Music

10 years of retracing East African music roots

musician

A Tanzanian performer during a Singing Wells field trip in 1999. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • Since 2011, the project has travelled to record the music of communities at the Kenyan coast, Nyanza, Rift Valley, Central and Eastern Kenya, the Northern, Central regions of Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar and Pemba in February 2020 when they recorded groups playing taarab and contemporary styles like jazz in Stone Town.

When a group of music researchers, artists, engineers and producers from Kenya and the UK set out to document the music heritage across East Africa in 2011, they didn’t imagine that a decade later this ambitious project would attract millions of online views and connect a network of people around the world who are keen to discover the rich but largely untapped music of the region.

How fitting it should be that this unique project is the brainchild of a Kenyan music veteran who last month received an international honour for his contribution to the development and promotion of the country’s music

Kenyan producer Tabu Osusa was honoured with The Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. This award came as one of Osusa’s signature projects, Singing Wells, celebrated a landmark 10 million views on its YouTube channel.

Singing Wells, which showcases the heritage of traditional music in East Africa is among the projects that the veteran producer and researcher has established to rediscover the rich music traditions across East Africa and reconnect that heritage with the contemporary times.

This achievement also coincided with the 10th anniversary of the project that was launched as a collaboration between Osusa’s Ketebul Music and Abubilla Music of the UK.

It involves field recordings of the music of different communities as a way of preserving the cultures that are fading with every successive generation.

The YouTube channel is dedicated to sharing videos of these recordings.

Since 2011, the project has travelled to record the music of communities at the Kenyan coast, Nyanza, Rift Valley, Central and Eastern Kenya, the Northern, Central regions of Uganda, Tanzania and Zanzibar and Pemba in February 2020 when they recorded groups playing taarab and contemporary styles like jazz in Stone Town.

“One thing that I have learned and experienced in the past 10 years during the field recordings is that none of the polyrhythmic music and dances performed by musicians from one village to another are similar,” says Osusa.

“When you really get to know each community well, then you discover each song has a deep secret and meaning hidden within the beats,” says Osusa. He adds that each community has a unique story to tell and these are expressed through music.

James Allen co-founder of Singing Wells says that viewing statistics cannot be looked at without the context of the comments from people who are using the videos to reconnect to their villages.

“Teachers are using the videos to teach about the great cultural heritage of these communities,” says Allen. “Parents are showing them to their children. Musicians are sharing them for inspiration. That is what matters and we love how active these communities are supporting their musicians.”

One of the most popular videos on the channel is that of Johnston Mukabi, son of legendary Kenyan guitarist George Mukabi performing a rendition of his father’s classic hit “Mtoto Si Nguo” which has been viewed more than 1.9 million views

Tabu Osusa says that it is the unique aspects of this song that was first recorded in the 1950s and which generations of people have grown up listening to, that makes it attractive. “It is a very uniquely Kenyan style known as omutibo that was single handedly created by George Mukabi all those years ago.”