Stranded in the Desert with 2 Rastas and My Mind / by Cyrus

The threads of this Kisumu music story are slowly snaking together.

Yesterday afternoon I brought Angela to meet Ranking T and check out the “sound” (ie. Sound System, massive Jamaican-inspired portable party rig) he had told me about the day before. We met Ranking, who was lounging in the shade at the corner of Kon Alego, the market 5 minutes from Ozzy’s house, around noon. The sun was vicious, and the electricity was out in Kondele. The “sound” would have to wait for another day. Besides, it seemed that Ranking had other plans. He started walking off down the road out of town with uncharacteristic purpose, motioning for us to follow.

Kondele is basically at the edge of Kisumu, one of the many slums ringing the city (the lake, which forms the town’s western border, is its own form of ecological slum). I had never walked past Kon Alego, away from town. Ranking wanted to go to the Kibos river, and, having no alternative suggestions, I decided to follow him into the void. Houses turned to tin shacks, which quickly gave way to mud huts, dust, and, amazingly, large green spaces. We were leaving town quickly, Angela scrambling after us with her camera filming our walk, and people shouting out to the rasta hero-- “Ras! Ranking!” (fist in the air). He waved and told me about how important it is for a DJ to understand his audience.

We jumped into a matatu and kept going away from town. If I didn’t know Ranking so well I would have been a bit worried. “We’re really in the interior now” Ranking said with that sly smile. Yes we are man, but why? 

I never did find out, and I was once again reminded of the futility of questioning mid-afternoon Rasta rationale.

We alighted at a desolate junction, just some ramshackle tin shops, a destroyed train track and about 20 guys with motorcycles waiting to take nonexistent commuters further into the barren interior. They jumped at the sight of Angela and I, starting a mass swarm, competing for our 20 shillings. But we were with Ranking, who silenced the crowd with a subtle hand wave. “I even come here for shows,” he told me, “they want to see Ranking come back.”

We continued our northbound journey on foot, away from the depressing juncture, past a mosque, desert-like fields, and several gawking children. “This is called Kibos,” Ranking, the strangest tour guide in the world, told me, “it’s where the Muslims live. They like to stick together.”

Finally, we arrived at a bridge overlooking a narrow muddy river flowing quickly several meters below. On one side, about a hundred meters away, a large group of people bathed, lounging under mud cliffs, enjoying the shade afforded by mass soil erosion Angela quickly set up her camera and tripod, and just as quickly became the target of loud shouts and vigorous hand shaking. From our vantage point atop the bridge we couldn’t tell, but she was filming a bunch of naked dudes, and they weren’t happy. Ranking quietly whisked her away, waving languidly to the worked-up mob below like a stoned 3rd world dictator.

We moved upstream to another eddy, this one occupied by women and children. They wanted Angela to take their pictures, and she spent much time photographing women and buttnaked children as Ranking sparked up the gifts of Jah’s green earth.

The heat seemed to be growing in intensity and I still couldn’t imagine why the hell we were hanging out in the dirt smoking on the lawless outskirts of town. I had to salvage this situation. Ranking, can we talk about music? Always acquiescent, Ranking suggested he kick an acapella ragga freestyle for the camera. Glorious.

We moved to the train tracks for good imagery, but before he could start he suddenly cupped his eyes and stared off into the sunbleached distance. A small dust cloud was moving slowly toward us on the deserted dirt track. “Ah, finally, DJ Expiry is coming.” And like an oasis he appeared, a tall rastaman with massive dread bundle under a knit cap emerging through the dust, riding serenely on the back of a bike as the driver strained to pedal through the shimmering emptiness. The bike stopped in front of us, Expiry gave the driver Jah’s fist bump, sauntered over as if this were a completely normal meeting spot, and, after brief introductions, broke into a Jamaican/Kenyan accented history of Kisumu reggae.

We seemed to be floating on the same astral plane, so I went with it, turning on the lavalier mic and walking toward Angela and the camera as Expiry and Ranking described the arrival of consciousness in Kisumu.

“I can tell you it was 1986, to be precise, that we first came to Jah Post,” Expiry said like the kutty professor. Jah Post, it seems, was a meeting spot, an empty lot in Kon Alego, by Ozzy’s place, where young rastas would meet to discuss music and life. “It was a real ghetto then,” Expiry said, “just mud, no buildings like now. But poverty is where consciousness comes from.” Back in the day, Kenya’s restrictive government saw Rastas as a threat, and there were regular roundups at Jah Post. “They would come with a truck and pick everyone up,” Expiry said. “Babylon system,” said Rankeen.

Ranking and Expiry believe that the turning point for the man carrying Jah’s burden (dreadlocks) came when a few rastas made it to the Kenya national soccer team, the Harambee Stars. “Soon people saw President Kibaki shaking hands with rasta football man, and they saw we are not all bad,” Ranking said. The pressure let up a bit, and the rastas started playing shows and putting on parties.

“Turntables were for the rich man,” Expiry said, “So we used a console. Do you know a console?” One of many of Expiry’s quesions I couldn’t answer. The man had knowledge. A console, it turns out, is basically a turntable setup without a fader in the middle. On a normal DJ setup with a fader, the DJ can use a knob to cleanly fade between the song playing on one turntable and the song playing on the other, keeping the beat steady for the dancers the whole time. But the console only had a Phono A and Phono B switch. No fading, so you had to line up records and switch perfectly between two different songs with deadly accuracy in order not to mess up the beat. “We worked hard in those days,” Expiry said wistfully.

Kenyans who had been abroad returned home with knowledge of Sound Systems, and a guy who had been to London for a while even learned to build the custom amps and subs, not commercially available, that power Jamaica’s sounds.

It was the first I’d heard of these times in Kenya. I had never imagined the rastas, an almost complacent Kisumu institution these days, as innovative outlaws, building sound systems, throwing illegal parties, and doing jail time for spreading Jah’s consciousness to the youths.

The day before, while LaFam, Angela and I sat rained in, I brought up an idea I had for the structure of part of the show. So much has been said about modernity in Kenya, how things are changing. The sharpest contrast is between the cities and the villages. I wanted to compare our old guitarist friend Olima’s Kisumu lifestyle, music, and public reception with the way Orono, a traditional musician from the countryside who also plays old songs primarily in busa clubs, is treated and seen. How different was life for these old vets, one living a bachelor in a Kisumu ghetto and one living with his three wives in a leafy village, and what does it show about the difference between city and country?

I ran this by LaFam. He thought it was a good idea, but he made a point I hadn’t considered. While Orono (the traditional musician) and Olima (the old guitarist) are both old guys playing old-sounding music today, Olima’s music was actually, at one point, quite cutting edge. According to my timeline, he picked up the guitar shortly after it arrived in Kenya, a time when the church and government institutions were vehemently against the new instrument and the strange dances it came with.

I thought about this in relation to my conversation with DJ Expiry. It seems that Olima’s music, with its guitar base and raunchy/political lyrics, was cutting edge, new and controverisal in the ‘50s, the way reggae music and Rastafarianism were cutting edge and controversial in the 80s and 90s, and, to wrap it up, the way the young rappers and their music are controversial today. It takes on different forms (the rappers, with their dreamy talk of fame and riches, seem benign compared to the rastamen and their violent calls for change), but in 3 generations, we’ve seen Kisumu’s cutting edge go from ancient guitar blues to reggae to hip hop, all of it hybrids of imports from other cultures. It’s musical evolution at warp speed, and I dream of getting Olima, Expiry, and LaFam together to chat it out.

Tomorrow we’ll play with this idea when we head to Maseno to watch Orono on his home turf and drink busa (way too much busa this trip). Ozzy will return at 4 in the morning, and insists on coming along with us when we leave Kisumu at 9. We’re bringing LaFam to run sound and meeting with Joseph and his two associates in Maseno, making it a crew of 7 including me. Last Sunday was my first attempt at organizing a shoot with a full-on posse and the results were mixed. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.