Direction Home: Kombo and the Rejuvenation of Mijikenda Music
Kombo is no newcomer to the Kenyan music scene. Although he is releasing his only second album this year, he has been a prominent feature of Kenyan music for decades. The Sea Waves Band, Mombassa Roots, Liberation Band, Kikwetu Band, Eric Wainana and Suzanna Owiyo are just some of the groups and artists that he has played and toured with since joining his first band, the Black Warriors, in 1992 in Malindi.
In 2009 he released his first solo album, Ndivyo Ilivyo, (meaning That’s the Way in Swahili) but the following year he was involved in a heavy traffic accident. Kombo seriously injured his right arm and a support concert was arranged to collect funds to pay for his surgery. The operation was successful but he has never fully recovered. ‘’I got my arm back but I lost some speed in my guitar play because of nerve problems. I am not playing they way I did before but I still write, compose and arrange my songs,” Kombo tells me after finishing the sound check before a performance in Nairobi in May 2013 with Afrosimba, a band he started a few years back.
Together Kombo & Afrosimba have embarked on a mission of rediscovering and re-conveying the Mijikenda sound, the traditional Kenyan coastal music originating from Kombo’s hometown of Malindi. ‘’I am trying to, no I am actually doing it, I am fusing authentic Mijikenda music with elements of jazz’’, Kombo points out. And he knows exactly what he is doing. His father was a famous Mijikenda musician in the 1970’s. ‘’I was brought up with this music so it is not new to my ears. I realised that I am coming from a culture rich with sounds so why should I not use it,’’ Kombo elaborates.
It took Kombo a decade-long detour through Kenya’s various music genres before he decided to direct his talent at modernizing his native Mijikenda music. En route on this long way home, Kombo has used his music as a tool for promotion of peace and reconciliation. In 2007 he joined the Ultimate band initiated by the Kenyan Electoral Commision and performed with the group all over Kenya teaching civic education under the Vijana Tugutuke (Youth Wake Up) motto. In the days of the 2008 election violence, Kombo wrote and recorded a song about the need for peace in Kenya called What we need that was played on radio stations throughout the country.
Later the same year Kombo joined the Spotlight on Kenyan Music series and played concerts across Kenya as part of a mass reconciliation process. This year Kombo took his efforts of promoting peace through music to Somalia. He played with Afrosimba at the Mogadishu Music Festival both as an individual act and as backing band of Waayaha Cusub, the Somali hip-hip group headlining the festival. ‘’We simply tried to spread the word of peace to the young Somalis who really need a break from the chaos. It was an amazing experience. We saw audience at the concert with tears in their eyes,” Kombo recalls.
Sudanese singer Alsarah performed with Kombo in Mogadishu and later in Nairobi as her own band was not able to join her. Asked about her experience playing with Kombo & Afrosimba, she explains: ”My favorite thing about working with Kombo is his fearless approach to music. He is not afraid of trying new things and pushing his musical boundaries and playing.” The result of this approach according to Alsarah is that Afrosimba is much more than a backing band: ”They bring their own stamp to every set they touch and they certainly brought a flare to my music when we played together. They were meticulous and hardworking when it came to learning the songs but also weren’t afraid to try it with a different vibe.”
Now Kombo is eager to return home to the Kenyan coast and perform with Afrosimba: “People at the coast love the Mijikenda music but they have not heard it for a long time and they have not heard anybody fusing it before. I think I am the only one doing this,” he tells me. Most of the Afrosimba members originate from the coast but some of them also come from Central and Western Kenya bringing with them musical input from their own roots. “The music culture of Kenya is so rich. There is talent all over the country. It just needs to be nurtured,” Kombo states at the end of our chat. And he is right. There is no shortage of talent in Kenyan music but only few musicians are as innovative and have the same flair and outreach as Kombo. His rejuvenation of Mijikenda music will be of the most interesting undertakings to follow in Kenyan music in the years to come.
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