The Musical World of Singer Mutinda

George Mutinda’s songwriting skills have won him a global award. That however doesn’t change much of the humble man– who will talk about such big things only if you ask him. It’s late afternoon on a hot Saturday. I am meeting Mutinda at the French cultural center’s splendid jardin where I am interviewing him for one of my TV shows. Before the start he kindly asks to sing for me. Who can say no to that?

Equipped with only his guitar and voice, he’s got a super power to make a 3-min song sound like it lasted a mere 30 seconds. “Is it over?”, I ask. He laughs and starts to play another one. I can’t really comprehend how he is not mad at me for keeping him waiting for an hour. I also can’t comprehend how I can feel this song’s reminiscent echo despite the fact that I cant understand it’s words sang in Kamba, Mutinda’s native language.

He is singing a song titled ‘Vala vandu’. It means, that place. “It’s about familiar strangers. It could be a person in your country or from any other place in the world. Sometimes you have just an instance with someone and the effect they leave on you usually lasts forever. That’s it. Most times when you look back you realize that you never got the chance to thank them for the inspiration they left you. That’s what this song is about,” he explains and I conclude that this guy is some-kind-of-deep.

He is soft-spoken. When he sings though, there is a certain strength and passion to it. “In Kenya my songs are termed as afro-acoustic. Beyond borders it’s called world music. I like that a lot because world music are songs inspired by African traditional folk. It’s basically music for the ears of a global audience. Most times you can tell of a song’s roots, be it from west or South Africa,” says Mutinda.

The singer/guitarist has toured among other places the Schengen countries and USA, all in pursuit of exporting his African sound. “All my concerts were sold out but I was shocked to make a revelation that people out there don’t know much about the East Africa sound. We need to spread it out more,” he asserts. Is there a unified East African sound? Mutinda says, “The East African sound is diverse, we have many colours that should be spread across the world. Striving to have one sound is like a horse without a tail.” Oh this is a wise guy. Among his local musical influences are KK Kilonzo, Eric Wainaina, Suzzana Owiyo, Abbi and Winyo though his overall inspiration comes from every single one of his daily life’s encounters, he tells me.

In 2005 Mutinda emerged as the top male artist in the inaugural Spotlight on Kenyan Music Competition. In 2009 he performed at the Sauti Za Busara festival in Zanzibar. The same year ‘Matopeni’, his debut album was released. The album is very cool, definitely not for the hot heads. The ten tracks are a mix of jazzy rhythms, afro- acoustic sounds with some contemporary vibes, all sang in Kiswahili and Kamba. In 2011 his song ‘Simama’ won in the world music category for best song in the prestigious International Songwriting Competition (ISC) held in USA.

“There was a call for entries and i applied just for the kicks. There were over 15,000 entries from all over Africa so it’s unbelievable that my song made it through into the final sixteen and eventually to the top!”, he exclaims with a satisfactory shine. “That’s huge! Was there a prize?” I excitedly ask him. “There is always a prize,” he calmly informs me. I am happy for Mutinda though when it comes to hoisting our Kenyan flag on the world map I am ashamed that not as many Kenyans know much on people of such caliber. “The world appreciates art more than Kenya does. Maybe my style appealing more to the world than in Kenya has made me the prophet who is not recognized in his home. Artists also need credibility at home. Athletes run for Kenya and so do we but through music,” he says. Je suis d’accord.

Mutinda also co-founded acoustic nights, a bi-monthly event that gives a live music platform to Kenyan musicians. The event is held at Sippers restaurant. He also performs at Tapas in Village market on a bi-monthly basis. His plans for 2012 is to have more of his live music performances recorded citing a need to maintain the freshness.

I am a big bathroom singing star. And lately i have been considering taking my career to the next level — songwriting! So i want in on Mutinda’s secret even though he knows not of my secret dreams 🙂 He actually thinks about it to an extent of pulling a few strands of his dreads. “The secret to songwriting is patience and a captivation to thyself. If your song doesn’t resonate with you then it’s not worth any audience,” his advice to all the bathroom and outside-the-bathroom dreamers.

Mutinda is a self-taught musician. He started singing and playing traditional stringed instruments way before his teens. With his first salary he bought himself his first guitar. The rest is history.

BONUS: In the video of ‘Simama’, Mutinda featured the Pamoja Dance Group, an integrated mix of dancers with and without physical disabilities. If that wasn’t beautiful, then i don’t know jack about beauty. For more info check Mutinda’s website

A Mystery into Lord Egerton’s Castle

From Molo, it’s a scenic thirty minutes drive that my family and I enjoy. We arrive at ‘The place where the suitor missed the target’. Not my words but the tagline on the brochure I pick at the gate on my way into Lord Egerton’s Castle. I am wowed at my first sight of a castle; grandiose and whimsical. In a split second I imagine seeing a beautiful damsel in distress with flowing hair peeping from the medieval sight of the parapet—wishful thinking. This magnificent 53-room castle lies a few meters off the Nakuru- Eldoret highway (about fifteen kilometers from Nakuru town) and was built by Lord Maurice Egerton Tatton, the fourth and last Baron Egerton of Tatton  (1874 – 1958).

Robert Onyiego is a bubbly elderly man in his 80s. He was the Castle’s Manager and also the favorite of Egerton’s ten Luo servants. “Lord Egerton loved a Luo man’s work ethic, and we did not ask him any questions,” says Robert who two decades later has become the Castle’s caretaker and tour guide.

Lord Egerton was a smart man—an aviator and photographer/filmmaker who loved architecture. He was among the first white settlers to conquer the Kenyan white highlands, finally settling in Ngata farm. Here, he owned an extensive farm and prairies that stretched all the way from Rongai to Nakuru.  I can bet that any sane woman would fall for that package in the first quarter of the 20th century or today for that matter. But I am a little wrong.

There was and still remains a lot of mystery surrounding Lord Egerton. He was meticulous to the letter and possibly a tyrant but above all; lonely. Like most of us, he wanted nothing but love. Robert looks grim as he narrates perhaps the only true and modern East African fairy-cum-love tale. An Austrian woman came to Kenya from overseas to visit Egerton, her fiancée. At that time Egerton was living in a thatch-like six bed-roomed dwelling that echoed his love for African culture. To the lady, not only were his quarters unimpressive but they reflected on his entire bid to marry her. “I can’t live in a house the size of a plane!” She said. Marriage talks failed flat on Lord Egerton as the lady went back to London and soon got married to another man.

Egerton’s spirit was broken. Enough to build a wall inside his heart and a castle surrounding his existence. Contrary to popular theory that after being jilted by his lover, Egerton built the castle to re-impress her; he actually build the castle to appease only one thing—his solitude, confirms Robert. Among the things banned from the castle’s ward was live chicken and dogs because his former lover had compared his house to a chicken’s hut and a dogs kennel; Egerton’s Achilles heel was women. “He gave us orders never to mention even the word ‘female’ in his castle and its extensive 100 acre ward. Accompanying one to the castle was unfathomable.”

Thanks to Egerton’s absence, I walk freely up the flight of stairs leading into the castle. On the left of its ground floor is a dilapidated yet classic ball room that closely resembles the one from the Titanic, yup. Now empty and only home to a broken piano and architectural prowess, Robert shows us a corner near a large window where Egerton would sit under a golden curtain as orchestras and seasoned musicians from abroad played him symphonies. “He loved music so he invited artists from far and wide. This floor had coloured carpets with gold plating and the shelves by the windows all had clocks and cutlery made of gold,” reminisces Robert.

The walk through the 4-storey castle feels like a time travel into chivalry. The man had mastered his delectable traits, I can tell by the large wine cellar situated in the basement. The castle has many bathrooms with defunct electrical machines that would be used to warm towels and dry hair, with at least four to himself. The rest were for male kids, guests and the ladies (despite the irony that no woman took a shower in there during his tenure). There’s a large safe and two food stores: one was for imported foods and the other for local products. “The kitchen had a mini slaughter-house. The chef would have to shower and perfume himself before cooking Lord a meal. A doctor would drive from Nakuru twice a day to come inspect his food,” states Robert. It also surprises me that all the rooms are numbered. Lord Egerton’s bedroom door number is 20 and locked. “It still has some of his personal effects, ” he explains, adding, “All 53 rooms were numbered because we had a lot of businesses running around here, it was easier that way to avoid getting lost.”

The love story goes on as narrated by Robert. Together with Egerton’s close links they tried to find him another woman so that one day she would inherit his vast property (realistic but sad if you ask me). They found him a Black American woman. Still wary of his feelings Egerton went into a thorough background check on her and found that she had been married with kids in Australia. Poor Egerton, his last hope shattered.

It’s the castle where Lord Egerton lived in loneliness or found fortress (heck- who really knows?) with his servants till 1958 when he succumbed to what Robert described as lung complications. This was after having flown 25 doctors into the country to fix him. It’s sad that they couldn’t even save his life. He was buried in Nakuru. All his gold and movable wealth was sent to his family in London. His last surviving sibling died the same year as him.

The luxurious castle was built between 1930 and 1940. “It’s stones and zinc tiles were shipped in from Europe and Asia by 100 Red Indian builders from America,” says Robert.

Lord Egerton’s castle is now just two decades shy of a century in age and a tourist attraction of international repute and currently under the stewardship of the Egerton University (which Lord Egerton himself also established).

I am curious if Lord would turn in his grave if he knew that women were today visiting his castle; some even getting married on its picturesque lawn. “I haven’t thought much about that as Lord is long gone,” says Robert who’s today wearing a ragged trench coat and a hideous hat. “I miss Lord Egerton’s lifestyle. He bought us many gifts; I remember he got me a motor bike, three suits and ties,” he concludes pensively.

The Little Bird

It’s great living here but I miss my other self. I love my cage but I miss my other home. The cage is big and neat. Someone always comes to clean up, plus I am tidy so I hardly make it too dirty. He is my owner, a good man. I knew he is a man because in my previous life, I was a woman. I sing a lot but he doesn’t understand my songs though sometimes he stares at me like he does comprehend. I wish I could talk. If I did, I would ask him his name.

The man bought me at a carnival. I don’t remember how I got there. The last memory I have before that was being a woman. I was in a hospital. Can’t quite recall my name but I remember my husband’s, he was Tim. I remember the look on his eyes when the doctor said that I wouldn’t make it. “Don’t leave me,” the last thing I heard him say. I felt the same towards him just that words couldn’t come out of my mouth. That was the last of my-self, in that form.

The man took me out to the fields only once and let me fly away. The world was so beautiful from up there. All the people looked small and harmless. The sea was one big blue and the farms were in pattern. I felt free- like if I flew far away, I would find my other self. I didn’t, though I met Tim. I flew past a cemetery and I saw him laying flowers on a headstone. He was crying so I flew over to his shoulder. He did not even twitch or look at me. “Silly bird”, he must have thought. I felt his pain, he was mourning over my past self. If I could talk I would let him know that I was there with him, I never really left.

I just want to fly away so I can see the world’s beauty and Tim, again. I did come back to my cage. I stay in too long, I can tell- the man doesn’t want me to get lost in the world. I am now sure that even if I got lost, I will never meet my other self. I finally realize that now I am just a bird. I long for the day when the man will set me free, for I will not run …

Of his Music, Colour and Paint

I am in love with an artist. He is colour before my eyes. In front of his, I am fallen manna. I am a gift that sits pretty. I am the muse that lifts his spirits. He is needy of a piece of art- me; so yes, I am amused. He is never petty but keen on me- his inspiration. See I feel at peace when he stares into my eyes in adoration. It’s as if I am naked in a garden of exploration. Not of Eden but of a lake of plenty. Not water but of hefty love.

I am in love with an artist. He is music to my ears. And to his, I am the intrinsic song that never ends. As I play his well written notes, he finds joy in my deep well of hidden lyrics. See, he is seasoned in his field, I can tell by the sound of his melody, soothing. It’s as if I am bound by his entirety, cooling. In reality it feels like a beautiful rhapsody that only he can mould and uphold.

I am in love with an artist. To me, he is a painter. To him, I am the canvas. On some nights he puts the brush down and recites me a verse. His might- lies in colours so he uses them sparingly, no rush. They are not made of oil but love, sometimes I blush.  Oh … He is patient, so whatever time he never gives hurriedly. I am his precondition so I never leave undoubtedly. We are some kind of addition to art. Inside my heart it feels like we are an ocean connected by emotions. Silent, peaceful and deep.

‘Make way’ for Sara Mitaru’s debut single

Black roses makes way for Sara Mitaru in a celebration of the blog’s 100th post and the first single-song review. Listen now! Complete with lyrics

This is Sara’s debut single, and only a week old. Make way is fresh and young. However its osmosis effect spreads by the day having already made a twitter TT and several high flying spots on radio. We are at a crucial moment when something’s got to give, even if it means less of ‘mikono juu ya hewa’ songs.

Kenya’s 2011 was a year marred by a crippled economy but a flipside of a sporty entertainment industry. Irrespective of societal roles, all Kenyans are needed to converge in messages that will emit positivity. Sara is doing her part and the longevity factor of ‘Make way’ can be felt.

They say we’re independent but they won’t set us free, they say we are sovereign but we are shackled and chained … But there’s a man down, head down with no food on his plate… Make way for the people today, make way liberation will say.

I want to storm into parliament and sing this line to all the politicians. That’ll probably get me arrested. So I want every youth to hear it and know that voting is either paving way for change or conformity. It oozes optimism for the dejected citizen in the world. It’s simply a case of ‘love at first listen’.

The song is a beautiful island. It has no country’s particular musical stamp, giving it more of a world-music feel. The instrumentals in the first 30 seconds are alluring, a fusion of the piano, bass guitar and various strings. About 45 seconds later, Sara’s singing is a marriage of sorts…with the band. The strong beat will leave you bobbing your head if not tapping your feet.

Sara sings about a lot of things, from love, maziwa lala-yes, the plight of children and women to emancipation. Her debut album will be out in 2012, potentially the most befitting gift anyone could get me in this century.

She is also appointed as a UN messenger of truth and an advocate of the UN MDGs. In modesty she speaks of her conviction, “It’s not the title but the ability to sing freedom songs in different spaces where voices will be heard.”

Sara is powerful. Her voice is peanut butter smooth, and sweet, enriched with husky bits. If a secret society kidnapped you and left you in the dark (not that you’d notice) you still wouldn’t miss the voice. Never mind that some of you haven’t heard her music before.

Written and produced by Blackman, Sara’s producer, ‘Make way’ is a fit freedom song. I see my mother jamming to it at the same measure with the thirsty man sitting under a tree in Uhuru park. It would make a great soundtrack to a movie. Heck it would make a good anthem for Kenyans.

BONUS: Follow this link for a FREE Make way download SARAMITARU