I was talking with BM about the conversation around playing Kenyan music since I was thinking about writing something about it. I then, as I often do, asked him if he wanted to write something about it. And he did.
Some time mid-last year someone retweeted a thirty second clip on the timeline. It was a video shot in an open field, there were people odi-ing with lollilops, it was a fun video shot by some young guys in a hood. Someone posted the youtube link and I clicked wanting to watch more. I was jazzed by the video, the lyrics, the dancing, the fashion when I watched it, I replayed it jazzed by the video.
Piga goti eh
Panua domo basi eh
Shigi shigi deh
Out of ten pewa ten
Lamba Lolo is one of my favourite songs of 2018. It was great seeing young people using the resources available to them and having fun while at it. Every time someone retweeted the video, I watched it while noticing the number of views pick up momentum, the song was being sambazwad widely and I was here to witness. All this looked like a fluke, one of those things that grip attention for a few days then pass over but there was more to it, this was nothing new, it had been there all along waiting for this moment.
The comments were varied, there were people who joked about listening to the song and checking that they had not being robbed, classism wanted to have its say. There were hilarious comments because humour is one way of surviving Kenya and there were some full of support of the song. People were saying this was something they related with. There was something reminiscent of Luche produced videos for Calif from the noughties. It was kawaida and that was part of its allure. Acha ni wapeleke na rada.
It’s not unusual getting into a mat and guessing the next song after listening to a few songs on the mix. Djs mixes circulate, shared by people on flash drives, sent via Bluetooth, WhatsApp, posted on Facebook and Twitter. They are played on boda bodas, in shops, kila mahali it’s sijui, Dj Simple Simon, Kalonje, Demakufu, Kym, sijui nani. There are mixes that go back almost thirty years ago as can be found at Uhuru Radio, a small shop owned by Muturi, in an alley between Ronald Ngala and Racecourse Road. Muturi has been selling reggae mixes from the mid-nineties. Some popular reggae mixes are from Agugu Family (Agugu gaga!), one of many reggae soundsystems in Nairobi. They play every Saturday at Club Spree on Moi Avenue. It was here the late MC Patoka would hype the crowd with humour, his now-popular “Ona Uyu (anafanya nini?)” and “Leo ni kulamba lila lolo”.
For some, if not most, the idea of someone talking over a DJ set is abominable as Sonko’s Christmas decorations. As in, why is a dude talking over the music? Si they just let the music play. It is a long tradition in reggae parties to have an MC, a mediator between the selector and the dancing crowd. They study the crowd, hype the crowd, intercede with a quick “wheel it up mi selecta, bring it back again”, they dance, and every once in a while cause ripples in language that might lead to tremors or complete shifts in language. There is a long history of popular MCs in Nairobi: marehemu Papa Lefty of King Lion Sound; marehemu Pupa Davis; Jeff Mwangemi; MC Jahwatchman; MC Full Stop, John Maina kari ki!; Jahmby Koikai; Queen Mamji. A phrase they use in the club finds its way into daily language and part of the conscious. Lamba Lolo is one of many phrases that soon found itself on t-shirts for sale during reggae night and branded on matatus. It’s now a part of daily speech: niliwekelea bet kumbe nikulambishwa lolo tu. The song made the shift palpable.
As the DJ steers the vehicle of sound, the MC is both navigator and census taker. They map the dancefloor and acknowledge the presence of shuffling feet. People come in posses most of them affliated by neighbourhoods, safety in the comfort of people known, some for a lifetime, and the census is taken: 44 Githurai posse; Kangemi massive and crew; Kibera Namba Nane; Mathare kambi ya nare; Ololo, land of a thousand streets; Majengo Kashmir; Jericho; Salem; Umoja massive; Lunga Lunga people; Ziwani; Okongo; Bangla; Kawangware 46. The dancefloor is a map of the city and as people shift, rock, and sway neighbourhoods fold into each other. A simple acknowledgement is as simple as being told that someone sees you, you are present. It is the same thing Ethic are doing, when Rekless raps, ” Toka ghetto naeza chizi niku peleke hadi kile”, he’s acknowledging the difference of place and class but also finding ways to bridge them.
Thinking of this fave of 2018, I also think of the discussion that’s been going on about playing Kenyan music and what arises from such a demand, how it’s framed, who does the framing. The conversation about playing Kenyan music is not new, in fact, it’s not limited to music. Read more Kenyan authors. Watch Kenyan shows and movies. Buy Kenya, build Kenya.
Not too long ago there was some furore after Dj Pinye, producer of the longest running music show on Kenyan TV, said that there was music he couldn’t play for not meeting standards only he knows. Lamba Lolo is one of the songs he unequivocally denied. The media with its own interests and relationships (naskia inaitwa networking), has for the longest time dictated what could be played, when it could be played. Sasa hizi watu ni ku-plot form and using platforms that traditional media would not be seeking out. There is so much Kenyan music on youtube and soundcloud for anyone who is looking for a myriad of styles.
I have never ascribed to the notion of the street as a measure of realness i.e a “real” Nairobi, “real” music but I understood why Lamba lolo blew up – it was relatable, it was things heard things on a regular, the dancing was reminiscent of being in a jam session or downtown reggae night . Si kila mtu anaweza kuwa Fela. Ama Bob Marley. Sometimes we find our freedom in a love song that jumps into you and streams out as a warm sigh, we find joy in songs that make us dance and temporarily forget this world. I’ve noticed how some conversations online can easily degenerate as people defend their taste and shoot another’s down. Kila nyani na starehe yake and the same to music. I understand people who don’t like Lamba lolo, or Dundaing, or Mike Rua, or Alvino. We are different in our tastes, class, but that is not reason to be vile.
In addition to the demand to play more Kenyan music I add curiosity and generosity. If we cultivated a culture of being curious about what’s happening in Kenyan music and sharing music widely among our friends, family, colleagues we would be playing more Kenyan music and if the media doesn’t give it as much attention at first, they are bound to want to get in on it out of FOMO. There are gigs around the city like Showcase Wednesday at Alliance Francaise to go listen to dope acts. This post is not didactic nor does it have a point, it is an acknowledgement of a song I like and the thoughts it raises in its wake.
BM is a poet who lives in Nairobi. He tweets here.
(Ask Ciiku will be back tomorrow and then my post on #PlayKE will be live on Wednesday)