Sir Elvis’ voice is a musical constitution. It digs into an era, into a genre and it channels it through the voice of a black African man, a man as far away from Nashville or Kentucky as a black African man can ever be. He sings country music.
If you hear Elvis singing without seeing him, you might think it’s Garth Brooks or Hank Williams, or that man who sounds like a musical god with a guitar — Kenny Rogers. But he’s called Elvis Otieno, a country boy who grew up in the shores of Lake Victoria.
But that was then, now he’s called Sir Elvis on stage. Everybody calls him that.
He has played country music for 15 years now, travelled widely because of it, eats from it, loves it and lives for it. He plays the guitar, piano and the banjo and runs fiery six-piece set called The Caravan.
JACKSON BIKO met him, as he tweaked his guitar and cocked his head at the sound check before a gig in one of the many entertainment spots that he performs in Nairobi.
How did you learn to sound exactly like a white middle- aged country crooner from Tennessee?
I don't know. (Laughs) I think it's the influence probably from the records that I listened to. I have also had a little bit of exposure in Europe and performed alongside some of the best. I listened to the authentic sound, from the players, the singers, and that kind of jolted me and said 'no, you can do this much better and perfect the art of showmanship.' And if it is country music, trust me, it's got to be natural Tennessee or Texas kind of country. It can be crazy to sing reggae music and say its African reggae, no, you have got to do it the Jamaican way.
Why country music, why not rhumba or gospel?
It's a unique personal preference and choice. I loved country music since I was a little boy. I grew up in a house where they played country music. I know that's very common with everybody, but the difference is it really spoke to me. Even when I was a child, probably I didn't understand the deep messages in the music, but just the general overview of it and the way the songs are arranged got me.
When did you say, look, I'm going to turn this into a career?
I've battled with that throughout my life, (Chuckles) that is if I should be a musician or not. It's not easy for musicians. But country music is unique in Africa. There was a gap in the entertainment scene in Kenya, and I saw it. I don't think anybody [Kenyan] has done country music full time like I have and bore the brunt of rejection for a while. I’m 40 years-old now and I have done nothing else but perform since leaving college.
Do you have to be a romantic to be a country music singer?
Well. (Pause) Love is just one of the aspects of it. It is one of the few genres that you will enjoy a song about heartbreak, about somebody suffering, and also happy songs. I always tell guys ‘you walk into my show and you expect me not to sing a sad song? It's like walking in a minefield blindfolded.’ (Chuckles)
What is it about heartbreak and sad songs that appeals to people more than happy ones?
Because the emotion involved is intense. Those emotions draw our humanity. I was on stage once and as I sang I could see a woman crying in a group that looked like family members.
After the show, one of the family member came to me and said that the woman had buried her husband the previous weekend and that song was his favourite.
The couple had met in one of my shows. I stepped out of the stage and we sang together, celebrating her husband’s life. I also sang a happier song to cheer her up. I’m always amazed at how people interact with music.
Are you married?
I have been married before, but not anymore. I am blessed with four children.
Is it as hard for a musician of your calibre to get married as it is to stay married? Music speaks to the heart, therefore you must get a whole lot female overtures more than say, an accountant. Well, the accountant speaks through the wallet and sometimes the wallet is where the heart is.
(Laughs) You are right, the attention is not limited to women only, but also men. I work at night and rest during the day. If you are married that can present a problem because you will never be spending enough time with your spouse because of timings. For the single, it’s hard to get married because of all the constant attention.
Is it possible to separate the musician from his music? Do you embody all these things you sing about, or do you get on stage and when you're done with your piece you remove the Sir Elvis hat and remain Elvis Otieno?
I am a mix of both. There are some aspects of what I sing about that are actually my life and others that are not. Not all songs I write are about me.
Is playing country music lucrative? Is it working for you?
It pays my bills, thank God. But you have to love this job to do it. It’s never a straight shot and money in the bank. It’s long hours. It’s sacrifice. It is sometimes singing to a group that is not as receptive as you would like them to be but you keep playing. I can play for three people who show up because I love it. I will still play as I would have to a crowd of 10,000 people.
Where did the “Sir” come from?
(Chuckles) Look, Elvis is already a big name. It belonged to a legend — Presley. There was a time when I was just starting to perform at Club Galileo in Westlands, Nairobi and I was looking for a catchy name that would brand me well, something that would endear me to the working class, the elite and the elderly. I wanted something different. And I didn’t want to call myself Lord. (Laughs)
Doctors always have relatives and friends who call them for free consultations. Do you find people asking you to sing to them for free?
(Laughs) Yes. It's one of the most bizarre things. Sometimes a lady, a fan, would ask me ‘do you take private events?’ I say, ‘Yes. Do you want to have a birthday party?’ Then they’d say, ‘No, I just want you to come and sing for me in my house.’ (Laughs) I'm like oh no, I don't think I would be able to pull that. (Laughs)
You turn away good money!
(Laughs) No. It's not about the money. I usually do birthday parties in people's houses. But when somebody tells you that they want you to go and perform for them in their house, it has a lot of underlying uncertainty in it and I wouldn't want to throw myself in that yard.