The Luo-London Soundclash

Owiny Sigoma was the grandfather of Joseph Nyamungu. Owiny Sigoma is also the name of the music school in Nairobi where Joseph for years has been teaching his apprentices how to play the nyatiti, the eight-stringed lyre central to the music of the Luo tribe. One day in January 2009, five tall London-based musicians arrived in Nairobi and through the Art of Protest organisation they got in contact with Joseph and his musical companion Charles Okowo.

The musicians jammed, exchanged ideas and songs and recorded a few tracks. The Owiny Sigoma Band was born. A year later Jesse Hackett (keys), Louis Hackett (bass), Sam Lewis (guitar), Chris Morphitis (bouzouki/guitar) and Tom Skinner (drums) returned to Nairobi and recorded some more tacks with Joseph and Charles. And then last week they returned once again – this time to play the magnificent Rift Valley Festival on the shore of Lake Naivasha.

In the meantime, the musical meeting had resulted in the release of Owiny Sigoma Band’s self-titled debut album released last year on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label. Moreover, and more importantly, Owiny Sigoma Band succeeded in drawing international attention to traditional Luo music and to the often underappreciated Kenyan folkloric music in general.

 

We met Joseph and the rest Owiny Sigoma Band for a chat after their concert at Roskilde Festival this summer. A concert, where the bands’ varied set of Luo folk songs and London-influenced tunes sung in both Luo and English had sparked an early Saturday afternoon groove party in the festival’s Cosmopol tent.

‘’We did not really know anything about Kenyan music before going to Nairobi,’’ Owiny Sigoma drummer Tom Skinner admitted. However, Joseph explained that foreign musicians coming to him to explore the nyatiti sound and the Luo music is not unusual. ‘’Many people come to Nairobi to learn how to play the nyatiti. We teach them at the music school but also take them to the countryside for them to really experience the Luo musical tradition,” he elaborated.

However, both Joseph and Charles were quick to underline that Owiny Sigoma is not a one-way relationship. ‘’We also learn a lot from playing with them, from studying their songs and techniques and from the exchange of ideas,” Joseph told us. And he added that the local audience in Kenya also appreciates them playing with foreign musicians.

Both on record and on and off stage, Owiny Sigoma Band stands out as a venture based on more than vivid melodies and eminent musicians, that is on true improvisation and mutual curiosity. Like al cross-cultural musical fusions should be but rarely are. So let this be an encouragement to not only explore Owiny Sigoma Band but also to pass by Owiny Sigoma music school next time you are in Nairobi, say hi to Joseph and maybe even get your hands on your own gorgeous nyatiti.

 

 



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