Blog October 24, 2018
The Mombasa Years of Andrew “Madebe” Burchell, Part II

In 1994 Andrew Burchell set up his first proper recording studio in Mombasa, moving out of the little kibanda along the Mombasa-Malindi Highway and into a new space in the Timboni neighborhood Mwembe Tayari. On a trip back home in the interim, he acquired gear for a basic eight-track digital studio, as well as a cassette duplication machine. The importance of the latter cannot be overstated. With it, Burchell could now function like a label, forming creative partnerships with artists rather than simply charging them for production services.

In 1997, just as he was making a name for himself, the new studio was robbed. Thieves made off with virtually everything, even his master tapes. Fortunately, Burchell had become friendly with a local businessowner named Prabhu Patel, an amateur musician and self-taught electrical engineer who had built his own recording studio to record Hindi religious music. Patel loaned Burchell some basic equipment—a couple of cassette decks and some microphones—to keep him going in the wake of the robbery.

Burchell moved to the neighborhood of Mtwapa, and tried to get back into business. He couldn’t continue with Prabhu’s equipment indefinitely, however. So when his friend, the Congolese gospel singer Emachichi, returned from Tanzania to set up his own studio, Burchell saw an opportunity. Sharing a studio with Emachichi for a few years, Burchell worked mostly at night after Emachichi was finished recording gospel groups during the day.

Burchell’s final move in Mombasa was to the neighborhood of Ganjoni, where he set up a small digital audio workstation-based studio. It was a true “bedroom studio,” complete with a loft bed that he had installed over the computer station. Living and working in the same small apartment suited him well, especially as it began to get more difficult for him to get around.

During his time in Mombasa, Burchell recorded a range of genres, including Christian choirs, traditional ngoma dance groups, Koranic recitation, and Swahili comedy. But it was his work in the area of urban youth music—hip-hop, r&b, and ragga/dancehall—that forged his reputation in the country.

While Nairobi is seen as the focal point of Kenya’s urban youth music, it was in Mombasa that young Kenyans first started experimenting with hip-hop and dancehall in local languages. The youth in Mombasa had more exposure to global black popular musics prior to the liberalization of the Kenyan media in the late 1990s. Jamaican sounds were used to set the right mood for Europeans at the beach resorts; and visiting American sailors introduced hip-hop to the city when the sounds were still fresh even in the U.S.: as Fundi Frank recalled in an interview with Music in Africa, “hip-hop culture [in Kenya] American naval vessels would dock in Mombasa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, carrying sailors ready to distribute cassettes of current popular music in exchange for items at the local curio markets."

Burchell was circumspect at first about getting involved with youth music, as there didn’t seem to be any market for it. But aspiring rappers and dancehall MCs proved receptive to his efforts to establish the studio as a creative space in Mombasa. Until Burchell came along with his digital sampler, these artists were working with club DJs to provide backing tracks using commercial recordings. Burchell offered them the opportunity to work with a whole new palette of sounds.

Among the first local youth music artists Burchell got to know were K-Shot, who would go on to work with Burchell in the studio; Poxi Presha (Prechard Pouka Olang), who would go on to gain national fame before his untimely death from tuberculosis in 2005; and Budda Boaz, who was making a name for himself as one half of the pioneering Swahili rap duo Wachungu Weusi. All would end up being regarded as important innovators in the world of Kenyan hip-hop. But Burchell’s first impression of them was that they were merely “mimicking” U.S. hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall. He took it upon himself to help them develop styles that were more distinctively local. “I could push them,” he recalled, “because they were not paying me, after all. They were all hustlers. So I had some leverage to push them in a certain musical direction.”

Burchell encouraged Mombasa’s youth music artists to abandon English in favor of African languages, and even to move beyond the regional lingua franca of Swahili and embrace their “tribal” languages. He went as far as to put up a sign in his studio with the mantra, “Ukabila ni sumu, kikabila ni tamu” (Tribalism is poison, but tribal culture is sweet).

Budda Boaz was already rapping in Swahili with Fundi Frank as Wachungu Weusi before Burchell got to know him. Burchell was impressed by Wanchungu Weusi’s socially conscious poetry. Perhaps influenced by Burchell, Boaz experimented with rapping in his mother tongue, Kisii, with some success—though his artistic identity remained that of a Swahili rapper.

Poxi Presha

Poxi Presha, the first Mombasan youth music artist to gain national attention, took Burchell’s advice to heart, developing a theatrical trilingual style of rapping, mixing English, Swahili and Dholuo.

Bruce Odhiambo, a top Nairobi producer who had spent many years in Mombasa, took notice of Poxi and began working with him in 1997. The two had a tumultuous relationship, however, and Poxi kept coming back to Burchell’s studio to work on material.

Poxi’s “Otonglo Time” (Money Time), a humorous song decrying materialism and celebrating honest work, was originally recorded by Burchell in 1998, before being rerecorded by Odhiambo. Here is the original version, complete with Burchell’s own voice in the intro.

In 2000, Poxi relocated to Nairobi and joined the Nairobi City Ensemble, an Afro-fusion group formed by Tabu Osusa, previously band manager of Orchestra Virunga. Among the songs he performed with this group was another version of “Otonglo Time.”

Poxi Presha is remembered in Kenya not only for his music, but also for his activism on behalf of artists’ rights. He famously took on pirates, promoters, producers and collective management organizations, using tactics ranging from shutting down his own performances to storming offices. Though few people were aware of it, Burchell served as an advisor in Poxi’s anti-piracy crusade (Burchell kept this very quiet; we only know about it because Andrew Eisenberg happened to be at Burchell’s studio during one of their strategy sessions).

Burchell refrained from taking too much credit for Poxi Presha’s success. But Fundi Frank credits Burchell with shaping Poxi’s style early on: “One time he was recording a song with Madebe and he told him, why don’t you try and do it in a soft way, like in hip-hop, because the husky voice sounds like you are struggling. So he tried it and, wow, it sounded good. That’s when he now started doing hip-hop.”

Malkia Rukia

The artist who really established Burchell as an innovator in Kenyan youth music was taarab singer Malkia Rukia. The first time she came to Burchell’s studio, Fundi Frank and Budda Boaz were in attendance. They were amazed by her voice, and encouraged Burchell to give her a hip-hop beat to sing over. Burchell did just that, using a sample from Biggie Smalls. This was soon after Burchell’s studio had been robbed, so the session was conducted “with an Akai sampler and a couple of cassette decks on one laid-back afternoon in Mtwapa.”

Perhaps aided by the relaxed atmosphere of his makeshift studio, Burchell managed to coax Rukia, a seasoned taarab singer, into singing on a hip-hop groove, and even convinced her to rap on one verse. The result was a compelling performance that beautifully explores the surprisingly thin line between contemporary African-American and traditional Swahili vocal styles. Unfortunately, Rukia’s husband, who also served as her manager, expressed disapproval, leaving Burchell in doubt about the quality of the track. The tape sat in Burchell’s drawer for six months, until he finally played it for Fundi Frank and Budda Boaz, who convinced him to push forward with it. After having Boaz add an additional Swahili rap track, Burchell released Malkia Rukia’s “Penzi Kwetu” (Love in our Home) in 1996.

Burchell marketed “Penzi Kwetu” directly to local radio stations and club DJs. The first step was to have it transferred to CD, a service for which he ended up paying far too much, because he “didn’t know anything about computers at the time.” With CDs in hand, he approached a presenter he knew at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. The presenter liked the song enough to place it on heavy rotation on the Swahili service. Burchell then took a copy to the Florida 2000 nightclub. The patrons didn’t know how to dance to the song at first, but the house DJ liked and kept on playing it until it sunk in.

“Penzi Kwetu” eventually made it onto KBC’s Metro FM, which had just started broadcasting in 1996; and then the BBC World Service, after Burchell sent it to veteran presenter and world music champion Charlie Gillett.

After gaining national notoriety and international exposure, Rukia received invitations from producers and promoters in Nairobi. Suzanne Gachukia of Samawati Studios introduced her to the artists in her stable, including rap duo K-South. She ended up featuring on a couple of K-South’s tracks, and also appeared at high-profile concerts like the Benson and Hedges' "Gold and Tones" in Nairobi in 1999.

Like Burchell’s other collaborators, Poxi Presha and Emachichi, Malkia Rukia’s life came to a tragically early end. She passed away in 2001 from an undisclosed illness.

Nyota Ndogo

When Malkia Rukia retreated from the scene due to her illness, Burchell felt that Mombasa needed a female star to fit into the empty space left by her absence. He found that star in Mwanaisha Abdulla, who would soon come to be known as Nyota Ndogo (“Little Star”).

Although she hailed from a musical family, Nyota was making a living as a domestic worker with no support from her musician father or brother when Burchell met her. She came to Burchell via Dalla Khamisi, a former member of Safari Sounds Band who had cofounded the first of the two studios of Emachichi’s where Burchell worked. Burchell recalled of Nyota’s first visit to the studio, “When she first came she sang ‘Take Care’ and I said ‘That’s nice. Do you have another?’ She went on and on for about 10 songs.” Emachichi helped with a few of the backing tracks, but Dalla was dismissive. He thought a voice like Nyota’s would be better off in the hotel circuit.

Nyota Ndogo’s debut album, Chereko, released in 1999, received good distribution, thanks to a deal with the Nairobi-based distributor Music World Ltd. And thanks to the relationship Burchell had established with Charlie Gillett through Malkia Rukia’s music, Nyota’s “Take Care” was placed alongside tracks by the likes of Manu Chao, Mariza, and Orchestra Baobab on Gillett’s World 2003 compilation. Soon after, the title song of Nyota’s debut album was licensed for the 2004 Rough Guide to Kenya.

In 2000, Nyota was invited to Nairobi to take part in a recording project that turned out to be a landmark in the history of Kenyan youth music—the debut album of hip-hop/dancehall group Necessary Noize, produced by Tedd Josiah. The Necessary Noize/Nyota Ndogo collaboration “Nataka Toa” was one of the many big hits off the album.

As Burchell had hoped, Nyota Ndogo became known in the world of urban youth music for her authentic “coastal” sound. She was reluctant to accept the title of taarab singer, however, even after winning a Kisima award for best taarab artist in 2003. She didn’t have the taarab pedigree of Malkia Rukia, and didn’t even consider herself culturally Swahili. When Andrew Eisenberg met her in 2004, she expressed dismay at having won the Kisima award, feeling that it was unfair to those who had been working the genre for years. But Burchell always felt Nyota should embrace the taarab identity, because her voice and poetry carried influences from the genre, even if they weren’t direct products of it. In recent years, Nyota seems to have come around to Burchell’s way of thinking on this subject, marketing herself as a “taarab fusion” singer and playing up her Swahili-coast roots. Her recent video for “Subira Yangu,” for example, has her singing a rags-to-riches story (one that resonates with her actual personal story) in a distinctive Swahili setting.



Postscript

Andrew Burchell died on Nov. 15, 2017 at age 65 of complications from motor neuron disease. His final artistic statement was a remarkable duet of short films, Complexities of Care and We’re All Terminal, which reflect on his own mortality during his final days.

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