God damn, I love Dishon Olima. I never thought I’d be so into the music and existence of an elderly Kenyan Ray Charles look alike with a handmade guitar and a habit for homemade booze. How do these things happen?
Ozzy and Emma went to check on the baby, who is doing well by all accounts. Still not sure of this thing’s gender, but I’m very excited to see him/her.
Meanwhile, Brio stopped by and we talked music and listened to his Soul Afriq CD. His music is great, but he feels it’s not fully him yet. He’s looking to replace the electronic urban soul beats with a similar style of music played by a traditional band. I worked on videos while he worked on some of his jewelry and we listened to the reggae radio station.
Soon, Ozzy and I were wandering the dirt paths winding between the mud and wood buildings of outer Manyatta, the ghetto at the extreme northern edge of town, in search of Dishon Olima. Dishon, if you remember, is the old blues guitarist we met playing at the busa club on my second day in Kisumu. Since then I’ve dreamed of finding him again and recording his music using our high quality mics.
We stopped by the busa club, but Olima wasn’t there. Instead limp old drunks dotted the establishment, staring off in a glazed silence punctuated only by the loud ramblings of a grizzled man in a torn Budweiser t-shirt. We asked about Olima, got vague directions as to his possible whereabouts from a smallpox scarred regular, and got the hell out of there before the rambling drunk, who was inexplicably holding a twig with a rusty razor blade jutting out the top, could get too friendly.
He followed us out of the club and stood in the doorway yelling after us as we scuttled down the dirt road. “You are our guest! If anyone fucks with you we’ll kill them!” I gave him an over the shoulder thumbs up but definitely didn’t stop moving.
We continued down the paths, stepping over garbage and avoiding barbed wire, shaking the occasional hand and waving to the kids. They still yell out “How are you?” practicing their cute and formal English. Now I just respond in Sheng, the Kenyan ghetto hybrid language, “Poa poa mambo?” (“cool cool what up?”). They stare in confusion.
We found Olima without too much difficulty. He was playing guitar behind a large mud house, where an old grandma (or “nyanya,” which also means “tomato” if you change up the emphasis, which I always accidentally do) was selling more busa.
Seeing Olima was almost unreal. There he was again, playing his guitar in the bright sun. In this new light his suit, the same one he’d been wearing last time, looked like it might fall apart, but with his hat, sunglasses and battered white leather shoes he still looked like a classic bluesman. I wonder who dresses this blind old man so well for the part.
Olima remembered us. “You came to see me on the 8th of December” he reminded us in Luo. Ozzy and I were surprised. We wouldn’t have been able to remember the date, and we hadn’t spent the last 50 years drinking 130 proof homebrew all day.
Olima played us several songs, a few of the busa lovers from our previous visit greeted us, and a woman bought us a paint can full of the fine warm liquid---maize and millet, fermented and cooked. I think I’m getting used to it, and my stomach has reached the point where it can handle paint-can communal homebrew no problem. We made plans to come to Olima's house and record his music at 9 am on Friday. I handed him 200 shillings (about $2.50)and he lit a cigarette and drained a glass of chang’aa (the hard shit) in appreciation.
The granddaughter of the woman who owns the yard and makes the busa we were drinking started talking to me. She wasn’t willing to talk about Olima and busa on camera, but she agreed to convince grandma herself to do it. Ozzy interviewed her in Luo about making the drink and how she loves Olima’s music. At the end she smiled and took a Brixton style chug of her paint can, putting us children in our place with a satisfied booze-grimace. Glorious.
We stopped by Urban Music on the way home. Urban is the first studio I visited and where we previously spent the day talking music with LaFam, Vic and the crew. Today Vic was the only guy around, watching movies on the studio computer. Things had slowed for Christmas, but he played us a few tracks he’d made recently with a group from Mombasa. Dope beats provided by LaFam, and we bobbed along.
But people bob their heads differently to rap in Kenya. The rap head bob is a crucial part of public rap listening--one that I’ve been working on perfecting since my days hanging around a rap radio show in New York. The rules are simple: when the song starts blasting, everyone naturally nods in unison with varying degrees of vigor depending on how dope the beat is.
This, of course, is universal. But where Americans put the emphasis on the first and third beats (the way we emphasize the first syllable of words), basically headbanging Metallica style on the ones and threes, my Kenyan homies bob upwards on the first and third beats, emphasizing the offbeat and creating a much cooler, funky play on the rhythm.
I know this in theory, but it’s hard to play out in practice. Sheeat, a man can’t just go around changing up his head bob. Several times I’ve tried the Kenyan style only to lose the beat, bobbing erratically to get back on track, throwing off the rhythm of the guys around me so that suddenly, silently, an entire studio full of Kenyan hip hop heads is embarrassingly off beat, bobbing in different patterns and looking around confused about what the fuck just happened. Just one of the many cultural handicaps I’m trying to overcome.
Ozzy and I walked home and danced around the house to reggae and rumba with Emma, cause there wasn’t much else to do and why the hell not? We ate dinner of rice and spicy green grams and avocados and bananas in the dark while listening to the radio.
Ozzy switched to a station that plays the old rumba classics of CDR Congo and East Africa. The Swahili word for “oldies” is “zilizopendwa”, which literally means “songs that were loved.” I love that word, and those songs were truly loved.
The godfather of Congolese music, Franco and the TKOP Orchestra, came on and Ozzy danced in his boxers making Emma laugh so hard the water bottle flew out of her hands and spilled food and water everywhere. It was a great time. I asked how the Congo continually made such beloved music and Ozzy guessed that it must be partly geography-- centrally located, it has elements of both East African and West African music and appeals to everyone across the continent. He says Olima’s music, too, counts as zilizopendwa.
Most of the days blur together and I’m environmentally challenged, but I get the distinct feeling that the season is changing. The sun still rises and sets at 6 am and 6 pm as it does all year at the equator, but the weather now shifts greatly throughout the day. The morning is cool from the previous night’s rain. Midday is hot and dry (“The sun is raining too hard!” Emma said the other day). The evening turns humid and still, uncomfortable if you’re inside, until the rain comes again, sometimes just light drops and sometimes massive thunderstorms that threaten to tear off the tin roofs of the surrounding houses. Overnight the temperature drops with the rain, and you wake up cool, ready to start the next day.
I just found a gecko in my bed. I kicked him out, but I hope he sticks around my room.