Every time that Japanese musician Eriko Mukoyama returns to a small village in rural Kenya, she is welcomed like a daughter returning home.
And so, it was earlier this week as Mukoyama, popularly known as Anyango, an accomplished player of the eight-stringed traditional lyre, the nyatiti, returned to the village in Siaya where she spent one year in 2005 learning the instrument.
The musician who is originally from Tokyo, has been on a week-long visit to Kenya this week, primarily to shoot a video for her new song.
“I have not been to Kenya in seven years, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic. But I have also been engaged in family commitments,” she said in a phone interview from Kisumu on Tuesday night this week.
“I am enjoying fish and ugali after two days of intense filming,” she said in Dholuo, which along with Kiswahili, she clearly loves speaking.
She has been shooting a video at scenic locations surrounding Lake Victoria, for her new song Dunia which is scheduled for release in 2024.
“This is a song of hope with a message that despite the tough times at the moment, we should unite for peace and work towards a better world,” she explained.
The video was shot on Lake Victoria, Lake Kanyaboli, Siaya, the fabled Kit Mikaya rock formation in Kisumu and the village in Alego, where she spent a year learning how to play the nyatiti at the feet of the late maestro Okumu K’Orengo.
“I was very afraid of the height of Kit Mikaya and the boat on Kanyaboli was small so that was also quite scary but the experience on Lake Victoria was amazing,” said Anyango.
On the last day of her trip to Nyanza, she went back to the village in Karapul, Alego, where she spent a year in 2005 as an understudy of the nyatiti grandmaster. “It brings tears to my eyes when all those memories start flooding back. It is very emotional.”
It was K’Orengo who gave her the name Anyango ‘the one born in mid-morning’ as part of her orientation into the Luo culture.
She lived in a grass-thatched house in the village and was immersed in village life working on the shamba [garden], fetching water from the river, cooking and carrying out the domestic chores just like other women do for their households.
K’Orengo broke the taboo by allowing her to play the nyatiti, traditionally only played by men.
Anyango became his apprentice, accompanying him on long-distance trips, often on foot, to places where he was invited to play and eventually, she “graduated” in 2005 when her tutor challenged her to take the nyatiti out into the world. K’Orengo died in December 2011.
Just as in other parts of the world, the pandemic hit the music industry hard in Japan but Anyango said the silver lining was that she got the opportunity to complete pending projects.
“There were no performances during that period due to restrictions on public gatherings so I spent time in the studio recording music,” she said.
In 2021 she released her first album in five and a half years, Kanki which is a Japanese word that expresses delight or great joy (“raha kubwa” as Anyango said in Kiswahili.)
That was followed a year later by her ninth album Aoko, whose title track is her version of the classic song by Kenyan band Jabali Afrika.
“My daughter, who appears with me in the video, is named Aoko after the song so I had a conversation with Joseck Asikoye of Jabali via email and requested his permission to record my version with Japanese lyrics.”
The two musicians met face to face for the first time on Thursday this week during a mentorship session that Anyango had with a group of students and young artists in Nairobi under the Tambua! skills development programme at the SHOFCO School for Girls, Kibera.
She shared her experience of learning a traditional instrument, despite great odds, and the rewards that has had for her career. She plays the instrument as a solo, duo or trio with drum, bass or sometimes with an entire band.
“I have collaborated with musicians playing bass guitar, violin, and contrabass which proves that you can combine a traditional instrument with any of the contemporary instruments and create a unique sound,” she said.
“Even after playing the nyatiti for 17 years, I am still learning new styles and techniques and improvising with the instrument.
“Young musicians should embrace their heritage and enrich their traditional music through fusion with modern styles from different parts of the world.”
Meanwhile, she is fulfilling the counsel of the nyatiti maestro who advised her to take the instrument further in the world that he was able to.