Nairobi Gig brings Motown sounds alive

The cast  of “Motown in Nairobi”. PHOTO | COURTESY
The cast of “Motown in Nairobi”. PHOTO | COURTESY 

It is the record company that turned Michael Jackson into a teenage star, where an 11-year-old called Stevie Wonder signed his first recording deal and where The Temptations became an iconic soul band.

There are few musical eras that have had such an enduring appeal through different generations of fans as Motown.

It transcended the status of just a record company to describe an entire Black music sound. Even today, different generations of music fans sing along to classics like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “My Girl” “ABC” and “Signed Sealed Delivered”.

Every year some of Nairobi’s top singers and musicians get together to play their interpretations of their favourite hits from the era that peaked globally from the 1960s to the 70s.

“Motown in Nairobi” as become an annual gig since it was first held in 2013 celebrating the music, fashion and food of a golden era.

The event is the brainchild of singer and actress June Gachui in 2013. The next edition of “Motown in Nairobi” is set for October 19th at the Hub in Karen, Nairobi.

Motown was a record company started in 1959 in Detroit by Berry Gordy, a 30-year-old former featherweight boxer who turned into an iconic music mogul. The name was adopted from the reputation of Detroit as “Motor City”, home to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, America’s largest motor vehicle companies.

It provided a home for African American musicians at a time when the music industry mirrored the segregation in the rest of American society.

Gordy’s writes in his autobiography “To Be Loved” that some of the early Motown albums were released without showing the artists faces on them until a time when the music’s popularity overcame the racial prejudices.

The success of Motown Records came down to factory-like efficiency as the recording studios remained open close to 24 hours a day and Gordy held quality control meetings every Friday to ensure that only the very best quality was released on his label.

Motown’s power played out way beyond the shores of the US reaching Africa where a young population in the 60s and 70s lapped up the trademark catchy rhythms and identified with the African American stars that worked under the label.

The “Motown Sound” was stirring soul with a strong pop influence. The top acts on the label were Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations.

The studio known as Hitsville USA operated for 22 hours and was only closed from 8am to 10am for maintenance. It now houses the Motown Museum. Gordy sold off the company to RCA Records in 1991, then to PolyGram in 1994.

It is not just in Kenyan where the Motown appeal endures. “Motown the Musical” a stage production on the life of the record company founder Gordy and the stars he created is currently running at theatres in the US.

Contemporary British music producer Naughty Boy has just announced an album of remixed Motown tracks to introduce the sound to millenials.

June says the main aim of “Motown in Nairobi” is to put on a show that wows the audience and give them a reason to leave their homes, dressed up and eager to be entertained.

The typical audience consists of a mix of the older people, who have a special recollection of growing up during the Motown era, and much younger fans that have been influenced by the timeless appeal of the music.

The production of a superb stage and lighting show and a great line up of vocalists and instrumentalists bringing to life their renditions of Motown hits.

The performance includes some of stars that brought the house down at the last event a year ago including June, David Hunter, Victor Muli, Edward Parseen, Kendi Nkonge and Chris Bittok.

Among the additions to the show are the pianist Jacob Asiyo, singer and actress Patricia Kihoro Daniel Chikwaza, a singer composer, songwriter who is originally from Malawi.

Once again, the Nairobi Horns Project will play the horn section throughout the show.

Fans have also been joining in on the fun online with suggestions of songs they would like to have performed at the event.

Some of the classics include Marvin Gaye hits like “I want you” and “Mercy, Mercy Me”, “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson and “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder.

The artists have also been building up to the event through mini gigs such as an acoustic pop up played by Edward and June at The Hub last Sunday.