Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Our last day at GoDown and it's heads down for another full day of recording. Working with Ben we speed through five demo sessions and manage several takes of each song.
Half way through the day an unexpected surprises crops up.
Akech, who has been playing the guitar on some of the previous days sessions, arrives with a home-made glockenspiel.
He slowly tells us his story. In 1979, whilst cutting grass with a machete, he slipped and severed a tendon in one of his fingers. This injury prevented him from being able to play the guitar.
Determined to carry on playing an instrument, he starts picking up pieces of scrap metal, carefully choosing those that have the correct musical intervals between them. After a while he has a full set and asks his carpenter friend to make him a box frame to sit them on. A loop of electrical cable sits around the top of the box with the individual metal pieces resting on top.
Having the mics still set-up from the previous session, Akech starts to play his glockenspiel and sing. We pull Matthew back into the room and he starts to plays a simple rhythm and we hit record.
5th September 2009 - Day 6 & 7, the great outdoors!
Some time ago, we made friends with brothers Ivan and Sean Ross who are putting on the Rift Valley Festival at Lake Naivasha http://www.riftvalleyfestival.com/. We talked about our respective projects and decided that if the timings worked out we would take some of the musicians we were working with along to Naivasha.
The timings did work out, so Devon, Paul, Ben, Guy and myself decide to head off to the countryside.
A delayed start to the day as we learned our original driver had been arrested the night before (charges still unknown) meant having to make alternative arrangements but we eventually got going around lunchtime.
The journey out of Nairobi is slow but we eventually get on to the open roads and very suddenly the Rift Valley opens up in front of us with lake Naivasha shimmering in the distance.
Arriving at Lake Naivasha, the first thing that hits you is the smell of roses. As one of the main rose farm areas in the world, the abundance of large greenhouses soon explain where the fragance is coming from.
The festival is idyllically set on the shores of Lake Naivasha within the grounds of Fishermans Camp. The stage is situated under Acacia trees with a family of Colobus monkeys running around the branches.
Devon, Paul and Ben soundcheck as the sun goes down take to the stage as the night-time crowds gather. They play a mixture of each of their own material with Ben joining them on the mandolin.
The rest of the night turns into a party with slots from DJ Yam (Guy), a local guitarist and finishing off with a dance hip-hop troupe from Nairobi - I'll try and find out their names.
The next day we treat ourselves to a drive around Hell's Gate national park and are lucky enough so spot some Giraffe, Zebras, wild boar, antelope.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Briefly, we've built an 8 track studio in a room with no lights. It's been a hectic couple of days, so in the words of the late Roy Castle: "Delegation's what you need!".
Anyway, Devon and Paul on the words, yours truly on the photos.
Today was a much more mellow session. Slept a bit later and the cab ride in was quick. Ochieng Nelly and his wife, who we called Madam Nelly, visited us from western Kenya. His playing and his demeanor, even his appearance, are Mississippi John Hurt: Travis-picking, very much like ours, but incredibly mature, and informed by the Benga tradition. Madam Nelly sings throughout but in harmony, as opposed to yesterday's unison-singing with Kamaru. Sometimes she sings above him, sometimes below. They even played a Jimmie Rodgers tune!
Later in the day, Ben sat with both Ochieng and Kamaru - a historic Kenyan collaboration - and worked through a handful of songs. Both gentlemen are in their 70s. Tom, our studio host, and belonging to the same tribe as the Nellys, helped me translate some of Madame's lyrics into English, "Aunt Grace came back from the city. Grace, everyone wants to ask about your new dress!"
After the session, maybe 8pm, we ate whole fish again, this time at a bar behind a petrol station with Swahili news hour blasting.
Meet the Fockers was on at the hotel. Assssssshoooooolle.
and now over to Paul...
Things are getting serious. Buzzing isn't ignorable anymore. Neither is a single stereo out on the board. Steve, the engineer of the local studio at Go Down, was invited in to assist in assembling a multi-track set-up in our little concrete box. Folks sat round, walked in and out, drank tea, Sprite, ate cookies, and microphones got numbers taped to them.
After a while, the necessary folks were hailed back concrete-ward -- a new drummer called Matthew, Odhiambo on bass, Mr, Kamaru on vox, Mr. Nelly on acoustic guit, Devon on electric and vox, and me the same. A few half takes for line levels, but nothing too serious.
Matthew on percussion
Ben Mandelson, one of the producers, said, "Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Everybody!? Shhhh. Thank you." And then he looked at at me: "It's all yours to start." The "Honky Tonkin'" part went ace. The second half -- a Kamaru tune that we force-morphed into Honky Tonkin' -- proved more difficult. Bars were counted. Interpreters called in. And then again. "You listen to HIM," pointing, "and we'll listen to HIM." Theme melodies were concentrated on, rehearsed, drilled, those playing them told, "THAT'S IMPORTANT! PLAY THAT!" Take 3 did it. Sounded like a Benga version of The Band.
Then Mr. Nelly. A song about his pal, Jim, loaning him so dough back in the day, bailing him out. Beautiful piece... he and his wife duetted. Devon and I occasionally dove in betwixt lines to harmonize in English, "Jim, we're coming to the city... t'raise a glass and be merry." A short piece, and everybody was smiling. Mandelson conducting.
Next, a Jimmie Rodgers number, Mr. Nelly leading. But there was an extra bar that proved rather enigmatic. Everybody was counting, often laughing when folks got separated. But time was of the essence, so Mandelson cut the outsider players, stripped it down, got it done, and everyone clapped and clapped.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Joining the Nairobi rush hour traffic, we head over to the GoDown for a first day of music.
The room seems spacious to start with but as Joseph Kumura arrives with his accompanying singers and guitar players the space soon fills up.
For a musicians perspective on the first day, I'm going to hand over to Devon for a few words....
Dear Tom's blog,
We're in an industrial part of Nairobi. Driving through the red gate with the guard, Go Down Arts Centre is a large, dusty-bricked courtyard, white walls with music murals and graffiti.
There are practice rooms all around the main space -- white concrete rooms with high ceilings -- and a recording studio. Young people are everywhere: musicians, street kids, mentors and administrative folks. In our room, we have a PA, plastic chairs, and a handful of instruments: a twangy, light-stringed Takamine, a funky white Strat copy and a bag of percussion.
The group of local musicians we played with today, headed up by the mightily respected Kenyan legend Joseph Kamaru, seem lovely, though I think we're all a bit nervous. At Guy's suggestions, Paul and I played the Jimmie Rodgers-inspired song we wrote last week in England, for this project. After a round of grins and nods and sporadic clapping, they took over. With Kamaru in the lead, they started into a bunch of Kenyan songs. Eventually, we began playing along, and so the day progressed. Their chords are very straight-forward but the timing and structure of the Kikuyu songs takes some concentration. Later in the day, we played Hank William's Honky Tonkin' and got some of them singing on the chorus. Here and there we stopped and talked, but for the most part, it was one big, messy, delightful jam. By the time we took our first break, I could already feel some of the cultural awkwardness starting to ebb.
Just a minute ago, Tom and I walked across the courtyard to where a group of boys were doing acrobatics: upside down, balancing on each other's shoulders and knees, two or three boys high. Now, here in the GoDown office, two of the teenagers have come in, one with an ice pack and the other, a huge, huge lump at the bottom of his knee. I'm completely distracted from this writing, watching him gasping as his friend tries to wrestle the lump back into his knee. My stomach is turning and I think it's worse for him that I'm here -- strange white girl wincing back at him. So I'm signing off! All in all, it's been an exhausting, wonderful first day.
Thanks for reading,
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
It's close proximity to Ketebul Studios means that if we feel we've got something we're ready to record, we can just grab our kit and walk across in a properly equipped live room.
The GoDown arts centre was established in 2003 and provides a home to artists from all different backgrounds. We're lucky enough to have come to an arrangement with Susanna Owiyo to use her space and equipment at GoDown.
Here's what our neighbours are up to:
The rest of the afternoon we were tying up final arrangements to bring the Kenyan musicians onboard.
Kumura is particularly excited about the project - being a Kikuyu he has never played with a Lua such as Ochieng Nelly. So much so, he now sees the project as a thing of musical unity in Kenya.