Music Ancient and Modern

Yesterday we traveled several hours on public transport, met about 20 people, and recorded both a traditional Turkana harp player in a busa club in Maseno and rappers in the ghetto in Kisumu. Too good.

In the morning Ozzy and I rode out to Maseno, where I had met the traditional harp player the day before. The thing isn’t actually a harp, it’s called an “adungu” in Turkana. 9 strings plus a 10th short percussive one, a fur covered box, and this time, a large metal drum with a home made foot pedal keeping a steady 4/4 beat under the complex plucking.

It was 11 am on a Monday morning and the pub was deserted when we arrived. One bloodshot and bedraggled bastard sat in the middle of the room, sipping a cold cup of busa. The air was still with smoke and smelled of fermentation of all sorts. Even the musician hadn’t shown. I figured it was going to be a bust, until someone laboriously emerged from the back room and agreed to find our man. Several minutes later, he came back, saying he discovered him laying under a tree somewhere and that he was on his way. We sat next to the day drunk and waited.

Soon, he arrived, amazing instruments in hand.

His name is Peter Logono, and he has traveled to this area from the Turkana region in the north of Kenya, a very treacherous and difficult journey that no one I’ve met before has even attempted. His people are pastoralist cattle herders, but the devastating droughts of the past few years, plus increased violence and cattle rustling, has ruined much of the lifestyle for the younger generation, and they’re on the move. Last time I was in Kenya, living the gated community life, the night guard was a Samburu kid from a similarly affected area in the north. He chewed khat all night and spoke affectionately of the cows he’d never see again, spitting out chunks of the stimulant leaf in my general direction and tearing up at the thought of home. It was hard to see.

Peter had gone a different route–a sort of itinerant musician, traveling about with his adungu and drum, hustling bars and crowded areas for change. He lives the lifestyle of the most ancient musicians and plays some of the world’s most ancient music. Lake Turkana, the birthplace of Peter and his music, is widely believed to be the home of the first ever human beings (about 3000 years ago when God put them there, of course).

The sight of the white man, the rastafari, and the Turkana musician plus several thousand in camera and audio gear in the tin shack was enough to attract the early afternoon busa crowd. People trickled in curiously. At one point, the owner walked in wearing a military beret jauntily tapped to the side and a white butcher’s coat, demanding justice and repayment for the use of his bar. Ozzy calmed him and I spent a couple dollars to buy the onlookers a round of warm busa buckets as we set up the gear. A guy I met there yesterday was extremely surprised when I remembered his name. But how could I forget someone who introduced himself as Julius Alexander the Great? “Yes, I am the great, but God is greatest” he conceded humbly.

Audio gear set, Peter started playing. I love his voice and his music, and I was so excited to record it for others to hear. I was distracted from the camera work. I couldn’t help watching.

photo by Ozzy

The rest of the bar was more interested in the busa. One of the owner’s grievances was that while Peter was playing, his patrons couldn’t listen to mid-90s R&B jams on the radio. I wonder what it is about American pop culture that dominates all forms of other music so thoroughly worldwide. I’ve asked kids everywhere from Kisumu to Tehran to Shanghai whether they’d prefer to hear the local tracks or 50 Cent, and Mr. Cent wins every time. Why record Peter Logono when you have Kenny Rodgers?

In spite of this powerful logic, I recorded all 5 of Peter’s songs (which I’ll have up for streaming in a few minutes). We said goodbye, gave the bar another 200 shillings ($2.50) and rolled out. We wandered through the rubble that is Maseno (for some reason everything is torn down in that tiny town) until we arrived at a bar Peter was fond of. Kenya has passed a new daytime alcohol ban that establishments adhere to at random, and the lady couldn’t serve us beer. We had huge bottles of Coke and talked about the Turkana, Peter’s travels, growing up an orphan, his average daily income of $2.50, and what made him stay in Luo land. “I was tired of the cattle rustlers and the violence, and I had to leave,” he said in Swahili. Eventually, I got around to asking his age. “Me? I am 24, but I am sorry to say I do not have a family yet.” For fuck’s sake! I thought he was an old man.

Peter’s painted drum

Joseph met us for lunch along with a man named Jesse, an American researcher he’s working with. Jesse and his wife are working on an independent critique of the failures and successes (but mostly failures) of the NGO I worked for. The NGO has no form of independent evaluation, and Jesse and his wife’s findings are not at all in line with the organization’s glossy press material and Kofi Annan endorsed initiatives. They’ve met major resistance from the NGO, but continue on. They’ve lived in the Luo village for the past two years and speak the language. Fascinating, and I’m looking forward to talking more in depth with them.

But for the time being, no time even for lunch. We had a meeting with some rappers to get to, and the hood was over an hour away back in Kisumu. Time to move.

We crawled out of the matatu back in Kisumu town and jumped on motorcycles to Nyallenda, the ghetto on the edge of town, where we were meeting Nebulazz and Double B again, this time on their own turf. The rest of town is concrete in varying degrees of decay, but much of Nyallenda is mud homes and raw sewage. We rolled through with the cameras going, people calling out to Nebulazz and Double B, and they led us with purposeful swagger. We stopped by the room Nebulazz shares with some other kids and listened to a new track, before heading out to a green field and sewage treatment dam at the very edge of the sprawling slum. We walked and walked through the hectic area, stumbling over kids and holes, and suddenly we were surrounded by green, banana trees, breeze, water, the sun quickly setting.

Nebulazz, photo by Ozzy

“This is where we go to get free of the ghetto, where we practice our rap and get some peace,” Double B said. Couples walked along the dam, guys exercised and practiced karate. We found a secluded spot under a palm tree, sparked up the universal rap stimulant, and recorded some freestyles. It was 90 degrees and breezy, the sun made everyone glow, and for the second time I found myself ignoring the camera and just watching.

But the sun sets fast at the equator, and soon Double B and Nebulazz were ready to move. Even two rappers can’t keep you safe in the secluded dark. We walked back toward the main road. Brio and Collins emerged from a small path that met up with our own (they live nearby and know this place by heart) and we all walked on. By the time we got to the market by the road the sun was down and everything was lit by harsh car headlights filtered through dust, people turned to shilouettes as they moved between stalls gathering the night’s meal. I wandered through the haze of dust and humanity as in a dream, said peace, jumped in the back of a tuk tuk, and finally headed home.

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