Obama's win and an unexpected day off encouraged me to browse through my old music collection and look for some Luo music. And I am very glad I did, since I have now re-discovered Ayub Ogada's album En Mana Kuoyo (meaning "just sand"). Ogada's music is based on repetitious patterns plucked on the nyatiti, a stringed instrument reminiscent of the lyre, combined with his soft voice.
Ayub Ogada is a Luo and a traveller in body and mind. At the tender age of six, Ayub accompanied his father and mother when they took their musical act on tour, performing a duet playing Luo songs on the US college circuit. Ayub later went back to Kenya where he went into a Catholic school run by nuns and then an English boarding school. His education and his outstanding ability with percussion landed him a position with the French Cultural Centre in Nairobi, composing modern and traditional music for various productions. Such events proved formative. The wide-eyed youth with his images of America would nurture a respect for his own tradition but a hunger to develop it and nourish his own creativity. Like many of Kenya's youth, Ayub picked up on the flotsam of the global music tide: soul, jazz, Latin. Kenya's attractiveness to citizens of neighboring countries like Congo and Tanzania added spice to local flavours such as benga, a Luo-derived, guitar-based rhythm popular in the 70s and the 80s (in Luo, 'benga' means soft and beautiful). In 1979, Ayub co-founded the African Heritage Band, potently combining tradtional rhythms with vintage and modern instrumentation. Six years, two albums and a tour of Europe later, bolstered by a series of lucrative movie roles (he played a tacit but impressive Mau Mau heavy in the film 'Kitchen Toto'), Ayub decided to check whether the world really was his oyster. Ayub arrived in the UK in 1986 and was quickly snapped up by London's African music scene. For a time Ayub played in the promising but occasionally volatile rumba band Taxi Pata Pata, along with guitarist Zak Sikobe, who he grazed knees with back in Kenya. In 1993, Ayub recorded the album En Mana Kuoyo on Peter Gabriel's Real World label. His music has also been heard on the soundtrack of the 2000 release of 'I Dreamed of Africa' and the 2005 film 'The Constant Gardener'. He has also collaborated with Susheela Raman on several tracks on her 'Salt Rain' album, such as 'O Rama'. His piece, 'Kothbiro' appears in the soundtrack of the Méxican Film 'The Blue Room' based on the novel of George Simenon. Ayub Ogada's music was used in the soundtrack for Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's BBC series Long Way Round. In addition, Ayub Ogada has collaborated with the Afro Celt Sound System on their first and fourth releases. In 2005, Ayub performed at the Live 8 concert, Eden Project as the opening act performing on a large replica of an historic Egyptian lyre. Ayub Ogada moved back to Kenya in 2007.
On the CD I just re-discovered, En Mana Kuoyo, Ayub sings gentle, almost hypnotic, and yet ultimately relaxed melodies concerning home, cattle herding, his instrument, the weather, and injustice. The music is spacious and at the same time stimulating. A brilliant CD, and I am looking forward to hearing more from him.
So as Kenyans wait for a tourism boost after Obama's election victory , we may as well expect some increased interest in Kenya's interesting culture and music, and I hope Ayub Ogada will now be (re-) discovered by many more people.