Ratai Arati ventures into traditional Kisii music

By Emmanuel Mwendwa

Holding it close to his chest while seated on a low stool with the obokano base pinned on the

Ratai Arati

ground, he rocks backwards and forward, in tandem with the mellow rhythms he is strumming.

The rapt attention, clearly etched on his face projects the sense of ingenuity that has become a driving force behind his fusion of a contemporary but seldom-heard sub-genre rooted in Kisiiland.

After strumming a couple of melodies, musician Moses Arati Ondiek aka Ratai Arati, breaks away from his momentary escape into this rare musical realm. "I’m working hard, rehearsing for a forthcoming one-off show; playing to a new audience is often challenging," he enthuses.

And recently, the artiste engaged modernity with indigenous musical elements. The traditional instrumentalist, adept at plucking the eight-stringed Kisii lyre popularly known as obokano, staged a modest performance during the monthly Muziki wa Kenya, Ngoma Club series of live concerts.


Backed by newly formed Enyamumbo Band, Arati’s show brought to fore the artiste’s innovative forays into making attempts to modernise folk music.

"For most among our generation of upcoming musicians, we grew up steeped in heavy doses of western music and not so much traditional African music. Hence these myriad elements are bound to be distinctive. On stage, we performed varied tunes, which are a little bit more traditional but still rendered with a contemporary touch," enthuses the artiste.

Some of the songs performed at the Goethe Institut’s auditorium, offered the audience a sneak ‘preview’ into his forthcoming debut nine-song album titled Gesungusungu. The songs therein include Egware Tabaka, Mama, Ajali Kitandani, Abairi, Wambui, Morara, Chinchungui, Omoino and title track Gesungusungu.

Arati’s proficiency is hinged on uncanny ability to merge a thrilling interplay of sounds fusing the lyre and a modernised version of an instrument he has christened Enkano.

This collision of sound, alternating between the old and new influences, is what really animates his brand of music.

"I have been performing with the obokano for nearly a decade. I began honing my skills at a young age; my parents were not very happy about my emerging dalliance with the lyre. But I was determined to learn intricate expertise required to make music with the instrument," he says.

His evident love for the traditional instrument, notably peaked after he encountered an older, popular performer he only recalls as Nyang’au— who regularly thrilled gatherings of urban dwellers in Kisii town.

Though he was still in high school, his mind was made up, providing an impetus to either acquire or curve an obokano of his own. With the huge obokano strung over his shoulder, the enterprising artiste entertained patrons who cared to listen to his formative compositions—earning pocket money whilst also horning his skills.

Several years later on, Arati was not content with the occasional solo gigs he would be engaged in rural shopping centres. It was not until about four years ago, when he began to frequent the Kenyan National Theatre that new horizons beckoned.

Solo gigs

Within months, Arati became a regular fixture at theatre precincts, landing invitations to provide obokano driven rhythms as accompaniment or background music for theatrical plays.
Driven by his penchant to compose songs focusing on contemporary issues, the artiste is set to officially launch his debut album. He says: "I tend to use humour and satire to deliver pertinent messages". This is reflected in his catchy, advance release AIDS awareness song aptly titled Ajali Kitandani.

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