This post has been written by Dot, a dear friend of mine. She initially asked what I thought of the album (I hadn’t listened to it at the time) and we agreed she should guest post on the blog.
Sweet and Sawa, the first musical album released by creative haus The Nest Collective, cleverly opens with “Emergency“, a track so effervescent I started smiling within seconds of tapping that play icon. There’s a contrast there – Emergency, come with urgency, he sings, Hurry up and save me. But it is for a lover he is calling. The only danger here is a longing, pining heart. That contrast of using serious words for a not-so-serious thing seems very Kenyan. But then who’s to say it’s not serious? My calling missing a far-away lover a not-so-serious problem is very Kenyan as well. We’ve all got bigger things on our mind, or feel like we should. Umeona VAT wewe? But as many of the traditional markers drift further and further out of reach – kaploti, kanyumba, tutoi, and the Toyo to carry them all – we become more and more reluctant to let the things that we think of as ours slip away – lovers included. A tighter grasp is necessary as the things held diminish.
This album has a certain bread-and-circuses feel to it, an eat, drink and be merry feel, for tomorrow we die. Kenya right now is caught in a moment of unutterable fear for those paying attention and those trying not to. There is just so much to deal with, and songs like “Blue Car” and “Good Life” are about how we make ourselves happy in the face of the authority-monsters haunting “Mr President” and “Heri“. It’s not the first such moment we’ve had though, and not the first time the creative impulse has been directed towards this duality, not by a long shot. Like Eric Wainaina did before them, this album could have been titled “Love and Protest”. Eric was right you know (although I don’t know if he still remembers that musical self). It’s what a lot of our topical music is about. Either naming and declaiming the ways we’ve gone wrong, or loving the ways we make ourselves feel right. Pesa, Pombe, Siasa na Wanawake – objectification of women notwithstanding – it’s all we’ve ever troubled ourselves about. The use of a whole gender as a stand-in for the act of sex, that rankles, but is still very descriptive of this patriarched-up fuckocracy of ours.
“Pesa”, the second track, is much bleaker than Emergency- sparser beats, less joyful vocals. It’s an old moment played new, old school lyrics followed by a young female emcee who comes to us through the filter of likes and hashtaginfluencertingz. The youthdem have always taken what they can get, and her verse plays like scrolling down a timeline of aspirations with only the slightest of misgivings to leaven the FOMO – an effect amplified in the later “Good Life”. It’s a blend of old and new, however old old can be in a country where the official curtain on youth falls at 35. Vintage millenial. Consider the phrase Matha anadai dinga – I haven’t heard anyone say anything like that in ages. But then it’s appropriate. Matha pia anadai school fees za siz na health insurance and nobody understands exactly how NHIF works and really we ought to have had this sorted out by now, shouldn’t we? Au vipi wasee?
“Molinga”, on the other hand, is vintage vintage, sounding a lot like the tapes our parents played on the way to shags for the holidays – gosh I’m aging myself with this. Bear with me. It sounds like the playlists at the locals our sponsors take us to? How’s that for topical? We do what we have to, fam. Simu lazma inunuliwe na bets za boyfie ziliharibika. And for those not willing to develop a taste for rhumba, there’s always the church and prayers for more and more. Heri (wamtumaini-o Bwana…) sounds like the cynical thoughts that rise up within you when all around you there’s people in throes of worship or intercession and you just… aren’t. Or maybe they’ll rise when the news bulletin include a clip of the exhilarated blessing prayer said over the millions-cash-money a politician dropped in church that Sunday. The prayers and thank you’s and bless you’s all part of the pre-visit wallpapering you hear in “Mr President“. Smile and wave for the Gram, boys. Who, us? We’re always this sanctified, kwani who told you we weren’t?
It’s an album to do things to, and then pause in whatever it is to listen to what they just said. Maybe drive, maybe chill, maybe clean up, maybe figure out your own way from here to there, where things will maybe get better, or maybe not. There is a certain flowing spirit to the music that I ascribe to Jim Chuchu – something fluid, something vibey, so much so that some songs take more than a few plays to sink in, to even approach being memorable. Taken as a whole, I like this album. There is a singularity of thought and purpose behind it that I appreciate very much. Lack of content is something we often complain about when it comes to Kenyan pop, much of which is a pastiche of catchphrases sung over catchy tunes. That same lightness of spirit (futility, almost) is present here, but it’s one anchored by observation, and thought. Sweet and sour. Sawa. Tuko tu sawa.
Dorothy Kigen is a sometime writer and poet who would like to remind the universe that her original calling was words, and despite the best efforts of the world, it remains so. You can follow her on twitter.