Secrets to superb vocals

Crystal Okusa

Despite the abundance of talent, some recordings still have poor quality vocals and many artistes find it difficult to give live performances. This has more to do with the actual singing than equipment. It simply means such artistes have failed to invest in voice training in the illusion that talent and a good producer are all they need to churn hits.

While a producer only arranges music, it is a voice trainer who coaches the singer on hitting and sustaining the right notes. This is Noah Mogalo’s forte.

"For example, in the past Wahu sounded as though she was screaming rather than singing. However, her latest offering, Sweet Love, is different as her voice is very much controlled. It is no wonder the song has been an award-winning hit," says Noah.

The 27-year-old has had a chance to train a few local artistes. Some have made it, others have flopped. In 2006, he had the chance to train Susan Gachukia of Zanaziki, and has also worked with Mr Lenny. Noah describes Mr Lenny’s voice as a falsetto (a high male voice), which was achieved through training. This has enabled the singer go a step beyond the bandwagon of rap that most artistes rush to. When contacted, Mr Lenny said he trained for only two weeks, but it has helped him harmonise his voice.

Worth the sacrifice

"The production of my music changed, as reflected in the good sales of my album. The reviews show that my voice has matured and current songs are appreciated more than past releases. I think any musician, more so the upcoming ones, should get voice training before recording. It could be expensive to do it for a long time, but a few weeks of sacrifice will make a change if one is serious," he says.

But even the rap artistes do not do it right, says Noah, who argues that the haphazard "Rusha mikono juu" (throw your hands in the air)—a common line used to deride the songs—cannot be found on the keyboard or music notes. Well-refined rap should not be random.

"Our rappers should listen attentively to the style of Bow Bow (an American rapper). The notes are split and the sound is harmonised into a melody one can enjoy listening to," he says.

Noah points out that Jua Cali has good intonation but usually joins in the songs off-key, as he probably does not use an earpiece when performing: "His voice sounds strained because he does not know his vocal range and pitch difference. Ear training for rappers can be of great help. I’m not saying Jua Cali sounds bad, but from my ear as an expert, he needs to do more."

Having had a keen interest in music from a young age, Noah’s initial experience was in writing choral music for high schools to perform at festivals. He got his break at the age of 19 after composing the song, Sakevo the womaniser, for Kisumu Day High School. The piece was performed at the national level of the Kenya Music Festivals, and impressed some music connoisseurs from Washington State University, US. They later offered him a scholarship to study music at the university in 2000. The course in music arrangement, performance and creativity took two years.

Music concerts

When he returned he began teaching music privately and composing songs. He worked as a music consultant with Feisty Fever, a public relations company, before joining an international school where he still teaches the art of music. His training has also given him the opportunity to travel to America and Europe as a judge in music concerts.

Although his base is at Sauti Records, where he also occasionally makes jingles for various organisations, most artistes prefer calling him to their studios or homes for advice before they produce a song. He has helped arrange Yunasi’s Ndindindi and Tatuu’s, Mateso ya Roho. Collo of Kleptomaniax also gets vocal advice from him.

Noah says that for artistes to succeed they should be trained on voice intonation by an expert, and not rely on their producers for everything.

"Most producers are out to make money and will let you sing, record and take their fees, only for the song to flop. However, I am aware a few producers like Ulopa and Robert Kimanzi aka RK are also voice trainers. A good producer who has no such experience should be honest enough to ask for the services of a voice trainer," he says.

Professional output

Noah notes that Bongo (Tanzanian) artistes are doing much better than their Kenyan counterparts as their songs are more poetic, and one has to follow a certain tonation and pitch to be able to achieve some rhythm.

"The quality of voice makes your music attractive. This, unfortunately lacks in most of our music. I have watched Kenyan music grow, but many artistes really need to work on their tonal quality," he says, declining to mention the singers who could do with a bit of a professional voice trainer’s input.

Noah, who does music training as a passion, says he loves working with children at the international school, who are easier to nurture, rather than adults.

The voice trainer plans to further his music career in ethnomusicology (the study of social and cultural aspects of music and dance), and says some artistes’ find music training expensive and would rather not go through with it. But the lack of training, he notes, could be far more costly.

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