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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Owiny Sigoma Band

Brownswood Recordings (BWOODO62CD)
Distributed by PIAS

Out Now


In 2009, on the eve of President Obama’s inauguration, five London based musicians, Jesse Hackett (keys), Louis Hackett (bass), Sam Lewis (guitar), Chris Morphitis (bouzouki/guitar) and Tom Skinner (drums) touched down in Narobi. They were there to collaborate with local musicians as part of a project for the voluntary group Art of Protest, established by Hetty Hughes and Aaron Abraham, which aims to promote Kenyan musicians and rappers. There this core group of London musicians encountered Joseph Nyamungu, seasoned player/teacher of the nyatiti (8-string lyre) also, an acknowledged expert on the traditional music of the Luo tribe. Joseph brought Charles Owoko, a drummer specialising in traditional Luo rhythms into the mix and some interesting musical experiments began to emerge.  However, the next step, finding a studio would prove challenging, as rap and R n’ B which often only requires a computer and one mic was then, the music of choice in the region. Finally, a disused factory cum studio was discovered and a new musical hybrid was born.

While the London contingent favoured African influences, from Fela Kuti and Tony Allen through Thomas Mapfumo and Oumou Sangare, Joseph, Charles and their musicians drew on ‘hitherto undiscovered traditional Luo folk songs’, imbued with their own, reinvigorating twists. The resulting drum and bass, ‘rhythmically heavy’ music with its cow horn, nyatti and vocals is uniquely vibrant. Vocalist Joseph fronts the band, which has now expanded to ten members, his nyatiti close at hand. The band’s name is that of his late grandfather, Owiny Sigoma who no doubt, would have highly approved of his grandson’s self-composed music, based on their culture’s traditional Luo folk songs.

This collection gets off to an instantly compelling start with ‘Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi’ (Play the Music with Confidence), on which Joseph’s springy nyatiti playing is as fascinating and it is fluid. Likewise, his vocals lure and ultimately, lead us through a cacophony of sounds, some of which seem somehow, familiar, yet, altered, forming distinctive patterns and shapes which surprise and captivate.

‘Odero Lwan’ (Odero is my best friend who knows how to make cas and nobody can defeat him) resounds with echoes of Fela Kuti, a sense enhanced by reverberating organ playing and drums designed to inspire uninhibited dance. There’s an urgency and passion to this track, in which the instruments seem to mimic sounds of nature – cascading rain, loping beasts, soaring birds, that marks it out as an individual yet universal story, led by Joseph’s shimmering, energetic, underlyingly plaintive vocals, which seem to reflect on the ebb and flow of life.

This album takes you and your ears to places they’ve never been before, couldn’t possibly have been because this group is such a hybrid. ‘Wires’ , is another height scaling track, with its’ singing in English, speaking of spiders, among other things, amid a leafy, occasionally techno sounding jungle of galloping drums, delicately fingered guitar, pulsing organ and soulful, variegated vocals.

Pulsating, call and response drums and bass open ‘Margaret Okudo’ (My Friends) a track with the word ‘dub’ next to its’ title on the sleeve. This collection is nothing if not experimental and part of the excitement of listening to it comes from not knowing where this group will take you next. This is reverberating stuff, literally bouncing its’ sounds off the walls, your eardrums and your head-space all at once. Listening to it on a CD gives a hint of what an immersive and hypnotic experience hearing it played live must be.

Drums, traditional and contemporary, interact together, giving the impression of being on a rolling sea in an open boat. Joseph’s vocals tell a story, in his own language, and I wonder what it means. Someone answers him, and a sinister little laugh turns into undulating song. ‘Hera’ (Love) is a trance-chant. In my mind’s eye, I can see the dancing which might accompany this, and it’s unlike any I’ve ever known.
Joseph’s nyatiti begins a line that is punctuated, first by drums, then still more drums, one at a time in turn until they are a body fully fleshed from various instruments as his song begins, skimming over the top of them, as they drop behind him without lessening in volume or, intensity.  In ‘Doyoi Nyajo Nam’ (Praising A Lady From The Lakeside) all is as one, even the occasional popping sounds that spring up from nowhere, like the first flowers in spring.

A jangling sound, Joseph on strident nyatiti, his voice fervently storytelling through his song, as the percussion sounds pick up the pace and his voice glides along in unison. On ‘Owegi Owandho’ he performs solo, though he sounds as no lone musician could, such is the urgent nature of his song. It seems somehow inadequate to say that he ‘gets down’, but for all intents and purposes, he does.

‘Nabed Nade El Pinyka’ (rework) (How Will I Live on This Earth) sounds decidedly modern in a techno meets tradition kind of way, with some sly Fela Kuti organ and burning bass stirring its’ bubbling sauce.  It’s infectious, but in a delicate way, as each of its segments are carefully placed from its’ dawn through fadeout.

Undulating talking drums lead into a lovely guitar line and Sam Lewis’ voice singing ‘You know I’d follow you anywhere, anywhere, I just don’t care…oh, to be free.’ This is sunny pop with an African flavour. As Sam’s singing continues, it seems as though the drums are following him, and as his guitar offers its’ own frills, we’re already in the middle of a frothy firmament of love and longing.

The final track, ‘Rapar Nyanza’ (Remembering people who died in Luo Nyanza long time ago) wraps up this collection on an ultra-traditional drum kick, infused with intriguing poly-rhythmic patterns, trance inducing repetitive drum beats, and Joseph’s voice calling out above the instruments, as his nyatiti wails and moans along. This is heady stuff that is definitely not for those too timid to allow their ears and, minds to roam freely. But maybe, just maybe it is.

Owiny Sigoma Band’s debut album is nothing if not adventuresome. It’s full of joyously constructed experiments, some of them more immediately pleasing than others, but all of them with the potential to steadily grow on you. Hopefully, the band will be appearing in a venue near us soon, so we can find out. Meanwhile, support independent record labels and this exciting new group by buying ‘Owiny Sigoma Band’.

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