The saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is one that the Kenyan Band, Jabali Afrika holds close to heart.
They have done the country proud after being nominated for Best Children’s Music Album category for their collective One Tribe Collect, All One Tribe at this year’s Grammy Awards.
Their nomination to the hallowed ceremony was a moment that came full circle from their appearance on a children’s show back in 1996.
This was before they got their first big break in the US, where they are now based
The band, composed of Joseck Asikoye, Justo Asikoye and Dumisizwe Bhembem first landed in the US on June 12, 1995, after doing a tour of 30 cities in Europe with African Heritage Festival Tour before going off by themselves to do a tour organised by their late brother Luke Asikoye (he passed on in June 2021).
They had an eight-month working visa doing shows, but when they were booked for more shows, they renewed the visa.
The first show was on the Reggae Sunsplash tour, after which they got onto one of the world’s most critically acclaimed and beloved children’s shows, Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood, quite by chance.
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Joseck Asikoye, who was also admitted to the Recording Academy Class of 2021 as the voting member at the Grammys, told The Standard that they were performing on a different show the day it happened, in 1996.
Fred Rogers, the creator and host of the show was shooting in the same studio, and when he saw them, he said he wanted them to be on his show as well.
“Once that show went on air, America went crazy,” explains Joseck, adding, “It was our biggest break in America because it was a national show and it opened many doors. We received e-mails from all over the US. Bags and bags of mail. Just fans writing how much they enjoyed the show,” he says.
Their current agent was watching the show with his daughter and once he saw their talent, he booked them.
“At first, we didn’t take him seriously, so he decided to start booking us before we met. I’m talking about six months before we met face to face,” says Joseck.
He faxed their schedules, their money could be transferred into accounts and they held tours without meeting their agent face to face.
Six months down the line, they met, and the rest is history.
Jabali did many college tours, about 200 a year.
The touring circuit meant it made the most sense to relocate to the US, where they are currently based.
Jabali Afrika started out at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT), before some members of the troupe, including brothers Joseck and Justo Asikoye, broke out to do their own thing.
Jabali Afrika started out at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT), before some members of the troupe, including brothers Joseck and Justo Asikoye, broke out to do their own thing [Courtesy]
Their foundation was as a percussion group, playing traditional instruments, although at first, the only instruments they could afford were drums.
They were intent on proving that African instruments were just as good as western.
In fact, Justo explains, the guitar evolved from the African Harp.
“Let’s prove to these guys that our music is not inferior, and we’re going to play it through our instruments,” Justo recalls the band deciding.
They were inspired by the percussive band from Ghana - Osibisa.
Jabali went on to win the Best Traditional Adaptation award in Kenya in December 1994 in Nairobi’s National Talent Search (Star Search).
They were later invited to headline the African Heritage Festival tour of Germany and Austria in 1995.
Then, Mr Rogers Neighbourhood came along in 1996.
Their albums are loved both abroad and at home, with hits such as Aoko, and albums such as Journey cementing themselves in the annals of Kenya’s most loved works.
With exposure to many different artistes, styles and cultures, the band has experimented and blended with other sounds but remains true to its African sound and beginnings.
“In any song that Jabali Afrika touches, our roots have to be in there,” says Joseck.
That is what has given them an edge over others, yet that is also the hurdle faced by many other artistes at home.
“We need to change this mentality that anything that is traditional or anything that is cultural is not good enough for the main stage,” Joseck explains.
He narrates how when they performed at some venues, they could be placed at the entrance while a cover band was on stage.
“If I stand with a guitar even in church, I will look cool. But, if I come with a Nyatiti in church, they’ll tell me I’m a sorcerer. We need to change this mentality,” he says.
“I cannot compete with an American to be an American. Even when people like (Hugh) Masekela and Miriam Makeba, when they came in with their music they fused it with their own style,” adds Justo.
Of the album that won them the spot, Joseck says; “All One tribe amplifies black and who we are. African music and our diverse cultural heritage.”
As they reach the highest honours of music, home is where their hearts are.
Justo says; “Even if I went down to the ground, I cannot forget the streets of Nairobi. These are the streets that made us.”