Orono and that Extra Classic Nyatiti Sound / by Cyrus

One slightly drunk grinning white guy in a country busa club is a novelty. But two white folks rolling straight faced with several cameras, a long haired sound guy, and a 3 man backing crew can represent anything from a cash source to a serious threat. People act accordingly. Villager intervention was one of several challenges Angela, LaFam and I faced on our shoot Sunday. We were in Nyawara, a village in the interior that took us about 1.5 hours and several modes of transportation to reach. We came to record Orono, an 80 year old nyatiti legend, in his natural environment--the local drinking spot.

Music and booze go together like, well, anything and booze. Kenya’s traditional music is no exception. Musicians like Orono make their living playing for the drinking crowd, but the introduction of stereos into these rural areas has been cutting into their business. Three years ago, when I first met Orono at this very club, he had been the main source of entertainment. This time, as we approached the steaming tin shack at the edge of the tiny village center that makes up Nyawara, we heard loud O’hangla music blasting out of the club instead. Orono had been supplanted by a full-time DJ.

I had to pay off that DJ (50 cents), as well as the club owner (75 cents) and Orono himself ($14.00, after bargaining him down from the $90 he initially requested) in order for them to turn off the music and let us record Orono doing what he had been doing in the environment in which he had been doing it for the past 50 years.

Before I could work out these various deals, though, I had to dance. I walked into the club and was immediately approached by a spry young thing, somewhere between 50 and 80 years of age. She started a very slow traditional Luo bump and grind and I tried to play along without breaking the laws of nature, God and man. The crowd cheered, grams complimented my hair using hand gestures, and all seemed well until I noticed Angela stuck at the door, barred entry by someone, pissed off about something. It was going to be a long day.

As it turned out, people were generally alright with our presence, so long as we said the proper hellos and supplied small tokens of appreciation in the form of 5 cent buckets of warm fermented corn-beer. Joseph O’kanga, my partner at the NGO I worked for 3 years ago, ran logistics beautifully, organizing the day with Orono and providing the crowd busa while we were running around filming and dancing. Naman Obuyi, Joseph’s friend and colleague, helped us keep track of our gear and used his amazing communication skills and unusual warmth to make patrons feel at ease.

Despite organizing all this help, I had made one critical mistake. I didn’t bring nearly enough small change, and we ran out of money for drinks about halfway through the shoot. The crowd had been getting steadily drunker-- most people were having a good time, but some were turning moody. Our new friend Pete, a very kind and large man whose father was good friends with Orono, had to eject a few unruly onlookers.

Meanwhile, Orono was playing the nyatiti with a passion I had never seen. He was whipping out one-handed nyatiti solos and large passages of impromptu spoken word. The elderly folks immediately surrounding him were loving it and laughing at his jokes, as was LaFam, who could hear it all perfectly through the audio-rig and the boom mics he was holding. But Angela and I couldn’t seem to get a proper rhythm. She was absorbed with her work, which requires long shots, “full actions,” and intense concentration, while I was in my typical video-shoot frenzy, trying to get a narrative across, drink, dance, pay for shit, learn things and appease a crowd of people at the same time. I kept saying hurry up, she kept saying slow down, because I was fucking up all her shots. The resulting footage is a huge improvement over me and Ozzy’s completely lax hangout/video shoot sessions, but it was hard to pull off, and at times it even felt like true work. The result is worth it though, and our hippie asses are definitely benefiting from Angela’s experience.

After several songs, I asked to set up an interview. Orono wanted to keep playing for the crowd out back so he could earn more money, but he reluctantly agreed to give me a few minute of his time. He also decided to ask me one more time about the tin roof I owed him. He seems to have confused me with another white man, one who years ago had promised to return with a tin roof for his house. He was disappointed that I hadn’t followed through on this promise and kept bringing it up in Swahili and Luo whenever we were alone together. I’ve said a lot of dumb things, but I’m pretty sure my 20 year old self never promised this elderly man a tin roof. A delicate situation.

The instrument Orono plays, the nyatiti, is a story onto itself. It’s one of the oldest Luo instruments, an 8 stringed harp played seated with both hands and one foot, which taps against the frame with a metal ring on the big toe to keep the rhythm. Orono’s particular nyatiti is, as he put it in his ragged Luo dialect, “older than you, and older than your mom too.” I didn’t appreciate Orono bringing moms into this one, but he was probably just stating fact.

A crowd gathered around us as I interviewed the old nyatiti player under the awning of a battery charging shop. Pete, Orono’s friend/bouncer, translated, but from the laughter around us I knew I was missing a lot. Still, Orono grabbed me and spoke directly into my face, and his forceful delivery made me believe I was understanding the man on some level. Maybe it was the busa...

LaFam, our good friend and one of my favorite Kisumu rappers, came along to run audio. I’d asked him to join the interview and maybe talk with Orono about their differing (or similar) understandings of music. Tribe, as always, plays an important role in the countryside, and when he discovered LaFam was a Luo, Orono opened up to him despite his unconventional appearance (like Ozzy, LaFam’s “city hair” draws attention when we head out to the villages). Orono told LaFam that he picked up the nyatiti because it was in his family line--passed on from his grandfather. They talked rap, which Orono dismissed as “dombolo shit” (Dombolo being the name of a dance originating in Congo which, from what I can tell, basically consists of females shaking their asses at warp speed).

People were gathering around, and Orono was enjoying the attention. Unprovoked, he began playing his nyatiti, at first using it to punctuate his sentences. Pretty soon he was humming over a light rhythm, which eventually turned into a full on performance. It was exciting to be next to him as he played out of pure passion rather than for money, and it was some of the best and most creative music I’ve heard from him. I asked LaFam if he’d be comfortable rapping while Orono played and he was ecstatic. The result is one of my favorite Raw Music moments.

After about 45 minutes of improv, Orono remembered his hustle, put away his nyatiti, and asked for another cup of busa. People were giving Lafam props on his freestyle and even asking Angela and I when we would be back. Yet another strange transformation. We said goodbye and stumbled off into the heat of the afternoon. Before we could turn the corner, grams, my dance partner, came out and yelled to me. I had to go back and shake her hand, and all seemed complete.

The matatu rides to and from the village were uneventful besides one of our drivers’ ingenious fee-avoidance tactics. We reached a stretch of road famous for police roadblocks, where underpaid police officers charge each passing matatu a small fee. The driver pulled over, put a red ribbon on his antennae, hid the “Busia” sign indicating the van’s destination, and hit the road again. We slowed at a police block, the tout leaned out and yelled “on the way to a funeral,” and the cop waved us through. Private vehicles heading to funerals (indicated by the red ribbon on the antennae) aren’t charged bribes. Off we went, and all the passengers laughed in the packed van.

Back in Kisumu there was a thunderstorm, and as we all ran for cover LaFam fell into a sinkhole up to his waist. Falling potentially to his death, he had the presence of mind to hold the audio bag in the air. He used the boom pole to climb out of the pit. A truly heroic moment from a true Raw Music warrior.