ToI didn’t know how I was getting to Kilifi. I mean, I have been there before so I should know the drill. However, the SGR train to Mombasa was fully booked. And the only available buses from Nairobi to Kilifi would arrive on the second day of Kilifi New Year.
I was stuck. If only I had booked that night bus before Christmas.
Lakini Mungu Halali oh. On the day before D-day, I received a call from a fellow event junkie. There was an extra seat in her ride. Just for me.
And so on 30th December 2019, five of us carpooled in a vehicle big enough for ourselves and our luggage. The 10-hour road trip was punctuated by various stops, Afro-house tunes bumping on Spotify and listening to Murasta EP by Ayrosh on repeat. We even had to Dive In a little of Mutoriah’s debut album.
Kilifi was engulfed in darkness by the time we arrived. From the hustle of finding a parking space, you could tell the party had already started. After confirming our tickets and going through the security check, we were welcomed by a glass of fresh baobab juice. My Beneath The Baobabs cup from last year’s edition had already found its use.
A string of lights guided us on a narrow path through the jungle, with vibrant art pieces popping from the right side. The road to wonderland. At the end of it, a colourful sign above us read “Welcome Home”. I felt it.
But I didn’t expect to find so many people home on the first night. I was immediately overwhelmed by the din and the sheer number of unfamiliar faces. The Baobab Deck was not only a chillout zone but also a mini stage for underground DJs and acoustic musicians. At least the mega elephant and the wooden unicorn were still where I left them last year.
In the middle of the madness, I came across a kid not more than 5 years old bawling his lungs out to his parents. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one not having fun.
Meanwhile, the main stage exploded with booming music and fire shows, you’d think it was the grand finale. There I finally met familiar faces, familia from Nairobi. DJ Paps was on the decks as the voluptuous Rafiiki rocked the stage with her conscious hip-hop reggae fusion. She even performed the Nairobi banger Fiti (Too Much) with Kenyan rapper Marcus Wi which features on the MUZE Annual 2019 compilation album.
At 10 pm, it was time for the grand opening performance of Kilifi New Year 2020. I was too exhausted, even for Kaya Collective, so I found a man-made nest away from the stage to rest. From there I could hear Matt Swallow’s baritone voice, August Cellars’ sweet vocals and the Kenyan band playing their funk mkyeets jazz meets benga music.
When their eclectic set ended, I knew it was time to sleep. I had to make up for the previous night’s deficit. But on my way to the camping area, I found a new stage which was even more lit. Kizazi had everything you needed – fresh juice, jaba juice and even mnazi. It was a full-blown Afro-house party, as Aubrey Felis played for 8 hours straight supported by his Kizazi brothers Erungu, Nabiswa and Kerby on the mic. And everybody was feeling it.
Jack Rooster commented that Afro-house is becoming mainstream in Kenya.
I sat on the bleachers for a while watching black and white people dance to the spirit of Africa. It was a beautiful thing. But how did they have so much energy?
Their fashion, on the other hand, was chilled out, reflecting the Kenyan summer coastal vibe. There were shorts of every kind – denim, khaki, beach shorts and short shorts. Sexy ladies sported two-piece outfits, dungarees, bra tops, flowy skirts and dresses, African prints and accessories. And of course the festival staple: fanny packs.
My last escape of the night was the Sanctuary which was much closer to my destination. Unlike the music stages I had visited, this was a serene space with dream catchers and lights dangling from a tree. A friendly Dutchman gave me a place to lay down and rest, as relaxing meditation music played in the background.
As I later sat down with him and his volunteer friends, he told me why they started this space. It’s a safe haven for anyone going through emotional pain or a bad trip at the festival. This is the place to breathe, talk to someone, and calm down.
I needed this during my first Kilifi New Year festival. Luckily, I met a beautiful soul at the Bee Temple who helped me nurse a heartbreak then. And just like that day 2 years ago, I left this holy sanctuary feeling better than when I came in.
I didn’t need to visit it again.
Even with only 4 hours of sleep, I felt more refreshed than the first day. I was ready for this new years eve. While looking for breakfast, I stumbled into a yoga class at the mind body and soul area. It was a partner yoga session led by Muthoni featuring the Marshalls, and I was right on time. What a perfect way to start the day.
This was the only KISIMA activity I came across during the 3 days. A shell of what the wellness space was at Kilifi New Year 2019.
The 4×4 wheelchair looks easier to ride than it actually is; you use your hands to pedal and steer it. True to the name, Safari Seat can go over any rough terrain and has great suspension, making it fit right in Kilifi.
What about breakfast? I finally got my first meal of the day at 3 pm. And I was left impressed by the biodegradable plate and cutlery provided by Terra Safi. Not too far away, Max Theuri was playing an Afro-house set on the main stage. I easily figured out why he won the Kilifi New Year 2020 DJ contest – he was pretty good.
At 4pm, I hopped on the hot sandy path to the administration building. I had to be on time for my first ever press briefing. And it came with the complete setup: a table in front with two seats, a board full of festival posters behind it, two cameras and a couple of seats facing the front. But instead of a conference hall, this one was at the back verandah overlooking the wild forest of Kilifi plantation.
There were freelance journalists from different organizations in Kenya and even China. We learnt that Kilifi New Year Festival’s numbers had skyrocketed from 1500 to a crazy 4000 in just one year. Chia’s marketing efforts had really paid off.
The majority of attendees were foreigners, but East Africans are slowly getting the hang of this music festival culture. Luckily, 4 stages and 20 acres were enough for 4000 people.
What does it mean to be the first carbon-neutral festival in Africa? Chia explained they bought carbon credits from the wildlife-friendly certified company Wildlife Works to offset their carbon emissions. And in turn, they support community projects and conservation of forests in Kenya, D.R. Congo, and Cambodia.
Kilifi New Year was also the first East African music festival to feature on WOOV. I later explored the free interactive app on my friend’s phone. As advertised, you could see the whole festival’s lineup, get reminders when your favourite artists are performing, and even chat with your lost friends online.
Chia also kept mentioning transformation a lot. Kilifi New Year is a transformation festival. I had to experience everything to understand what she meant by those words.
After the chilled out briefing, the music vibes called me back to the nearby Kizazi stage. I walked right into a Cheza Roho workshop which I had been eyeing on the programme. Kenyan band Mbogi Konnection were playing their saxophone, guitars and percussions while Mikel Ameen was hyping the crowd with his usual mad energy. Soon we were all dancing in a circle to this spiritual African music. We became part of the performance.
Nothing was better after that dance workout than ice popsicles made of tamarind and mango juice – which cost 50 Kenyan shillings only.
If day one was for Kizazi stage, day two was for MUZE stage. The intimate stage which had replaced Umojah this year was set in front of an old plane that seemed to have crash-landed there a few days ago. I was late to the Yellow Light Machine’s sunset party, but I got there just in time for a sick guitar solo by Ricky that would have made Jimi Hendrix proud.
Coloured lights danced over the young Kenyan artists later at night, reminding me of MUZE club.
After eating my first Rolex made of banana, chapati and chocolate at the food court (try it at home), I slipped away to the main stage. I had hoped to hear a track or two from his Nyumba album but Jack Rooster’s DJ set was more deep house than Afro-house. You could tell he was having the time of his life alongside Moseh Drummist on percussions. It felt good to have both brothers back on African soil.
Meanwhile, on the MUZE stage, Christiano Can from Costa Rica was mellowing things down with his rap spoken word mix. Fresh from Fadhilee’s Garage on 29th December, he was supported by two Kenyan queens: Kasiva on percussions and Lusiche on bass. And TAIO had the suavest hip-hop sets to transition between live performances.
Ochungulo Family was not worth the hype. It was all playback; the Kenyan lads were just there to hype the local crowd who sang along to their lewd lyrics on top of gengetone beats. But I had to wait for the countdown party. And Mikel Ameen did not disappoint.
Just like in his Cheza Roho parties at MUZE club, he was joined by Magaa the good fella from Red Acapella – who were recently baptised to be the Red A.k.a. Fellaz. Speaking of, did you know the neo benga duo released their debut album Swag na Kadhalika in 2019? I didn’t until recently.
As Dylan-S rocked the main stage, we danced into the new year with Mikel’s spiritual grime-house music blasting on Funktion One speakers. The World Changer led us into the new decade flying on high vibrations. DJ Coco Em then sneaked in a fiery set that almost left me floored. It’s no wonder she is one of Kenya’s most wanted DJs.
Vallerie Muthoni was also there to start a spicy new year with us. Backed up the Blac Project band, the NuNairobi queen invited the Kenyan songstresses Xenia Manasseh and Kahvinya to share the stage with her. Go low gyal go low.
After her bubbly late-night set, I began to break down. I once again dragged my feeble feet on the long path to my tent pitched beneath a baobab tree. For a moment I could hear Seth Schwarz’ violin calling me from the main stage. It’s okay. I’ll get him next time.
What are friends? Friends are people who make you wake up at 6 am to watch them perform. While others were sleeping, I sprung out of my tent in a onesie and made a beeline to the MUZE stage.
MONRHEA was behind the DJ table looking like an Egyptian queen. The experimental DJ and producer from Kenya decided to just wing it. And her deep and dirty bass music made the 5 of us go nuts on the sparse dancefloor.
After dancing the sleep away, we decided to catch another Kenyan DJ at the Kizazi stage. And KMRU was like lemon tea in the morning. We sat on haystacks and meditated on his ambient noise or what I like to call movie music. If you closed your eyes, you could almost picture the scenes in your mind.
By day three, I had learned there is nothing more random than being in a music festival. You can never plan how you’ll spend your day, and if you do Baobab Mama will laugh at you. So you let go and go with the flow. You meet one friend, explore with them, lose them and meet another.
But this year I had to do it. My new friend and I visited the sexual health tent where we finally learnt the meaning of #chukuaselfie. There was free HIV testing, contraceptives and condom demonstrations. The demonstrator did not even flinch as he explained the whole process in fluent Swahili.
I needed to stimulate my mind further at Kilifi New Year University. As I rushed towards class, I could hear a female voice singing in Dholuo from the Kizazi stage. It was soon followed by ecstatic chanting “Jumadi! Jumadi!” Even though I wasn’t there, I was glad the Afro-soul Kenyan artist was being appreciated at home.
Okay, back to school. The two forums were quite different. The first one about Psychedelics and how to use them responsibly felt more like a lecture at university. However, the second one was more of a class discussion where different people gave different opinions on how to end Racism in Kenya. They both left me enlightened.
Afterwards, I stuck around to check out the mini art exhibition on the university walls by various Kenyan artists.
The lazy afternoon was spent at the shaded Kizazi stage. As I enjoyed my plate of pilau, Midl East played an old school meets new school set, revealing connections between popular songs and obscure classics they sampled. Rafiiki was selling merchandise on the side; I got a kitenge sunhat as my Kilifi New Year souvenir.
Midl East then surprised us with Kaa La Moto’s music – which was perfect as we were at the Coast. The conscious Swahili hip-hop artist coincidentally showed up at the festival later that night.
The final night belonged to the main stage. Performances started at 7 pm instead of 3 pm, so I killed time by exploring Naitiemu’s installation titled “Meet God”. After looking at myself on the different mirrors, I clearly saw another side of me.
I wanted to watch Olith Ratego and experience his Afro-fusion music live, but one ancient baobab tree was calling my name. Roots Agenda from the UK followed up with a heavy-rooted reggae and dub set, with Dread Steppa helping a brother out. And for a moment, it felt like the beloved Umojah Sound System stage was back.
Cheif and the Marshalls’ was the performance I had been waiting for all day. All festival even. It was the only time I jumped front row from the beginning. And the rest of the Marshalls family was right there with me, cheering on one of the most impressive bands in Kenya.
Even though I have watched them live countless times, their dynamic song arrangements always catch me off guard. They continuously add flavour that bursts on stage for everyone to taste. And Rasanga, the youngest member of the Kenyan reggae band, played one saxophone solo that’s hard to forget.
After skanking like a madman to Rastaman vibrations in Bunyaland, I could tell something was off. Empress Lusiche seemed distracted. And we immediately found out why. Their time was up. But how? This was just the beginning.
We chanted for one more song. And we got it, as Cheif invited his brotherman Khoisan on stage. Good things come to those who wait… But it didn’t feel the same. The positive energy had been sucked out of the summer air. I shared their pain and disappointment. I mean, how would you feel after rehearsing tirelessly for months for this big moment – only to get 15 minutes on stage?
The next reggae performance was an anti-climax, in comparison to the musicality of the Marshalls. I had to calm down before checking up on them backstage. Meanwhile, on stage, Gregg Tendwa and his protege DJ Mura lifted the mood with their benga-trap-electronica fusion.
The UK producer duo Saronde of Beating Heart Music label also sampled their avant-garde collaborations with African artists, including the fiery Cold featuring Kenyan greats Nazizi and Idd Aziz.
A few minutes shy of midnight, the music faded away. Matt Swallow, who was also the stage manager, announced it was time to move out. I sneaked behind the stage to catch the behind the scenes action. The burn parade, mostly made up of volunteers, lit their torches and wore African masks on their heads. Some participants were unrecognizable with tribal paint caked on their faces.
Once they were ready, they began the procession chanting – led by one Giriama man. Four guys in front carried a box which resembled the ark of the covenant. As a flash of photographers captured their evidence, I stood back and marvelled at this strange ritual.
This time I didn’t follow them to the valley. I chose to be a distant observer from the MUZE stage, and I was not the only one. As Dylan-S played a healing house set, I danced barefoot as we waited (im)patiently for the burn to start.
This year’s wooden structure was called Son of A Sun. Grishon Ngare says it was inspired by a song by French-born musician Jain. Building the burn was something new for the Kenyan artist who’s used to making scrap metal sculptures such as the popular Maasai selfie guy.
His creation was not as grand as last year’s rhino man, but it had a bigger impact – which I later found out.
“This passing year, make it a double.” – Son of a Sun, Jain
After waiting for what felt like hours, the 20-metre mask finally burst into flames. In it was the wooden box full of new years wishes from fellow baobabies. Drones buzzed above the valley capturing clips which we will probably see during the Kilifi New Year 2020 recap video.
As I watched this unique spectacle, I kept wondering – why are we doing this? Why do we congregate here every year to watch something burn?
There was a boho chic standing next to me who watched the blazing fire with similar intensity even as others disappeared. After a lot of deliberation, I finally gathered some courage and asked the burning question. “What does the burn mean to you?” And she gave me the most profound answer I never expected: To let go of suffering and destroy the ego.
After those opening words, we had the most magical conversation. Everything about it screamed synchronicity. She said exactly what I needed to hear, and I said what had been on her mind. But how could a stranger understand me so much? I had found a soul sister in the heart of Kilifornia.
This was way better than fireworks on new years.
Because of this magic moment, I missed Faizal Monstrixx’s crazy mask and crazier dancers. Even without seeing him, I could tell it was Blinky Bill next on the main stage thanks to the funky urban music. This was just a prelude to his #KenyanSummer Blankets and Wine 2020 performance on 5th January.
Afterwards, DJ Kampire switched it up with high-tempo African music that reminded me of Tanzania’s singeli music. She warmed my heart when she played “Hello hello” baby can I have your number by Msupa S and Rotich from the Bengabelt: Tuongee Wakenya album. Even the Ugandan princess plays Kenyan music.
As Mikel and his friends danced like untamed Africans to Kampire’s bouncy set, I watched the Kilifi sunrise on top of the double deck. I felt free and born anew. I was now ready to experience the water park.
I was joined on the giant log swing by friendly strangers. One of them was a gentle soul called Claudio from California. He confessed to me that MONRHEA’s was the best DJ set he had heard during the whole festival.
After taking a carefree shower on the swing, I reunited with my friends – including Mo. Together, we glided on the water slide like excited kids who had never seen one since Village Market.
“Where’s my bag?” I asked after having enough wet fun. My sling bag/fanny pack was missing from the scene but my scarf was still there (don’t ask what I was doing with a scarf). No one had seen it. Let it go, let it go – I heard Queen Elsa sing.
I quickly put it at the back of my mind and went back to the main stage. Chucky’s EDM set on that last day felt like my first Kilifi New Year experience beneath the baobabs. Just a bunch of spirited baobabies going HAM on the dancefloor at 11 am.
I later found the bag at the festival site sans money, phone and a few bananas. Meaning I had lost all the photos and notes I had taken about the music festival.
But I was not the only one who lost valuables during those 3 days. If we all boarded the Musafir, it would probably sink in the Indian Ocean.
Once the music stopped and it was confirmed that the festival was over, I escaped to the baobab deck. For the first time in 3 days, there was a free mattress to lie on. There I took another short nap to keep me going for another day. Sleep was for the weak.
The parte don’t stop, not even in Kilifornia. Next up was the MUZE club’s official afterparty “The Djoon Experience” – named after the legendary Djoon club in Paris.
My travel mate and her friends were down for some more adventure. Together, we had a pregame supper at The Terrace – an undercover chill spot in Kilifi town.
I wonder how it took me 2 years to find this place.
We arrived at Distant Relatives just in time for Osunlade’s midnight set. And I understood why the American producer was the festival’s headlining act; his Afro-house music was full of fire and soul. Instead of the volleyball pitch, this intimate house party was in the lounge area with multicoloured khanga lesos hanging behind the DJ.
I joined the remaining zombies of Kilifi New Year for one last dance. When DJ Afshin took over, I blacked out on the nearest available mattress until sunrise.
It took me a minute to realize the strong connection between Beneath the Baobabs and Distant Relatives. Other than hosting Kilifi New Year, they both have compost toilets, eco-showers hidden in the trees, a permaculture garden fed by humanure, and majestic baobab trees that light up at night. And why baobab? The local Giriama people view it as a divine tree. And so do they.
The administration building that doubles up as Kilifi NYU also has the same architecture as the eco-lodges’ rooms: smooth walls, window panes made of carved branches, and a makuti roof with ventilation spaces. Upstairs lies Beneath the Baobabs’ main office whereas downstairs is the famous university hall.
During the festival, I was pleasantly surprised to see Edmond Nonay. I first met the Kenyan visual artist as a teenager exhibiting his drawings at an art event in Nairobi. 3 years later, he was now the assistant decor manager at Kilifi New Year.
He was even more pleased that most of his friends from the Switcharoo collaboration project in 2019 were also part of the festival: Naitiemu Nyanjom, John Udulele and Beraccah Kisia aka August Cellars.
Generally, the stage lights and decor were more elaborate at Kilifi New Year 2019 than this year. I wonder if it’s because the volunteers had less time to get ready. But there were some interesting installations this year like the “Rewomb” by Rwandese artist Aela Orlane that depicted our first human home in tasteful colours. There were also giant jellyfish made from recycled materials hanging on a tamarind tree. But who knew one would sting me at Bofa Beach days later?
Walking around the empty site after the festival left me heartbroken. It’s a shame that even with enough marked bins, there was litter everywhere – especially beneath the baobab deck where almost nobody knows exists. I picked up so many cigarette butts, you didn’t need to see a woman’s behind for a while.
Maybe festival-goers need an incentive to collect their trash and keep the environment clean at this eco-conscious festival.
Many of my friends are not excited to come back for the next edition. I understand why. Volunteers spoke of hard labour with no pay – unless you call two meals per day pay. Yet they are the ones who transform this remote jungle into the magical playground we lose ourselves in every year. And they work regular shifts throughout the festival. It’s an experience I wanted to try out for the community feel, but now I’m not so sure.
This year, performing artists received better food (only on their performance day) and boutique glamping tents for accommodation. Some still felt there was favouritism towards their white counterparts. There were even attempts to shut down Kizazi’s authentic party vibes. But nobody can stop reggae.
You can’t deny Kilifi town is booming every new years thanks to this East African music festival. Most locals are happy with the business, from boda boda riders to hotel owners. And it employs hundreds of Kilifi residents as skilled and unskilled labour.
If it was not for Kilifi New Year, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to find this coastal paradise. The hippie music festival gets you to Kilifi for 3 days, but you end up staying under the Kilifi bridge for 3 weeks. No hint of festival hangover over here.
But that’s a story for another day.
I’ve been to Kilifi New Year three times now and every year is a unique experience. This time, it felt like one long day with short breaks in between. It was no longer about the music as you can barely catch half of the 40+ artists across the 4 stages. In between the music is where the magic happens.
For me, Kilifi New Year 2020 was a lesson of letting go of plans and going with the flow. And letting go of what I lost at the festival. That’s how you create room for more, yeah?
That’s my transformation story.
There was already buzz about Beneath The Boabab’s next music festival. The first edition of Khanga Festival was to fall conveniently on the Easter weekend from 10th to 12th April 2020. It was meant to be a celebration of East African music, comedy, art, culture, and of course khangas. Organized in partnership with the Laugh Industry of Churchill Show, this was no joke.
And then Corona happened.
Now we have wait until things cool down and borders reopen so that we can go back to Kilifornia. When they do, I only have one request. Remember to book that SGR train early, will you?