Musician Makadem has come full circle: as a young man growing up in Mombasa, he loved the traditional music that played on his dad’s gramophone.
When he started performing in the late 1990s, using the moniker Mr Lololova, he was first swept away by the wave of dancehall and hip hop.
After moving to Nairobi in the 2000s, he met veteran music producer Tabu Osusa, who convinced him to drop the Jamaican swagger because his talent was better served playing an authentic African style of music.
Thus, was born Makadem, the Ohangla Man.
“I am a live band artist, energetic performer, dancing and singing like a rock star on stage,” he explains as he rehearses for a concert tonight to unveil his latest fusion of traditional instrumentation and contemporary music.
For more than a decade the talented artist has been grappling with how to transform the 8-stringed lyre, popularly known as nyatiti, to suit modern styles in much the same way as its West African relative, the kora.
It all started when Osusa challenged Makadem by presenting him with the same nyatiti that was owned by one of the renowned masters of the instrument, Okumu K’Orengo (who famously tutored Anyango [Eriko Mukoyama], the Japanese nyatiti player).
“I don’t play it the traditional way,” he asserts while explaining how he has fused the instrument with contemporary genres.
“I am playing nyatiti-tronic, which is nyatiti combined with electronic dance music, amapiano, and house music.”
This experiment of diverse styles was first successfully done on the single Mganga Mkuu released in 2014.
Makadem recorded the traditional rhythm of the Digo as a group played the music at a beach in Mombasa and then took the beat to a 19-year-old DJ in Denmark in 2014 who created the thumping rhythm of the song.
Makadem has been part of an international network of artists, producers, and festival booking agents since a trip to the largest world music market, Womex in Sevilla, Spain, in 2008.
He has recorded a lot of his recent music in Europe because of the enthusiastic reception that he receives from young producers there.
“They are always like, “What is that sound? Do you have a song that we can play?” And so we end up working on music with diverse artists.”
A highlight of such collaboration is Igobi Keke (Ghanaian pidgin for ‘It is going to be alright’), an uplifting rhythm released in 2021 with Ojibo Afrobeat, a Lithuanian collective who creates sounds combining Afrobeat with jazz, electronic dance music, and pop.
In 2020, while he was locked down in Denmark during the pandemic, Makadem wrote a song called the Plandemic where he plays the nyatiti on a hip-hop beat.
“I was actually rhyming with the words, ‘pandemic’, ‘epidemic’ and ‘academic’ and the song worked perfectly to convey the message on keeping safe at the height of Covid-19.”
Makadem has faced criticism from purists including some of his mentors for tinkering with the nyatiti.
In his defence, he says that circumstances have forced him to modify the instrument by adding guitar pickups and tuning pegs.
“I was invited to Zanzibar to play nyatiti and I could not tune the instrument because the strings got stuck on the bar due to the humidity. In 2020, I was playing at an electronic music show with a DJ in Switzerland when one of my strings came off in the middle of the show. It was a lesson that the nyatiti needed some adjustment,” says Makadem.
In 2018, while attending a jazz concert in Berlin, Germany he observed that the stage had a piano at the centre, surrounded by double bass, rhythm guitar, alto-saxophone and drums.
“I looked at the setup and said I am going to remove that piano and replace it with the nyatiti,” he says.
“The challenge was that while playing with a big band, the nyatiti must be heard and you can’t keep a microphone next to it all the time. So, I added a pickup just like a guitar, to amplify the sound.”
He has recruited a group of musicians who are keen on improvisation, including Serge Kimani a drummer and producer who is also responsible for the arrangement of the music, Shadrack Makau keyboard player and saxophonist Rasanga Olita.
“I am a big machine, and I have been working hard on this show so it is a three-hour, high energy, nonstop show with a nine-piece band on stage,” says Makadem.
“The nyatiti is the main rhythm, supported by percussions, drum set, guitars, keyboards and saxophone.”
The Nyatiti Jazz concert takes place at the Alliance Francaise Gardens, Nairobi, on Friday from 7pm.