Owiny Sigoma Band mixes the old and new

NYANZA by Owiny Sigoma Band

(Bronswood Recordings)

The Owiny Sigoma Band return with a third album, further cementing an unexpected connection between electronica and traditional Kenyan music. London-based brothers Jesse and Louis Hackett have, over the past five years, become engrossed in Luo.

The word describes both an ethnic group and a music style, the echoes of which can be heard in the band’s lightning-fast percussion and string work.

The key instrument is the nyatiti, an eight-stringed lyre, and it’s never far from a keyboard bleep or computerised drum loop, carving Owiny Sigoma an original niche in their flaunting of this particular sound from rural Kenya. More than just an instrument, the nyatiti also spearheads the traditional Luo rhythms that will be reassuringly familiar to fans.

When nyatiti maestro Joseph Nyamungu veers off on a solo, his quick finger plucks reflect a heavy ancestral knowledge; Owiny Sigoma took their name from Nyamungu’s grandfather, whom he cites as his key influence.

Nyanza instantly comes across as passionately electronic. It may be a surprise then to learn that it was recorded not in London – as was the case with 2013’s Power Punch – but in Kisumu, showing that the band has its African priorities at heart. Nyanza follows a loose narrative of the group’s trip upcountry to Nyanza province, from the hectic urban environments that inspired Power Punch to a place way off the beaten track.

Capturing the quiet moments
An ominous start with opening song Too Hot gives a reminder of Kenya’s recent troubles, starkly revealed in its audible echoes of gunfire. But as the album continues a gently hypnotic sound dominates, reflecting an effort to capture the quiet moments of Nyamungu playing the nyatiti and singing to himself.

In total contrast, Luo Land and the rapturous Changaa Attack will fill any dance floor in seconds. The joyous I Made You/You Made Me, written for Jesse Hackett’s daughter, is his response to the Kenyan pop the band heard in bars and on the radio, giving an upbeat snapshot of how to enjoy life, Kenyan style.

It seems fitting that the album’s centrepiece, Nyanza Night, tells the story of the night the band travelled to the rural village where Nyamungu and percussionist Charles Owoko live. The band provided a cow and a generator, and so got to play live to an audience made up of Luo people from the surrounding area.

The gig then morphed into a 12-hour nyatiti sound clash. Drummer Tom Skinner recalls “really heavy music and a lot of changaa”.

Changaa, which means “kill me quick”, is a potent home-brew rumoured to contain jet fuel and battery acid.

“This was one of the most magical nights that I’ve ever had,” remembers Skinner. “In the middle of nowhere in the outback of Kenya, under the stars. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt so far away from my normal life.”

A heart-pumping authenticity
Mirroring their journey, every track on Nyanza sees the band move forward sonically, rolling through a deep collection of influences. Sounds as diverse as juju, Shangaan electro, dub, techno and 1980s synth pop jostle for space in a way that feels compatible with the traditional Luo sounds of the region. 

Much of the instrumentation was recorded during improvised jam sessions, and the energy here is infectious. Microphones were set up in mobile studios wherever possible, and songs were thumped out spontaneously in the kitchen of their rented house in Kisumu.

Fisherman’s Camp was lifted straight from a live jam in the hills near Lake Naivasha, and several tracks were recorded in a concrete bunker of a studio run by an influential rasta named Jah Mic; the band gave his name to the final track on the album in dedication.

The natural background sounds of the trip crop up throughout the record, and provide a heart-pumping authenticity that makes the listener wish they’d been there – chickens crowing, rainstorms, a gathered crowd singing along on Fisherman’s Camp. The band even persuaded some local youngsters to supply the chorus on the brilliantly infectious Changaa Attack.

An electronic-age album with a human pulse
This grass-roots approach to music-making always feels raw and organic, with the rhythms and sounds reflecting creative energy between a group of musicians who have found a way of communicating across culture, language and generations.

Changaa Attack may have an all-out techno pulse, but the traditional drums, thumped out by Owoko, are cleverly amped and manipulated in a way that retains their earthiness. This delicate balance continues throughout the album, and, rather than exchanging blows between the two styles, Nyanza sees Owiny Sigoma at their most consistent.

This is the band returning to the place where Luo began, creating an electronic-age album with a very real, always fun-loving, human pulse.

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