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Sir Elvis proves Africans can excel in country music

By Caroline Nyanga | Published Fri, May 12th 2017 at 00:00, Updated May 11th 2017 at 23:08 GMT +3


The band performance is just getting started at the new Galileo lounge. Everyone is in checked shirts and cowboy hats and sipping drinks out of long-neck bottles.

We could as well be in a club in Texas but the venue, architectural designs, the revellers not to mention the elephant images on the beer labels give it away.

Welcome to Nairobi. On stage is Kenya's king of country music Elvis Otieno, better known as Sir Elvis.

Sporting a white shirt and a brown cowboy hat, a trademark for country music artists, Sir Elvis picks up his guitar and as he excellently strums it introducing one of his evergreen songs, the crowd goes wild.

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At a corner, a group of elderly men is keenly listening to the song as Elvis switches from one song to another with an amazing synchronisation, mostly achieved by disk jockeys.

The internationally acclaimed musician, who toured the United Kingdom for close to a month late last year, is busy at work doing what he does best every Wednesday and Thursday at Galileo and Rafiki's consecutively. During his UK tour Sir Elvis was the guest star at the much anticipated Kenya's Rugby match in London.

Looking well, energetic, and determined his incredible expertise on the guitar and original voice, Sir Elvis always takes revellers down memory lane.

Old-school country

The celebrated musician, who is determined to bring country music to Africa and in particular Kenya says it has not been easy. "Every time we hit the stage, it was always a shock to most locals who couldn't imagine that a Kenyan could do country. That is the reason they love to listen to old-school country from the 1960s, 70s and 80s recorded in Nashville by the likes of Charley Pride and Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams and Skeeter Davis," he told Metropolitan.

Today, however, things have seemingly changed for the better.

"It is good to see that most people now listen to my music, which now has a huge fan base," he says, adding that his ability to incorporate new styles and many more always has his fans 'eating' from the palms of his hands— something he describes as "international country music with a difference".

Born in 1977, the same year Elvis Presley died, his father named him after the music legend and it appears that name may just have sealed his destiny.

"My mother was a great fan of Elvis Presley. So when she died, it was a big blow and I guess they decided to name me after him," eh says.

Despite being a Kenyan and an African, the story of his early life is straight out of an American country song. He was born in a whistle-stop town on Western Kenya's railroad line. He's the son of a pentecostal preacher who played gospel music on the guitar.

"When I look back at my life, I'm like, okay, I think that's really country," he jokes.

His family left Kenya for Norway when Elvis was seven, which explains the Scandinavian lilt as he croons Presley's songs. Norway is where he got serious about country music. He played in a country band. He started listening to new country, and as a student, he visited the US and attended in his first country concert: Shania Twain.

Soon Elvis was consuming every country record he could find, finding a strong connection with the classic Opri-style country music made famous by  Jim Reeves, Charley Pride and Dolly Parton, as well as new country sound of Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson.

Inevitably, he picked up a guitar and started making music of his own. And much like the classic wayfaring loner from a country song, he hasn't looked back since.

Elvis returned to Kenya 10 years ago, in part to reconnect with his African heritage, but also to make a name for himself in the local music business as an African country singer.

"I began from scratch and it was not easy," he reveals.

With an American twang and lyrics of love and longing, Sir Elvis is today among the best-known country artists in Africa. Setting the standard for a continuously growing music scene, his highest wish is to play alongside his heroes.

The musician is busy working on projects which he will unveil soon. And that's no surprise as there is something he has in common with every other aspiring country star in the world. He wants to play Nashville.

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