“I’d been told that Catholic masses were stale and cold with dull organ music so I was surprised when the choir broke into song. They sang in Shona, with African drums and rattles, ngoma ne hosho.
At Forward in Faith Ministries , we only used guitars, western drums and a keyboard because Pastor Mvumba preached against using traditional African instruments.”
from The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu
Some months back the boat of fate, took me and “The Seeds of Datura“ to a beautiful spot along the shores of Lake Naivasha for a show. For a whole weekend we spent our time fishing, interacting with other musicians and enjoying serene sunsets. One night, a resplendent flame devoured the logs in our campfire. We sat around as the stars above us inspired a rousing topic of discussion.
Lying there soothed by the distant warmth of billions of stars, and baked by an even closer source of heat tends to generate interesting debate. One of the guys, a close friend of the band remarked, rock bands need to play music with an African element to it. Don’t just sound and play like those American and European bands. Add a bit of Nyatiti here and Luhya vibe there.
He finished, thinking that this was going to be a topic that would get everyone’s mark of approval.
I was the first to throw cold water on this perspective. My typical reaction is never to take the side of the one that propounds an argument. I always take the challenge to enrich the opposite side of the hemisphere.
As is the case with all these propositions when a topic is being tabled is that there is always an assumption. Some sort of absolute truth. In this case our good friend decided to take it for granted that we are all born with an innate cultural flame. Its reach is as far out as the stars on the night sky, vastly and seen through the tapestry of our long and enduring heritage. But still as close as the fire that crackled amidst those logs in our midst.
The assumption is even much broader. It envisions a uniform Kenyan homestead that is characterised by bead decked walls, with a hearth at the centre of the living room. In the early morning your dad stands at the entrance of the homestead. Amidst the morning call of numerous bird species and the birth of a new born calf, he calls out the name of all your ancestors’ time out of mind as he spits in the direction of the rising yellow sun. This is our daily routine. Elders die first and when they do, the last 4 strings of the 8 stringed nyatiti are played. Praises are sang, cows are slaughtered and the old man’s spirit wonders the terrestrial world in the form of omieri, the eternal serpent.
But there is also a more absurd narrative. One that is more accurate that doesn’t account for things like spittle and divine snakes. This is where the soul of the household is weaved out of a small electric box with a screen with the words greatwall emblazoned on it. Some of these came with an aerial. There was typically a sanyo radio covered by a woollen napkin that played very little Kenyan content. So the typical Kenyan household was bathed in tunes by Franklin Boukaka, Franco and Destiny’s child. The kids in school exchange N.W.O mix tapes and the whole family enjoyed grown men in underwear fake fighting (yes, wrestling is scripted) on W.W.F before the kids were promptly sent off to bed as the folks and older sisters enjoyed Ridge sleeping with his father’s wife on the Bold and the Beautiful. The only thing that was indigenous was politics and the corruption that was inevitably associated with it. Most kids nowadays don’t even speak their own mother tongue.
This was the picture I tried to paint around the campfire. A not so pleasant story but it is the truth.
Granted there are those in the music business that exhude this cultural charm. But this will take a considerable amount of time, effort and resources to delve into and exhude this ‘culture’ that isn’t as close to us as we have always imagined. I myself havn’t given up on the hope of playing the ‘Nyatiti’. It would go well with Doom Metal. A Japanese woman crossed hills, valleys and a watery wilderness to learn how to play it. She calls herself Anyango.
But the fact remains that this ideal indigenous homestead where folk stories are told doesn’t exist anymore. The fact is there are no ululations when a child is born. The African culture that people like Ezekiel Mutua use to justify regressive and authoritarian government policies is dead or on its death bed. This is a telling scenario especially when you can only access the secrets to the darkness of your skin from museums and inaccessible doctoral theses. I traced some of my roots in a few pages from a chapter of Oginga Odinga’s ‘Not Yet Uhuru’.
As a nation we have an identity crisis because we have come to the realisation that we did not hold onto most of our culture.
Ezekiel Mutua and most of us who are out of touch with reality don’t know that their conception of culture is dead. There are those that blindly mock it for the sake of placating their egos on Instagram and twitter, with feathers tied around their heads and chalk drawn symbols that have no meaning outside the ones they give them. All smoke and mirrors.
Mostly what is left of that old order and still survives today is the language. Local band “Kanyeki” dresses American inspired rock music with lyrical verve carried in the vessel of Kikuyu dialect. I am told that eating Kamongo (Lung Fish), a tasty fish with an unsavoury and repulsive look can excite your inbuilt traditional code and get you dancing to a non-existent tune. But beyond this there is no trace of the flame that made our ancestors contort their bodies in all sorts of ways. Our patriarchs are dead and so are the legends that kept their spirits alive. Even Omieri no longer slithers among the tufts of grass that straddle the large boulders of South Nyanza.
There is a new conception of culture nowadays. One that is a mix of what remains of the old order and the urban spirit of the much maligned sheng’, the stench of a poverty of ideals and livelihood and the debilitating corruption but with a desire to remake things in our image. Like the metropolitan culture that we are, we take largely what has come by boat to our shores, the sounds of bands like Ne Obliviscaris, Fleshgod Apocalypse and many others. They are our daily bread and not the voices of Wangu wa Makeri. The public doesn’t care for what founded our various cultures. No one really cares for the beads around your ankles or your missing teeth. The latter will even make you a pariah, a vestige of insidious practices. So we take what they still accept and what we can access while we can and build a new culture. A new identity.