Nyatiti back on global stage


Ayub Ogada's nyatiti in his home in Nyahera, western Kenya. PHOTO | POOL

A Kenyan artist based in the US has summoned the spirit of the legendary Kenyan maestro Ayub Ogada, by tapping into the unique sound of the nyatiti in a style that is reminiscent of the late musician’s widely renowned mastery of the traditional instrument.

Musician, producer, and digital creator Simon Javan Okello has just released his debut single called “Chandore” (Luo word for “suffering”) which is a haunting, melancholic rhythm played in a refreshingly acoustic style that recounts some of the troubles facing men in a society that demands that their gender responds stoically to challenges, big and small.

The single premiered at the Madaraka Music Festival, an annual event in Seattle, Washington that celebrates African culture through music and performing arts. Simon started the event in 2014 to support music education and arts programming, leadership and social activism in Kenyan and Uganda. In the last seven editions, the event has attracted more than 10,000 visitors and reached over 13 million people through digital platforms.

The song “Chandore” was launched with a performance at the festival on July 24 with all proceeds from the sale of the single, which is available to download and stream, benefiting the targeted projects in East Africa.

This year’s event was headlined by Grammy-nominated reggae artist Pato Banton and hosted by Chiyumba Ossome, the 2007 Miss Kenya USA who, among other accomplishments, was a voice artist for the 2019 Oscar-winning film, “Black Panther.”

As with previous years, there was a diversity of artists showcasing the depth and richness of culture from Africa and its diaspora.

The festival also acted as a platform to collect donated music instruments and photography equipment to be shipped to Kenya to help grow and expand the Education, Music and Art Programme (EMAP).

Simon or Jahvoh, as he is popularly known, was born and brought up in Kisumu where he developed a love for music, specifically reggae and traditional rhythms.

He founded the One Vybe Entertainment, including a DJ sound system and in 1997 started an orphanage called the Young Generation Centre to provide shelter and training for children who had lost parents to HIV/Aids. In 2010, he relocated to Seattle in the US in 2010 and four years later the Madaraka Festival was born.

Despite a deep love for music and interaction with many artists, this is only his first-ever recording. “Chandore” is a contemporary nyatiti piece using the traditional 8-stringed instrument, in a style that is strikingly similar to Ayub Ogada who is best remembered for the international hit “Kothbiro.”

While Ayub's sang in a distinct baritone, Simon’s vocals are in a much higher range, while still blending beautifully with the acoustic instrument.

Simon chose a traditional instrument as a symbol of culture expression and a reminder of the urgency in protecting and preserving such an important vessel of identity.

“Let us protect and preserve our culture no matter where we are,” he says.

Chandore goes through my journey and the places I have travelled,” he says.

“The single is about what I have seen and how these personal experiences from around the globe compared to those in America,” he adds.

The theme of the song highlights the struggle and suffering of African men, a topic that is mostly kept under wraps often to the mental detriment of the person and their loved ones.

“The expectation is that men will not display their emotion despite some of the toughest situations in life but it should not be that way,” says Simon.

He says the song is an expression that most African men instinctively feel comfortable being true to their culture and upbringing, and not living their lives according to other people’s expectations.

Chandore” is produced by Seattle-based producer Bob Antolin and mixed and mastered by Kenyan Shamir Tadeiya. This is the first single off an upcoming EP which is inspired by the ideals that the artist holds dear from his life in Kenya and since settling in the US and contains songs that honours both African and African-American culture.