Reviews August 19, 2015

Owiny Sigoma already had a great story, but their new album adds a whole new layer. Born out of a British-Kenyan cross-cultural exchange in 2009, the group released the outstanding album Power Punch in 2013, an Afro-futurist mixture of traditional Luo instrumentation and electronics that was one of the year’s best. The story behind their latest album, Nyanza (available for pre-order from Brownwood Recordings), cements their status as one of the world’s most fascinating and free-spirited bands. The group recorded in Kenya, spending time in the rural village where band members Joseph Nyamungu and Charles Owoko live. The band brought a cow and a generator to the village, where they played live before a 12-hour nyatiti (lyre instrument played by the Luo people of western Kenya) sound clash. The band named one of the album’s songs after Jah Mic, the Rasta who ran the “concrete bunker” studio, where they recorded much of the album. For their dub-echoing lead single “Changaa Attack,” the band enlisted children of local fishermen to sing the chorus. The band’s three British members and two Kenyans sound equally comfortable and experimentally minded, creating an album that is just as whimsically unorthodox as the process that brought it about.

The album opens with droning trance-like echoes and gunshots on “(Nairobi) Too Hot,” leading into the chorus: “Heading for the hilltop ‘cause the city is too hot.” While on the surface, this is a simple pop song with a relatable message, several layers of ambient noise, robotic blips and bloops, and traditional nyatiti and nyiduonge drum playing make the song, and the rest of the album that follows, something totally unique. By the song’s end, sounds recorded in the actual Kenyan hilltops add to the dynamic.

By the next track, “Luo Land,” the band has entered the exhilarating landscape of Nyamungu and Owoko’s homeland, far from city life, with rapturous singing in the Luo dialect replacing the English of the previous track. The band is in full trance mode and the sound is captivating: somewhere between ancient Luo culture and sped-up alien electronics.

As far as Owiny Sigoma travels into futuristic territory, they never abandon their roots, powerfully captured on “Owour Won Gembe,” a showcase for Nyamungu’s masterful nyatiti playing and gentle singing voice. Jesse Hackett, the band’s vox/keyboard player, recently released a solo record, Junk, on Stone’s Throw, a label best known for releasing records by J Dilla, Madlib and other left-field hip-hop pioneers. His psychedelic soul aesthetic, similar to that of labelmates the Stepkids, shines through on “I Made You/You Made Me.” Both Nyamungu’s nyatiti and Hackett’s psychedelia seem to exist on the same astral plane, making the transition between the two tracks harmonious, rather than jarring.

The song “Nyanza Night” tells the story of the band coming to Nyamungu and Owoko’s village: “There’s no turning back/We’re going off road/Dance beneath the diamond skies/Drink battery acid moonshine,” a reference to changaa (which literally means “kill me quick”), a popular and potentially deadly alcoholic beverage that’s popular in Kenya. Luckily, a short documentary has also been made to visually capture the story behind Nyata.

Like Mbongwana Star’s fantastic release of a few months ago, From Kinshasa, Nyata sounds at once otherworldly and completely immersed in the environment where it was recorded. On “Deep Kisumu Fish,” lyrics in both English and Luo and a bubbling rhythm place the band in the realm of the fish that are key to the area’s economy and culture. On  “Jah Mic,” a mournful saxophone bursts through the steady nyiduonge rhythm, and ambient electronics recall Miles Davis’ avant-garde jazz masterpiece, On the Corner. Like that album, Nyanza is packed with what at first glance might seem to be a chaotic assortment of elements, but which add up to a beautiful complete whole.

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