Everyone's Got to Make a Living / by Cyrus

We spent yesterday evening in the studio with LaFam, Vic, and Funkiss, a Kisumu rapper who has made a name for himself on the coast. Also in the studio were a couple young kids who spent most of their time staring miserably at half-finished lyric sheets and trying hard to keep down whatever mutant booze they’d just ingested. It was hot and stuffy in the windowless, cushioned room, but the vibe was right partly because it was a sugar cane sort of night.

LaFam wrote a verse on the spot, Funkiss spit some nice bars, the drunk kids stuttered valiantly about 2 1/2 steps behind the beat, and Vic held down the engineer’s booth with time-won authority. At one point I even got on the mic for a freestyle. There were so many ideas in my head but when the time came I ended up just swearing incoherently for a few minutes. An ignoble rap debut.

Over the past few days I’ve come to the sad realization that many of my favorite Kisumu rappers fall squarely in the “kapooka” category that LaFam and crew, along with Dozze na Zealous, are so disdainful of. “Kapooka” rappers, as I’ve mentioned before, rap about money and ass (mostly ass) over a very specific rhythm--one that goes “boom KA-poo-ka, boom KA-poo-ka.” You’ll hear that beat in Double B and Nebulazz’s “Queue Kwa Bank”, posted somewhere below (still one of my favorite songs from my time here, kapooka or not) and a few of the other songs I’ve featured.

It’s not just the repetitive beat that annoys the underground hip hoppers. As Dozze told me a few days ago, “That shit is irrelevant. Why are you rapping about money when you have none? Why are you demeaning women?” Dozze and likeminded rappers choose to focus instead on real ghetto issues and clever word play.

It’s a classic rap divide-- million-selling 50 Cent, kapooka embodied, versus the hundreds of clever American underground rappers who always speak the truth but to very few listeners. In Kisumu, where no one is really selling records, this divide is more theoretical, but it’s telling that Double B and Nebulazz’s song about a line at the bank on Friday night can be so popular in a place where 80% of the population don’t have bank accounts. Sometimes people just need a little kapooka fantasy in their lives. I’ll have to ask June Rapsha, the self-described “king of kapooka,” for his side of the story.

Vic and LaFam have read the blog and had some real compliments (thanks guys), which is always reassuring. It’s never good when people read what you write about them and then want to kill you (what up Former Thieves??). Vic told me about life in Tanzania, where people hustle far less than in Kenya, are more polite, and live easier. “For me it all comes down to politics” he said when I asked about the difference. And politics is huge in Kenya. The news is all about one scandal or another, with one disgraced MP calling out another even more disgraced MP with righteous fury.

We left the studio late and had to wait for a matatu to cover the 10 minute walk between there and our home. Vic and the gang didn’t think it was safe to walk.

This morning was an early one. We had to be deep in Manyatta estate by 9 am to meet Dishon Olima, my guitar hero, for a recording session. The night before Vic agreed to come along and run sound. LaFam and Brio were also supposed to join us, bringing their guitars so we could set up a cross-generational jam session. I was very excited, but LaFam and Brio didn’t make it. They both got lost-- LaFam physically and Brio deep in whatever astral plain he inhabits most of the time. Artists man, shit happens.

Ozzy, Vic and I arrived on time at the busa grandma’s house, where one of Olima’s young helpers, Kevin, met us and led us through the ghetto to his house. A small dirt road forked off the main one and at a dead end sat a small concrete structure with several separate small rooms. Kevin led us into the furthest one, where, on the rumpled bed at the far end, sat Olima, decked out in his usual performance suit in the half light. The room was surprisingly clean and pleasant for an old bachelor pad. Photos of Jesus on the walls, a furry bar of soap on the table, a few half finished bottles of Safari whiskey on the dresser, a torn bed net, and Olima himself, sitting quietly amidst it all.

We said our hellos and began to set up. It felt slightly intrusive, setting up all this recording gear in the crowded living space of an old man who couldn’t see any of it (Olima is blind). But Olima was enthusiastic, and even seemed a bit nervous for the first few songs, playing them at faster tempos and with more mistakes than he did at his busa performances. But Ozzy interpreted questions and we tried to make things as comfortable as possible.

After the first two songs, he asked for a cigarette, and, smoke consumed, the session picked up fast. He started playing songs I’d never heard before with beautifully complex rhythms. His guitar, almost as grizzled and gnarled as himself, sounded amazing in the small room, as did that wet high pitched Luo wail. He never leaves the top 3 frets of the guitar, and they’re worn away while the rest of the neck looks as new as a 50 year old traveling guitar neck can look. I sat right next to him and watched those gnarled fingers feel out songs he’d played thousands of times. The homemade strings seemed to have bent to the contours of his fingerprints over time, and his left index finger is turned in at an angle perfect for holding chords. I’m not sure if it’s a sign of arthiritis or a physical adaptation developed over the decades, but I couldn’t stop watching those fingers move.

Olima remembered the exact day he first picked up the guitar (October 27 1963) and the exact day he had stepped into a recording studio in Nairobi to make an album, which he couldn’t afford to finish. He never finished school and has never worked any job besides guitarist. His whole life has been music. At one point Vic looked up at me and mouthed “How did you find this guy!?”

Olima seemed more interested in playing than talking, and we recorded 7 songs in Luo and Kiswahili, topics ranging from the most recent elections to a beautiful sad song about Lake Victoria and a mysterious girl named Irene Akoth, who he refused to talk more about.

It was a great time, and Vic was inspired enough to break the hustler’s golden rule, offering Olima the chance to record his songs for free at his studio. Olima agreed, and we’ll be picking him up at home on January 4th to take him back to a real studio for the first time in 40 years. It may just be Raw Music’s biggest achievement to date, brining the old Luo blues musician and the Kisumu hip hop hustler together for a recording session. A good way to end 2010.