We met on Instagram. 28th September 2017. Since it goes down in the DM, I hit him up asking if he could send me a Kwame song to play on my radio show The Music Junkies. He quickly obliged.
Since then we’ve been talking online, him sending me his new songs and me sharing my feedback.
Three years later, he shared his first album exclusively with me. Which also happens to be the first of its kind in Kenyan music history.
The mystery man is Waithaka. And no, this is not a modern love story. The Kenyan music producer has lived in the States for most of his adult life. Precisely 20 years since he went to study college.
The only reason I know him is that he’s worked with Kenyan kings Ayrosh, Kwame and Jivu Music. He oversaw their latest projects as the executive producer: Murasta EP, Cama Wendo EP and Hayawi Hayawi EP respectively.
But on 14th April 2020, he released an all-female Kenyan album. And it wasn’t even International Women’s Day or Month. As the title suggests, Odes by Queens exclusively features Kenyan female musicians you seriously need to know.
Why focus on ladies only? Maybe it was time. Plus there’s another bigger reason which I later found out.
Ythera, who featured on Waithaka’s production Love Respect Repeat in 2018, was his A&R. The Kenyan talent scout. The plug on the ground. Once she gathered ten talented ladies (including herself), she introduced them to Waithaka. He recorded them for a month at a music studio in Nairobi after the magical Murasta EP launch on 14th June 2019. This was the first time he was home in two years, and the first time I met him in person.
Unlike most contemporary albums which end with one, this Kenyan album starts with it. Come See Me feat Maryolive Mungai is a bonafide ballad. And honestly, it sounds like an Evanescence track with those haunting harmonies and distinct keys. She asks you to “come see me free” in the post break up song. Aren’t most ballads anyway?
The performing artist and vocal coach is also a Sondeka Awards 2020 nominee under Experimental Music. Out of the 10 Queens, Waithaka has known her for the longest time. They both taught at Music Culture Foundation in 2014, an after school music camp in Milimani Primary Nairobi. So it was an easy time for both of them.
The next two tracks introduce two soulful Luo Queens to the stage. Hera (love) by Meryl Page was the first album single. It’s a classic wedding song and Meryl is as bold as Atemi in Bebi Bebi “I want to be your wife”.
“Say that you love me before my mama and my auntie,” Meryl croons over a groovy R&B beat. She then lures her lover with more Dholuo lines. You can hear more of the Kenyan R&B queen from her recently released debut album SuperEgo.
Akia featuring Serro was released just before the album launch to build anticipation. And it was an instant (fan) favourite. Serro weaves beautifully in between Swahili, Dholuo and English, crowning it with “Akia… Akia wololo yayee”. Even though you don’t understand everything, you can’t help but dance to the Afro Latin beat. I certainly couldn’t.
Waithaka reveals the sensual soundtrack was inspired by Ricky Martins’ Tu Recuerdo. When you hear both tracks back to back, you can tell. I later found out the chorus translates to “I don’t know… how you want me to love you”.
Unlike your ordinary love song, Akia is about wanting love but being afraid of it. Even when it’s right in your face. And the accompanying music video shot by Ivan Odie of Callivan Creatives explains the story so perfectly.
Serro admits she was pushed out of her comfort zone, working with a new producer and video director. She’s used to her team of Mutoriah and Johnson Kyalo who helped her with her debut album KUWE. But in return, she challenged Waithaka out of his. Hear that deep voice in the bridge? That’s him. And that golden voice in the background is by none other than Zaituni.
Combine Kabaseke’s Spanish guitar, Serro’s soulful voice, Zaituni’s impressive runs, Waithaka’s skilled production. And you have yourself a masterpiece.
The fourth album track is Happy Place featuring Chep. As she sings “you’re my happy place”, you can’t help but tap your feet and snap your fingers.The chorus is catchy and bright, her voice bubbly and cheery. I can already picture the music video full of sunshine and balloons like Sunny Day by Atemi.
And this upcoming Kenyan female artist closes with a sultry spoken word that might just put you in the box.
Zaituni Wambui picks up the spoken word in her ode. Utaweza is undoubtedly the most stripped-down song in this Kenyan album. Unlike Hera which has a lot going on, this is completely unplugged as Zaituni’s melodious taarab voice takes centre stage.
On this stage, it’s like she’s singing under a spotlight. Accompanying her is a percussive guitar which sounds like Kato Change’s. But the yellow light
machine reveals it’s her partner Anariko.
Zaituni’s beautiful voice fills up the empty hall as she teases her lover “Are you ready to keep up with me?” He does. Her voice alone makes you want to leave singing to the Zaitunis of the world. Because just like these Kenyan female musicians, she can SING. But then you remember we all have unique voices that need to be heard.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but Utaweza makes me want to hear a fuller version with drums and piano and all that jazz. Maybe because I first heard it live at The Cafe Ngoma Awards 2019 ceremony held at The Nairobi National Museum. She blew the whole audience away with just her voice, Anariko on guitar and Erico on percussions.
It was also on that night that Waithaka won the best producer of the year. I picked up his award on stage because why not. Don’t worry, it eventually reached his Queens.
Away from Utaweza, Kama Wee is upbeat with pop hints. Call it Afrobeats. Miss Kuria has been in the music scene singing backup for Kenyan Queens Serro and Ach13ng for years. In 2019, she finally decided to Dive In like Mutoriah and release her own music.
Unlike the uplifting Itakuwa Sawa, this party anthem is perfect for that moment when you see that guy or girl (we don’t judge) from across the club. Its catchy dance groove makes you want to whine your waist – probably all the way to them. Interestingly, Miss Kuria felt it was a weak song. But from all the love it’s getting, it might be the third single from the album.
If you want more African vibes, you got it. Ndi waku (Gikuyu for I am yours) is by a fairly unknown name. Wabi Sherie is a social entrepreneur, performing artist and budding music producer. For her song, Waithaka decided to infuse nyatiti sounds and African percussions. The song is offbeat on purpose, with no definite structure. Making it the most experimental track in the album.
Wabi is as sweet as her voice. And Ndî Waku is an ode to her man for making her a mother and a wife. To represent her Kenyan culture, she adds some Kirinyaga flavour in the love song.
For my international readers, Kirinyaga is an area inhabited by the Gikuyu people and named after the highest mountain in the country.
As you can already tell, the majority are love songs. Which is not a surprise when we are constantly conditioned by movies and music to look for love and couple up. Just think about it: 90% of songs in the world are about love. Romantic love to be specific.
Don’t get me wrong; I love love. But there are so many kinds of love to sing about, you know.
If you’re like me, you’ll be happy to know there are other themes covered. Marafiki by Mellah is for the backstabbers. Remember that time you trusted a friend with your secrets only for them to talk behind your back? This is for them. Marafiki turned wanafiki.
The upcoming Kenyan female artist had already arranged the Swahili song with guitarist Marcus Ngigi before coming to the studio. Waithaka made it faster and altered the bridge. And his production was inspired by Sade’s sultry Kiss of Life.
Track number 9 is refreshingly about self-love. Power Pose features Engage music director and PerFORM alumnae Priscah Ojwang’. You know, the Kenyan music incubator by Muthoni Drummer Queen that launched in September 2019.
Priscah repeatedly asks “Lemme see your power pose” in the chorus. The electrifying guitar by Kabaseke carries the pop-rock song throughout. Waithaka admits this was the furthest from his sound.
I found it slow and soft for a female empowerment song. I expected something bold, sassy. Ythera delivers just that in Stand up Queen which is full of bass and her husky voice.
You probably know Ythera for her singles Ahadi, Kijana and Kinky Hair. The seasoned Kenyan female artist is also a member of Wanavokali together with Mellah and Chep. Now we know how they ended up on the album.
The group of 6 Kenyan musicians met as background vocalists at Safaricom Twaweza Live 2018 tour. And this year, they won $100,000 during the Amazing Voices Africa competition by Old Mutual in South Africa. What would you do with all that money?
Back to Odes. In Stand Up Queen, Waithaka gives Ythera a smooth R&B swag to work with. Her uplifting lyrics serve both genders in the feminist agenda: “Women and men must decide that no one gets left behind. Together we can make a change”. And she is backed up by fellow queens Meryl and Miss Kuria.
Despite her hectic schedule as Mwanavokali, she also sings backup for Meryl and Wabi in their songs. Apparently, the three are former high school mates who have history – and chemistry.
Not everyone will get that.
I was happy to hear the familiar voices of Serro, Zaituni Wambui, Priscah Ojwang’ and Ythera. The all-female Kenyan album also introduced me to some Kenyan Queens I didn’t know of. Waithaka only knew 3.
In his own words, he wanted to highlight women in the industry and make an amazing album while at it. “The Kenyan industry is male-dominated plus the ladies said finding a producer that can capture the sound they want can be hard. For some of them, this was their first-ever release of music”. He was talking about Chep, Mellah, Wabi and Zaituni.
On his musical inspiration, he revealed “I’m a big fan of Babyface, so the idea came from the ‘Waiting To Exhale’ soundtrack. The only thing missing was a movie.” If you’re wondering what this is, like I once did, come close.
Waiting to Exhale is the soundtrack album of the eponymous 1995 American film. Featuring Angela Bassett and Whitney Houston, it’s about four black women struggling with love. You know how these romantic movies go.
What you might not know is Waiting to Exhale became one of the top R&B albums in 1996. Written and produced by Baby Face, it also featured exclusively female musicians. The love and heartbreak album spurned classic R&B hits by Whitney Houston, Brandy, Mary J Blige and Toni Braxton (aka Jackson Biko’s longtime crush).
With its addictive charm and world-class production, I feel Akia by Serro has the potential to be like Exhale by Whitney Houston – the lead single and 1997 Grammy winner for Best R&B song.
Even though it’s a ladies-only album, there were kings involved in the making of this unique Kenyan project too. The incredible designer Zack Adell did the artwork; he’s the same guy responsible for most of Waithaka’s visuals. And his signature sound “wah-wah” guitar is evident in Ja Hera, Happy Place and Stand Up Queen. After all, he uses the master Benjamin Kabaseke for most of his work.
The Kenyan album was mixed and mastered by his close friend and colleague Giggz. Also a Kenyan diaspora artist, they’ve worked together for the last 6 years. And Jay Mukasa let him record at his Tawala Beats studio, a regular in his music credits. It’s all a finely knitted network of Kenyan artists.
Odes by Queens is a beautiful album with beautiful voices. Different songstresses with different stories. After the release, Waithaka did this thing called Let’s Talk Odes. He went live on Instagram every other Saturday with one Kenyan queen to discuss the story behind their song. Some BTS for curious people like me.
In two hours, he openly shared the production and collaboration story with us. And answered any burning questions. Even though he’s influenced by pop and R&B which he grew up with, his sound depends on who he is working with. That’s why he listened to the demos or previous releases of the Queens to know where to take each track.
From the diversity in sounds, Waithaka proves he’s a versatile music producer. And he can handle a big project featuring various artists. I can only imagine what he would do if he had more time and resources available to him.
Meanwhile, the ladies opened up about their initial doubts and insecurities. And how they learnt to trust the producer. We also got to see the faces behind the voices and explore their different personalities. Some Queens are more compatible than others. But in the end, they all call him uncle Waithaka.
Odes by Queens has undeniably become a launching pad for the music careers of these Kenyan female musicians. Waithaka is no stranger to this. He’s responsible for Aki Wewe by Kwame in 2016, Shuga Mami by Ayrosh in 2017 and Mariru by Jivu Music in 2018. The classic Kenyan hit songs that made most of us know them.
The Kenyan music producer is currently working on his second compilation album. This one, he says, will feature men as well. Waithaka Ent presents Kwame, Ayrosh, Steph Kapela, Sasabasi, Ythera, Meryl and more. I already can’t wait to listen this unique Kenyan album. Can you?
In the meantime, listen to Odes by Queens on your favourite streaming site.