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Dami Ajayi

Let’s start with the national snobbery which this reviewer, as a bonafide Nigerian, is guilty of. Nigerians believe that we are the big fish in the little pond called Africa, when in reality we are not. That is why my New Year resolution is to look beyond this hulk-shaped country called Nigeria for good music.

And what better place to look than Kenya, often touted as Nigeria’s equivalent in East Africa? Kenyan music, and perhaps the entire oeuvre of East Africans, is not very popular in Nigeria, but when there is interest, there is much to be found.

For those who have visited East Africa, they can swear that you will hear Wizkid screaming “your bom bom is bigger than Bombay!” in the wee hours of a Friday night in Kampala. I myself have witnessed, in a club at Westlands, how Nigerian contemporary music is the life of the party once the club moves from the lounging mood of American Hip-Hop/Urban hits to energetic dance.

The evening I chose to describe, sometime in September 2015, ended with a glimpse of a certain all-male Kenyan band climbing into a SUV amid a slight pandemonium of friends, fans and paparazzi. No, I am not talking about Just a Band. I mean Sauti Sol.

Sauti Sol is a Kenyan Afropop band of vocalists; Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi, and guitarist, Polycarp Otieno with three albums under their belts, most recent of which is their ...

Let’s start with the national snobbery which this reviewer, as a bonafide Nigerian, is guilty of. Nigerians believe that we are the big fish in the little pond called Africa, when in reality we are not. That is why my New Year resolution is to look beyond this hulk-shaped country called Nigeria for good music.

And what better place to look than Kenya, often touted as Nigeria’s equivalent in East Africa? Kenyan music, and perhaps the entire oeuvre of East Africans, is not very popular in Nigeria, but when there is interest, there is much to be found.

For those who have visited East Africa, they can swear that you will hear Wizkid screaming “your bom bom is bigger than Bombay!” in the wee hours of a Friday night in Kampala. I myself have witnessed, in a club at Westlands, how Nigerian contemporary music is the life of the party once the club moves from the lounging mood of American Hip-Hop/Urban hits to energetic dance.

The evening I chose to describe, sometime in September 2015, ended with a glimpse of a certain all-male Kenyan band climbing into a SUV amid a slight pandemonium of friends, fans and paparazzi. No, I am not talking about Just a Band. I mean Sauti Sol.

Sauti Sol is a Kenyan Afropop band of vocalists; Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi, and guitarist, Polycarp Otieno with three albums under their belts, most recent of which is their self-produced Live and Die in Afrika — originally released late last year as limited pre-Christmas free downloads.

I was hard pressed to find an overarching theme for their albums, as this is not the forte of contemporary African musicians, but I found the title of the latest album compelling, and not just the ‘live and die’ part—which I wholly subscribe to. I was also intrigued by the stylised spelling of Afrika (spelt with a K).

The alternative spelling was a statement well made, with the album jacket presenting the band members as subjects in different styles of African attire that brought the mythical African country of Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, Zamunda, to mind. On the fifteen-track album, the title song exists in its own class, melding influences from African as well as Indian rhythms to the song version of a utopian pan-African philosophy.

Other songs are best grouped as love songs and non-love songs, of course with the caveat that some non-love songs are still about women. Male bands from The Temptations all the way down to (forgive my choice, please) P-Square are obsessed with the opposite sex, and rightly so.

Now, to the Swahili songs, because they say music is a universal language. I, as a non-Swahili speaker, experienced a visceral response to Sauti Sol’s music. Nipe Nikupe with its blend of electronic tendencies with makossa/rumba rhythms is made for dance. Ditto for Sura Yako, with its seemingly alternative gospel feel. Nishike, Nerea and of course Kuliko Jana (featuring Aaron Rimbui) are balladic pieces that seem to detail longing (sexual or spiritual) and misery that pokes at the soul.

The beauty of a good album is that it strives to take a listener through different moods, with each song appealing to a variety of situations. On this count, Sauti Sol is guilty, especially appealing to an audience that came of age at the time when hip-hop was transitioning into a global phenomenon and contemporary African rhythms began to flirt with jazz. The effect of this watershed was cacophonous and ambiguous, and Sauti Sol seem to be its poster children.

Their music is extensively derivative, layered and carrying with it influences from urban Nairobi, Bollywood, electronic music, jazz, pan-africanist philosophy, songs from apartheid South Africa and even traces of DruHill’s Sisqo octaves.

To listen to Live & Die in Afrika goes beyond finding respite and relevance in contemporary African music, it also means to experience Nairobi where kept women enjoy the crisp feel of dead American statesmen on the dollar bill (listen to Dollar Dollar) and where you can jump to Sambo Party without a care in the world.

And of course, no description of their music must spare the way the strings weave into the core of the music (all hail Polycarp Otieno!). Sauti Sol is a departure from other bands, especially those based in Nigeria, thanks to their dexterity with actual musical instruments besides the voice.

There is a strong sense of understanding music in their work ethic, or how else can one explain fusing Spanish influences with the hugely successful clap rhythms of Lumidee’s Never Leave You to make a song, Shake Yo Bam Bam, for shaking Bantu backsides?

I recommend that every Nigerian listener listen to Live & Die in Afrika at least once in their lifetime.

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