You probably watched the musical Tinga Tinga Tales. Achieng’ Abura was the voice of the Crow, the character with self esteem issues.
Any other day she is a singer; Afro Jazz, Afro-fusion and Gospel. She has been on it for more than 25 years now. In 1990, she was already releasing her first album and since then she has released almost half a dozen albums, winning a Kora Award in 2004.
You might also know her from the talent show Tusker Project Fame where she was a judge. We met at her home on Marcus Garvey Road in Hurlingham, Nairobi.
You don’t look happy.
You have such sad eyes...
Wow! It’s Monday morning (Laughs). I mean I had a lovely Sunday. I’ve woken up and my son isn’t doing too badly today.
My son is 23. Young man, very comfortable in himself, very mature. I’m a single mother so you find that children with single parents tend to mature very quickly. (Smiles). We discovered that he had a heart condition five years ago and so we’ve been treating that along with the sickle cell anaemia.
Oh, I’m sorry!
He’s a clever boy, he got scholarships. He was supposed to have started last year in April, but just before that he was in ICU for over a month. But now doctors want to strengthen his heart. They can.
Oh, that’s good news, yes?
Yes, only it’s in the UK. And we have to airlift him, which costs like Sh12 million and crazy things like that. The alternative is to have a doctor, a nurse, myself and him on business class for Sh4 million. So we are trying to raise Sh4 million.
In your circle of performing artistes, have you engaged them?
Well, the first umm… let me put it straight up. There is this notion that we artistes are very rich, and yes, we don’t do too poorly. But five years is a long time to maintain a situation. I called a harambee and there was less than 10 people.
Then we did a show with Suzanne, Makadem... a big line-up. Still, we didn’t get the numbers. I’ve raised money for so many things and I was hoping that somebody in turn says, “Okay, let’s support her.” I have learnt one thing from this experience; the people who don’t have that much are the ones who donate to help. But the people who you are certain have, they don’t give.
This definitely changes your friendships?
You have to define your friends very carefully. This experience has brought me new friends and it has also taught me that the ones I thought were my friends are not quite my friends. They are those people who stick around you because they like the oomph that comes with your name. So if you drop a little bit, they take off.
What has music taught you all these years?
I believe music is a gift from God. And I don’t generally sit and say, “I’m going to make a hit.” (Laughs) I mean, that’s not me. I just sit and say, “I’ve got this beautiful sound in my head and I’m going to record it.” And so you find people store most of my albums and listen to them over years.
Have you found any financial success in music?
I’ve been living off my music for the longest time. If it wasn’t that I am going through a difficult time now, I’ve lived off my music. There was a time we’d make a lot of money because I’d sing a lot for the corporates.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and a Masters in environmental studies and when my son starts college I’m going to do my PhD. But with my music I want to transform our society. So I’ve written about a lot of things; the girl child, women, environment, our political scenario. I want my music to change somebody’s opinion about life. It’s not just financial success, it is to be able to touch people and make a difference.
What’s the typical day of an artiste like you?
My typical day is that one, I don’t have to wake up at six in the morning. (Laughs).
I don’t have to wake up at six in the morning unless I need to. I then get to have some time on the piano because practising, rehearsing is a very high part of it. I’ve just finished a new album, so I’ve moved away from writing new music for a while. Trying to work out how to get it out. Actually it has delayed because my son depreciated a little bit. But I will launch a new album. Then I have a movement for social justice. I’m becoming a little political.
Drifting to the dark side, aren’t we?
Actually no. I think taking light to the dark side.
(Laughs) There’s no way I’m getting dark. I think that side needs some light.
(Laughs) You will not find me doing what they’re doing. No. I believe that until Kenyans learn to choose leaders who have them in their heart, we will always suffer. Until Kenyans realise that they are not tied to people, that there were no people born to be their leaders, they have a choice and they could find leaders that could make a difference in the country.
You have this crucifix hanging on your forehead. Is it some sort of a fashion statement and a spiritual statement?
I’ve always had something hanging here, and sometimes it’s a cross, sometimes it’s other things but now it’s permanently a cross because it is a spiritual statement.
You’re saying “This is who I am”...
This is who I am. I believe in our Father, and I don’t have to hide him. Meet me as a child of God.
When did your faith strengthen and why?
(Laughs) Was there a time my faith had gone down? That’s a very strange question.
So you’ve always been like this?
Always. I started in gospel music. Then around ’96, I wanted to give Kenya the sound of like Miriam Makeba, Salif Keita. The sound that has got more international appeal. I decided I want to express myself that way. It is not a spiritual. It is the gospel people who tend to have written a new book that says you must one… two… three… but there are people who’ve done songs like ‘‘don’t worry be happy’’ who have changed the lives of more people than any gospel artistes. For me if you’re going to make somebody’s life better, happier, then you’re doing what God wants.
Have you ever backslid?
Oh, how did that play out?
There was a time I used to indulge a bit heavily in alcohol. I guess I wasn’t as crazy as people get today, but I was pretty crazy. But the difference is, I knew I was doing something wrong. I just kind of kept on going and feeling guilty.
But one thing that has always been my pillar in life is my son. When I go out there, I always remember that I want my son to be proud of me and so that has helped me a lot. You’ll find people saying a lot of things, but you won’t find them saying crazy things about me.
Do you still drink?
I do. But once in two or three months like when a friend comes from far and buys a good quality brandy and we have a third of the bottle and we’re like “really?! We’ve done it.”
So you’re a brandy girl?
I’m a brandy girl. Good quality brandy. But once in awhile. I don’t judge anyone for drinking. It’s what you do after you drink.
What’s your take on this new cool, hip gospel music, you know the type they play in clubs?
I have no problem with it as such. I believe that if it’s gotten audience and it speaks to that audience and making a difference, it has a right to be there. But I have to say one thing, if you have been watching TV lately, they’ve got this advert where Rihanna is doing “work work work work work work” (Laughs) You know I laugh until I want to cry because I’m asking myself, she went to the studio and said, hey we’ve got a hit, “Work work work work work work”. For me I want the new singers not to get too cheap, to make music so easy.
But people like that kind of music.
Well whatever it is, it clearly is something like I would be doing to do vocal training. Like “Everybody work work work” I’m not going to put that in a song! So I have questions about the quality of some of the music.
Do you sing in the shower?
Not that often, I have my piano here, singing time is singing time. I’m not heavy about singing in the shower. I’ve actually never thought about that. When I sing here the whole compound can hear. My voice is huge!
Does your piano have a name?
Heh! That’s a new one. (Pause) You’ve challenged me. I have never given my piano a name! It was a gift from my parents for performing well in school. I have had it since I was 12. I think it was bought from a missionary! So who knows how old it could be? But let me put it this way, I’ve had it for 40 years, plus.
A classic piano.
Yes, but it’s a classic with ivory. Yeah, this, (Laughs) this is not a joke. What I have here, this is the real deal.