On her latest EP, Kenyan composer and performer, Nyokabi Kariũki, skillfully brings together her Western classical music training and a mastery of African instruments. The music is experimental, imaginative and above all, takes us all on an emotional journey exploring her most cherished spots in and around Nairobi. At the time of composing ‘peace places’, she was living in the States and didn’t know when she’d be able to safely return to Kenya because borders were closed due to the pandemic. Kariũki shows us both the joyful moments of being home as well as the difficulties. “Peace maybe always does come with disconnect and dissonance and that’s still part of it, and maybe there’s a bit of home in that as well,” she says. As you listen to ‘peace places’, the tracks are engineered in a way that makes you feel like her memories of certain places are coming and going or sketchy. Distortion, echo, fadeouts, and drifting between four languages (Kiswahili, Kikuyu, Maa, and English), you get a real sense of this inner peace and at the same time the disconnect she refers to.
The EP was released in February this year through UK-based label SA Recordings. ‘peace places’ was recorded in Maryland and New Jersey and field recordings in all tracks taken in various places around Kenya. 6 compositions and 6 places, her ‘peace’ places. She leads us through compositions about a stroll through a farm, the ocean at dawn voices of family, contributions from close friends, the interwoven languages of home and heritage. In the opening piece and second single from the EP, ‘Equator Song’, Kariũki uses the chirping of a pair of Speke weaver birds as the backbone and sings sweet harmonies over the discordant squawking. Whilst she was travelling through Kenya, she was captivated by the chatter of the bright yellow weaver birds (pictured on the cover) and observed the disconnect between the birds’ fine feathers and rattling commotion, highlighting her growing sense of displacement. As she sings in English, Kariũki draws out the line “You’ll find my soul on someone’s tongue” – a suggestion of the plain fact and lingering pain of not being able to express herself in her native language, as a result of years of British colonial rule. On “A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm” (cũcũ is the Kikuyu word for grandmother) a recording of a visit to her grandmother on Christmas Day 2020. It features a recording of her mother exclaiming in Kikuyu how difficult it is to pull an onion out of the ground. It’s a special memory for Kariũki, even if we aren’t familiar with the context or the language. The track also uses audio from a video she took while she and her brother tried to close the doors that housed her grandmother’s cows. Kariũki’s voice can be heard saying “Let it open, let it open,” though we aren’t directly told what’s being opened. The music paints a picture: cowbells ringing from goats or perhaps her grandmother’s cows, chirping birds, and various narrative sections. Throughout the track there is an underlying and anxious sounding electronic buzz, coming and going, sometimes hazy.
On “Galu”, the first single from the EP, released last year, percussionist Chris O’Leary recreates the sound of the ocean at dawn as Kariũki works and builds on a vocal that grows, evolves into harmonies as though her memory of this ‘peace place’ becomes clearer. At the same time, the drums become more solid and recognisable. Then as her memories fade, so do her vocals and the drums. “Galu” is a cleverly crafted composition, invoking her short yet erstwhile memories of home. A classically trained pianist, her interest in music grew from an early age – on the song “home piano”, Kariũki records herself improvising on the piano she’s had since she was 8. In a recent interview with ourculture magazine, she says that “The piano is still always going to be a peace place for me. Regardless of where I am, it’s just so familiar”.
“Ngurumo” or “Feeding Goats Mangoes” centres on a specific task with conversation, choral vocals, thumb piano, and of course, goats. She talks often about how she includes recordings that she took with her phone, some of them were from videos that she was taking with her phone casually when on holiday. “Oh, I’m by the water or I’m in the village where my dad grew up, let me take a video…There’s this audio from a video of me and my brother feeding mango peels to some goats in the farm in my father’s hometown, because it’s like a fun, silly thing to do.”
Perhaps the most conceptually striking piece is the last one, “Naila’s peace place”, in which Kariũki’s friend Naila Aroni (who also painted the record’s artwork) records herself walking through Lamu on the Kenyan coast with a close friend. The town doesn’t allow cars—instead, boats or donkeys transport people. Kariũki hasn’t been there, but Aroni and her other friend visited and discussed how surreal and magical the town felt. “It doesn’t feel real this place, it just doesn’t…” says one of the voices. In the music, vocals and various voices swirl around a vibraphone and electronic fuzz. It’s meditative music and “It sounds like joy,” Kariũki says. Every track on this EP ventures to a different place using field recordings and vocals, audio from video as well as different percussion instruments, like kalimbas, mbira, piano, vibraphone, a drum set, and gyil (West African xylophone). ‘peace places’ has been a perfect springboard for Kariũki to explore her newfound interest in using electronic composition to celebrate Kenyan languages and places.
Written by Juan Brooks.
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