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Quite the Drummer queen

PULSE
By | January 21st 2011

MTV Award nominee Muthoni Ndonga, 27, popularly known as The Drummer Queen, has intoxicating fusion of sounds in her music. She speaks to CRYSTAL OKUSA about her experimental music and the Blankets and Wine venture

Pulse: How was Blankets and Wine born?

Muthoni: Out of frustration! I was doing a monthly night gig at Daas but it was not working. I wanted a new gig where I could be on a stage with other artistes doing afro-based music but at a higher level and be part of something bigger. I also wanted an environment that would transform the way audiences interact with music and each other.

One of the fine days, while chilling and sharing the idea with my friends Emukule and Rachel at Arboretum, the idea was born. Now two years later, looks like we have co-created a beautiful thing – authentic Nairobi swag!

P: Being a first of its kind in Nairobi, did you have challenges ?

M: Honestly, I never thought of quitting, even when we did not break even. I must admit though that what threw me off balance was how quickly it turned around, and how it sustained itself. It is like I had met my target way before I thought I would, and that was quite stressful. Asking myself "what now"? Problems of success unexpected are real!

P: Who was Muthoni before Blankets and Wine?

M: I have not changed much, I was exactly who I am, with a creative and artistic mind, a singer and a poet, trying to express myself authentically to be relevant to my times and true to myself.

P: For your second album, why the title ‘Human Condition?’

M: I had found my new sound to explore human journey of peculiar circumstances in life. My first album Mambo Bado was all Afro-soul and I wanted to sound more edgy so continuing with it would have sounded disconnected. I opted to cut it short and start a new album, the Human Condition.

P: Why was the Mambo Bado album hush?

M: The song Cool Waters from that album really caught on and even got me my first music tour through the British Council. The song was about the Post Election Violence and we went to London and eight African countries during the tour.

P: Your music is really different; in a country that music diversity is yet to be appreciated.

M: I really appreciate that people have taken the time to listen to the record and appreciate that it is different. Truth is I am really different and the exception; I sing a mix of salsa, kwaito, afro-rock, taarab, rap, floetry and R&B. I am not the ordinary musician, and the regular and known has little appeal for me. The sounds you hear, is exactly how my producer Wawesh and I think. It is taking Kenya a while to come around, but that will not stop us. I am confident that by this time next year, East Africa will be on board!

P: Why did you choose to express yourself through drums?

M: I love drums! I specifically love African percussions. They are round, full and unapologetic and so necessary for African expression! Besides, drums are my natural inclination. I hear drums and bass lines first before I hear other things in a song. As a musician, when you control the drums, you control the rhythm. And that is the bed the music is built on. I also have so much physical energy, drums make this a great way to channel a song, or when on stage.

P: What influenced your going into music?

M: I always sang in church and school at St Mary’s. I thought about doing music in passing since I did not know what life had in store for me. But when I listened to Ismarwa, I was inspired by how Tedd Josiah produced Gidigidi Majimaji, and that is when I knew I would have to try my hand in commercial music. In 2005, after graduating, I got into a duet and started doing shows before starting Neo-soul night set in 2007.

P: You surprised your fans by rapping Mikono Kwenye Hewa, are you expanding your music genre?

M: Expect a lot of rap this year too and all sorts of rhythms from me. I am a poet at heart so the rhymes are coming strong in 2011 in honour of Ms Lauryn Hill! She is my all time favourite musician as she sang relevant lyrics and not the party hit tracks.

P: World tours?

M: Apart from the British Council tour, in 2010 I toured Sweden, Netherlands,and Ethiopia. The reception abroad is really good, as they do not struggle with the sound. They view my music as the African version of Missy Eliot.

P: A lot of musicians prefer juggling music and day jobs, but it is rumoured you quit your day job to concentrate on your music, does it sustain you?

M: Confirm that rumour! I absolutely live on music. I sing and get paid, I run a music event and I sell my music. I am a full time musician! I pay my rent, fuel my car, and pay my taxes and tithe. I used to work at an international NGO as a project manager. After I graduated, I used to work during the day and would do gigs at night, such as Grown and Sexy. The juggling became too demanding and I was forced to opt for one, I settled on music.

P: What do you think is the direction of music in Kenya now?

M: I would like to say that Kenya is a small fraction of an East African music scene, which is one small player in international music business, when compared to West, Central and South Africa. Any artiste trying to make real grounds will have to factor in how to get into those markets, and be relevant to a cross section of Africa. And people should also know that Africa extends beyond the physical continent. A good example is Canadian based Somali artiste K’Naan.

P: Rumour has it you are dating Bon-eye, could you clarify how true that is?

M: That is a very interesting question but no, I am not.

P: Tell us about the Nairobi tour dubbed Wateule?

M: My partner Sandra and I started a music company, Live and Direct, a music platform committed to bringing artistes closer to their fans through live performances. We have been doing Nairobi tours. The idea is to mix up the best musicians in their genre to put them on one stage.

P: You are among the artists signed with Africa Unsigned, what is it about?

M: This is a group that allows African musicians to record music funded by fans who in turn receive digital release and 50 per cent distribution of the income generated from the music sales according to one’s investment. I was the first artiste to reach the $5,000(about Sh400,000) funding target. It is a big deal as people invest on you just by listening to your music, so that says a lot about my music. Sometime in February, I am to shoot a video of the song that was most listened to.

P: At USIU, did you study anything to do with music?

M:I studied International Relations and majored in Philosophy, because I wanted to learn how to think. Music comes naturally to me so I did not see the need to study its theory. But I train on the drums, I have a tutor who helps me learn how to play a new drum every month.

P: 2011 plans?

M: We want to make more videos for the music we released last year so that people can appreciate the songs much more.

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