The year is 1999. You’ve just landed in the USA. You’re here because you earned a scholarship to college as a star athlete. Your whole family is excited that their kid ‘ameenda majuu’. But life is not as rosy as they think it is.
Waithaka recalls his migration pattern within the USA in our two-hour Whatsapp call. He lived in St Louis Missouri for a year trying to survive. After moving to Maryland on the border with Washington DC, also known as DMV, he stayed there for 15 years – the longest he’s been in one place. Until he moved to Dallas, Texas where he has been ever since.
Getting back into Music
I’m curious how this former track athlete ended up being a music producer. In the beginning, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Like every young Kenyan in that era, he was advised to go to nursing school – just like my brother. But for Waithaka, music class was the only class he enjoyed going to.
“Initially, I wanted to be a singer as a kid.” And in high school, he performed a solo in Kiambu at some top level he can’t quite remember.
During that period between 1994 and 1997, Kenyan urban music was also coming up. This was the golden age for Kalamashaka and Jimmy Gathu. Remember Club Kiboko?
“As a music fan since childhood, I wanted to be part of the wave. Ted Josiah was the man, he’s a big inspiration, doing what we were used to hearing from outsiders. When I went to the States, my love for music was suppressed. Music class sparked it back.”
In 2001, he transferred from Missouri to Montgomery Community College in Maryland and started music education. He then took a break from school till 2004. During this 3-year sabbatical, he picked up piano, took a couple of piano lessons and eventually bought one.
At the same time, he was part of a Pan-African band. Get this: the trumpeter was an African American from NYC, the saxophone player had Jamaican-Cuban roots, the lead singer was Liberian, bass player Nigerian, and drummer Jamaican. While Waithaka represented Kenya.
These young diaspora artists predominantly played jazz neo-soul; it’s no wonder his music tends to lean that way. When they were not working, they were busy looking for places to perform, getting gigs from their company and learning each other’s songs. All this time the current music producer was still leaning towards live performance.
After 2 years of community college, everyone went in different directions. He transferred to Bowie State University, Maryland in 2007. That’s where he got his degree in Fine Arts (which I first heard as finance) – specializing in Music Technology.
Why he stayed in USA
What happened to the track scholarship? Well, he got sick during track season. But he stayed in the US because, “Others are trying to come here, you want to go home. You learn how to survive.”
He admitted American life is tough, especially having the right papers. “The perception by Kenyans at home is skewed because we don’t make it clear, we do not express hardships over here. What we see on TV is not reality.” As Vallerie Muthoni once said, Vitu kwa ground ni different.
They were moments he really wanted to come home. Thankfully his brother and childhood friends were there. And they encouraged him to finish what he had started.
“There’s no place like home. With all the hardships, I love Kenya. With music, I had to start with Kenya.”
Connecting with the Kenyan music scene
After the band breakup, Waithaka started dabbling in music production. Between 2006 and 2009 he recorded music with Liberian artists including his former band’s lead singer Julian Gbaba. But he always kept his ear to what was happening in the Kenyan music scene. He remembers attending shows by Kenyan musicians in the States: Redsan in 2002 and Nameless in 2004.
The only problem was that he didn’t have access to these artists.
And so he started by looking for vocals from Kenyan songs. His biggest source was the GetMziki website by “A-Star” Richard Njau of the Clearing The Airwaves (CTA) Kenyan YouTube channel.
“He’s always being ahead in utilizing the internet.” I agree.
The budding music producer would hit him up on Facebook and Njau would send him vocals. If you check his Soundcloud, his first songs were remixes.
In 2009, he found out about Zouk music when Congolese-French musician Kaysha wrote a comment in one of his songs. “He was the first person so organized in doing things, I learnt a lot from him.”
Then A Star posted a song on Youtube that caught Waithaka’s attention. Mola was his introduction to Kwame – who was then working at Lodwar studios. “When I saw him do a hook for Hawi, I told myself I wanna work with this guy.”
Convinced that they were a perfect match, he reached out to Kwame in 2010. They started talking on Facebook, simply exchanging projects. His first Kwame project was a Holela remix of the HIV/AIDS awareness song. He did two remixes for Kwame to see where he was coming from.
While Waithaka liked the neo-soul/R&B version, Kwame liked the Afrosoul one.
What was it about Kwame? “I was impressed by his vocal ability, his songwriting and the way he can mix up Swahili and Gikuyu. It was one of the first times I heard someone singing like a Riveroad artist on a very urban beat. The only other person was Harry Kimani with Haiya.”
Years later, Kwame confessed that Harry Kimani was the reason he decided to sing Kikuyu music. Initially, he felt the pressure to sing in English and Sheng. But when all you’re hearing is English R&B, you want to do something different.
The Kenyan music producer came back home in 2010. After 10 whole years. And he confirms reverse culture shock is real: “You don’t realize how much you’ve been removed.” He was shocked by how many people were on Mombasa Road, walking on the side of the highway and crossing the road. Apparently people in the USA don’t do that.
There was also an explosion of cell phones, whereas when he left the only people with cell phones were ballers.
“Here, people don’t interact as much as back home.” And he knows it because he grew up in KU and later moved to Ruiru which are both pretty packed day and night. For the first two weeks, he had to take all that in before he felt comfortable to drive again (on the left side).
“I found my home switch, turned it on and I was good.”
The local music scene was also different. “So many radio and TV stations were playing Kenyan music, stuff I left and more. With the World Cup in South Africa, it was all about African music.”
He didn’t get a chance to do any music as he spent most of his time with his family. But while on holiday at Pa Pweza Beach Suites in Mombasa, he discovered a guy nearby who had a music studio. Even though he was doing rhumba music, it ignited another spark in him.
After 2010 he decided to come back every other year. When he returned to the States, he seriously started talking to Kwame. They finally met in person in 2012. But they didn’t make music together: they just talked, getting to know each other. Like you would on a first date.
It was the same year he met fellow Kenyan music producer Provoke. And through him, he met Xtatic, Nessa, French Boy and Kenyan house DJs Jack Rooster and Saint Evo.
This was his first official introduction to the Kenyan music industry. And things were moving fast over here. Kenyan female rapper Xtatic, for example, was getting signed to Sony Music Entertainment Africa – a deal which later fell through.
On his third visit in 2014, he met many more Kenyan musicians: Wangechi, Dela, and Fadhilee. He even co-produced Radi’s love ballad I Miss You with Fadhilee – who is currently producing and recording his second album Shindu Shii.
While teaching at Bugo and Marvin Maveke’s Music Culture Foundation, he met more people including Maryolive Mungai, Kibali Muriithi and Anto Neosoul. People he was used to seeing online were now standing in front of him.
The first time he attended Live at The Elephant in Lavington, he remembers thinking how the Kenyan live music scene was unbelievable.
It still is.
Working with Kwame
“Around this time (in 2014), Kwame had recorded Mapenzi Yako with MG. I told him we need to put something together.” So they booked a studio session but the track didn’t fit what they were trying to do.
Waithaka was about to throw it away but something told him to keep the drums. He ended up finishing wh be Githeremende, and Kwame recorded a freestyle over it.
The track became part of Kwame’s debut EP Rugendo (Gikuyu for journey).
Meanwhile, Waithaka and Provoke would work on new songs almost every day. Together, they produced Kenyan Zouk song Sijui by French Boy.
Waithaka’s friend Festus sent him a couple of tracks: two of which ended up on Wangechi’s Don’t Consume If Seal Is Broken EP, and one on Kwame’s (refer to Uka Uka Uka).
By the time Waithaka went back to the States, Kwame had shot the music video for the Swahili gospel song Mapenzi Yako.
Building the dream team
Another familiar name pops up in Waithaka’s story. He says he met Festus at work as his mother was the supervisor at the company he used to work for. It was an after school setting where they’d do activities with autistic kids, taking them to water parks and zoos.
“It taught me a lot of patience,” he recalls.
In the music room is where the magic happened. They started exchanging musical ideas in 2004 and have been working together ever since. “He’s the one person I’ve worked with the longest.” It helps that the African diaspora artist from Sierra Leone also lives in America.
He reminisces more on his college days. One day, the band trumpeter found him in the piano room and told him to play. It was horrible. His witty response: ‘Don’t quit your day job, keep it.’
That became Waithaka’s motivation to practice even more. “If it weren’t for him, I would have quit.”
A year before moving to Dallas in 2015, he met another Kenyan music producer through Sasabasi. Who is Sasabasi? He’s a pioneer Kenyan diaspora artist who has been doing music for the last 15 years!
They started talking on Facebook after Waithaka came across his song. And when he was still called Vinticqeezy. If you want to remember what kapuka sounded like in 2008, watch Piga Picha (at your own risk).
So after the introduction, Waithaka drove to Houston. And on that first visit, he got to know Giggz just like it happened with Kwame. About Giggz, he has only good things to say. “He has an amazing studio, amazing skill as a producer and mixing and mastering engineer.”
Making Malkia EP
After studying the Kenyan music scene, he got ideas of what he should try next with Kwame. There was already a good reception to the Rugendo EP. Githeremende had caught a buzz thanks to Patricia Kihoro who played it consistently on Homeboyz Radio, way before Afrocentral.
In 2015 Waithaka came back to start working on their second EP. Working with Kwame’s producer proved to be a challenge. However, he kept the track for Malkia and sent it to Kwame a few weeks later. The Kenyan musician was so amazed he recorded his vocals immediately.
“Githeremende was a beginning, with Malkia I was sure which direction to go with him.”
That same year, Kwame was invited to the Churchill Show – his introduction to mainstream media. He performed Agagukinyira his Gikuyu cover for If tomorrow never comes. And teased a short and sweet live version of Aki Wewe that had all the ladies swooning.
It had a snowball effect. Everyone began asking for it yet it had not been recorded. So Waithaka asked Ciano Maimba to play the guitars but he was not available. Luckily Marvin Maveke, who was also Eric Wainaina’s drummer, introduced the Kenyan music producer to Teddy Waruhiu (bass) and Benjamin Kabaseke (lead guitar). In MG’s studio, they recorded Aki Wewe.
Around that time he also met Zak Adell, the Kenyan graphic designer. Part of the critical people who play a role in what we currently know as Waithaka Ent. Now he knew session musicians and radio personalities. The outsider had found a way in, all thanks to Provoke.
The whole Malkia EP was recorded in one and a half years. Waithaka added the final touches in the USA while Giggz mixed and mastered it. And that is when Ayrosh entered the scene.
Enjoying the story? I thought so. Click here to read part 2 of Waithaka’s musical journey.