Kenyan Rock Bands Have Been Belting Out Great African Rock Songs – Awards or No Awards

Award season is here with us again. And this time a local rock band is the lone ranger in an award category dubbed “Best African Rock”.
This is the second time that the AFRIMA Awards have recognized a Kenyan outfit for an award in this category. However many have argued, rightly so, that the organizers have failed to pick genuine rock bands, or artists that espouse that genre to the acceptable standard.
And looking at the list we find it hard not to agree with those views.
These calls are perhaps even more weighted bearing in mind the information that is out there on the world wide web. A cursory search on search engines like google, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram will demonstrate the opulence with which African rock music is endowed with.
There are vibrant local scenes across the continent with touring bands. From Botswana to Mozambique and as far north as Egypt. There are dedicated digital publications rife with information such as AudioInferno and Metal4Africa.
But even within these easterly shores, the heritage of African Rock Music is continually upheld. It is no wonder that groups like Kanyeki and Rash have warranted nomination. Native in their tongue and to some degree the instrumentality, this was one of the first shores to give birth to Swahili Rock Music.
For the avoidance of doubt here is a list of ten of the best Swahili and other indigenous Rock Songs. There’s a mix of Swahili and English in the lyricism while others rely entirely on indigenous languages for expression.
The themes are right at home as well, from the effects of crippling inflation to illicit alcohol and the unrest and violence that are common during and after election periods. But aside from that there are also those rock tropes that fans love, from soaring solos to heavy riffs and spectacular drum solos.
Here’s our list.
10. ParkingLotGrass – Naweza
After adopting the services of Seismic’s Dun Muriira, ParkingLotGrass dropped some of the heaviest rock album in the past decade “Tusk at Hand”. With overriding themes such as conservation, self improvement and socio-political critique, they cemented themselves strongly in the memory of Kenyan rock music. “Tusk at Hand” had a variety of tunes that are now staple for the rock enthusiast –  songs like Turn Around that featured Nigerian songstress Clay as well as the song Rainman.
“Naweza” (Swahili for I can) blends both Swahili and English lyricism. The end result is a catchy yet memorable tune that is now easily recongisable amongst fans of the local rock scene.

9. Simply Tomas – Tafadhali
Simply Tomas enthralled many listeners over the past decade with this timeless ode to the struggles of full time musicians. Here the main character is rejected by his girlfriend and quickly finds himself homeless and misunderstood. The tides eventually turns and this time it is those that rejected him that are now saying “Tafadhali, nipe nafasi ya kujitetea” (Please, let me explain). But there’s no going back to those that turned their backs on him.
Tafadhali is another exemplar of heavy English lyricism adorned with a slight garnish of Swahili for perhaps one of the greatest East African rock songs of the decade. Tomas features in this videos past members of the rock band Music2Overdrive including Mukasa who now plays guitar for another rock group Murfy’s fLaw.

8. Rash –  Usiku Mbaya
Rash began their foray into Swahili rock music with their debut in “Darkness and Witchcraft”. Though mostly reliant on English, they again paid homage to this coastal language with the use of “misemo” or sayings if you like remarking “Humu duniani umdhaniaye ndiye siye.” They continued to explore that admixture of Swahili and English in the song Msafiri. However, the song Usiku Mbaya really stuck with us for its socio-political awareness, addressing itself to the dangers of illicit alcohol that has taken so many promising lives. Usiku Mbaya really captures the essence of the worst night of your life, that culminates in a morning tinged with tragedy with the sun wailing out for the spilled blood and perished soul.

7. Culture Horizon – Baba Joshua
Culture Horizon debuted with one of the most ingenious adaptations of rock music to date. Perhaps the only reason it isn’t higher up in the list is because of the production. But the songs atmosphere is unmistakeably indigenous. Employing a mix of Lingala and Swahili, this group belts out a morbid tale of a wanderer that sold their soul to the devil for riches. In the end the late Gloria Sangwa remarks with the refrain “Mwenye pesa amerudi, hataki kulipwa, anataka maisha yako”. Her touching vocals are the centrepiece to this song but the rest of the band don’t fail to leave their mark. The drumming patterns are nothing short of exquisite. The group caps the song off with a penetrating guitar solo.
It sounds like something off of 90s Kenyan television dramas like Kisulisuli and Tausi with its deep sense of foreboding and enchanting rhythm.

6. Kanyeki – Murata
Local Kikuyu-Christian Rock band earned plaudits and a well deserved AFRIMA award for this song Murata. Murata stands for ‘friend’ and is a testament to the fact that rock music can be a symbol of more than just the commonplace stereotypes that are routinely identified with the genre. There’s a very groovy beat and a resplendent rock riff but its capped off by Kanyeki’s astounding song writing ability. It has continually stirred the hearts of Christian rock lovers and fans of the genre in general while remaining an inspiration to those looking for meaning in their lives.

5. Parking Lot Grass – Shimo Mfukoni
This list would lose a lot of its credibility if we missed out on mentioning these progenitors of swahili rock music. Back then they were fronted by Rafael Sipalla who adopted the slaloming lyricism echoed to some degree by rappers like K-Rupt. It is a timelessly touching piece on economic struggles. It’s strange to imagine that things were still hard back in 2012 where inflation has brought down the value of the shilling and as the poet , for the hole in his pocket, remarks “ngiri ni mia”

4. Simply Tomas – Mpenzi
Mpenzi is arguably one of Simply Tomas best songs.Mpenzi is the swahili term for lover. It took top spot on our list of Kenyan rock songs of 2014. It is deeply characteristic of Tom’s songs, with their ability to appeal immediately to audiences with enchanting hooks. Tom once again lays out his soul in a song that is deeply personal just like the songs Colossal Failure that touched on fatherhood and its insecurities or my personal favorite, Mental Power. 

3.  20 More Days – Maisha/About The Money
Produced by Nick Wathi’s Andromeda Studios, Maisha/About the Money is one of the most enduring local rock songs in recent memory. Along with Chepchumba, it has received a staggering amount of airplay perhaps fuelled by 20 more day’s impeccable song writing with its ease of expression, relatability and ability to inspire.

2.   Rash feat Ruff – Nitachange
Rash began working with former PLG vocalist Rafael Sipalla circa 2016 with a litany of joint performances at the Blues Restaurant as well as This is Africa Fest. 

Legendary Kenyan rock vocalist Rafael Sipalla (left) on stage alongside Rash’s Sam Warui at 2016’s This is Africa Fest

The group made it evident that they had something in the works with Ruff. Fast forward to 2018 where they’ve replaced one of their founding guitarists Abed Kariuki with scene veteran Yubu Kazungu (Black Fog Angel) , and released this political critique under the auspices of Andromeda Studios. Guitarist Max’s inspired solo captures the urgency of this song’s clarion call, with the dual vocals of Sam Warui and Ruff carrying the songs restorative message, a message to be better in the face of divisive politics.

1. Murfy’s fLaw – Aha
Murfy’s fLaw are a band that is known for its variety in vocal prowess. While songstress Reema Doshi leads on vocals for most of their songs, the other band members Jojo (keys), Vicky and Jozie have played backup on vocals. Here lead guitarist Nambari Tisa or (N9ine) belts out a tune in swahili, chronicling their struggles at the hands of illicit promoters with their litany of lies and deceptive tendencies, tools that they’ve relied on to make away with musicians’ well deserved earnings. The song has an uncanny 80s funk feel to it. It draws to some degree from N9ine’s days as a rapper. This song is a precursor to the use of local slang “sheng” which ParkingLotGrass later took up. But the most arresting element from here is the dramatic nature of the songs rhythm that is akin to soundtracks for 80s and 90s Kenyan drama series.

You can vote for Rash ft Ruff – Nitachange for AFRIMA’s Best African Rock:

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