Winyo: ‘Bird’ who croons benga

Shifton Onyango, a musician who goes by the stage name Winyo. PHOTO | COURTESY
Shifton Onyango, a musician who goes by the stage name Winyo. PHOTO | COURTESY 

There are musicians to watch, then there are those to watch out for. Then there the ones who fall in these two categories. Shifton Onyango is in the latter category. He goes by the stage name, Winyo, which means a bird.

It would be unfair to say he is upcoming, not when he emerged second in the Radio France International Discoveries project. Not when in 2012, he was one of the nominees for the Rolex Arts Initiative Mentor and Protégé programme who travelled to Rio de Janeiro to work with the legendary Brazilian maestro Gilberto Gil.

And certainly not with his debut CD Benga Blues, released in 2011 or the fact that in 2012, he was invited to the Global Music Academy in Soweto, South Africa to develop a curriculum for training African musicians to notate and read African music.

Winyo is here as he tells JACKSON BIKO, and he’s changing the shape of afro-benga.



Why the name “Winyo” does it represent something flighty?

I’d like to think that I want to see everything from the sky. When you see everything from the sky, it’s clear and it’s spiritual. When I sing, I want to touch people’s souls, like a bird. I want to preserve it. I think that birds are pure.

There is a gentleman who sings called Osogo Winyo, is he not pissed off with you for raining on his parade?

(Laughs) He is an Ohangla artiste. I think I coined that name much earlier than he did. This is back in the day when I was recording with Ted Josiah in 2005 or 2006.

Is this gig lucrative? As in being a musician?

It is now but when I started it was quite hard. You need consistency and originality to survive. If you come in imitating other artistes you can’t last long. You will not be known for anything. You also need producers who believe in you, sponsors and agents. There is a whole machinery behind making and selling music, talent is just a start.

What have been some of your lowest moments, when you just wanted to quit and go do something else with your life?

(Thinks) Many people don’t understand what we go through. When you go for a gig, people don’t see you as a professional. It’s even tough when you are not known, you are not treated well unlike in other countries. West Africans, for instance, pay respect and homage to their artistes. I have been lucky though to have done numerous tours abroad. But there is an awakening now, musicians are paid better than before.

When would you say you are successful as an artiste? Are you successful now?

I think I am. The measure of success is recognition; do people know your music and your style, do they feel connected to it? My album ‘Benga Blues’ has done very well, both locally and internationally. I’m on iTunes and Spotify and I earn royalties from my music. I live comfortably.

Do you purely live on music or you supplement it with a side hustle?

I supplement it. I have passion for TV production, film and acting. When not performing or on tour, I produce drama series.

How old are you now?

I’m 35.

What do you love most about this space?

That I have done my part in this music scene, made my name in a relatively niche genre. I enjoy it when people say, “I love the song; can you sing it for me?” Or “This CD never leaves the car.” I’m in a space where I want my music to matter to Kenyans, Africans and others.

Most writers can’t bear read their own published word, do you listen to your own music?

Unfortunately, I do. (Laughs) I love my music. I listen to it everywhere and I enjoy it. But I don’t listen to it as Winyo, I listen to it as Onyango. Does that make sense? I enjoy my music more as Onyango than I probably do as Winyo, because Winyo is the musician but Onyango is the listener. But I also listen to other Kenyan artistes. I love gospel music as well.

What’s the last song you listen to?

My own song called ‘Fingo’. (Laughs) It means portrait. Your portrait is your power. It talks about the world and power of good people who go through very bad things.

Your wife, Nina Ogot, also sings and performs. What do you find unique about marrying another artiste?

Well, the love wasn’t planned. We met in the studio, when doing a collaboration for a song. Unfortunately, we didn’t finish that song. (Laughs) Love intruded and we ended up getting married. When you meet that person that lights your soul, it feels just right.

There must be a lot of music in that house.

Yes, there is. We can speak the same language. We compose, practise and share ideas.

Who is a better singer?

(Laughs) We are unique in our own ways.(Pause) She does afro-aquostic which is very different from afro-benga. We have a daughter called Ler, meaning light. She’s four years old now and she sings a lot.

Obviously, she has taken after us. I hope that she follows this path if she so chooses but I’m afraid for her because the industry isn’t good, it’s not kind but then again maybe by the time she is of age things would have changed.

Musicians have darkness, what’s yours?

Everyone has a dark moment. I think mine is when I can’t make music, when I can’t create new songs. When you can’t create music you feel low on energy.
My way of dealing with this is to hibernate, to lie low until the creativity finds me. I don’t know if that is darkness, but it’s something that happens.