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