Jun 28, 2011

Traditional Kenyan melodies and vibes with UK Jazz: Owiny Sigoma Band

Press release: Owiny Sigoma Band

In 2009 a close-knit collective of London-based musicians - Jesse Hackett (keys), Louis Hackett (bass), Sam Lewis (guitar), Chris Morphitis (bouzouki/guitar) and Tom Skinner (drums) - first arrived in Nairobi. They were brought to Kenya's capital in order to collaborate with local musicians as part of a project established by an organisation called Art of Protest which aims to promote local Kenyan musicians and rappers. Art of Protest introduced the London faction to Joseph Nyamungu, a phenomenal player/teacher of the nyatiti (an 8-string lyre) whose scope of knowledge of the traditional music of the Luo tribe is unparalleled. The sessions with Joseph and Charles Owoko, a drummer specialising in traditional Luo rhythms developed into something unique, fresh and full of verve - a Nairobi meets London sound clash.

The five London-based musicians, who have been friends since their school days, draw on a broad spectrum of African influences, from Fela Kuti and Tony Allen to the likes of Thomas Mapfumo and Oumou Sangare. “What I heard when I first played Owiny Sigoma Band on the radio was a phat, wayward dance record with African leanings and it just felt completely right,” explains Gilles Peterson.

On reconvening with Joseph and Charles on a second trip to Nairobi in May 2010, the group had now grown to a 10-piece big band, with Joseph inviting many other musicians to join the proceedings. A two-day session at the Kenya National Theatre then culminated in the forthcoming self-titled album – a collection of gloriously loose Afro grooves symbolic of the true culture clash between the Luo and London. The founder of Gorillaz and Afrika Express, Damon Albarn, even gives the project his personal blessing, popping up on organ duties on the sprightly 'Odera Lwar' and 'Margaret Okudo (Dub)'.

In Gilles Peterson's words

"Africa is still largely untapped. The US has been dug to death, likewise most of South America and Brazil. Africa is the new Colombia in terms of uprooted treasures by the likes of Analog Africa and Soundway. Nigeria, Ghana and the French Colonies - Congo, Sierra Leone and maybe Ivory Coast - they're the ones that have been tapped, but there's so much more. I've started hearing stuff from Eritrea and Mozambique… funk bands… James Brown made an impact everywhere.

What I heard when I first played Owiny Sigoma Band on the radio was a phat, wayward dance record with African leanings and it just felt completely right. That's why it was good to continue along the path that they'd followed, because they've got a different approach to how the drums should sound and the bass should sound - it's like they've been listening to a bunch of Arthur Russell and Liquid Liquid records. These characteristics alongside the nyatiti, the vocals and the cow's horn, lend it these unique properties that you don't hear in any other African music and make it exciting. But, fundamentally, the reason that it works for me (and Brownswood) is that it's drum and bass heavy… rhythmically heavy. And all those little disco tricks… the reverbs and the tape delays that they used are brilliant. It's by no means a disco record, but it's got enough of that in it to make it sound new and inventive. Plus of course there's the whole thing with bands like Vampire Weekend, the Damon Albarn touch and World Circuit… all of that has been embedded in people's heads. So basically you throw this project in the mix which has all of those elements and that's why it's fresh."


May 2011 will see release of the Owiny Sigoma Band's self-titled debut album on Gilles Peterson's label Brownswood Recordings. The record, which is being tagged as a "cross-cultural clash of London and traditional Kenyan music", is the result of a collective of London-based musicians travelling to Kenya in 2009 to collaborate with musicians from the region. The jam sessions that transpired form the basis of this forthcoming release on Brownswood Recordings. If you're expecting the now usual Afrofunk new band, you're in for a big suprise since this album is really a new crossover sound of traditional Kenyan melodies and vibes with UK Jazz!!



A highly varied fusion of European and African styles that works surprisingly well.

The Owiny Sigoma Band has a very unusual back-story. Its initial genesis took place in January 2009 when, basking in the euphoria of the election of Barak Obama, five optimistic Londoners headed to Nairobi to collaborate with unnamed Kenyan musicians, for a project partly facilitated by Art of Protest, a voluntary organisation that aims to promote local rap artists and other music makers. The London crew, which includes keyboardist Jesse Hackett, his bass-playing drummer Louis, drummer Tom Skinner, and guitarists Sam Lewis and Chris Morphitis (the latter also doubling up on bouzouki), had no real clear agenda other than getting to know the place, and to create some kind of musical exchange with local players.

Things quickly gelled after Art of Protest introduced the London lads to Joseph Nyamungu, master of the eight-stringed lyre known as the nyatiti, and a powerhouse of knowledge regarding the traditional music of his tribe, the Luo of western Kenya. Joseph then drafted in his drumming mate, Charles Owoko, and everyone was ready to rock, the first set of recordings taking place at a disused factory in the middle of a huge potato market, during a marathon four-day session. Then, 14 months later, the Londoners returned for another couple of days’ worth of recordings, this time with additional Kenyan players drafted in by Nyamungu.

The result is a highly varied album that works surprisingly well, despite being all over the map and decidedly rough around the edges. Opening number Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi draws you in with a mellow groove laden with bass hooks and sprightly keyboard lines, bubbling beneath some ropey Luo vocals; Odero Lwar has delightful lyre riffs and quietly mesmerising drums beneath the boys’ percolating rhythm, while the radio-friendly Wires shifts the balance into the sphere of the Brits, but counterbalances the Anglo influence with doses of Congolese-styled guitar.

Here on the Line gives the boys full focus, with only a gentle lyre and the odd percussive sprinkle hinting at a non-London locale. For me, the truest highlights come when the Kenyans are allowed less-encumbered spotlights, on numbers such as Owegi Owandho and Rapar Nyanz. But everything on this album has enough verve to keep you tuned in from start to finish, making for a refreshingly different listen whose very unevenness somehow adds to the appealhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif.

bbc.co.uk, written by D. Katz


A wild spirit and untamed heart infuses this hypnotic, trance-inducing offering from Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings, bringing together a consortium of musicians from Kenya and the UK. Named after the grandfather of central figure Joseph Nyamungu, and with vocals loosely based on traditional Luo tribal chants, the bass-heavy rhythm section drags you through the dark heart of modern day Nairobi and London. Light touches and gentle innovation sprinkle the opening and closing few tracks, but it is the harsh vocals and all-powering trance that really lingers in the soul. Blur supremo Damon Albarn pops up on the organ on a couple of tracks.



This Nairobi-London sound clash mixes traditional Kenyan Luo styles with contemporary westehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifrn influences, and really works. The project started when Jesse Hackett and other members of the electronic hip-hop and soul collective Elmore Judd went out to Kenya at the invitation of a voluntary organisation promoting local musicians. Here they met up with Joseph Nyamungu, an exponent of the traditional nyatiti 8-stringed lyre, and began performing with him and local percussionists, naming their band after Nyamungu's music school (and his late grandfather). Back in London, Judd played one of the tracks they recorded to DJ Gilles Peterson, who was so impressed with "this weird collage with a great groove" that he commissioned a full album for his Brownswood record label. The result includes nyatiti solos alongside percussion and bass work-outs, but the best sections are those when both groups come together to create a quirky, slinky dance style. This is just the sort of project Africa Express set out to promote, so it's no surprise to find Damon Albarn adding Farfisa organ or omnichord (like an electronic autoharp) on a couple of the tracks.



Owiny Sigoma Band frontman Joseph Nyamungu says the songs on this record came to him while walking down the street, or in dreams. He takes you daydreaming with him, and tells you stories through interruptions of cow horn, and short keyboard flourishes setting a scene of dusty, busy urban bluster. Owiny Sigoma is a person, but he is not in the band that is named after him. He was Nyamungu’s grandfather in Kenya. Nyamungu runs a school, which also bears the name, at which he teaches and sells nyatitis - an eight-string lyre on which strings are played with a violin-like bow. And Nyamungu brings his musical teaching to this album, a collaboration with fellow Nairobi native and percussionist Charles Owoko and four London-based musicians. The songs are based on traditional Luo folk songs of Kenya, recognisable by their irregular chanted rhythms, the band add repetitive basslines, and a clatter of uptempo drums.

Nyamungu’s opener ‘Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi (Play The Music With Confidence)’ is as if he is instructing his new cohorts through fresh rhythms and musical ideas, and, like a conversation building pace, the dialogue picks up its own distinctive groove. And the vocals reinforce this, Nyamungu repeating lines with extra emphasis on the phrasing, which feels its way into your subconscious through creeping rhythms. ‘Odero Lwar’ follows suit, upping the tempo ever so slightly, the chanted vocals getting more strained, guttural and urgent. Whistling and off-mic breathing punctuate the dense atmosphere, made eerier still by the wail of the unusual cow horn. It’s a low, ominous groove and so it’s a surprise what happens next – with the melody and pop structure of third track ‘Wires.’ The tight wind-up/wind-down licks of the single - one of two English-language songs on this record - shows the English musicians are not just along for the ride. When they step out to do their own thing it is like a different group, and brings to mind the Afrobeat-influenced indie of the likes of Vampire Weekend. And they have chops of their own, keys player Jesse Hackett toured with Gorillaz and Africa Express, which explains the involvement of Damon Albarn, who makes an appearance on the Farfisa organ. Drummer Tom Skinner, bassist Louis Hackett and bouzouki and guitar player Chris Morphitis all adapt to their new environment, capturing the feel of what their hosts were sharing while bringing in wider African influences like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, as well as late 70s New York no wave dance moves.

Elsewhere on the record the band are back to the unstructured and loose, natural grooves, which benefit from seven to eight minute durations. Deep dub roots come to the fore on ‘Margaret Okudo Dub (My Friend)’ with echo-drenched vocals and stabbing keyboards punctuate. They strip things back altogether on Nyamungu’s solo piece ‘Owegi Owandho,’ a simple wood block beat with vocals standing higher than the repetitive fiddly nyatiti line. Natural funk from the west takes over on root dance note-based instrumental Afro-disco ‘Nabed Nade El Piny Ka’ making it clear why Gilles Peterson, on whose Brownswood label the record is released, started comparing them to Liquid Liquid. It is understated, but undeniably funky, with a stripped down three-piece lineup of bass, drums and keys, a handful of the English musicians conjuring something new based on ideas and techniques only newly learned. Like Nyamungu humming a tune walking down the street, the Owiny Sigoma sound has personality, swagger and its own distinctive groove.



Following the explosive new album of Seun Kuti, here comes a second 2011 afro-storm with the eponymous first album of Owiny Sigoma Band!

Over the years african music fans have been used to enjoy productions from the western part of the continent (Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Mali, Senegal... ) but oddly enough sounds from eastern Africa have generally remained more confidential. With this first production half-kenyan collective Owiny Sigoma Band nevertheless proves that oriental Africa also probably abounds with musical treasures.
Revealed and produced by Gilles Peterson on his brilliant Brownswood Recordings label, the group is actually half east-african and half-european.

On one side stands London-based Jesse Hackett known for his participation in Gorillaz as well as his interesting Elmore Judd soul/beats project, on the other a group of Nairobi-based musicians led by Joseph Nyanmungu and his traditional 8-stringed lyre. Add to that the presence on a couple of tracks of Damon Albarn, whose love for afrobeat is well-known (think of his previous collaborations with Fela's legendary drummer Tony Allen) and you get a very original kind of afro-disco sound.

The omnipresence of the Nyatiti lyre (an essential instrument in traditional Kenyan music) gives to this album a delightfully exotic touch, but it is his brilliant association with infectious percussions and house-like beats & basslines that results in Owiny Sigoma's really fresh sound. Tracks like "Wires", "Margaret Okudo", "Doyoi Nyajo Nam" or "Nabed Nade Ei Piny Ka - Rework" sound like no other previous productions and should not leave many listeners stand still.

But there is more! This LP is also home of a few remarkable afro-folk ballads ("Here On The Line", "Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi"...), truly out-of-time moments lost somewhere between London....and Nairobi!



Along with its close neighbors, Tanzania and Uganda, Kenya—as viewed from Europe or North America—is one of the final frontiers in African music. Indirectly, this is the result of the decades-long, overwhelming impact of Zairean rumba on east Africa, and its fall-out. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Zairean emigré bands dominated the Kenyan scene, discouraging the emergence of indigenous styles; only taarab, the Muslim orchestral music which developed along the Swahili-speaking coast, and benga, the electrified dance music played by Shirati Jazz and other Luo-speaking bands, survived the onslaught. And to date, all attempts to give Kenya a start in the world music stakes have failed. Early on, Virgin Records released excellent albums by Orchestre Makassy (Agwaya, 1982) and Super Mazembe (Kaivaska, 1983), but neither clicked—and both bands were, anyway, mainly composed of Zairean emigrés, playing essentially Zairean music. Later initiatives also fell by the wayside.

The first, biggest and—unless you count American president Barack Obama's Luo heritage—only break Kenyan music has ever really got in the world stakes was the song "Malaika." Written by Fadhili William, and recorded with his band, the Jambo Boys, in 1960, "Malaika" became an international entity (and its Kenyan origin quickly forgotten) after it was covered, first, in 1965, by South African singer Miriam Makeba, and later, in 1981, by Boney M (it has since been the subject of interminable copyright wrangles).

Nothing changes overnight, but nothing, equally, lasts forever. Owiny Sigoma Band will not, on its own, place Kenyan music at the center of the world stage. But it is an earthy, rhythmically heavy, colorful, mesmerizing, sui generis disc which—although it is not "pure" Kenyan—deserves to give the country's music profile a hefty boost.

As featured here, Owiny Sigoma Band is composed of five Londoners and seven Kenyans, plus guest artist Damon Albarn, of Gorillaz and Afrika Express. The two contingents first came together in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, in January, 2009, as part of an initiative by cultural activists Art Of Protest, a not-for-profit exchange organization set up to facilitate collaboration between musicians from Britain and Kenya. Test recordings made their way to Brownswood in London, and a second Nairobi session was arranged, over two days in May, 2010. Empathy levels ran high in both directions and Owiny Sigoma Band—named after singer and nyatiti (harp) player Joseph Nyamungu's grandfather—is the throbbing, highly recommended result.

The five Londoners are keyboardist Jesse Hackett, guitarists Sam Lewis and Chris Morphitis (who also produced), electric bassist Louis Hackett and drummer Tom Skinner. Hackett, who sounds intimately familiar with benga, constructs spare, percussive ostinatos which, like those in the Luo style, work like a complementary drum; with Skinner, a familiar face on the cutting edge of British jazz, he creates dub-like drum and bass lines which smoke. The partnership delivers weight, but it also has a pronounced bounce, a real vivacity.

The Kenyans include, most prominently, Nyamungu, who sings lead (in Luo) on most tracks and is as frequently featured on nyatiti, and the traditional drummers Charles Owoko and Charles Obuya. Most of the tunes were adapted from Luo folk songs brought along to the sessions by Nyamungu. John Marita Odumba adds cow horn to three tracks, and orutu (fiddle) player Boaz Otiendo stars on the Kenyans-only, eight-minute closing jam, "Rapar Nyanza." Joseph Alego Ondir adds a lovely, jangling highlife/rumba guitar melange to "Wires."

Other notable cameos include Albarn's retro keyboards, which hint at Ethio-jazz crossed with Afrobeat, and Lewis' lead vocals on "Here On The Line," which sound a bit like balladic-Grateful Dead circa Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros, 1970).

Read the full article at allaboutjazz.com!


01. Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi
02. Odera Lwar
03. Wires
04. Margaret Okudo (Dub)
05. Hera
06. Doyoi Nyajo Nam
07. Owegi Owandho (Solo)
08. Nabed Nade Ei Piny Ka (Rework)
09. Here On The Line
10. Rapar Nyanza

Owiny Sigoma Band // Album Teaser by Brownswood

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