Music

From viral fad to valid fame

Phiona Okumu

Despite their self-effacing name, the Kenyan outfit Just a Band are proving they are far more than that.

Nice-guy prophets of the digital age: Nairobi sensation Just a Band. (Gregory Chris)

It has been more than two years since Just a Band's infamous breakthrough, buoyed by the –success of Makmende, a character in their video Ha-He that was ­resurrected from the collective childhood memory of Kenyan 1980s babies everywhere. 

The video - a humorous nod towards 1970s B–grade blaxploitation action films featuring a fictional superhero – was directed by band members Jim Chuchu and Mbithi Masya. Within the first week of its release in 2010 Ha–He notched up tens of thousands of YouTube views as the news spread like wildfire: "Makmende amerudi!" (Makmende has returned!). 

An internet monster of a meme was born. Up went a Facebook page where fans posted their favourite Makmende–isms, in the style of the famed Chuck Norris one–liners. Before long the mythical character exploded into Kenya's first viral sensation, threatening to surpass the purpose of its creators, a self-described artsy Afro-geek collective whose members first got together in high school to make music.

This sudden outpouring of cyber-generated attention could not have happened to a more fitting bunch. 

"I don't listen to the radio here," confessed songwriter and vocalist Bill "Blinky" Sellanga from the spacious Nairobi digs where the group lives and records – "just a house", they call it, a self-deprecating riff on the band's name that is typical of their endearing humour.

I suspect this from–a–place–but–not–of–it bearing also applies to his bandmates. Where do these multidisciplinary do–it–yourself creatives, who are versed in film, animation, photo–graphy, graphic design and songwriting, go for their fix of music not easily found on Kenyan commercial radio – such as, say, Björk or Sly and the Family Stone? The internet, of course.

Makmende's Facebook fan page has been disabled, but that watershed moment remains an indelible part of Kenyan urban music history. With follow–up videos for tracks such as Huff + Puff (a song in the vein of Sam Sparro's dancey pop circa Black and Gold) or Away, a commissioned collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, the foursome prove they are more than just a band with a great gimmick. 

Combining digital storytelling with all–round likeability, they demonstrate just how powerful the internet is for harnessing brand power. By the time they made their mainstream debut, Just a Band's popularity in the diaspora had exploded, thanks to international coverage in high-profile media such as the Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Huffington Post.

"We are going to put our new album out ourselves," said Sellanga. "We may talk to some people to collaborate for distribution." That was as much as he would say about the ongoing rumour that they were in talks with a major record label.In Nairobi, a new trend is showing signs of what could be a long and prosperous life. House music events range from intimate affairs to elaborate heavily billed festivals with DJ talent imported mostly from Europe and South Africa. This fledgling electronic dance music (EDM) scene is about the only place where Sellanga can pinpoint any affinity with a genre, albeit reluctantly. 

"Producers are starting to fuse dance stuff in their music and DJs play dance music here all the time now. Granted, it's the super–pop vibes, but it is taking over. We may have helped popularise it, but we're not exclusively EDM guys."Their second album, 82, was named for the year Just a Band's founding members and former college buddies Bill Sellanga, Daniel Muli and Jim Chuchu were born. (Mbithi Masya joined after this album was made).  

"This album sounds more celebratory," said animator and graphic designer Muli, "compared to the first album [Scratch to Reveal], which was us trying to find our way around." 

Just a Band is now on the last stretch towards completing Sorry for the Delay, their next album, which has a deadline of October 27. Before then they must somehow squeeze in dates in South Africa and Réunion. The album promises, among other things, a collaboration with South African singer-songwriter Zaki Ibrahim. 

They already share album credits with Ibrahim, Spoek Mathambo, Questlove and Petit Noir on the forthcoming instalment of the ongoing Fela Kuti music tribute compilation project titled Red Hot and Riot, to which they have contributed two tracks. "It's our most confident record yet," Muli said of the new album. "While we've been travelling, it's like everything that we've been doing and learning [remotely] came to life and makes sense. We've also had the chance to literally look over the shoulders of people who we admire."

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