Music

Nyatiti player steps into UK limelight

RAPASA

Rapasa Otieno a UK-based nyatiti player. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • While plucking the strings of his nyatiti instrument to the rhythm of traditional folk songs, Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno is cut out to be the musical heir to Ayub Ogada.
  • Rapasa spent some time perfecting his skills under the tutelage of the late Ayub and still meets the influence of the Kenyan musician in the UK where he is now based.

While plucking the strings of his nyatiti instrument to the rhythm of traditional folk songs, Rapasa Nyatrapasa Otieno is cut out to be the musical heir to Ayub Ogada, the acclaimed Kenyan musician whose mastery of the eight-stringed instrument made him an international icon.

Rapasa spent some time perfecting his skills under the tutelage of the late Ayub and still meets the influence of the Kenyan musician in the UK where he is now based.

“I was playing with the Chineke Orchestra in London just last week and many people who saw me playing the nyatiti immediately recalled Ayub’s extraordinary talent,” says Rapasa.

He has acquired a reputation for his unique skill with the nyatiti and was commissioned to produce music for the BBC TV wildlife series “Serengeti” and is currently rehearsing for an online concert with the world acclaimed Chineke Orchestra.

He has participated as a fellow in prestigious events like Making Tracks in 2019, One Beat (2017) and the Nile Project in 2016

He initially learnt nyatiti at the feet of the maestros of the instrument in the villages of Alego, Ugenya, and Nyahera. Rapasa moved to England in 2020 just before the pandemic.

“I moved here to seek new challenges, meet new audiences and working with different musicians,” he said during an online interview.

The lockdown offered the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and contemporary dancer, time to reflect on his music and to explore new styles of playing an age-old instrument, for instance, by simplifying the plucking of the strings and tweaking the notes.

This has meant adapting to a new culture and lifestyle amid the tough conditions of the pandemic.

As luck would have it, he was one of four international musicians accepted into the UK Sage Gateshead Artist in Residence programme in September 2020, which is an invaluable experience for his development as an independent traditional and digital artist.

The musicians under the programme supported by the Arts Council England Lottery Fund: Develop Your Creative Practice benefit from funding, investment in a creative project of their choice and support to develop the project.

The result of the residency that lasts 10 months is an album of 11 songs that have been composed of folk tales and other popular stories that the musician grew up hearing in the villages of Ugenya in Siaya.

“Kweche” (taboos in Dholuo) is officially released on August 4 this year but will be available to pre-order on Band camp and iTunes from June 19 the day when he premiers this album with live visuals during an online showcase.

In the 11 songs on the album, Rapasa looks back at common traditional practices and the lessons from a childhood spent growing at the feet of his grandmother.

The album explores the place and role of taboos that guide individual and community practices. He shares the myths, tales, stories, riddles and proverbs to explain these taboos and how it feels to live away from home and away from familiar surroundings and family.

“This is a whole shift in culture so I have to express myself in a way that audiences here in Europe and elsewhere in the world can grasp,” he says.

During the performance in June, the music will be illustrated with images that have been designed by the Paris-based Kenyan choreographer Opiyo Okatch. “A typical nyatiti song would last 30 minutes but we are now living in an era when everything is tightly produced so I have compressed the songs into an average of three to four minutes each,” says Rapasa.

“Kweche” follows the release of “Tipona” (my shadow) in March 2020 and ‘Songs of Equality’ in December 2019. The latter was commissioned by the University of York for the project Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

Rapasa recorded the entire album from his current base in Newcastle Upon Tyne in the UK with the contribution of musicians from around the world who played different roles virtually.

Nathan Okite, the US-based Kenyan musician played bass and lead guitar, Kirit Patni the bansuri (classical flute), Isaac Anyanga on percussion, and French vocalist Sabrina who sings on ‘Buok.’

Rapasa is focused on connecting with his heritage through his knowledge of traditional music. He has researched nyatiti music and can place the instrument in the context of contemporary music without losing its authenticity.