Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Eric Wainaina - Kenya's Singing Sensation....

Images By Jerry Riley
Words By Sikiliza

“ …Unadamu mkononi na asali mdomoni
Matendo yako ni maovu matamshi yako ni matamu
Nimeomba haujadhamini nimeiimba hausikii
Nimebishabisha nimeitana na mlango haufungui …”

There is blood on your fingers honey flows from your tongue
As you conceal the boundaries stones
While am not looking you stab me in the back with my own spear
I play my song but you’re not dancing
I pray for you but you won’t believe
My knees are aching from nights awake and tears for you …

… ukweli hauna kifo
ukweli hauna mwisho
Na wewe umejaa vitisho
Ukweli hauna mwisho …”

Truth never dies
Truth has no endAnd all you have are threats
Truth has no end”

Powerful words from Eric Wainaina’s single Ukweli meaning Truth in his latest album called “Twende Twende” loosely translated to mean let’s move with some frantic urgency.
This song was commissioned as a call for justice in the mysterious death of Father Anthony Kaiser who was reported as having committed suicide despite evidence that indicated the contrary.
We went out to meet Eric a GenerationKenya juror and award winning Kenyan musician at his Lavington base at Kifaru that hosts his studio Enkare.
Enkare is a partnership between Eric, his wife Sheba Hirst and Tim Rimbui aka Ennovator. It is a commercial recording studio that began in 2004.
While waiting to meet with Eric we stumbled upon all kinds of activities at the same, a live band was prepping for an upcoming gig, a music theatre group was going through the motions of their production and a sultry voice was practicing her voice chords somewhere about. We sat at the reception welcomed with steaming mugs of tea from Mary the lovely office assistant to fight off the nippy Nairobi chill as we waited for Eric to conclude his rehearsals.
Two cups of tea later, we watched as the last of the young musicians left for home after rehearsals. In their eyes there was an eagerness, all of them friendly and taking a moment to say hello. There was a lot of happy banter, chatting and laughter as they streamed out of Kifaru.
Eric came to personally meet us at the reception and as he led us to his office and we opened up to a burst of color; an orange wall more like the colour of sunset embers speckled with African art and a portrait of his wife Sheba. It was a warm setting filled with little trinkets like pictures and awards all around him. His keyboard was close by the window. He always carried a dicta-phone with him to capture any musical inspiration that came to him wherever he was. Then the naissance of his songs began to take form on his keyboard.

Eric Wainaina has stood out as a renowned Kenyan musician and composer.
His musical journey began when his father bought a second-hand grand piano from an expatriate move sale in 1977 when he was just 4 years old. The piano was really meant for his brother and only sibling Simon Wainaina who then thought that football was much cooler than sitting indoors and playing music scales …

His initial dabble on the piano were not spectacular, but he grew up in a home that nurtured them to follow their dreams. His parents, George Gitau Wainaina and Margaret Wangari Wainaina provided a diverse learning experience in addition to their academic studies.
Like many other kids those days, he enjoyed playing old LP records in the house 45’s and 78’s and his school St Mary’s was well known for putting up annual musicals. He feels that these were great music influences in his early life. Music surrounded him in the various choirs at church, prize days in school, inter-school music festivals and it slowly ingrained in him.

Family time was spent mashing pillows and wrestling with his dad and brother in the living room. He watched wrestling when the wrestlers actually wrestled and not just the banter and rhetoric that it has evolved into these days. The days of Big Daddy and Jack Haystacks….He watched football Made-in-Germany on Saturday afternoons and got up to the usual shenanigans that young Kenyan boys get into.

But music persistently crept into his life. His turning point was when he came across an a cappella song by Take 6. He played the song over and over. He especially enjoyed playing the stereo in the bath for hours to the chagrin of those waiting to use it after him; he closed his eyes soaking in the soap suds and the voice blends that brought out this remarkable new sound to him.
The fascination was intense. He and some school friends formed a group and decided to belt out an a capella number for a prize-giving day at Mary’s School.
“The lead singer started the song and I was the second voice and you know for school kids it’s always a nervous thing and some kids in the audience laughed at the start, but when the voices blended in together there was complete and utter silence. And I remember feeling from that moment that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” says Eric.

He went on with music and with his friends formed a group named 5 Alive who made waves round the country with their talent. This was not enough for Eric though and he was determined to pursue a musical career. He got a scholarship to study music at Berklee College of Music in Boston USA. The college is prestigious and the environment was very musically charged. This is where he perfected his skill and brought it back to Kenya.

“I realized very early that I needed to bring something different to Berklee, the culture there is predominately R&B and Jazz. I needed therefore to find my Kenyan roots for my artistic and creative inspiration and this meant coming home regularly.”
“Also I decided to come back home to bond with my “Kenyan-ness.” You see many African musicians who made it in the world were predominantly big at home first, then you sort of rise from the surface at home to the external markets who begin to notice you.”
His business canny acknowledged the fact that he needed to create a niche market in Kenya and so the longevity of his musical career was because he remained consistent and persistent singing songs of relevance and telling Kenyan stories.“I made a pact with myself that whenever I travel around the world with my music, the world would take me on my own terms and not the other way round but for that I needed to root myself at home first.”
So I asked Eric what being a successful Kenyan musician entailed.
“Playing a musical instrument is an integral part of composing and arranging your song. It gives one a sense of autonomy and this cannot be underestimated. Stress is, requesting a band to play their song and not know what key the song is in!” he said pointing out the most common problems that musicians face.
However even with tons of talent – being a successful musician does not come easy.
One time as Eric came across an old school friend while in a traffic jam said, “Oh Eric its 8.30 in the morning what are you doing up this early. I thought that artists wake up at 1 or 2 o’clock?”
He couldn’t have been more wrong. The process of composing, arranging, recording a song is a daunting task and it many times involves working hours on end to attain near perfection. Also, Eric learnt very early the importance of surrounding himself with people who are better than him – according to him its one of the best ways to learn.
Eric’s efforts have paid off though since he has received countless accolades for music.
So far he has garnered the coveted MNET (South Africa) award for favourite male vocalist in February 2001 and Best East African Artist at the pan-African 7th Annual KORA All Africa Music Awards on 2nd November 2002. He had been nominated for another KORA Award in 2003, and in 2005 he received his third Kora nomination, this time for the prestigious Artist of the Decade award. At the 2007 Kisima Music Awards Wainaina won three categories: Afro-fusion, best song and best video from Kenya.
His most memorable classes at Berklee was when a guest speaker came in and said to them, “The world owes you nothing! Don’t think that the world owes you something just because you’re a good song writer, the world doesn’t care! I mean you could die today and the music industry would progress on along like it always has. Don’t think that you’ll write this song and everyone will rush out to you!”
Music is a great way to articulate ourselves; Eric tells us how when a school bus was once stopped by a police officer asking for a bribe the school kids began singing out his song … “nchi ya kitu kidogo …” (Land of small things – bribes) this is increasingly having a snow ball effect on civic empowerment in Kenya.
Regarding the recent post electoral violence Eric felt the need for Kenyans to embrace openness.
“We as Kenyans need to talk more openly to each other. The key sensitive issues like land need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. We need to change the way we view leadership and choose the right kind of leaders because if we are eloquent on what is wrong with Kenya then we should ask ourselves why we have the same people going into power and making the same mistakes? The same injustices remain unaddressed over time and so I think it’s a high time we de-link politics and emotion allowing us to make decisions on a clear basis.”
But how can we cultivate music talent amongst the young Kenyans?
“The school curriculum needs to take music and art more seriously especially in Kenya where graduation from primary school does not guarantee you a placing in secondary, graduation from secondary does not assure you a place in university and graduation in university does not guarantee one a job. This means that a large group of Kenyans would have look for alternative ways to make ends meet. Therefore schools ought to open the minds of the young from the onset. For instance, reliance on art and creativity is really underestimated. The first thing one does after waking up is turning on the radio to listen to some music – we need to learn how to capitalize this.”
“Kids in school need to be taught more on how to live with others and problem solving. Right now the focus is squarely on learning by rote and regurgitating the answers during exams but the educational systems need to teach young Kenyans socialization. It would be probably the most useful knowledge we could impart as it teaches them how to live with other people.”
What are your views on the rampart piracy in Kenya?
“Piracy laws are valid and have been enacted but are hardly effected. People just walk into a cyber store and 50 bob later have a CD with burnt music. Musicians are not looking to stop these distribution channels which are viable but instead ensure that the buyers support the musicians by paying for the music – someone worked hard to get that song and it’s the least one can do to acknowledge talent.”