Swahilipot Hub strikes a chord with Kenyan musical heritage
Friday December 02 2022
Nestled next to the historic Fort Jesus in Mombasa’s Old Town is Swahilipot Hub, a vibrant arts and technology space, with an open-air amphitheatre overlooking the Indian Ocean.
It was at this stage that last Friday evening hosted a showcase of music, spoken word, poetry and dramatised verse to unveil the new state-of-the-art sound and light equipment as part of a network of venues across the country supported by the French government through the Creative Arts Spaces in Kenya (CASIK).
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The highlight of the performances was Malindi-based musician Katoi wa Tabaka and his Mijikenda Jazz outfit who lit up the stage with a lively fusion of traditional rhythms from the East African coast with
elements of jazz, soul and pop.
They opened with Dede a song based on a true story about a woman who left her husband with their six-month-old child to take up a job in Dubai.
“This happened to our keyboardist and the child was crying so much after the mother left that we decided to write a song about that experience,” says Katoi.
The second song Kalanikutoka also based on a true story of a man who expresses his feelings after being left by his wife and finding out that she had moved in with another man.
“The story was told to me by an old man after watching me perform and we turned it into a song,” he says.
Katoi says that venues like Swahilipot Hub are an important platform for Kenyans to revive their cultural connections. “I was so impressed to see a group of young artistes tracing the history of the Mijikenda by performing a piece fusing storytelling and traditional songs just before my band took to the stage,” he says.
A point emphasised by veteran musician Mbarak Ali Hadji whose band Lelele Afrika performed a taarab set on the night. “The original style of taarab is in danger of disappearing as people embrace the so-called modern taarab,” he says.
“But my group has stuck to the authentic style and I play acoustic instruments like the tashkota, harmonium and accordion, while everyone else playing taarab has switched to the electronic instruments.”
Katoi says Kenyans must learn from the international success of West African artists by embracing their rhythms and then adding elements of contemporary music to create their identity.
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“If we ignore nyatiti, obokano, gunda, maboomboom drums, and so on, then what are we supporting?” he asks. “If musicians don’t want to play guitars, and keyboards and replace them with computer software, then we have lost all our musical heritage.”
The Mijikenda music, for example, consists of more than 70 sub-genres,” explains Katoi.
“I am playing just about 30 of these, like mwanzele, mchemeko, tambala, along with other coastal sounds like chakacha, taarab and mdundiko and giving it a contemporary twist.”
Katoi is a versatile musician who sings, raps, and plays percussions and two types of traditional Mijikenda flutes, gunda, made from the horn of the kongoni (antelope), and the smaller chivoti from a bamboo stem.
He spent seven years studying law in Italy and another six years working in the country where he developed his musical skills by playing along with West African artists, mainly Senegalese and Ghanaian
When he returned to Kenya in 2015, he founded the Mijikenda Jazz Band whose lineup includes artists from renowned musical families: bass guitarist Thomas Konde, the grandson of the legendary musician Fundi Konde, Prince Tora, the keyboardist is the grandson of Lamu taarab star Badi Tora and percussionist Kazungu Masha.
In June, the group performed in Nairobi during the Fete de la Musique (World Music Day) concert at the Alliance Francaise and in October they travelled to Dar es Salaam for the Marafiki Music Festival.
“Our ambition is to create avenues for artistes and techies to network, as well as provide the right environment for the youth to
make something of themselves,” says Mahmoud Nour, Swahilipot Hub executive director.
One of the youngsters whose life has been transformed by the project is 25-year-old David Wekesa, also known as Musa, a former street boy in the Mombasa Maboxini area who joined Swahilipot as a cleaner.
In October, he was among a group trained by professional sound engineers from France in preparation for the delivery of the new
“It has been a long journey since I joined here as a cleaner and volunteer four years ago and today, I am a sound engineer,” says Musa.
“I can set up the entire stage for a performance, from the microphones, the guitars, to keyboards and drums.”
“We have a group with other trainees from the CASIK network around the country and we share our experiences and help one another solve any technical issues that arise.”
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