Violence, Strange Drink and Jah's Love in Kondele / by Cyrus

The last few days have been dedicated to the great Ranking T and the strange world he inhabits. Angela and Ozzy have been following me and the ghetto’s most beloved DJ/”herbal entrepreneur” around with their cameras. In the process, we’ve taken reality TV to sickening new levels--ghetto strolls with lavaliere mics and choreographed meetings, dancefloor shots at violent clubs, pre-scripted fist bumps, even a retake of me “meeting” Ranking’s dad for the third time for the cameras (during which he asks me if I’m a Christian again, and I answer yes again, and all remains familiarly uncomfortable).

Shitting upon reality for cameras always feels a little cheap, but doing it in one of Kisumu’s largest slums adds a particular dystopian tang to the whole experience. “Oh that burning garbage pile looks really good from this angle.” We even had the gang of disaffected and possibly dangerous youths lounging on a burnt out stoop in front of Sunspot redo their call for Rankin's product. “Good, guys, but this time with a little more ‘oomph,’ ok?”

Ranking took us to his usual hangout--a tin shack on the main road into Kondele called “CM Wine and Spirits.” The place is tiny, a single room with a divider, reed mats covering the walls, men and women in plastic chairs slumped at angles increasing in acuity depending on the alcohol content of their drink, and a bartender locked with the booze behind floor to ceiling bars. No joke, but everyone seemed happy to see Ranking and our camera crew, full of youthful energy, burst through the door. On Ranking’s suggestion, I spent the $6 in my pocket on a large bottle of sugar-cane based “gin” (not sure this is technically possible). “This is my place of business, and the DJ must keep his fans happy,” he said, as people sidled up for their share of our clear toxic bounty.

Rankin’s “business” involves a lot of waiting. We sat together and talked music while Ozzy and Angela, emboldened by the receptiveness of people to their cameras, went out on an epic Kondele photo-shooting mission. Normally I avoid filming people on the street because some people understandably get upset. But it seems that our long film shoot of Rankin T walking through the hood on his way to CM Spirits had de-sensitized people to the camera. Perhaps they were thinking that if it was cool for Rankin, why not for them. Whatever prompted the mood-change, Angela and Ozzy disappeared to take advantage of it, leaving me, Rankin, a bottle of surgical scrub labeled “gin,” and a tin shack full of Rankin’s biggest fans behind.

It was dark when they returned, outside and also deep within my soul. At some point I’d checked out, retreating to a corner to watch what happens in this sort of place as the sun goes down. Angela and Ozzy noted that my angle of slumpage was acute indeed, and the sharp green light in CM didn’t help the old complexion. A Ugandan prostitute gave Angela the death stare, and we all agreed that I’d had enough anthropology for the evening. Rankin “gave us a push” (walked with us to the transport hub) and we agreed to meet the next day for an official interview.

Today’s learning session was much less physically degrading. We met up with Ranking back in Kondele, and he led us to the home of ancient rastaman DJ Expiray in a nearby estate called Whitegate. Expiray’s home seemed out of time and place, a large tin structure that looks like something you might see in some dust-bowl era document--a sagging porch with two burned out chairs, sandals outside, and a half-open wooden door with “Cemeant Jungle” written on it.

Ras Expiray was sprawled on the bed asleep when we arrived, and it took him some time to get going. It seemed that before he could even speak he had to put on some music, and he pulled out a massive binder of CDs and started picking through. “How do you organize that binder?” I asked DJ Ex, marveling at the hundreds of CDs and the deep reggae gems they must contain. He looked at me like I was a helpless animal. “I just open and look for music man.”

Soon, we were listening to deep jams, blasted through a newish DVD player, linked to an old-school 15 band EQ, and pumped through a single PA speaker that lay precariously across two narrow rafters above the bed, raining down Jah’s music upon us with glorious, crackling fury. An ingenious setup. The day before, Ranking and I had spent much time talking about the horrific post-election violence that left thousands dead and Kondele in flames for two months at the beginning of 2008. One of Ranking’s friends had been shot dead next to him, and a guy who joined us at CM showed me his scarred and blinded eyeball, where his glasses had been bashed into his head.

Most of the violence was in slums like Kondele, where different tribes were packed in side by side and frustration and anger was high in the first place. Since moving to Kondele, I’ve heard so many horrible tales of the time, and unlike other places in town, the physical aftermath, burnt buildings and rubble, are yet to be cleared here. DJ Expiray decided to take it to the next level, and while reggae blasted serenely in the background he showed us a DVD of depressing and grisly photos taken in the midst of the violence. A heavy and tender moment, as the rastamen seemed to momentarily retreat into whatever awful memories those photos brought back.

And then, with that beautiful setup, we launched into our interview. Despite its sober beginning, things went well. I was in my element, my happy spot, talking about music with people who know and live it. Expiray told me about the beginnings of Kisumu reggae and Jah Post, a hang out for young rastas that the police often raided. He told me of the difficulty of living in Kenya with dreadlocks (the Mau Mau freedom fighters and the modern day mafia, Mungiki, both sported dreads, making them a scary sight to people on all sides of the political spectrum). The rastaman lamented about how the new generation doesn’t understand the burdens his generation went through to make reggae a common Kenyan music--transforming illegal rebel music to the ubiquitous theme song of the slums.

We talked hip hop, and how the youth are moving from Jah’s consciousness to a world of material greed and violence picked up blindly from the western media. “In Uganda, in Tanzania, people wear their own traditional clothes. But in Kenya we only wear clothes from the west. It’s the same with our music. For some reason we always take on the burdens of the colonial system.”

The good DJ shared mass knowledge, but I had to be aware of the two cameramen, Angela and Ozzy, standing in the sun filming it all. From the look on Angela’s face, it quickly became apparent that 45 minute interviews about dead reggae artists are not TV fare, and not the kind of thing you start up when you have two people filming you. I wrapped things up and made plans to return to Expiray’s comfortable home (actually a former grain mill) to listen to some of those CDs when I had some free time away from the cameras.

We walked across Kondele with Ozzy and Rankin T, stopping to film the sun going down on the other side of a burnt down building (another post-election violence relic), before arriving at Urban Music Studio to meet up with LaFam. Yesterday, I had asked him to compose the theme song for Raw Music, hooking up a rap beat to a sample of Orono’s nyatiti music, and today I was bringing him a disk of Orono’s music so he could get to work. It was Rankin’s first time at Urban Music. LaFam had heard of him, and Rankin seemed to like LaFam’s work. Looks like one more cross-genre mashup facilitated by Raw Music.

Rankin is still working on putting together a sound-system block party. Besides that, we’ve covered the reggae portion of our show. Tomorrow, we begin a segment tentatively called “Kisumu Girls.” While I love the rastas and their knowledge, it will be nice to get away from ancient dreadlocks and get a female perspective on things. Stay tuned.