The Owiny Sigoma Band is an evolving collaboration between two Kenyan musicians, masters of the traditional music of the Luo people of Western Kenya—Joseph Nyamungu (nyatiti, vocals) and Charles Owoko (percussion)—and five British musicians—Jesse Hackett (keys), Louis Hackett (bass), Sam Lewis (guitar), Chris Morphitis (bouzouki/guitar) and Tom Skinner (drums)—members of the English funk collective Elmore Judd and colleagues of the globe-trotting producer Damon Albarn. Working together, they've created a masterpiece. Power Punch is one of the most exciting albums released this year, a successful and original blend of traditional African music and the current sounds of British electronica (of both dance-floor and headphones variety).
The cross-cultural collaboration behind the group began in 2009 when the English contingent traveled to Nairobi at the behest of Art of Protest, an organization devoted to promoting Kenyan music and culture. There they met Nyamungu and Owoko, and together with other local musicians, they recorded a few tracks in a disused factory space. But the project didn’t truly take off until Gilles Peterson signed the group to his Brownswood Recordings label and released their self-titled debut album in 2011. In 2012, the Kenyan musicians traveled to London to help write and record Power Punch, an album that sounds like the soundtrack to a 40-minute Afro-futurist dream in which traditional African culture exists comfortably within the most advanced technology. Or, to put it another way, it sounds like what might be bumping in the London clubs of 2013 if England had been colonized by Luo people in the 19th century instead of the reverse.
You can hear the singles here:
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What is so striking about the Owiny Sigoma Band's work on this album is how completely integrated their collaboration sounds. Power Punch exudes a refreshing musical egalitarianism: different elements are featured at various points throughout the album, but no one element ever feels subservient to another. The twangs of Joseph Nyamungu’s eight-string nyatiti lute run through the album like electrical signals from a pulsing central nervous system, but these currents are grounded by deep Electro bass drips, eclectically shaped guitar tones, and a dribbling bed of Owoko’s percussion. The flow is punctuated at times by sharp electronic snare accents or full, acoustic drum set grooves. Nyamungu’s edgy incantations mix and twist between pulses of the effects-laden, smoothly layered voices of the British musicians. Poppier vocals in English emerge strongest on two songs, “Sunken Wrecks,” and “Harpoon Land,” but within the Afro-trance landscape of the album, these tracks provide brief, refreshing moments of a different perspective.
The Owiny Sigoma Band can arguably be considered part of an emerging style of African traditional/electro fusion music that includes artists and bands such as Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang, Sorie Kande, and Burkina Electric, to name a few. Most of these projects involve collaborations between Western and African musicians, with varying degrees of agency and involvement on either side of the cultural divide. But, among their contemporaries, The Owiny Sigoma Band stands out: while Burkina Electric often sounds literally like traditional Burkinabé musicians singing and playing along to techno productions, and the Bubu Gang sound like a Brooklyn indie-rock band playing Janka’s Bubu music, O.S.B. creates a true hybrid sound that features the best of what each musician has to offer. They seem to be the forerunners of an emergent style of Afropop music that features a truly integrated cross-cultural creative process. We can only hope that this method of collaboration takes off and grows into a broader musical movement!