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Jabali Afrika: From humble Kenya National Theatre to the Grammys

Jabali Afrika's Justo Asikoye. [Maria Nene, Standard]

The saying, "If you can dream it, you can do it" is one that a Kenyan Band, Jabali Africa can relate to.

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 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 8-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, Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood, quite by chance.

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 once it went on air, doors started opening. We received emails 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.

Justin Asikoye and Joseck Asikoye of Jabali Afrika perform during the burial of Alan Donovan at the African Heritage home in Athi River. December 13th, 2021. [George Orido, Standard]

He would fax their schedules, their money would be transferred into accounts, so they would tour without meeting their agent face to face.

Six months down the line, they met, and the rest is history.

Jabali would do a lot of college tours, about 200 a year.

They would be in Kenya in December every year before they had to start touring in Mid-Jan every year.

The touring circuit meant it made the most sense to live in the US, so that is where they have been based since.

Jabali Afrika started out at the Kenya National Theatre, before some members of the troupe, including brothers Joseck and Justo Asikoye, broke out to do their own thing.

 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 then invited to headline the African Heritage Festival tour of Germany and Austria in 1995. Mister Rogers then came along in 1996.

Their albums have been well-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.

Justo Asikoye, 49, in action. [Maria Nene, Standard]

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 gives a story of how when they performed at some venues, they would be placed at the entrance while a cover band was onstage.

“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 those mentalities,” 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 stuff,” adds Justo.

Their formula has proven to be true, earning them a place in the Grammys.

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 well as the depth of the roots we are grounded on.” 

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.”