this year, and, for the first time ever, an East African band, Kenya’s Sauti Sol, was nominated for the Black Entertainment Television Awards in Los Angeles.
People are getting tired of the music from Nigeria and South Africa. If we get our act right, Kenya’s going to be the next biggest force in African music.
Tabu Osusa, founder and executive director of Ketebul Music
Leading the charge is an eclectic group of musicians, producers and a DJ project called Santuri — “vinyl” in Swahili. The group, founded in 2013, aims to put East Africa back on the continent’s musical map. The team has helped organize 10 music festivals where they have recorded samples of traditional instruments. Using those samples, Santuri DJs have infused the region’s musical heritage into dance-floor-ready songs that, for the first time in decades, sound uniquely East African. “We didn’t have DJs on the floor promoting the cultural dimension of music,” says Gregg Mwendwa, co-founder of Santuri. “There was a lot of pop stuff coming from Nigeria or the U.S. or elsewhere, but not coming out of East Africa.”
Even before Santuri, the cultural and economic forces at play in Kenya and abroad were spurring a new music revolution. In Kenya, an emerging middle class with money to spend encouraged the return of live music events, while the establishment of the Performers Rights Society of Kenya in 2009 allowed Kenyan artists to collect royalties on their music for the first time. Meanwhile, in Europe DJs were discovering “Afrobeat,” or electronic music with an African twist, and American artists like Ne-Yo and Wyclef Jean were creating new Afrobeat-inspired music with East African artists through the Coke Studio Africa, a global television series that set up shop in Nairobi in 2009.
If Afrobeat’s popularity abroad continues to grow, Kenya may be able to replicate the model set by K-pop, or South Korean pop music. Since taking off in China and Japan in the late 1990s, it’s gained fans in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa and North America. It’s boosted not just South Korean pop culture, but also the country’s export-oriented economy, as the popularity of Korean culture led consumers to buy more Korean goods, according to the Korea International Trade Association. For Kenya, a music renaissance might help rejuvenate one of its largest industries, tourism, which has been hit hard in recent years due to terrorism threats.
For veterans in the industry, the new wave of music production isn’t just popularizing East African sounds at home and abroad; it’s also reminding Kenyans of a musical heritage unknown to the younger generation. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, international record labels including Polygram, EMI and CBS flocked to Nairobi to record hit albums by African funk bands, attracting artists from across the region. By 1965, 1,000 new recordings were reportedly published each month and sold across the continent before making their way to Europe and the United States.
When cassettes entered the scene in the 1980s and piracy became widespread, the record labels left. The traditional sounds of African funk and Benga music are now nearly impossible to find. Perhaps the best archive of Kenya’s musical past sits gathering dust in the Melodica Music store, an unassuming shop in downtown Nairobi that sells vintage vinyl. Absent a more accessible archive, Kenyan artists began imitating American hip-hop and Nigerian pop, brought to Kenya’s airwaves via FM radio at the turn of the century.
“For Kenyans, that exposure to the rest of the world is a bit of a distraction,” says Robert “Rkay” Kamanzi, a music producer in Nairobi. “Kenyans haven’t held as strongly to their culture as other African countries did.”
But there are several obstacles to establishing a new East African musical footprint. The industry still lags behind those of Nigeria and South Africa: Bribes can be a requirement for getting play on the radio; the dispersal of royalties is erratic; access to Spotify and iTunes is impossible with Kenyan bank cards. Most young artists, meanwhile, seem content to replicate American and Nigerian hip-hop in hopes of attracting international recognition. But more and more, it seems — in Kenya and abroad — music consumers are demanding something different.
“People are getting tired of the music from Nigeria and South Africa,” says Osusa, who’s the founder and executive director of Ketebul Music, a recording studio working towards archiving and popularizing traditional Kenyan beats. “If we get our act right, Kenya’s going to be the next biggest force in African music.”