One Man Guitars Across Western Kenya / by Cyrus Moussavi

On the road, sweating, swatting mosquitos, oscillating wildly between euphoria and despair, meeting mostly kind and generous people, speaking to elderly men about how they got so good at playing guitar. 

Johnstone Mukabi at home, Uasin Gishu County, Kenya, May 2016

Johnstone is a master of finger-style Kenyan guitar, but he's only written a handful of songs.  He's the son of legendary Kenyan guitarist George Mukabi. His father's songs were the best, he said, so why write more?  50 years after the murder of George Mukabi, Johnstone and his brother burned through 30 of their father's tracks. It was a haunting and beautiful scene. 

We** recorded two songs with Jimmy Bongo. He recently lost his eyesight, and he felt around on the old classical guitar before muscle memory helped him find his fingering.   He had pictures of the Equator Sound Band on the wall of his home in Kakamega county. 

Olima Anditi was the first musician I met on the first Raw Music trip. I've thought of him way too often since then.    

So after five years, I finally came to find him again. We drove around the countryside, following leads and stopping in homebrew booze spots until we saw him sipping busaa in Bondo, an hour and a half from Kisumu. Despite his age and blindness, Olima rolls solo, traveling the region via public transport, searching out gigs.  He's been on the road since late last year. We convinced him to spend a few days with us to talk and record.  

He lost his glasses and his distinctive metal thumb pick. His guitar was shattered, and his white leather shoes were gone. The last five years have been rough. But Olima was in good spirits, and he held his radio to his ear listening to political news, as always.  

At least three Kenyans prominent in the music biz have approached me over the years to say this Olima is a fraud. They say he's impersonating a legendary artist, one of the first to pick up a guitar in Kenya. Over a pile of fish in a drooping bar in downtown Nairobi, KBC radio host James Onyango Joel drove the point home. "I know people who were at Olima's funeral!" 

Today we finally brought it up with Olima.  The truth, as is often the case, is far more interesting than the facts. I'll share the story with you once I figure it all out. It's raining and the power is spotty. Tomorrow morning we go buy a new guitar. And then we make more music. 

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**When I write "we" I mean me and the bewildering number of people I've met who have worked with me, fed me, guided me, and generally made these last few weeks work. Huge thanks to Timtim, Kiptoo, Steven, and other kind humans along the way.