Upgrade Poetry: When Tetu Shani grew his fanbase in Nakuru

Sunday mornings in Nairobi are simply the best. No traffic jam at all, not even in the CBD. And you can actually see the ground you’re walking on in advance. I thought I would listen to Caffe Mocha, one of my favourite Kenyan radio shows, on the road. But after meeting them at 9 am, I knew this was going to be a different kind of church.

And Tetu Shani was the preacher man.

I found Gufy and friends on the pavement talking about the peculiar habits of Kenyans and why free events don’t always work. Apparently, artists and non-artists think differently. Most people only start buying when advance tickets are over, even though they were cheaper. Tetu suggested that it’s better to sell tickets to your contacts first then only announce when 50% are sold. This usually drives FOMO – and sales.

He said something else that was also interesting. That paying via MPESA Paybill or phone number gives the psychological benefit that one’s money is going straight to the artist rather than an events company. However, Louis acknowledged that Mookh has made it easy to buy event tickets online.

Conversations on the road

After everyone had arrived, the six of us bought our tickets and finally got into the shuttle van (best for long-distance travels by the way). Leaving the Odeon stage, the conversation had shifted to beggars and conmen in Nairobi who have turned their illness and misfortune into a hustle. It’s probably better to give them food than money.

After a brief police check-up at Central Police Station, Tetu shared his radical ideas of why he doesn’t vote and won’t take hujuma number. They actually made sense. And I agreed that a revolution can be peaceful.

It seems when you attend enough Docubox Presents screenings at Alliance Francaise, you start to express your political opinions freely.

On Waiyaki Way near Kangemi, I explained why we won’t stop femicides by talking about it all over social media. You only fix a problem by focusing on the solution, which is love and respect for fellow human beings. It’s called the law of attraction.

Tetu then asked about my favourite live music venues in Nairobi as a Kenyan events junkie. On my list was MUZE Club, Alliance Francaise (especially on Wednesdays), and Thursdays at Js Bar. Oh, and let’s not forget Dagoz Artist Bar at Dagoretti Corner.

After stopping in Naivasha for a bathroom break, the six of us started beating stories about Tinga Tinga Tales. Nyokabi and Tetu gave us behind the scenes of their high life in New York City when they took the Eric Wainaina production to Broadway. Wearing expensive shit and living like Hollywood stars. Only to be humbled by Nairobi as soon as they arrived at the sluggish airport.

Talk about the city with no chills.

Tetu once again stepped up to the podium and took a nosedive into Kenyan music. He would start every other statement with “Fam, you know…” and we gave him all our attention. He explained the problem with mainstream Kenyan artists is they perform very few shows thus lack a connection with their fans. Kenyans only show up for the hype and to pose as cool kids. But he respects Just A Band for attracting their 1000 true fans of loyal nerds who were with them till the very end.

Agora NaUpgrade Poetry audience at Agora Nakuru
Tetu Shani’s fans, not Just A Band’s

According to his research (and later mine), the best music you listen to is when you are 14. No wonder I still reminisce whenever No Air by Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown is played. But the best place to build a loyal fanbase is campus, he said. It’s where we form our musical tastes. That’s why some Kenyan musicians insist on performing at campus events and featuring on community radio stations.

Surprisingly, Tetu Shani’s lowest point in his music career was after his Blankets and Wine performance in 2017. “There’s nothing worse than an opportunity that comes too early.” After being treated like a king, meeting Nneka and AKA and putting on a great show, he didn’t know what to do next. How to step a notch higher after his African face was all over highway billboards.

He thought it was game over.

His saving grace came when he got the chance to perform at Gufy’s poetry event Home. There, he proved to himself he could connect with an audience who didn’t even know he was going to be there. “You saved my career,” he reminded Gufy.

From then on, his music strategy has changed. He now follows up with his audience after an event and communicates with them via WhatsApp, sharing news and asking for help – because people want to be useful. Even Benga-star Makadem has a WhatsApp group with his community of diehard fans.

I would have to wait to see how Tetu collects these important contacts.


Inside Nakuru

The 3-hour journey to Nakuru felt too short, it must have been all the talking. While the girls alighted on the highway near their homes, I walked with the boys from the stage to Milimani. Nakuru’s own Muthaiga was a serene suburb with tall green trees flanking the tarmac roads and resorts reminding us that this is a tourist town.

Agora Nakuru was only a few minutes away from the stage.

There was a majestic tent on the left side which had transformed from Vineyard Trinity church to the event venue of the day. Outside, we met Gufy’s friends with funny names like Uba and Mbunge. It must be a Nakuru thing.

Gufy and Uber at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru event
Uba showing Gufy where the joke is

As the boys networked, I walked around the grassy compound to say hi to the chickens roaming freely. The plain colonial building in the middle looked better on the inside. It was a coworking space that housed various local offices. Some rooms had recycled art pieces and epic photographs of Nairobi – which I found quite ironic.

After checking out the backyard garden of sukuma wiki and peeping at the grazing cows on the neighbour’s land, it was time to go back to humanity. I found Tetu inside the tent finishing his soundcheck, and a few fans catching an early sneak peek. Louis then whispered to me – Let’s go ingest. But how did he know those are my favourite words?

There’s no better place to ingest that at a kibandaski – the most down to earth restaurants in Kenya. Seriously, if you want to taste the culture of a new town, forget the three-star hotel.

In one of the many kibandas lined up on a quiet road nearby, we enjoyed the Kenyan staple meal. The right way of course, by massaging a ball of ugali in one hand before scooping some green sukuma wiki.

The friendly hotelier played Les Wanyika songs in the background after we commented on his classic ringtone, Sina Makosa. Tetu tweeted something about how rhumba is not rhumba if the guitars are in tune. Gufy proudly announced that he grew up with rhumba and lingala tapes.

I agreed that live rhumba slaps hard, and reminded them that Orchestra Masika Afrika would be playing live at Js on Thursday 6th June.

But why do rhumba bands have such long complicated names?

Upgrade Poetry

We were back at Agora by 3.30pm, and so were the girls. I sat front row next to Nyokabi in the now half-full tent. Best seats in the house. After an opening prayer, we proceeded to watch spoken word poets and musicians from Nakuru. We had learnt from Gufy earlier that Upgrade Poetry has been happening every last Sunday of the month, for the past 6 years!

I’ll admit; I was quite impressed by the wealth of talent in that tent.

Spoken word poet performing at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru

After five or so live performances, drowsiness started creeping in. That’s when I remembered I had only slept for one and a half hours that morning, aka the recommended nap time. Thank God, I was kept alive by MC Uba’s dry jokes. They made my droopy eyes alive and wet.

During one break, I stepped out to walk around the Agora compound one more time and splash water on my tired face. I came back right in time for Jojo’s performance, whom I had heard rehearse in the main house earlier.

The petite girl had a sweet and adorable aura and with a guitar in hand, she performed an original. But it was the way she sang that simple song that caught everyone’s attention. Even before she left her seat, the crowd demanded one more song. She had to do it, Taabu by Phy, which she sang with less confidence. But that unique voice that matched her personality was enough.

Jojo singing at Upgrade Poetry event in Nakuru
Sweet like Jojo

There were more spoken word poets than singers that Sunday. One of the poets who stood out was Vanilla. Because well, he was tall and reminded Nyokabi and I of Teardrops with his style and stature. Turns out, he’s his youngest brother.

Ellie Poet came from Nairobi with sad poems about how the youth is dying and a girl who’s taking him for a ride (who hurt you bruh?). But my favourite spoken word performance was by Evansquez. Every lyrical line from the young rasta had a pun engulfed in either Sheng, English or Swahili. The crowd’s reaction ranged from wild snapping to whistling to loud howling.

Evanzquez poet at Upgrade Poetry event in Nakuru
The punny poet

Born and raised in Mombasa, he now resides there with fellow Nakuru poet Willie Oeba – whom I first encountered at Cake Art Affair. Evans later invited me to his first poetry concert on Sunday 25th August at Agora. I said I would come, Mungu akipenda.

Tetu Shani Live

I honestly thought the opening performances would never end. At last, Gufy stepped up on stage and invited the main act, the reason we had travelled all the way to Nakuru. The tall alternative Kenyan musician showed up with his signature hat and colourful kimono, which has now become his stage outfit. It felt like I was at an Engage Talk event in Nairobi where his performances are oh so engaging.

Without wasting time, he warmed us up with his mellow songs Round And Round and Jacaranda Tree. He forgot the lyrics to An Ode To Pa but played it cool and we laughed with him. I wasn’t the only one who knew the lyrics; he had quite a fanbase in Naxvegas.

Tetu Shani acoustic Upgrade Poetry Nakuru.jpg

A few acoustic songs later, he began the main performance which he had warned us Nairobi folks about. It was an interactive storytelling session and we were part of the story. Our first job was to name the two main characters. One guy at the back offered “Wamlambez” and we all agreed, laughing. And of course, the lady had to be called “Wamnyonyez” (thanks Decimators).

Here’s how their story went. One sunny Sunday, the two meet outside one Vineyard church in Nakuru as Wamlambez sells ice cream to Wamnyonyez. And they immediately hit it off because of their strange names. She also likes that he is a simple man with a complex mind.

Tetu Shani weaved in his original songs to fit in the budding love story: Sleepless in Nairobi Nakuru, the beautiful Upendo, and sultry Chemistry – without a female accompaniment for once. His mood music almost brought tears to my eyes. Even though I have never attended any of his living room sessions, it must have felt this intimate, but with fewer people.

Upgrade Poetry audience listening to Tetu Shani
Inna di zone

Okay, back to the story. Despite their gaping age difference and the fact that Wamnyonyez is an engineer, they make their new relationship work. Love conquers all, right?

Wamlambez soon relocates to the Kenyan coast as he upgrades from an ice cream seller to maker (the audience’s idea). In the Mombasa Raha heat, he is tempted to get naughty with a young Fatuma who is much closer to his age. That’s when he realizes he better start Running.

Wamlambez rushes back to Nakuru after a month and confesses to Wamnyonyez for emotionally cheating – as he should. Thank God he’s a musician because he appeases her with another love song by Tetu Shani.

It’s now Wanyonyez’ turn to run. She leaves for Nairobi for an engineering project and comes back after 6 months. And as it turns out, her name is also Samalina (ten ten ten ten).

Tetu then performed the beloved Kenyan song, acoustic style, followed by Where Is My Lover. Quick fact: both folk-inspired songs were produced by the Afro-house genius Saint Evo.

Anyway, Wamnyonyez Samalina has another confession to make to Wamlambez. If you guessed she was pregnant like I did, you are right. But with who’s baby? Gufy’s, she whispers. Immediately, all the Nakuru people protested loudly, saying it was not possible. But why do you hate on him so much, Tetu asked the riled up crowd. Heck, I was curious too.

Tetu Shani performing at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru
Ask them!

Tetu ended the sermon with his post-breakup song. You could hear the Afro-pop-rock daring to jump out of HeartBreak Amnesia, the title track of his upcoming debut album.

After singing the hook together one last time, everybody gave him a standing ovation. It was simply the most unique performance of Tetu we had ever experienced. Even though he recently rebranded to AfricaSun, he’s still the African Troubadour travelling as a one-man guitar to share his musical stories with hungry listeners like us.

The Afterparty

Before leaving the stage, Tetu did one more thing. He gave the Upgrade Poetry audience his (real) phone number and asked them to send him their email address and number on WhatsApp. Definitely easier than asking them to write on a piece of paper. Meanwhile, a hat passed around to collect offerings for the pastor of the day. If you know what I mean.

We then took a crowd selfie with him as we shouted his famous catchphrase. Nonsense!

Tetu Shani takes crowd selfie at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru

Source: Tetu Shani Instagram

As you can expect, a lot of selfies and hugs ensued. I watched Tetu talk to his Nakuru fans who had been itching to see him live, only having watched him on the Trend and on YouTube. One of them had already memorised his phone number.

The afterparty DJ of the night was playing some popular Kenyan songs on the sound mixer as the tent emptied. The Naxvegas crew naturally began doing the odi dance, the official Kenyan dance move. We Nairobi folk couldn’t help but join them, including Tetu.

We slowly formed a dance circle and dropped all our bags, coats and drinks in the middle one by one. A symbol of letting go of our baggage so we could dance together to Gbona by Burna Boy. And of course, Angeli.. Angelina.

For those few minutes, the tent was full of laughter and dance. And smartphones around us taking videos. A few stepped inside the circle and showed us their silly moves, which we shamelessly copied. By the third song, most of us were tired from having too much fun.

It was the only logical way to end such a beautiful night.

Tetu Shani live at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru poster

Three of us had to leave for Nairobi soon because of work commitments on Monday. We left AfricaSun and the Nakuru crew to watch the famous Tamasha band at a local club. But we promised to come back to experience the affordable calm town and its bubbling art scene at Agora.

Coming home

Nyokabi graciously ferried the three of us in her car to the bus station inside the main town. She commended Gufy for staying in touch with his hometown even though he is based in Nairobi. She also expressed her innate desire to establish an arts and theatre centre in Nakuru. This made me smile.

Who doesn’t want to see other major towns outside Nairobi grow and serve the young people who live in them?

Audience laughing at Upgrade Poetry Nakuru

Before the road trip, I had thought I would interview Tetu Shani again after his performance. But he had given me all the answers I needed and more. Tetu is not the best singer or guitarist in town (although he’s pretty good). But his USP is his love for storytelling and engaging his audience. And that is what makes him one of Kenya’s best live music performers.

Even though we didn’t consciously realize it, this was a dream come true for him: Tembea Kenya with his fans to different locations. For me, this was the beginning of touring around the country with my favourite alternative Kenyan musicians. Watching them connect with their fans in person, collect contacts and build their fanbase one by one. And of course, listening to their sound advice on the road – instead of the radio.

Because it is their 1000 true fans who will sustain their music career and attend their concerts when they are 70 – like the Rolling Stones.

One more gem I picked from Tetu that day is this: event organizers only care about your USP and how many people you can pull to an event. That’s what true value looks like. Not even your social media following can match up to this.

And after learning about Melissa’s wine education gig on Instagram, I started writing this article in my head on the way back home. I also took a nap in the night shuttle van, waking up to reggae beats sans vocals. I could only hear Bob Marley’s voice in Is This Love.

By 11 pm, we were back to a calm Sunday night in Nairobi. Home sweet home. Every day should be like Sunday.


Images courtesy of Ben Omwaka

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