2011 so far--Rap, Isukuti, and many miles traveled / by Cyrus

Hear "Politics" by LaFam here:  http://soundcloud.com/rawmusicinternational/lafam-politics

We were resigned to celebrating New Year’s ghetto style.  None of us had any money so we planned to drink sugar cane booze and eat mirrah, a local stimulant plant, while listening to reggae at home like a good family.  But a friend who owed me 2,000 shillings suddenly came through, sending the money through M-Pesa, a Kenyan innovation that allows you to send money via cellphone.  It’s a simple operation--go to the nearest stall, give the money at the counter, get a code, and text it to your friend, who then uses that same code at any other stall to get the cash, for a small fee. It’s a hit in Kenya, changing the way people pay remittances back to the villages and, as a result, changing a lot of lives.

The M-Pesa payment didn’t change our lives.  It just meant we drank more.  La Fam came over and I dumped a huge amount of underground, weird rap and old school reggae classics onto his harddrive.  We put on a heavy dub CD from the 70s, Augustus Pablo’s “King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown.”  Pablo’s classic work, deep and spaced out remixes of roots reggae songs with the bass and reverb turned to 100, hasn’t made it to Kenya yet, and Ozzy and LaFam were loving the new sounds.  We started freestyling (again, it’s a crime when I do this) and LaFam promised to do horrible things to these songs when he samples them in his own beats. I can’t wait.

It was about 11:30, several bottles of cane and half kilo of mirrah later, when we finally made it out of the house.  The ghetto was still going mad, everyone spending everything they had to end that grindhouse year in style.  Earlier Ozzy’s neighbor had stopped by.  “Being Luo (the tribe here) isn’t an ethnic thing, it’s a lifestyle,” he told me.  Part of that lifestyle, according to everyone around, is a deep disdain for long term savings.  When you have cash, spend it, and figure out the rest tomorrow.  I’m an honorary Luo in that regard.

I was standing in the dust by a main road, watching for the stray vehicles that occasionally used the walking paths as express lanes, and talking to LaFam.  Suddenly some chicks started yelling out of a nearby bar and all the matatus started honking and flashing their lights and the motorcycles started revving in the dust. It was midnight in Kisumu and for a few seconds, everything was more confusing than it normally is.  Soon everyone relaxed, the drunks resumed their drinking, the bent hawkers resumed pleading with them to buy snacks, and the matatus resumed their homicidal agenda. All was normal in the hood and it was 2011.

I spent the first 5 or so hours of 2011 talking with LaFam outside of various bars and clubs as our friends danced inside.  We had left Kondele and come closer to town partly because LaFam sensed people “sizing us up” in the bars there.  LaFam’s exterior demeanor, soft spoken, smart, worldly and funny, is at odds with what sounds like a rough upbringing.  He was always keenly aware of our surroundings in a way that made me feel like a blind mute.  “I would never roll into here without a group, you and Ozzy and his friends,” LaFam said as we stood outside of one of Kisumu’s fanciest bars.  “You never know, you just can’t go solo with anything in Kenya.”  I never thought of it that way. From going out for a beer to making music, people always have others around for backup.  Not just physically, but financially and emotionally. You need people you can rely on to get by here.

Many of the tired cliches of American rap became vividly real as I looked at New Year’s Eve through LaFam’s eyes.  Like reggae, I can see why our rap music resonates so strongly here. Life in poor places, whether Queensbridge or Kisumu, seems to follow similar rules.

Around 6, as the sky lightened and the kids and chickens outside my window resumed their never-ending battle, I fell asleep.  I thought of New Year’s last year in Amsterdam, dancing badly with our sensitive Dutch friends and biking through the frost to our warm home at sunrise.  Very different vibes.

But it never ends.  Ozzy and I crawled out of bed around 4 to film a video with Dozze na Zealous, shooting on the roof of their house, behind a barbed wire fence, in a broken down alley, and while walking through busy Kibuye market.  People stopped and watched as if Dozze was Tupac and we’d just landed in a helicopter.

We ended the night with dinner at Emma’s sister’s house, where Emma’s twin nephews, 9 year olds, tried to teach my dumb ass Swahili and then asked if they should leave extra room in their bed so I could spend the night.  Pretty cute.

On the second day of the year we got an early start and headed for Maseno to film more traditional music. The matatu ride was hectic and I tried to fall asleep so I wouldn’t have to watch the driver, a slack-jawed neurotic (weird right?)who couldn’t lay off the fucking horn, careen through traffic.  Matatus by law aren’t allowed to exceed 80 km/h, and this guy had somehow adjusted the speedometer so that no matter how fast he went, it showed exactly 80.  This didn’t seem like a good solution.

Somehow we arrived and met up with Joseph and his friend Naman.  I’d asked to interview Joseph’s elderly uncle (who I described in an earlier post) about traditional music.  He was waiting for us at home, along with an 8 piece Isukuti band.  The sukuti is a traditional Luhiya (a tribe living adjacent to Kisumu’s Luos) drum, made of a hollowed out tree trunk and covered with the skin of the monitor lizard which, unlike cow leather, never cracks.  Plus it looks great.

They called themselves “The Nyambura Jazz Band,” and they were  comprised of a bunch of bloodshot dudes of indeterminate age in tattered clothing, scarred and slantfaced. They looked exactly like you should if you’ve spent years playing for pennies all night in trucker bars in Luanda and Busia, hardcore and violent towns on the one major road between Nairobi and Kampala.

The group needed some cash.  I gave them $10 for transport and $2.50 for booze.  Joseph, who I worked with my first time in Kenya and who knows how to get shit done, had already sent for the booze man, so that by the time I arrived with the cash he was walking toward the gate, and everyone rejoiced.

He brought a water bottle full of Chang’aa, the powerful local brew, probably 70% alcohol and 30% paint thinner.  It was about 11 am and none of my internal organs were prepared for that, so I politely declined my portion.  More for the band, who dispatched the shit fast and sparked up a fat j.  Even when playing traditional drum music on a Sunday morning on a farm in Kenya’s deep countryside, musicians gotta act like rockstars.

Again the sounds of music and the sight of a white guy and a rasta with cameras brought a crowd, and women and children from the surrounding farms gathered on a small slope to watch the action.  In the villages, Ozzy’s dreadlocks are almost as strange and foreign a sight as my skin color, and Joseph observed the kids looking at Oz and trying to twist up their own hair.

The guys played their music, 4 drums, two loud metal bells (discarded train parts) and the Luhiya version of the Orutu, the one stringed traditional instrument played with a bow.  They were great, loud and powerful, with lyrics about dead ancestors and how you really shouldn’t kill people.  One song was called “When I seduce a woman I feel proud.”  In between songs they talked about their music and the grind.

Another band showed up, and we moved the mics over to capture them.  They played the same style, but something didn’t sound quite right.  After the first song Norman came over to me.  “Cyrus, Joseph and I are listening to these guys, and we can tell, they’re not prepared.”  It was their traditional music, so they could tell when the guys were messing up the lyrics and the rhythm.  On Joseph’s recommendation, we asked the group to leave; we didn’t have time to film them.  They weren’t happy, but Joseph handled the situation. Raw Music, breaking hearts.

Next we talked to the old man.  Born in 1930, he told us of the old days, when everyone went around naked and funerals lasted for 2 days, with music and dancing all night.  It was the same Isukuti music, and gramps had been listening to it for decades. After World War II, guys came back from Europe with a new instrument--the guitar.  I asked gramps if he preferred the guitar or the old instruments.  He said he loved the guitar and the dances that came with it -- The Twisty (the twist) and the Kung Fu, a strange shoulder shuffle which he danced for us.  He talked about stealing brides and bringing food to the Mau Maus in the forest during the independence struggle.  He said times were better back in the day, and the music was better too.  All his favorite local musicians had died.  “Is there anyone to take their place?” I asked.  He laughed.  “Not besides those guys,” he said of the group we’d recorded, who had stumbled off in a midafternoon daze a while earlier.

The ride back to Kisumu was rough.  It was Sunday and everyone was heading home from the villages, the matatus piled with people, their luggage haphazardly lashed to the roof.  I got stuck with the “toilet seat,” the spot in the aisle, the edge of one asscheek on one seat and the other on another, floating in space hoping my intestines remained where they were.  People looked exhausted, staring out the open door through the gaps between humans, like prisoners trying to get some fresh air. We visited Ozzy’s grandma in Nyallenda, Nebulazz and Double B’s hood.  She gave us a live chicken as a gift, which we brought home and which is currently sleeping next to my laptop. At one point we rode with 8 people (and the chicken, plus Emma’s pregnant belly) in a tuk-tuk, the three wheeled transport vehicles with seats for 4 tops.  So far an eventful year.