It’s difficult to make generalizations about a place as culturally kaleidoscopic as Kenya, home to 70 different ethnic groups with distinct cultures and traditions. But one thing is true across the board: whether Kikuyu or Kalenjin, Luo or Maasai, music has always been a means for Kenyans to pass down stories, myths, and legends from generation to generation.
INSHA, a new compilation co-curated by Kenyan sound artist KMRU, explores these themes through 14 tracks by as many artists. “In primary school, there would be this class where we would have to write inshas, these stories in Swahili,” recalls KMRU, “and this is a collage of different stories.” The project was borne out of the Nairobi Ableton User Group, which KMRU and fellow producer Mbogua Mbugua Mbugua, aka M³, have been running since 2019 to offer Nairobi-based musicians who use Ableton a space to meet, learn, and support each other.
The theme of traditional music and how it intersects with oral history and folklore is especially significant for Kenya, a country healing from the wounds of a particularly destructive colonial legacy that actively worked to erase indigenous cultures and languages. As people move away from villages to modern cosmopolitan cities like Nairobi, the divide between traditions and cultural practices continues to widen. “We wanted artists to dive back into their communities, into their homes, and reconnect,” explains KMRU.
For many of the producers, this was an opportunity to rediscover their community’s folk tales. “I had a chat with my mum and I asked her about stories in Luo culture that are being lost because of modernization,” says Manch!ld, “She told me the story of nyawawa, the evil water spirits of people who drowned in the lake but were never found and who come back to haunt naughty children at night.” His instrumental track “Escape from Nyawawa” evokes the feelings of unease and fear that this tale is no doubt meant to instill in disobedient children. Ng’at Maler—one of several artists on the compilation associated with Nairobi’s Santuri Electronic Music Academy—also channels the Luo’s relationship to the waters of Lake Victoria on the transportive “Nam Lolwe.”
On “Mura,” Budalagi explores the circumcision ceremony of the Abakuria tribe by combining ominous drum beats and upbeat shakers and ululations, “an allusion to the duality of life,” while Snse looks to Kalenjin culture for inspiration on “Ng’eetich.” Others examine specific instruments, sometimes turning them on their head: on “Waza” Avom creates moody, melancholic melodies with the marimba and orutu (the one-stringed fiddle of the Luo people), which traditionally were used for joyous, ecstatic occasions; Munyasya looks at the evolution of the Kamba guitar and its meaning for Generation Z on “BORROWED CADENCES,” while MR LU*’s “Kaa Tukachome” is inspired by the blend of vernacular styles in Nairobi’s music scene. Barno juxtaposes the sounds of nature recorded upcountry with the chaos of the city, while M³ channels the difficulties of surviving Nairobi on the unswerving beats of “i choose violence.”
While exploring and celebrating Kenyan culture, INSHA also looks at what was erased by colonialism: “It is also important to note the absence and gaping hole of the stories lost,” writes Kimina in the liner notes for the opening track “Aliamka.” For Nyokabi Kariũki, working on her track “Anjiru (interlude),” a haunting rescore of a 1953 news report of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Kenya, was both a process of mourning and catharsis: “It was very emotional seeing this visual representation of the larger idea of colonialism, and how culture was very much erased, replaced, and distorted,” says Kariũki. “In a way, the song is mourning what was lost, but also, at the same time, it felt like a way to connect to my people that I was seeing in the video, like a pipeline between now and then.”
“It’s really painful to think about all the culture that was lost and what it means for us going forward,” says Nabalayo, a pioneer of Changanya music. Her track “mtwapa siren” is a fantastical tale inspired by her own experiences and desire to move to the Kenyan coast. While Nabalayo draws inspiration from the Bajuni, Giriama, and Kikuyu communities for her vocal techniques, “mtwapa siren” is very much her own modern, urban folk tale. “Being born and raised in the city and having little to no connection to village life, I felt like I could be a part of creating a new culture. I decided to be the ancestor for future generations to look back to,” she says.
The intersection of folklore and avant-garde electronics on INSHA reflects the constant evolution of African music and tradition, often represented as static and frozen in time. “The way the press seems to cover it doesn’t seem to reflect the truth that African music has been evolving for a really long time and continues to do so,” says Kariũki. During a Zoom call from Nairobi, both Kariũki and Nabalayo talk about how unlearning their Eurocentric education and deepening their knowledge of African composers and electronic artists like Halim El-Dabh is reframing their relationship with music.
KMRU’s track “i had the impression” neatly embodies this idea. He first made the track in 2017, just as he was starting to experiment with the kind of sounds that have since earned him worldwide recognition as a groundbreaking sound artist. “Back then, I was making this music, and I wasn’t sure if it sounded like what it should be sounding like,” he says. A quote by pioneering Cameroonian writer and composer Francis Bebey—“Africans do not seek to combine sounds in a manner pleasing to the ear. Their aim is simply to express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound,” from the book African Music: A People’s Art —inspired him to revisit the piece, this time uncoupled from any notions of what his music should sound like. By combining field recording and snippets of African instrumentation, KMRU conjures vivid images and emotions.
One of INSHA’s stated aims is to “serve as a bridge between past and future music creators,” both through the music itself and by preserving some of the hardware used by the artists in a time capsule that will be locked away for future generations. The project is a testament to the vitality of Kenyan culture and to the desire of young generations to keep it alive. “A lot of us might not know our [vernacular] language,” says Kariũki, “but we know songs, and that’s a really powerful way in which we can carry that torch.”