When you press play on Nyokabi Kariuki’s EP Peace Places Kenyan Memories, you are greeted with eerie, distorted voices counting down from 10 in Kiswahili, and then back up again, as weaver birds cackle in the distance.
This is immediately followed by a cacophony of voices, which brightly project one after the other in a scale as the cackling of the weaver birds grows louder, and then recedes.
This is the beginning of the first track of the album, Equator Song, which is an all-out assault on your audio senses, stunning you into silence and stillness as you attempt to process the various sounds coming at you in waves.
It is a wonderfully dramatic opening, which sets the table for what is a meal of many courses of complex dishes. Listeners must be advised that this album is not for the uninitiated or the faint-hearted.
Nyokabi’s music is not popular pop music or radio Gengetone. It is what Nyokabi refers to as African Art Music. It is deeply considered, with every note intentionally and carefully placed, even if the various medleys may sound jumbled together at times during your first listen.
Indeed, this album requires your full uninterrupted attention. Such is the intensity of the music that you cannot afford to play it as background music when doing chores or driving to work, as the melodies are so intriguing that they will divert your attention from anything else.
Nyokabi’s use of the term Art Music is apt, as it is fundamentally experimental and somewhat indulgent in its application. For example, the second to last track entitled Ngurumo, or Feeding Goats Mangoes begins with a cadence from what sounds like a xylophone.
As the song progresses, endless other sounds chime in from all angles, from people chatting in Kikuyu to cows mooing, birds chirping; and goats and sheep bleating, ending with a chorus of women ululating and singing traditional songs.
This is experimental music. It does not follow the conventional flow of a song that we are used to hearing. When you hear tracks from Peace Places Kenyan Memories you do not hear a verse, a chorus, and an ending.
A continual flow of sound without breaks constantly keeps you on edge, wondering when the following instrument or sound will pop up or indeed when and how the song will end.
Despite the complexity of the music, it is very attractive and deeply stimulating. The level of production is astonishing, as Nyokabi manages to merge various ‘nonmusical’ sounds.
So, who is the artiste behind this ethereal music? Nyokabi is a Kenyan composer and musician based in New York. As a composer, she writes music of all genres for other performers as well as her projects.
When I asked about what artistes inspired or influenced her, she said that the multiplicities of music played on our airwaves influenced her practice.
“There is so much music that I developed certain sensibilities. A lot of things you just get subconsciously from growing up in Nairobi, there is so much music from everywhere on the radio. You hear pop music from the Western world but you also hear local music, you hear music from Africa like Oliver Mtukudzi”.
Nairobi’s radio waves are indeed incredibly diverse. From Reggae to Classical music, to Rock, as well as homegrown genres of Taarab, Gengetone and Benga, there seems to have been a radio station for every genre of music imaginable at one point in Kenya’s airwaves.
Nyokabi sees herself “in a lineage of other African creators. I do not see myself in a lineage of Beethoven and Back and all these other (Western) people.”
But her EP in its entirety is singular in its focus, which is Kenyan memories. “Each track in the EP is based on a place in Kenya that gave me peace while growing up”, she says.
“Where my parents grew up in Kirinyaga and Kiambu, and my grandmother’s farm, that is the first track - the Coast, Laikipia....”
Indeed, the music is rooted in the physical spaces she mentions in the track titles: “I have these field recordings which are recordings of a space or environ, and the tracks are built around these field recordings, as a way to illustrate the space itself and my relationship with the space.”