“There have been many groups in the history of Kenyan music. From 5 Alive, Kalamashaka, 12 Moja, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Kleptomaniacs, but one name stands head and shoulders above them all, and that is Sauti Sol,” signed off Nyashinski during last weekend’s Sol Fest.
The festival was perhaps one of the best-ever produced Kenyan concerts. From the stage design to the sound and lighting, visual displays on large LCD screens, to dashes of pyro - this unhinged and uncompromised standard is what symbolises award-winning Afropop band, Sauti Sol.
Straddling through their expansive catalogue of four studio albums, multiple singles and collaborations; two studio EPs, a three-hour performance from the hit-making band including their idyllic and accomplished artiste friends, last weekend was the perfect curtain call to an illustrious 20-year journey of music.
“We were first called Voice in the Light while members of an acapella group at Upper Hill High School. This was myself, Chimano and Delvo (Savara). Polycarp joined us after,” says Bien.
The fourth and maybe the most enigmatic member, Polycarp Otieno, joined the trio in 2006 after he completed his studies at Strathmore. He honed his guitar skills and teamed up with the rest during their Alliance Française days.
Bien says that it was only when they went for a singing competition at the Village Market, Nairobi, that they began to understand what they were yielding. At the competition, one of the judges, Them Mushrooms lead singer John Katana assembled them to the side.
“Stop Singing Overseas Stuff by Boyz 2 Men. Add some culture by writing Swahili songs and then contact me,” says Savara of the CTA programme.
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This informed their writing and signature style - acoustic, Swahili-penned songs that evoke emotion and reflect authentic Kenya. “We used to perform for Sh2,000 or free at the Alliance Française. This was only until we got a little buzz and direction from our first manager Njambi Kokai,” says Bien. Wawesh Mjanja, a producer caught wind of the group and recorded their entire debut studio record Mwanzo for Sh20,000. He was sponsored by media personality Larry Asego.
Performance-wise, they nurtured a small fan base by performing at every opportunity they could get at various spots including The Village, Club Sound, and Club Afrique. This introduced them to newer audiences.
Their first-ever headlining show came as the group was still called ‘Sauti’ at Goethe Institut. It paid them Sh50,000, a large sum then. At the shows, they would play perhaps their most loved record to date, Lazizi. The record was an instant fan favourite and was recorded by Wawesh.
A record label by the name Penya would help distribute and market the record and this was their first step to fame in 2009. After Lazizi, came Blue Uniform, a song that spoke to police harassment and making it in life. These songs are timestamps of the ‘Mwanzo’ era.
In 2009, the internet was growing and social media made it easy for artistes to push their music.
“I remember Shaffie calling us to perform and giving us Sh75,000. We had never seen that kind of money. We were treated like superstars. We had hotels booked, and driven to the show, and this made us feel special. Kiss FM also pushed the show on their airwaves and it was a huge success,” says Bien.
At this juncture, they realised they were ‘regional-hot’, only famous in Nairobi, and unknown countrywide.
“Many doubted as. They told us Lazizi would never make it. We were not making music that was for the club. It wasn’t Kapuka. But we met the late Bob Collymore and he told us we must be part of his show,” says Bien.
“Safaricom Live changed our perspective. We understood we were only celebrated in Nairobi and had work to do. It allowed me to know what Kenyans want sonically.”
Following the tour, the group made their first leap of faith which was to abandon their acoustic style and adopt more radio-friendly songs like Gentleman, and Money Lover, solidifying a more commercially appealing Sauti Sol.
They were also getting endorsement deals with brands such as Converse, and this increased their fame.
Sub Sahara record producer Ulopa was also involved and records such as Still The One came out in this period.
In February of 2011, their sophomore studio album Sol Filosofia featuring hit songs Coming Home, Soma Kijana and Awinja further cemented them in contemporary Kenyan music lore.
Sauti Sol EP
At this time, the group had done a number of marquee shows at the Blankets & Wine and Koroga festivals. They also held shows in Europe where they met Marek Fuschs, who would become their entertainment manager.
Through their exposure in Europe, they began to broaden their scope, doing an experimental EP with South African record and performing artiste Spoek Mathambo.
The EP was poorly received in Kenya but boosted their artistry and fan base in Europe. “We were nowhere near East Africa or African notoriety. These songs may have not been big at home but they were made for Europe,” says Polycarp.
Live and Die in Afrika Era
Having tasted local success by winning multiple accolades, it was time to go big. Meeting producer Kagwe Mungai was one of the most interesting of times for the Unconditionally Bae artistes. It was at this time when features with acts like Ali Kiba were coming out. But with Kagwe, Nishike was released.
Supported by a video that was banned on local airwaves due to the skimpy dressing and suggestive lyrics, the song saw Kenyans rush to YouTube to support the video after lawmakers felt it was a “raunchy” record.
Sauti Sol was officially cancelled. Little did they know that a few months later after Bien called that period, “a dry period” due to the no-shows and brands disassociating with them, they were only gearing up for their African breakthrough.
In 2015 they released global success Sura Yako a sunny and Afro-infused record with a dance called Lipala that lit up the world including then US President Barack Obama, who shared a dance with them in State House, Nairobi, the following year.
They also won the Best African Act at the MTV European Awards the same year and this profiled them as the biggest stars in Africa. Their third studio album was a hit-filled record with singles Nishike, Live and Die In Afrika, Sura Yako, Relax, and Kuliko Jana.
A nationwide tour followed, and the album was a hit being downloaded for free over 400,000 times in its first week. “We were cancelled for a minute because of Nishike. But our comeback was the greatest. Because of being ostracised, we started charging Sh700,000 a show. Our catalogue, popularity, and package demanded that kind of money,” says Bien.
Afrikan Sauce Era
“All the money we made through endorsements, we invested it into working with big artistes from key regions and shooting videos for them. Melanin music video cost us $30,000.”
Soon, the group linked up with Nyashinski for anthems like Short & Sweet as well as the politically-charged Tujiangalie. The songs were part of their 2018 pan-African EP Afrikan Sauce.
Afrikan Sauce was collaborative with songs such as Melanin, Rewind, Afrikan Star, Girl Next Door and Love Again. Songs with Yemi Alade, Vanessa Mdee, Bebe Cool, and Mi Casa also encapsulated the star-studded EP.
Sol Gen Era
In 2019, Sauti Sol founded their imprint with Nviiri the Storyteller, Bensoul, Kaskazini (now Watendawili) and Crystal Asige. They produced Rhumba, Afro Pop, and R&B music with hits like Lucy and Niombe by Bensoul. Today, Sol Gen defines contemporary Kenyan music.
Midnight Train Era
“We had a deal with Universal Music in the works for three years. We also changed our management from Marek to ACA. Marek is one of the most pivotal and important people to our brand and took us as far as he could. To go global, we had to partner with Universal,” says Bien.
Having confirmed their place as one of Africa’s greatest groups, their next studio album Midnight Train was in the pipeline.
Co-written by their latest signees in Sol Generation; Nviiri The Storyteller, Bensoul, Watendawili, Lisa Oduor, and Xenia Manasseh, Midnight Train is the most powerful Sauti Sol album in their discography.
“We worked with global stars such as Sho Madjozi, Soweto Gospel Choir, and more like Andre Harris on production,” says Bien.
The record has a global identity yet still retains its African and Kenyan elements.
Songs like Disco Matanga with Gqom star Sho Madjozi were featured on Netflix, and the group was slated to go on a worldwide tour as part of their deliverables with UMG Africa and ACA. However, Covid-19 forced them to abandon the idea and diversify.
Soon after, the group struck a deal with Showmax to air a reality TV show dubbed Sol Family. They began their children-inspired company Sol Kids, which creates products for children, and launched a headphones line alongside Kenyan entertainer J Blessing called PACE. They also ventured into e-commerce through a co-owned platform, HustleSasa.
Other ventures are Bien’s shareholding club business The Manhattan, a record label, Sol Generation, a festival, Sol Fest and soon-to-be sports line, Sol Active.
The group decided to split through their ‘Alone Together’ campaign in 2021 where they announced their solo careers and an indefinite break-up.