What is your favourite music genre? I bet you’ve been asked that question one too many times. Usually, I mumble reggae, R&B, or house music. But I always end up with one solid answer: Afro-fusion.
What is Afro-fusion? Another common question, I’m glad you asked. Simply put, it’s a style of music that fuses contemporary music elements and instruments with traditional African rhythms and storytelling. Expect a taste of local languages as well, from Dholuo to Giriama to Luhya.
And as it turns out, there are plenty of Kenyan contemporary musicians who have tapped into this hybrid style. They bring forth a unique African-rooted sound that is rarely played on mainstream media. Yet it has taken them all around the world as Kenyan cultural ambassadors.
There’s something special about Afro-fusion music. Something that makes even foreigners fall in love with it. And you’re soon about to find out why with these 5 Kenyan albums.
To avoid bias, I’ve arranged them in order of release. Are you ready? Let’s dive in!
1. Koko Rio by Makadem
Koko Rio is the sophomore album by Mr Ohanglaman, released way back in 2015. Now in case you don’t know this Kenyan music legend, sit down and let me tell you the tale of Makadem.
He started singing in the late 90s as a ragga man. But when he met Tabu Osusa – founder of Ketebul Music – in the 2000s, he made a complete turnaround from dancehall to modern ohangla music.
And you will hear this new-school benga sound in both his studio albums, Ohanglaman and Koko Rio.
The first song I ever heard from Koko Rio was Nipe Denda. It’s a groovy highlife jam complete with a bright horn section, sang with the charisma of Fela Kuti. No wonder it got nominated at the AFRIMA 2015 awards in Nigeria under the category of Best Contemporary African song.
But this is just a sample of the benga star who tells African stories about African people in Africanized English. The same way Nigerian pop stars use pidgin in their songs.
As Fela Kuti once said, you cannot sing African music in proper English.
In this album, the multilingual Kenyan musician raps in Dholuo in Kokorio, shows off his French in Allez Allez, preaches peace in Amani, and calls for unity in Stand Up. Even with a strong African message and witty lyrics, his easy-to-sing-along-to music makes you stand up and move your body. Because benga has always been Kenyan dance music.
Makadem slows down in Sawa Sawa, my favourite jam in this Afro-fusion album. You will love it too once you hear the sublime acoustic guitar that accompanies a nostalgic love story. And a catchy hook that goes like this: You say I’m ugly, sawa sawa sawa.
The CD version of Koko Rio has a special bonus track. Mganga Mkuu is an upbeat nyatiti-rich track that completely enchants you, especially on the dancefloor. You will always find this Mganga Mkuu carrying his colourful nyatiti (a Luo lyre) wherever he goes. Whether he’s touring in Zanzibar or Berlin.
And after bringing back benga, Kenya’s first contemporary genre, Makadem is now experimenting with Afro-house and a new fusion of nyatiti and electronic music called NyatitiTronik.
2. Pandizo by Afro Simba
I might forgive if you haven’t heard about Afro Simba. I only knew of this Afro-fusion Kenyan band when my friend and Kenyan hip-hop artist Jemedari gifted me their album – in exchange for Ohanglaman.
Afro Simba is the brainchild of Kombo Chokwe, a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist from Malindi. After playing with everyone from Sauti Sol to Maia Lekow, he met a group of coastal instrumentalists and decided to start his own band.
In 2016, Afro Simba released their first album with a mission to reintroduce Mijikenda music to Kenya and the world. Pandizo is full of Mijikenda chants like achee eeeh and an active call and response by background vocalists Happy and Lillian. You also hear African percussions by Bruno Tumbo and the melodic marimba by Walter Kivure, which move your waist without warning.
However, Bantu polyrhythms take some time to get used to as they’re different from 4 step rhythms we’re used to hearing. But you will find the main beat, soon enough.
Through Pandizo, Afro Simba has managed to make traditional Mijikenda music palatable to this new generation. Their music is driven by a strong lead guitar from Kombo, followed closely by Eddy Denah’s bassline. With the presence of these contemporary instruments, it is infused with salsa flavours, jazzy piano, rock guitar solos and even a reggae beat by Morris Kivisi’s drums.
Eventually, they go back to the Mijikenda song structure as if none of the above happened. Now that is Mijikenda fusion.
There are two standout tracks in Pandizo – whose album artwork is a Kenyan shield designed by Umoja Sound System DJ Sheel Dread. In Kaya, the Afro-fusion band welcomes you to their village. And in case you don’t remember the 9 Mijikenda tribes from school, they mention them.
Then there’s the environmentally-friendly Maji that praises this natural gold. I mean, who doesn’t love water?
Just in case don’t have a friend who can gift you the CD, you can stream and download Pandizo on Bandcamp.
3. Maia and the Big Sky – Maia Lekow
To be honest with you, I am obsessed with this Kenyan album. I knew about Maia after she released her sophomore album in late 2017.
Though not in the mainstream music world, Maia is a world-touring artist who has crossed borders from Africa to Australia. According to OkayAfrica, “Her tunes bring a new sense of chill to the African music scene.” One has to agree.
And the artistic album cover designed by her husband Chris King says it all.
Maia And The Big Sky is quite different from her first album – Drift – which is extremely jazzy. In her latest album, Maia explores her own Mijikenda roots with soul and funk undertones. She introduces soulful chants which are sometimes erratic, like at her live concerts. And like most Kenyans, she effortlessly skips from English to Swahili like a school kid on the playground.
The African influence is subtle, but it’s there. It’s the coastal polyrhythms, the way the African guitar is played, the way the music moves your soul when you close your eyes.
This world-class album features world-class Kenyan instrumentalists including Tugi Mlamba, Kato Change, Amani Baya, Jason Rae Otieno and Owuor Arunga. They decorate this Afro-fusion music with trombone and trumpet blares, special effects like scratching guitars, hypnotizing rock-taarab and light jazz drumming. As a result, each song has its own vibe thanks to a carefully crafted mesh of contemporary instruments.
But what makes Maia’s songs truly unique is her deep reflective lyrics. She writes like a poet. I wish I could enter her mind and find out what she means when she says “sleep with one eye open as the other one sleeps”.
She also taps into African consciousness in Zone Unknown with lyrics like “Dunia inasonga into a zone unknown, look around the corner it’s the fall of Babylon”. Packaged and delivered with a strong reggae beat.
Another favourite is Another Night, where she’s running and hasn’t moved an inch.
There are two main features in this Afro-fusion album. Roho Safi feat Neno Kali is a calling out of greedy politicians and a wake-up call to citizens who are silently suffering and shmiling. And then there’s the infectious PAWA feat Blinky Bill which you’ve probably grooved to before.
And did you know Maia is the first contemporary Kenyan artist to release her album in Vinyl? Blinky soon followed suit in 2018 with Everyone’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales. You can find both LPs at Kenyatta Market’s famous vinyl store.
Or, you can listen to Maia and The Big Sky online.
4. Ona Sasa by Mandela
This Afro-fusion gem is the solo debut of Ambasa Mandela, after the lead singer took a break from the mighty Sarabi Band. And Ona Sasa is a testament that he can do it on his own.
He recorded his EP at Wanene Studios in Dar Es Salaam Tanzania, which is his second home now (mine too). And then launched it at Alliance Francaise on Friday, December 15th – which was probably the best night of 2017.
Okay I know, an EP is shorter than an album. In my defence, Tanzanian Afro-fusion artist Swahili Ally released Nadunda which fuses traditional Digo music with the West African kora as an album. Yet like Ona Sasa, it only has 6 tracks.
Ona Sasa is quite short and extremely sweet. It’s a rich fusion of benga, jazz, reggae, R&B with a steady African beat. You can easily hear the live recorded instruments: the saxophone, drums, guitar and percussions. They gladly accompany Mandela’s conscious message – he has not forgotten his musical mission.
The social activist preaches self-love and African consciousness in his smooth captivating voice. Starting with the title track Ona Sasa: “Hapa Africa ukulima uliweza, wachana na maghorofa”.
Remembering his Kenyan roots, he sneaks in his mother tongue Dholuo in What Do We Do and admonishes careless boda-boda drivers in Accident.
The uplifting Fantastic Love made me cry during the launch concert, and I can never get enough of the lovers’ rock jam Nataka Wewe.
Yes, you reading this.
The 2017 EP also features Hakuna Matata which was first released by Sarabi Band. Good news – they are finally back together! Meaning more conscious music and powerful live shows for us in the future.
5. KWETU by Fadhilee Itulya
You seriously deserve to listen to this debut album by another beloved Afro-fusion artist in Kenya. Fadhilee Itulya spent 10 whole years learning his music craft before he released KWETU in April 2018. So you know this is something special.
As the name suggests, KWETU (home) is a pan-African album about Africa for Africans. In a strong voice full of conviction, he asks us in 10 songs to liberate ourselves and celebrate Africa KWETU. He delivers this conscious message in Luhya, Swahili, English and heavenly chants he admits to having made up.
His acoustic guitar takes centre stage with unique melodies you haven’t heard anywhere else. This is because he’s influenced by the Omutibo finger-thumb plucking guitar style from his father’s home in Western Kenya. And backing him up are Emma the drummer, bassist Mike Onyie, and Mobutu on percussions.
I was quite surprised to find out percussionist turned singer Tetu Shani and boy band Kaskazini are also featured in the 14-track album.
Fadhilee samples different genres in different songs. You will trace a hint of EDM in Freedom, smooth rumba in Nairobi, and then there’s the rock-inspired Tabasam. In between are traditional Luhya interludes played with isikuti drums and a metal ring, to honour the Kenyan culture that inspires his world music.
The soulful Afirika featuring a fruity flute by Adama Diarra received a deserving nomination at AFRIMA award 2018 under Best Artiste in African Jazz. Oh, and I cannot forget to mention the enchanting Mama. Those repetitive chants put you in a trance and you commune with your African ancestors for a whole minute.
And let’s talk about the grand finale We Don’t Know. Fadhilee pulls out a heavy Luhya accent and the result is a hilarious song talking about a serious matter. And you naturally end up shaking your mabegas isikuti style. It’s a celebration of being African and proud despite our challenges.
For one hour, you are reminded that this is KWETU. And KWETU is not a place, it’s a feeling.
Do you see why I’m obsessed with these Kenyan albums? Makadem, Afro Simba, Maia, Mandela, and Fadhilee have taken us back to our Kenyan roots through contemporary world music, and the result is magical. Thanks to them, we now know what traditional Mijikenda and Luhya music sound like.
African music will live on forever through these Afro-fusion albums, just as we always remember music legends like Fela Kuti and Oliver Mtukudzi. Reminding us we don’t have to compromise our African roots in order to make world-class music in the 21st century. After all, it is our raw and rich culture that makes us stand out in this global village.
These 5 Kenyan Afro-fusion albums have set the standard high for future albums made in East Africa. You can feel the inspiration in the debut projects by younger Kenyan musicians such as Serro and Ayrosh. Making us proud to be Kenyan.
And to say Afro-fusion is one of our favourite music genres.
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