Don't Sleep (Usiende Ukalale) / by Cyrus Moussavi

In 2016 I traveled through portions of western Kenya looking for surviving players of the Omutibo style of guitar. Last year, we co-released three albums alongside Olvido and Mississippi Records of Kenyan guitar music. And last month I made it back to Kenya to deliver vinyl copies, respects, and royalties.

I spent the majority of the trip filming a documentary about Olima Anditi (more on that below). So I only had 2 days to hit the homes of 7 musicians spread across a considerable distance on bad roads. Thankfully I was with my old friends Timothy Lusala and Naman Obuyi, people I’ve worked with over many many years. They understood the mission and where everyone lives. So we hit it hard, dropping in after a couple years to make good on old promises.

Some beautiful moments — Many artists were surprised to see that the record actually came out and that I had shown back up again. I made bootleg CD versions in the market (burned with professionalism and style by my friend Gucci….more on that below) and brought copies of the music so they could actually listen to these songs after so many years. The release by George Mukabi, for example, contains music by one of the most beloved guitarists in Kenya. But these songs are almost entirely unavailable within the country, the copies destroyed or lost or existing only in multi-generation tape dubs. The tracks we used were sourced from collectors in the US and Europe. We felt it important to repatriate this music as well as release it in the west.

Omari Machio, whose song Usiende Ukalale became the title for the record, had recently suffered a stroke and was struggling to pay his medical bills. The royalties showed up at the right moment. He read a Muslim prayer and gave us copies of his entire CD discography in return.

I had met and recorded with Jimmy Bongo in a rush on the last day of the trip in 2016 — just two songs, one take of each, and then a mad dash to the Eldoret airport where I somehow ran onto the plane without going through security. This time we had a bit of time to talk. He was surprised to hear that both of his songs made the compilation. He’d been getting restless at home, his eyesight deteriorating along with his savings, and he was glad that people were listening to his music. They’re my favorite recordings from the trip:

We drove three hours to meet Johnstone Mukabi again. The music of his father, George Mukabi, inspired this whole project in the first place. Johnstone’s grandson Ronny was graduating from kindergarten and there was a festive spirit in the air and two tiny kittens playing on the couch when the whole family returned to the familiar bright silver shack (I edited a whole film of footage from the trip in 2016, staring at these homes and people for hours and hours while piecing it together, and so I remember backgrounds and children and non-starring characters with far more clarity than I would have if I was just returning cold…it was a joy to see how some of the kids had grown). Johnstone had added a TV and antennae since we were last there, and was excited to finally have some CDs to sell when he performed (the CDs overall were more popular than the records).

We were in a massive rush, but Sukuma Bin Ongaro wouldn’t let us leave til we’d had dinner with both of his wives. The red suit was new, and he said his career had been revived now that he was singing gospel (pics at top of post).

Fanuel Amimo was recovering from a long illness. His home region of Butere, known even in the old songs for hooliganism and thievery, had been beset by a murderous gang called the 42 Brothers. We stayed past dark visiting him, and had to book it at top speed down dark roads through a place called Mayhem Junction to reach a safe place to rest.

Shem Tube and his wife Mama Jessica had shrunk and the kids had grown. As Shem pointed out, the black cow that sat in the rain the last time we filmed was looking fine and healthy.

This trip was hard— no time, no sleep, age and bad living wearing down these old musicians (and myself). From freezing Chicago, it feels like worlds away. I need to spend more time thinking on it. The pictures help. I hope someone in Kenya is listening to this music.