Justo Asikoye, 49, is one of the founding members of Jabali Afrika Band famous for promoting African culture through music in the United States. He shares his journey
Who is Justo Asikoye?
I am a musician, sports enthusiast, and a producer. I grew up in Eastlands and I love tea.
How did you get into music at a time when most people believed it doesn’t pay?
I entered the music industry at a tender age. My father is a pastor and our entire family used to sing in the choir, including my parents, except one of my brothers who wasn’t into music. My dad taught me to play the harmonica and by the time I was seven, I could play it well. When I was 12, he taught me how to play the guitar and I was equally competent at it.
You are big on Afro-fusion, how did you manage to break the mold and succeed in it having been brought up in Nairobi?
I got into music because it was my passion. In the beginning, my brother Joseck Asikoye and I made numerous sacrifices to make it. We started out as traditional music dancers at the Kenya National Theatre then we expanded into the music department where we could also sing and play traditional musical instruments. The ensemble was appealing and soon guys started admiring what we were doing.
Our big break came in when we were featured in a music documentary - URTNA. The programme gave us the nudge we needed to proceed further despite the challenges that came with the kind of music we were doing. Despite being raised in Nairobi, I made quite some effort to learn my mother tongue. I did a lot of research on traditional music and learnt all the beats from all tribes.
Tell us about Jabali Afrika?
We used to listen to Afrobeat group called Osibisa when our age mates were busy copying music from the West. This gave us the motivation to form Jabali. Our purpose was to make traditional Kenyan music known globally.
Originally Jabali Afrika consisted of my brother Joseck and I, Victor Elolo, the late Mutua Mbole, Jumba, Robert, and Steve Wafula. The other original members left the group to pursue other projects because of various differences. Currently, the group consists of my brother and me, but occasionally we outsource other experienced African artistes. We started with performing traditional folk songs, but we have broadened our horizons and started composing our own.
Aoko was huge...what inspired it?
‘Aoko’ was written by my brother Joseck Asikoye. He was inspired by our late mother and all the descriptions in the song are basically about her.
Jabali Afrika has travelled the world and performed in various concerts, which has been your best performance so far?
They are many but Hoard Festival stood out. It was a rock festival and the audience was amazing.
Which has been your worst performance so far?
The worst show was after President Trump came into power. It was in Indiana. The audience had like five people. Although they paid us, we felt short-changed.
Jabali Afrika settled in America. Was it difficult? How did you manage to stay afloat and maintain your Kenyan traditional sound?
It was difficult. However, we had a vision when we formed the band. Our tunes are authentic Kenyan music and we believe in ourselves, so it wasn’t hard to maintain the music. When we landed in America, we were not popular. We had left all the fame back home. We had to start all over and required working extremely hard.
It took us like three years to be fully established, and we started with shows in the American college circuit. It wasn’t easy. When you come from Africa, you can never perform American genres better than them.
Traditional music performance typically involves wearing revealing traditional costumes. Probably just wrappers or headgear and jewelry for the men. How is the reception from the fans, especially abroad?
Unfortunately, most fans can’t separate between the stage persona and your personality. I used to perform bare-chested to ensure my traditional music had an impact. However, female fans would ogle and scream and they would rarely listen to the music. That’s when I started wearing a vest so that my music message would reach home.
You set up Culture Hub recently, what’s it all about?
Culture Hub can be described in many ways. This includes a live entertainment company, an artist management entity, and a live performance venue where culturally linked artistes will thrive. It is also a record label where we record and sign live music artistes. Culture Hub plans to nurture the next Miriam Makeba, Franco, Oliver Mtukudzi and other great African musicians.
Are you in a relationship? Do you have children?
I was in a serious relationship, but we separated due to personal reasons. I have a son.
Your father is also a musician, did he inspire your choice of career?
My father started playing music in the ‘60s and he felt that music in Kenya wasn’t recognised and it didn’t pay well. Although he was passionate about it, he was forced to look for a job because the income wasn’t enough. He emphasized that even if I loved music, I should concentrate on my studies first. When my brother and I started taking music seriously, he discouraged us and pushed us to apply for a university scholarship in the US. We got it but abandoned it to pursue traditional African music. He was extremely angry with us and there was no peace in our house, but within no time he appreciated the choice we made.
Would you encourage your son to follow the same career path?
Yes, why not. I will mentor him and he will expand it further. I would like to pass my musical legacy to him. Although he was born in Washington, DC, I teach him Kiswahili and eventually he will even learn Luhya. It’s important to teach your children your culture, regardless of where they live.
Apart from music which other careers would you fit in?
Sports, doing either taekwondo or bodybuilding. I was to study electronics with my scholarship, so I would probably be an electrician or a farmer.