Words Nikki Follis Photography Julia McKay
For three days in early September, several thousand revellers from Kenya and beyond gathered on the shores of Lake Naivasha for the Rift Valley Festival (RVF). A showcase for local and emerging talent alongside more established African and international artists, the festival has been growing in reputation and ambition since its inception in 2010.
RVF is the brainchild of British brothers Ivan and Sean Ross, who admit that organising a festival of this scale has not been easy but that this year has marked a coming of age in terms of success. The pair divide their time between the Rift Valley and London, and run the event with a strong ethical spirit - all proceeds from ticket sales go directly to local community and environmental projects in the Naivaisha area. And by attracting festival goers from across the East Africa region as well as around the world, they also hope RVF will help promote Kenya as a safe and exciting tourist destination, a reputation that has been damaged in recent years due to media reporting of outbreaks of political unrest and violence in the country.
This year’s line-up featured more than 40 artists across the several stages nestled around the beautiful, waterside setting of Fisherman’s Camp, owned by the Ross brothers’ parents, which in itself is one of RVF’s main draws. What other festival offers the chance to go hippo spotting under the watchful eye of Masaai security guards in between enjoying music, food, dancing and culture?
The festival kicked off on Friday evening with DJs Under The Stars on the main stage, featuring spin-masters of the nascent Kenyan Afro-house scene, such as BBSA, Barney Barrow and one-to-watch Nairobi collective Electrique DJs & The Beat Parade Band. The UK’s Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx fame headlined with a set heavily inspired by afrobeats old and new.
Saturday and Sunday's acts treated festival-goers to a musical smogasboard covering African roots, soul, jazz, ska, dub, reggae, house, hip hop and rock. Highlights included renowned Kenyan songstress Suzanna Owiyo; stalwarts of the global festival circuit Yunasi, whose East African sesube music style got a lazy late afternoon crowd on their feet; and the infectious rhythms of Congolese group Rumba Japan.
One of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the weekend was the Saturday night set by New York-based multi-instrumentalist, rapper and beat-boxer Joe Driscoll, whom Cee Lo Green has labelled ‘the gangsta with an iron lung’, with Guinean Sekou Kouyate, known in France as the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the kora’. Speaking of their collaboration, which was born when they met at the French festival Nuits Métis, Sekou noted, “He doesn’t speak any French, and I speak no English, but through music we understand”.