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Suzanna Owiyo’s big break into World Music scene

By | May 29th 2009

By Emmanuel Mwendwa

This year is turning out to be momentous for high-flying singer, songwriter and artiste Suzanna Owiyo. Last week saw Suzanna saunter on stage at the prestigious Territorios Sevilla International World Music Festival in Spain.

She was one of the headline acts from across Africa — and the only East African star — to grace the on-going three-week, multi-cultural event that closes next week.

Owiyo performed at the festival’s African segment. Incidentally, the special session coincided with the African Day celebrations marked annually on May 25 — ironically overseas but rarely across the continent.

Blending Rhythms

"It was an amazing show blending indigenous Afro-beats and rhythms," she enthuses. Owiyo was among the 14 bands, soloists and established performers who rocked twin-podiums.

Divas: Suzanna poses with Rokia TraorÈ

The fete provided the singer and guitarist a rare opportunity to share her skilful, emergent brand of indigenous, authentic Kenyan music on the world music circuit.

She performed several songs playing nyatiti, a fresh direction she has adopted to nurture her own distinctive style.

And as her star shone most fans thought she was another musical export from West Africa.

"It was embarrassing to be asked on numerous occasions which part of West Africa I hailed from," she explains.

"But this is a misconception, I have embarked on personal crusade to turn around," she adds.

The explosion of the so-called ‘World Music’ in the 1980s that consisted of authentic African songs is still the rave in Western capitals. Its vitality is diverse, enviable richness incomparable to other areas of the globe reads the festival’s press release.

For Owiyo, it was a humbling experience sharing same podium with decorated Afro-beat veterans such as Nigerian drums maestro Tony Allen.

Suzanna Owiyo with World Music Afro-segment’s MC Youssou N’Dour.

The late legendary Fela Kuti would often perform alongside Allen in his band.

And indeed, after he quit Kuti’s band in 1978 (as a key member since 1964), Fela promptly hired four drummers to replace the seasoned hand.

African stars

She also rubbed shoulders onstage with Seun Kuti — the last-born son of the Afrobeat pioneer. At barely 22-years-old, he is the current frontman of his dad’s Egypt 80 Band.

The other African bands lined up included Cameroonian musician Justin Tchatchoua, Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly and Ibrahima Loucard aka Carlou D – described as Senegal’s next potential musical export.

Others artistes were Spanish based Guinea-Bissau crooner Simao FÈlix, Malian quartet group Smod alongside counterparts artiste Bassekou KouyatÈ and the Ngoni B·nd.

"We were only two female artistes, myself and Malian Rokia TraorÈ — we bonded immediately. We had all the time to share common experiences and challenges. I learnt so much," says Owiyo.

Groove theory

"Many of her songs revolve around relaxed, solid and winding grooves — whilst singing her heart out with a touch of artistic maturity," Owiyo explains.

The artiste also got chance to pick the brains of Senegalese star Youssou N’Dour, who donned a different hat as the Afro-segment’s MC.

Owiyo says it’s high time Kenyan bands measure up to standards prevalent across Africa. And only then shall the global spotlight focus on Kenyan music.

"But we have to re-package our rhythms, sounds, arrangements and composition of songs. It’s not all about just rushing into studios and radio stations — let everyone perfect what they are good," she says.

Owiyo, no doubt, may have learnt hard lessons, picked along the way since she embarked on her professional musical journey in 1998 — almost a decade ago.

She has also perfected her finger-plucking skills of the eight-stringed Luo ‘lute’.

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