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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

Protective equipment for schools in KwaZulu-Natal goes ‘missing’

Without protective equipment, schools in uMlazi, Pinetown and Zululand won’t meet the already delayed deadline for reopening

The statue of Louis XVI should remain forever handless

A statue of the French king in Louisville, Kentucky was damaged during the protests against police killings. It should not be repaired
Advertising

Press Releases

Empowering his people to unleash their potential

'Being registered as an AGA(SA) means you are capable of engineering an idea and turning it into money,' says Raymond Mayekisa

What is an AGA(SA) and AT(SA) and why do they matter?

If your company has these qualified professionals it will help improve efficiencies and accelerate progress by assisting your organisation to perform better

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday