My history of music is intensely personal. I love music. I can’t sing worth a damn, but I love music. You will forgive me, but I’m going to give you a history lesson. My history of music is not the textbook version and I’m sure neither is yours. I’m sure you remember the first song you heard, the first dance you danced. The first attempt to write your own before you realized you are tone deaf (or was that just me?). My history of music begins with my mother.
My mother was born four years before independence in Kenya, grew up in ‘the village’ for want of a better phrase, fetched water on her head and she was already cooler than me. Her music began with running streams of water and wind in trees, birds and crickets chirping. My music began with…car honks probably, and nurses in hospitals. The matatu horn is not musical.
The world of her youth was musical, or rather a musical. When birds sang they didn’t just chirp, the spoke. “Ngwaka kũ” they said, where will I build. She sang back “marigũ inĩ” (by the bananas). When the day grew long, and the naughty boys were too tired to sing back, they chased the birds away with the original ‘yo-mama’ insult “kwa nyukwa thegi” (at your mother’s store). The birds sang and the children sang back. One even spoke an ancient truth, “ĩ ihĩĩ ti irimũ” (uncircumcised boys are stupid). Neither my writing nor I reflect the thoughts or opinions of said birds. All boys are stupid.
The first song she remembers is one her father sang, a lullaby. Music was darker then I presume, but only darker the way the truth can be dark. Here’s a traditional lullaby:
ũũũ kira mwana ĩĩ
maitũguo niathire ĩĩĩ
Na ndarĩ acoka ĩĩ
ũũũ kira mwana ĩĩ
Child stop crying
Your mother has left
She has never come back
Child stop crying
Your mother has never come back, get over it and shut up is what they’re saying. Explains why my childhood stories involved ogres boiling and eating disobedient young girls.
The first song I remember is a lullaby. I cannot remember the lyrics but the rhythm is familiar. I cannot speak Kikuyu but the meaning is familiar. This song was one her mother sang, whose mother sang, whose mother sang ad infinitum. It is in my genes.
Over at primary school, ndumo ruled and when Christmas time hit, very, “indecent” circumcision songs were sung by the adults. Ndumo (traditional songs) were sung by her mother and grandmother and father and grandfather for traditional dances with lyrics too filthy for her nine-year-old ears. She refuses to tell me what was sung as I watch True Blood.
I argue that whatever was sung by the adults, I am certain was no than the a-la-la-la-long that I performed in my purple velvet skirt suit (black trim, gold buttons aka chic) when I was six years old to all my uncles. Innocent though I was, I gyrated and sweated till I could not sweat no more.
Do not judge me too harshly.
I am a child of the 90’s and even then, I liked big buts and I could not lie. The music I listened to in primary school involved pushing it real good, getting freaky and making love. At home, the music collection was as eccentric as it gets. I listened to hip hop mixtapes— my brother had Twista, Da Brat and Busta Rhymes all on cassette tapes! The full ABBA collection as well as color-coded tapes of all their concerts were nestled safely with our books. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton crooned away in a box filled with country stars. Gospel singers stared awkwardly at Scameras posing by the bougainvillea flowers singing “kumathaaaigamerigothe” — yes I know that’s wrong and not real Kikuyu but it’s what I heard. I knew every word to every Keith Sweat song as well as I knew the Power Puff girls anthem. I only saw “traditional African musical instruments” in my music textbooks. Where the music of my youth involved silk, velvet and well-oiled American bodies, my mother’s wasn’t African, or even Kenyan. It was Kikuyu.
Then along came the gramophone.
There was only one in the village and it was her father’s, my guka’s (grandfather’s). I have the coolest family. Everyone would gather around and it was on his gramophone that those influences from outside came in.
“Across the bridge
There’s no more sorrow.
Across the bridge
There’s no more pain.
The sun will shine
Across the river
And we’ll never be
Jim Reeves had strolled into the village on that gramophone and her music changed. The cool young boys now walked with ties tied on their heads, singing “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.” The Kikuyu was never forgotten – it was simply modernized. Joseph Kamarũ kept the traditional dance alive and added his own Kikuyu twist to the twist.
I wonder if the discovery of that genre was revelatory. If clouds opened up and angels sang, with rhythmic guitars playing in the back, singing, yes there is music beyond what you know and what you can imagine. I discovered rock music when I was around 12 years old after years of believing that every song in the world had a slow baseline in the back. Yes, clouds opened up and angels sang. Dark angels, with twisted pasts and angst ridden souls.
My first CD was by Jet and I felt like I was THE Rebel – System of a Down, Blink 182, Evanescence, Avril Lavigne. I was hardcore baby! Well, I believed I was and that’s what is important. It’s easy to forget musical rebellion is a teen rite of passage.
In the 70’s, kids were sneaking out of the house, climbing out of wooden windows to go dancing to this new music playing at parties. Everybody was kung-fu-fighting, rather aggressively in fact. Casualties of angry hip bumps and vigorous twists lay strewn across dance floors for hours, twisting even with their feet knocked out from under them. The kids were not allowed to go to these dances so they had to sneak out, climbing out of wooden windows and crawling back in before dawn. However vivid this description is, my mother swears she never did this. Not once. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.
Around the year 2000, kids were sneaking out of the house, climbing over iron gates to go dancing to the new music playing at parties. Everybody was making it clap, rather aggressively in fact. Casualties of angry fist pumps and vigorous whining lay strewn across dance floors for hours, whining even with their feet knocked out from under them. The kids were not allowed to go to these clubs so they had to sneak out, bribe the guard and crawl back in before dawn. However vivid this description is, I swear I never did this. Not once. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
After our parallel rebellions (in which we never partook), our musical horizons were wide open. She found John Denver, Nanna Mouskuris, The Eagles, Demis Rousous, Kenny Rogers, and Dolly Parton in university. I found Corrine Bailey Rae, the Noisettes, Muse, Queens of the Stone and Robin Thicke. She graduated, started work, had children and Elton John played the soundtrack to her life, jamming with gospel music from all over the world, Kenny G and yes, the great Bob Dylan. I graduated, started work, contemplating my future have found Adele, Juanes, Florence and the Machine.
More importantly, my music has become African. Sounds silly but my childhood was not filled with Papa Wemba or Kofi Olumide. I remember ‘tipsy’ uncles dancing the dombolo and the world was rife with Mugithi. “Mpenzi” was as close as it gets to my music (and yes, I still remember ALL the lyrics). Genge began when I was in school and Nameless sang the mega rider anthem (and yes, I still remember ALL the lyrics) with E-sir and others beginning one of Kenya’s defining sounds.
Now Sauti Sol features heavily on my playlist. I have watched in awe at performances by Dela and Anto-Neo Soul in small dingy clubs whose musical quality ranks as high as the multi-million dollar Beyoncé concerts. I am a Just-a-Band fan-girl. Seriously, while I may have met the members at random occasions I have had to stop myself from screaming out “OM-FRIGGIN-G, it’s them, it’s them, it’s them”. I watched Liquideep live in concerts and I will love them till time stands still. I have breakfast with Asa, eat Black Sugar for dinner and have D’Banj. There, I banjuka, windek and azonto on a regular basis.
My history of music is intensely personal. I love music. I can’t sing worth a dime, but I love music. I love it because my mother loves music and hers before her. Different but parallel music; different yet parallel lives. If I have kids I want one of them years from now to say, “My mom introduced me to … My mom was born back when video cassettes were the greatest thing, wrote letters by hand and she was already cooler than me.”
Anne Moraa is a writer and a powerful spoken word artist. She has won several competitions (Slam Africa, Kwani? Open Mic) and has performed pieces at major festivals (Kwani Litfest, StoryMoja Hay Festival). Her strong feminist perspective and willingness to challenge norms have led to commissioned performances on gender and sexuality, most recently at the “Festivale CulturElles” at Alliance Française. A Law graduate, she writes fiction as well as scripts, social commentary and basically anything she can get her hands on. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org