10 Minutes With... Ayub Ogada

Published: 2 years ago

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Words Anyiko Owoko Photography Paul Munene/Quaint Photography

Kenyan folk songwriter, musician and percussionist Ayub Ogada was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score after his composition Kothbiro (Luo for 'rain is coming’) appeared on The Constant Gardener soundtrack. His sophomore album is due out on Real World Records in 2013, a cool 20 years after his debut En Mana Kuoyo. A sometime actor (he appeared in 1985’s Oscar-winning Out of Africa), Ogada returned to Kenya after a long spell living in London – where he recently performed as part of the London 2012 celebrations. ARISE caught up with him in Nairobi, to talk about the album, the future of Kenyan music and his love for the nyatiti – a traditional stringed-instrument from the Luo people of western Kenya.

Why did it take you nearly two decades to compile your second album?
I am generally slow, especially when it comes to music. However I like it that way and I always go by the famous Swahili saying, ‘haraka haraka haina baraka’ [more haste, less speed]. Working on my new album has been exciting and adventurous, as most of the songs have been recorded outdoor in my portable studio. I’ve also worked with various musicians including Isaac Gem from Western Kenya and Trevor Warren, an English musician. I might still add another collaboration before the release.

Many of your compositions have been used on film soundtracks, such as I Dreamed Of Africa and War Dance. What’s the secret to writing songs that appeal to the global world of films?
I am not sure as to why many love or chose my music but my approach is simplicity. If I have to play music along programmed computers then it’s not music.

You seem quite fond of the nyatiti. Is it more than just an instrument to you?
Of course! I’ve been married to my nyatiti for 24 years now. At our first encounter I found it limiting as I wanted more notes and harmonics than it could offer but I finally fell in love with its build and simple rhythmic sequences. I remember my grandmother warning me when I first got it: "she’s going to take over your life!" And true, I can play the piano, horns, trumpets and guitars but my life only revolves around the nyatiti. I respect the older generations who invented such classical instruments.

What’s been your best moment shared with your ‘wife’? And do you have an actual woman in your life?
I refer to myself as ‘me, myself and my nyatiti’ as I’ve played at various world platforms considered for bands with my nyatiti as my only accompaniment and got great reception all the same. My fondest of memories is playing at Canada’s Waterfront Music festival. After my performance I met Ry Cooder [famed American guitarist] waiting for me backstage to congratulate and invite me to his yacht. All because of my nyatiti! On the other side, I have a partner and we just got blessed with a baby girl who's 8 months old. It’s actually my turn to feed her tonight.

You're in your 50s, with a new album and your first baby, how is juggling all that working for you?
I am a musician and our lives are tough. There’s a lot of pressure in this industry, and especially for those who have lived in various countries like me. I was based in the UK for over 20 years. To start a family isn’t about age but the right time and feeling. I am at a point of growth and this is the main inspiration behind my new album, which will most probably be titled Kothi [Luo for seed].

Having been the co-founder of successful Kenyan olden bands, African Heritage and Black Savage, what prompted you to leave Kenya and your subsequent return home?
I left Kenya in search of musicians of like minds, something I missed locally. I wanted to learn from great percussionists, especially West African. And at the time [in the late 80s], a flight to West Africa would have to first pass through the UK. So I decided to settle there as many percussionists were already based there. I learnt and got influenced all I could, even got discovered by Real World Records in the process, but writing African songs away from home was still a challenge. All other Africans in Europe, including me, had been influenced by the Western world – that, and being homesick, brought me back to Kenya.

As a veteran musician who’s experienced the music business in both the African and European worlds, what’s your take on Kenya’s musical strides and future?
Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili Williams and DO Misiani are among legends that set the pace for Kenya’s music arena, which is currently vibrant and doing well. I am, however, afraid that my country’s political turmoil is putting Kenyan music in danger. Think about all the opportunities the youth miss out on because of fund embezzlement in the youth and culture ministries. As for my experience, I’ve met and worked with various world stars including Mari Boine, Baaba Maal, Angélique Kidjo and Hugh Masekela, and every time we meet we talk about life just like ordinary humans. Music is usually for rehearsals and stage. And after all, life is music.

Ayub Ogada‘s new album will be released next year. For more information, visit