Strumming a Cultural Chord

Wanja Wohoro performs at Queens of Jazz at Park Inn by Radisson, Westlands, on October 18, 2017.
Wanja Wohoro performs at Queens of Jazz at Park Inn by Radisson, Westlands, on October 18, 2017. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Wanja Wohoro celebrates her roots and the status of women on her newly released debut album “Matriarch”.

“This is an album about being a young woman and what that means in 2018, the struggles and frustration, but also the beauty,” says Wanja.

The artist, who was born to a Kenyan father and an Australian mother, says the songs are also a reflection of her return to Kenya after a long time away.

September was a great month for Wanja who was named Favourite New Artist on the music streaming service, Apple Music Africa and she performed at the Home Coming Africa festival in Pretoria, South Africa.

Wanja grew up around music: She started to learn music and play instruments when her father who was in the worship team at Nairobi Baptist Church, bought her a guitar.


In 2013, she recorded an EP “High Tide” and the response to it gave her the confidence to pursue a degree in music.

She studied Music and Sociology at University of Sydney and her first job after graduation was creating social media content for companies. She quit the job just over a year ago and decided to record an album that would give her the focus towards a professional career in music.

Wanja characterises her style as Afro-Indie soul combining her dual heritage and her love for acoustic music, soul and jazz. Her major influence is from women that sing and play guitar, which is a skill that she compares to bringing two characters, one on vocals and the other on guitar.

“I want to be that person that is distinctive in the way they perform and they way they write songs with their guitar and their vocals. Those are my heroes,” says Wanja.

“I decided to name the album Matriarch because it’s such a powerful word and one that is not often used to describe women leaders,” says Mumbi.

The album started from that theme and the songs grew out of the title to complete the concept.

The first single from the album “Mumbi” based on the story of the first woman in Kikuyu folklore, was inspired by the artist’s return to Kenya at the beginning of 2017 and her effort at connecting with her female antecedents.

“Part of that story is the traditions and folklore that were robbed from us by colonialism and watered down. These are stories that many people don’t really know anymore,” she says.

The second single “Youth” is a song that she co-wrote with a friend who is a Cuban guitarist in Sydney and Kenyan guitarist Kato Change brought his own spin to the song.

“It is a song about being a young woman and the initial feelings of attraction towards someone when you are a teenager.”

“Roots” talks about the process of re-establishing herself back in Kenya and the struggle for identity as a person of mixed race.

“I also have the privilege of laying claim to two cultures and I have equal rights to both of them,” she says. “Home” is a song that has evolved since she originally wrote in 2016 for a project in university and the bouncy version on the album features the Nairobi Horns Project.

The trajectory of the album’s nine songs goes from cultural heritage to contemporary issues and ends with “Binti” a duet with Tetu Shani, which is a song of hope for the next generation of women.

Wanja thinks of herself as a storyteller and so her music is less about dancing than it is about getting people to listen to her narratives.

“After the experience of playing with different set ups, from a band to a small ensemble, I have learnt that I am most at home on my own playing my guitar, that is when people respond to me the best.”

She has her eyes firmly fixed on a global platform.

“I am looking for my audience in the world because my style may be niche in Kenya, but not as unique in a global context.”

The first song she wrote for the album “Roots” has resonated with many fans because in her view it is a sentiment that many people can relate to, ‘no matter where you are from, everyone wants to feel that they have a place where they can be secure’.

She released an acoustic version of the song while crowd funding for the production of the album.

“Fund raising is a way of getting people to invest in the album and this motivated me even more to make the music of the highest standards,’’ she says.

When the physical format of the album is released then all the names of the well wishers will be on the liner notes.

“Matriarch” is currently available on iTunes and Spotify.