Kasiva Mutua: Drummer thinking in sound

Kasiva Mutua.

When I listened to Kasiva Mutua’s Ngewa while on a walk along a dirt road, I had not anticipated the experience I would have. It was grounding like I was in touch with the Earth and it evoked feelings of being home.

It’s as if she managed to get a piece of Africa’s soul and immortalize it in music form. The EP is Kenyan, made by a Kenyan, but it sounds more African in general.

I was glad to hear that last assessment was correct, when I meet the creator herself, Kasiva Mutua, the only professional female percussionist and drummer in Kenya.

“It’s a culmination of stories told, not in a Kenyan way, but from a multi-cultural perspective,” she says.

We’re in her little garden, where I point out she could have been a botanist going by the variety of plants in it and her intimate knowledge of them. We have a lovely chat over cardamon and cloves tea, with wind chimes beneath the roof of her house providing a soundtrack to our conversation.

She usually has drumsticks in her natural hair when performing. It is her signature style, her brand.

It was born of necessity, where she would be surrounded by a lot of things in concerts and they would be easy to pull out when necessary. But there is a twist and a deeper meaning as with all things Kasiva.

“It is also sort of a rebellious way to say that I am a hand drummer and not a stick drummer. They form an X. But still, people realise quickly that I am a drummer when they see the sticks. It’s interesting that people see it that way, while I see it the other way,” she says. They now feature on the cover of her debut EP, Ngewa.

‘Ngewa’ is the Kamba word for stories.  Each track is an inspiring story, each of which could be an article in itself.

It is said that some people think in pictures, while others think in words, but it seems Kasiva thinks in sound.

She hears sounds differently. While you hear a cough, she hears a beat, something that is almost unbelievable until you hear her replicate it on a drum or other percussive instrument.

“The environment really inspires a lot of the creations that I make,” she says. “From textures, sounds and melodies, I tend to be a very observant person.”

She has many drums and various percussive instruments, many of which she makes herself when she is looking for a specific sound. Ngewa helps you experience the world as she hears it.

Creating the EP was the easy part. The process afterwards, the business aspect of it, was a lot more intense and draining than she had anticipated.

It is also the first project of its kind in Kenya, so mixing and mastering it in studio with a producer, the way she had envisioned it, was no walk in the park. It is a 15-minute EP, but it took about seven months to finish mixing. Fortunately, the effort is paying off.

“The reception has been good. People are curious. A lot of people are trying to decipher what the songs mean because where there are no vocals, you have to fill it in. I’m very happy because the songs are doing what they were intended to do, and as expected, what people are feeling is true,” she says.

A lot of people have been saying that the track Bam Chikicha, for example, even just from the name, makes them feel like dancing. Others say it reminded them of their childhood days, where they would play a singing game called Bam Chikicha.

“In this singing game, girls would hold their hands and form a circle and then one person would be in the center and show their moves, and it was sang, ‘Hebu cheza kwa maringo tukuone... Eh! Ah Bam Chikicha Chikicha. Ah Bam Chikicha Chikicha’ And I thought, ‘Wow, people are really thinking!’” she says.

The real meaning of Bam Chikicha is that it’s a song for women, it’s a song for the celebration of the sacred spaces that women have in community and in society. Actual safe spaces that were honoured even culturally, she explains, unlike the way the concept is misconstrued to mean nowadays.

“In African traditional society, women had their spaces where we could express ourselves as women. We could just do our thing as women, appreciate our femininity, do things that girls do, have our dances that would be very expressive because our bodies are made to be expressed anyway,” she says.

She performed everything in the EP herself, including the vocals in Hakukole and Uhuliranga. The exception was the third track, Babu, a hauntingly beautiful track done mostly on the chivoti, a bamboo flute from the Mijikenda people. It is played by her friend, Eric Baya.

“I had the drums, the rhythm section for Babu and I wanted the core Mijikenda sound. Before I brought Eric in, I couldn’t nail down its true meaning and it was just a track number without a name,” she says.

The track still wasn’t quite there on the first attempt at playing together with Eric, until she sat down with him and he told her the story of how he started playing the chivoti.

It’s an incredible story that imbues the track with such meaning that you have to hear her tell it in its entirety.

“Once upon a time, there was an old man called Mzee Mwawira. He played the chivoti, which he loved so much that he would place it at the head of his bed, and it would lay by his pillow every single night. He would get dreams and visions where he would be given to play on the chivoti,” she says.

He would wake up and play the melody he was hearing over and over. People would hear him playing it in the middle of the night and when they heard it, they knew what to do.

“In the morning, all the village instrumentalists would gather together, tune their instruments and stay ready. When Mzee Mwawira woke up, he would bring his chivoti and start playing the tune he had played in the middle of the night and they would all play as an ensemble.

He would play the melody over and over, and sometimes it was so deep he would play until he cried. When he finished, he would never play that tune again because it would be gone, and the next time he would get another vision for another melody.

“One of Mzee Mwawira’s sons, Matano, picked up the chivoti after his father but he did not have dreams and visions like his father. Eric was friends with Matano, as they had grown up together, and Matano taught Eric how to play the chivoti.

“Somewhere along the way, Matano fell sick and could not play anymore due to respiratory issues, so the responsibility to carry on the legacy fell to Eric, who has been playing the Chivoti at Bomas of Kenya for almost 22 years now,” she says.

When Eric told her that story, she named the song ‘Babu’ there and then, and it stuck.

“I felt like I had a purpose for this track. We are paying homage to our ancestors for the things they taught us, for skills that we still have to date,” she says.

On Babu, you hear two chivotis playing alongside each other.

“One is very eerie and sounds almost ghostly. That is the representation of Mzee Mwawira because he’s gone, and it’s almost as if he’s playing the chivoti from the ancestral realm, and then there is the clearer, younger, sharper chivoti, which is Eric. They’re having this long conversation along the track, which ends with Mzee Mwawira still playing his chivoti.”

Each story on the EP is as enrapturing and entertaining but also has a lesson behind it. The EP is the first step in the next phase of her journey, where she is also thinking about other things she can do.

“For instance, how can I pair music and my other passions like the environment together? I think that’s where I am. You can only play so much. It reaches a point where you have to think about how to change the world.”

The Standard
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