Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Last dance in Nairobi

The main event was called "Benga Blast 2009" and featured an afternoon of performances at the Nyayo soccer stadium by a selection of the Kenyan bands that are reviving the benga style that we in the West began hearing back in the early days of the African music boom in the '80s -- D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz for example. It has a rootsy "countrified" sound to my ears, without the gloss of soukous (what they call lingala music or rumba in Kenya), sung in Luo or Kikuyu, and if producers like Tabu Osusa keep up the good work it could be the next big thing in the world music world. Samba was warmly welcomed as befit his legendary status and long popularity in Kenya, and ran through a selection of his best-loved hits for the crowd. Here are some links to local press coverage of the festival: here and again from Daily Nation,
On Monday we bid farewell to Nairobi and set forth before dawn on our first leg of the journey home.

Nairobi night

All of a sudden our time in Kenya is drawing to an end. We are still hectically racing (or crawling through gridlock) to radio interviews, a tv taping for "Churchill Live" (a widely watched talk/comedy show a la Oprah) at the famous Carnivore Restaurant, and band rehearsals. On Friday, Feb. 27 Virunga performs at Club Afrique, with the core tour band augmented by Pepe Ibrahim, ex Virunga singer and now leader of his own band called Ngoma Afrika, and a guest appearance by Bikassy, who led the group Saka Saka in which Samba began his migration out of Zaire and into East Africa in the '70s. The show was a lot of fun. They played for hours, and did all the great Virunga hits. (I was dancing so hard to my favorite song, "Malako" that I hurt my leg and had to stop!)
Photos: Komba Bellow in the dressing room, dancers Mami Watah and Carolyne, and on stage from left: Bikassy, Teddy, Pepe Ibrahim, Syran and Samba.

Marafiki (more friends)

Making this trip even more fun was the presence of three long-time acquaintances and African music aficionados: Douglas Paterson (Seattle), Peter Toll (Netherlands) and Jean Suren (Nairobi by way of Los Angeles). Doug is an acknowledged expert in East African music, a record collector, broadcaster, audio engineer.... well, see for yourself on his Web site: East African Peter, also a dedicated record collector and music scholar, was manager and producer for Simba Wanyika and also an old Africa-hand, who had lived in LA for a time. Incredibly, they had never met, and I was so pleased that they were able to finally get together in Nairobi after their many years of toiling in the same field. My dear friend Jean was a fixture in LA's African music scene during the good old days of the '80s, specializing in the care and feeding of African musicians and always the first on the dance floor at live shows, resplendent in African attire. She moved to Nairobi in 1991, continued to be in touch with the music scene, and is well-established and highly regarded in her career as a diabetes care and training specialist. How marvelous it was to reconnect with all of you!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More friends, fans and colleagues

We would never have made it through this tour without Bofta, Virunga's indispensable band manager. We enjoyed a good time visiting his home for the first birthday of his youngest daughter, Chantal, and tasted the finest Kenyan food of our trip. A big asante sana to Bofta, his wife Jan, and their beautiful daughters!

Friends, fans and colleagues

Samba took enormous pleasure in reconnecting with many of his old friends, fans, musicians while in Nairobi. We want to give a big shout-out of love and appreciation especially to Tabu Osusa, music producer, former Virunga manager and long-time pal, for his generous hospitality while we were in Nairobi. Asante sana, Tabu! and may God bless you.

Freddy Machoka

I have heard Freddy's name as long as I have heard Samba's music. He calls out "Freddy Machoka" in nearly every song he has recorded. So I finally had the chance to meet this famous long-time radio dj and close friend of Samba when we visited his program on Citizen radio. Freddy is a whirlwind of energy, elbows, knees, hands flying as he carries on his nonstop patter, with a brilliant broad smile that can light up a room.

Samba in studio

As we had about a week and a half off in Nairobi before Virunga's final performances at Club Afrique (Feb. 27) and Nyayo Stadium (Feb. 28), Samba took the opportunity to work on some new music at Ketebul Studio. Guitarist Syran Mbenza and drummer Komba Bellow, in from Paris as part of the tour group, were in on the sessions, as were Kenyan benga star Suzzana Owiyo and Jamnazi's Awillo-Mike and a choice handful of other talented local musicians. A serene presence around the studio was Olith Ratego, whose soothing nyatiti interludes kept me calm and focused.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Meanwhile, back in Nairobi

We embark on a week of media interviews, appearances and recording at Ketebul Studio. And a return to the perpetually clogged Uhuru Highway. Nairobi seems all the more overwhelming after idyllic Zanzibar. Samba does manage to make a brief visit to his former venue, Garden Square, where Virunga enjoyed so much success in the '80s.

It's showtime, folks

Finally, time for the performance at Sauti za Busara. Virunga is headlining, the closing set of the festival. There was a lot of energy and everyone enjoyed it, the band, the fans, the festival personnel and Samba. He sang all his hits and everyone in the audience was singing along to "Vunja Mifupa," "Dunia Tuna Pita," and "Marina." At one point, he was joined on stage by the taarab legend Bi Kidude, who sang one of her ribald wedding songs to the delight of the crowd. Great appreciation to the Busara organization for a very professionally presented event--bravo and well done! Special thanks to Rosie for her efforts way above and beyond the call of duty. And asante sana to Yusuf for giving Virunga this wonderful opportunity to connect with fans and supporters from Tanzania and abroad. Photos by Alain Hullien, from top: Rhythm guitarist John; waiting nervously backstage: Suleiman (sax), Teddy (singer), Mami Watah (dancer), Bofta (band manager) and Jeremy (singer); Mami Watah does her famous "water dance," balancing a bottle on her head; Samba takes a bow. Last two images courtesy of the Sauti za Busara web site,

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Room with a view

On Sunday, we met up with Doug Paterson, renowned East African music scholar and collector, and Ann Wanjie, editor of in from London. Doug took us to his favorite viewing spot of Zanzibar, the Africa House, for some peaceful moments and watched the dhows cruising the Indian Ocean in the tropical breezes.
Our missing luggage returned, and we prepared for Virunga's performance at the festival that night.

Time out for a brief photo safari

And now a little tour of the picturesque, narrow winding lanes of Stone Town, in which I quickly became lost and disoriented, and had to be led back to the hotel by a Good Samaritan on a bicycle.
But it was wonderfully gratifying to see Samba's image plastered on the walls on the Sauti za Busara festival posters.

The road to Zanzibar

Actually, we flew. Here's some of the band members en route at Nairobi airport. Aside from some unpleasantness having to do with yellow fever vaccination certificates, my lost debit card and the confiscation of some of our luggage and one of our dancers, the trip was uneventful.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lest we forget our mission

Yes, we are here to work, to make music. It's not all sukumawiki and Tuskers. Here is Syran Mbenza and Samba having a little practice in the hotel room. The full band rehearses tomorrow and Thursday, preparing for Virunga's appearance at the Sauti za Busara festival in Zanzibar this weekend.

Pimpers Paradise

Samba says it was the music piracy that drove him to leave Nairobi, but the bootleggers are still shamelessly around. These rip-offs did not even make a pretense of looking legitimate, and the pirate even had the nerve to try and sell us some of Samba's own music.

The Big Guy

Yes, Obama is big in Kenya. The euphoria is still detectable, but it may be dawning on the Kenyans that maybe Barack has a few other things to take care of first before he bestows his attention on Africa. This mural is at the Go Down arts complex, the site of Tabu Osusa's Ketebul Studio where Samba was recording some new songs.

Sukumawiki, ugali and nyama choma

As for the food: sukumawiki (minced spinach-like or collard greens), ugali (white cornmeal fufu) and nyama choma (roasted meat) seem to be the national dishes. Reynald's restaurant and cabaret was a frequent gathering place downtown Nairobi, where you see Komba Bellow here attacking a plate of fried fish. This is a country of meat-eaters but nyama choma, I'm sorry, was not to my taste: so tough I could not get a tooth into it, and not seasoned at all. The pili pili and exuberant flavorings of West African cooking are disappointingly not in evidence here. Some days I gratefully took my meals in a Chinese restaurant.

Midnight at the oasis

Full moon over the pool deck at the lovely Heron Court Hotel, Nairobi. The pool was nicely maintained but had a water temperature only a polar bear could love. I jumped in and jumped right out again!

What to do when you are stuck in traffic

The traffic in Nairobi is horrible! The Uhuru Highway through town is almost always jammed, and then there is the never-ending hell of the dreaded roundabouts. The drivers are daring and fearless, missing each other by millimeters in a constant game of "chicken." No road rage though, someone always gives way at the last second, knowing next time he will win the match, and amazingly I never actually saw any fender-benders. Extremely nervewracking, and we almost always seemed to be going somewhere across town at 5 p.m. Smog control has not yet arrived in this land, and nearly every bus, truck, car and matatu belches clouds of black exhaust smoke and fumes. So to pass the time as we inched along, I did a lot of shooting out of the car window, and sometimes over my head into the back seat. The top shot with the giant hand is Moi's monument to himself.
On the bright side, the weather in Nairobi was perfect, even better than Southern California: sunny, cool, low humidity, a couple of evening rain showers to freshen things up. I was told it's like this 9 months of the year, but no one said what the other 3 months were like. Maybe best not to ask?

Heathrow Hiatus

My flight on Virgin Atlantic was one of the best of my life. What an airline! Beautiful, huge new Airbus, audio and movies at every seat, friendly crew, acceptable food, pillows, blankets and free drinks galore. I got 3 seats together and was even able to sleep a little. I ran through audio selections of Bob Marley, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and Simon and Garfunkel, watched the Sex and the City movie and part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and bingo, we were in London. Heathrow is another story though: it's like a giant shopping mall except with lots and lots of luggage. With people everywhere, from everywhere, speaking every kind of language. Samba came in on his flight about 6 hours before mine, and then we have 6 more hrs to go before we take off for Nairobi, so we've seen quite a lot of this place. Poor Samba's exhausted, and I'm starting to feel woozy.

Note to self: avoid long layovers between connections. Fairly excruciating afternoon into evening, killing time, looking for something to eat that is not horribly overpriced, and the bodily weakness of the lack of sleep. We plod around the endless terminal and corridors looking for a quiet spot to rest, and a bench not bristling with armrests so we can lie down for a while. The appointed time finally arrives, and we shamble down yet one more winding echoing tunnel (20 minutes to gate 23!) to board our flight to Nairobi.
This aircraft is obviously something Virgin picked up on the used-airplane market: yesterday's model, all beige plastics, excruciatingly tight seats, and the seat-back entertainment system that was quite disappointing after last night's high tech features and endless selections. Finally shoehorned in, we try to relax into another voyage into the night.

OK, for real this time

I am now back from the tour to East Africa. All my plans to file posts from the road were wildly over-optimistic. I vastly underestimated the availability of Internet access in Nairobi, and the availability of time I would have to devote to this travel log! So now, instead of real time reportage, let me recollect events and moments in retrospect, in case you are wondering.... how was the trip?
There really is no way to define it, and I have not gotten a perspective yet through the haze of jet-lagged sleep deprivation. I do recall it was: wonderful, awful, crazy, exhausting, fun, confounding, exciting, humbling and revealing....