Here at Gwarlingo I’ve been neglecting the musicians in recent weeks. I’ve been consumed with Irene, the secret gardens of Rockefeller Center, Jane Hirshfield’s new book, poetry bombing, Barry Underwood’s incredible landscape photographs, and these Japanese manhole covers, which have suddenly gone viral after being posted on Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish (now on The Daily Beast site).
So Before Labor Day weekend arrives and sunset swims in the lake give way to apple picking, I want to pass along one of my favorite albums of the summer: the quirky, mesmerizing sounds of the Owiny Sigoma Band.
I discovered this band during my trip to London in June. This highly original, Nairobi-London sound clash, which blends traditional Kenyan Luo styles with contemporary western influences, is like nothing else I’ve heard before.
The project began when Jesse Hackett and other members of the electronic hip-hop and soul collective Elmore Judd went to Kenya at the invitation of Hetty Hughes and her friend Aaron Abraham, co-founders of an organization called Art of Protest, which promotes local musicians and rappers. In Kenya members of the band met Joseph Nyamungu, a master of the eight-stringed lyre known as the nyatiti, and a repository of knowledge regarding the traditional music of his tribe, the Luo of western Kenya.
Nyamungu connected the band members with drummer Charles Owoko and other local percussionists. The group had no specific agenda other than to exchange ideas and enjoy their musical collaboration. They named themselves the Owiny Sigoma Band after Nyamungu’s music school and his late grandfather. These jam sessions “acted as a skills exchange and a way of sharing our music. We learned some of their songs and they learned some of our songs too,” explains the band’s drummer Tom Skinner.
The Brownswood record label site describes the musical collaboration in more detail:
“The traditional folkloric music of Kenya has not received the same global exposure as that of Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Africa or North Africa for example and one of the objectives of this project was to try and build on this. The band draw on a broad spectrum of African influences, from Fela Kuti and Tony Allen to the likes of Thomas Mapfumo and Oumou Sangare…”
“Finding a studio that could accomodate a 7-piece live band wasn’t easy but eventually they holed up in an amazing disused factory space to record. The resulting four tracks made their way to [DJ] Gilles Peterson who promptly signed the band to his Brownswood imprint and sent the boys back to Nairobi for another week-long recording session with Joseph, Charles and their extended musical family.
The resulting record, which pulses with mellow grooves, lyre riffs, and hypnotic drums, is organic, quirky and rough around the edges, but in a good way. The music’s appeal lies in its energy, looseness, and lack of pretension. Listening to the album’s strongest tracks,”Wires,” “Rapar Nyanza,” “Hera,” and “Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi,” Owiny Sigoma vibrates with immediacy and playfulness. These musicians are having a damn good time, and we’re lucky to be a fly on the wall while the party is going on.
I highly recommend adding this album to your iPod for the Labor Day weekend. (And as always, a portion of your purchase directly supports Gwarlingo). You can explore the album and download tracks below. (If you’re reading this in an email, click here to access the song samples and the video.)
You can watch this five-minute video about the music of the Owiny Sigoma Band here…
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