Music News
2:03 am
Sat September 8, 2012

Sauti Sol: Native Sons Sing Straight To Kenya's Youth

Originally published on Sat September 8, 2012 9:40 pm

The members of Sauti Sol rehearse in a cramped recording studio above a chapati restaurant off a noisy highway in Nairobi. Bien-Aime Baraza, Delvin Mudigi and Willis Chimano — the founding members, all 25 — have been friends since they sang together as part of a gospel ensemble in high school. When they graduated in 2005, they didn't want to stop singing, so they formed Sauti Sol. Sauti is Swahili for voice, while sol is Spanish for sun. "Voices of light."

They wrote songs and rehearsed for three years before releasing their first album, Mwanzo, in 2008 — it sold well. When the band made its debut, the music scene in Nairobi was dominated by DJs playing party music. Sauti Sol took a different approach and formed a new sound.

"It was rare to find a young band that crafted live music onstage, with rich three-part harmonies," says Buddha Blaze, a well-known Kenyan music promoter. "They were the first that actually sang, the first from that generation of young Kenyans who were actually singing and telling stories. So obviously they were different. Here are some young people who don't want to be rappers."

Every member of the band is a college graduate. In "Soma Kijana," they urge young people to pursue an education. In "Asante Baba," they thank fathers who raise their families instead of abandoning them. And there is "Awinja," written by Baraza, who says it comes from a personal place.

"It's a tribute to all the African women who go to work abroad," Baraza says. "They do all sorts of odd jobs, and they send money home. Their kids are able to go to school; their families are able to have better lives. Awinja is my mother's name. She sacrificed. She went abroad when I was really young, when I was in high school. I was 15. And she left Kenya, and she's never come back since."

Another of the band's hits is "Blue Uniform," about police misconduct. Guitarist Polycarp Otieno says it's popular because so many of the group's fans have had run-ins with the cops.

"They're really tough," Otieno says. "When they get you in the street, they really harass you, and they take bribes a lot in Kenya."

A Changing Climate For Message Music

There is an opening in Kenyan society today to sing about sensitive themes — like police and government corruption and venal politicians — that didn't exist before. Saxophonist and baritone Willis Chimano notes that under the dictatorship of Daniel arap Moi, who retired from politics in 2002, such topics were forbidden.

"Now you can stand and criticize the president really harshly, and you can get away with it," Chimano says. "The media freedom nowadays would be unthinkable just 10 years ago."

There are still limits, however, and Sauti Sol occasionally learns just how far it can push social criticism. A few years ago, the musicians had their first live radio interview and began singing a song that included the words: "Police are shooting, police are shooting innocent people, and the women crying and their sons are dying and we just don't care anymore." Baraza says they received threats after that broadcast.

"The owner of the station is a billionaire. He's a tycoon," Baraza says. "He just called because his friends are the police, and he said, 'Why are you singing stupid things on my radio? I'll kill you! Never come back to my station again! I'll look for you and find you!' He just really threatened me, you know."

Passing The Torch

Sauti Sol has done small tours in Africa and Europe, and appeared twice at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, but the Nairobi crowds remain the members' favorite. For all the political themes in the band's music, it's the love songs that seem to touch many fans — including Beldina Gikundi, a 27-year-old doctor who works in refugee camps.

"Well, they're Kenyan, authentic Kenyan," Gikundi says. "They really reach out to the youth [by singing] in Swahili on most of their songs. The romance that comes out in their music, it's about love and women and all that. It makes them good, and of course they can sing really, really well."

Kenya is a young nation: The median age is between 18 and 19 for both males and females. The mouldering political class is decidedly middle-aged and older. Sauti Sol, with its tremendous following, feels a certain responsibility to address its generation. Baraza says the band speaks to a critical mass in the country.

"A lot of the people we speak to through our music are young," Baraza says. "Injecting some moral obligation into them is one of our biggest goals. And in every album we do, there is a song that is just about a new generation."

This "new generation" thinks differently about this turbulent country and about how to be citizens and parents. As one Sauti Sol song says, "We are the leaders of tomorrow; we will lead and they will follow."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We end this hour with music from Kenya, where the most popular band among young people is Sauti Sol. Yet the musicians have a grown-up message: Get an education, respect your parents, lead this nation - and don't trust the police. NPR's John Burnett has their story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The members of Sauti Sol are rehearsing in a cramped recording studio above a chapati restaurant, off a noisy highway in Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND REHEARSAL)

UNIDENTIFIED SAUTI SOL MEMBER #1: (Singing) I wanna be with you, to love and to hold. But you know I say no...

UNIDENTIFIED SAUTI SOL MEMBER #2: Yeah, I like that.

BURNETT: Baraza, Delvin and Chimano, the founding members - all 25 years old - have been friends since they sang together in a gospel ensemble in high school. When they graduated in 2005, they didn't want to stop singing. So they formed Sauti Sol - sauti, Swahili for voice; and sol, Spanish for sun. They were voices of light.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND REHEARSAL)

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) I wanna be with you, you, my love. Baby, you're sweeter than honey....

BURNETT: They wrote songs, and rehearsed for three years before releasing their first CD, "Mwanzo," in 2008, which sold well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUTI SOL SONG, "WAZIZI")

BURNETT: When the band made its debut, the music scene in Nairobi was dominated by DJs playing party music. Sauti took a different approach, and formed a new sound. It was rare to find a young band that crafted live music onstage with rich, three-part harmonies, says Buddha Blaze, a well-known Kenyan music promoter.

BUDDHA BLAZE: They were the first that actually sang; the first from that generation of young Kenyans who were actually singing and telling stories. So obviously, they were different because wow, here are some young people who don't want to be rappers. (LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Every member of the band is a college graduate. In the song "Soma Kijana," they urge young people to pursue an education. In "Asante Baba," they thank fathers who raise their families instead of abandoning them. And there is "Awinja," written by Bien Aime Baraza.

BIEN AIME BARAZA: And it's a tribute to all the African women who go to work abroad. And they do all sorts of odd jobs, and they send money home. And their kids are able to go to school; their families are able to have better lives. Awinja is my mother's name. She sacrificed - she went abroad when I was really young; when I was in high school. I was 15. And she left Kenya, and she's never come back since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUTI SOL SONG, "AWINJA")

BURNETT: Another of the band's hits is "Blue Uniform," about police misconduct. It's popular, says guitarist Polycarp Otieno, because so many of their fans have had run-ins with the cops.

POLYCARP OTIENO: They're really tough. Like, when they get you in the streets, they really harass you. And they take bribes - a lot - in Kenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE UNIFORM")

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) Hey, you, in the blue uniform. If I have wronged you, I will reform. (Foreign language)

BURNETT: There's an opening in Kenyan society today to sing about sensitive topics, that there didn't used to be. Under the strongman Daniel arap Moi - who retired from politics in 2002 - such subjects were forbidden, says saxophonist and baritone Willis Chimano.

WILLIS CHIMANO: Now, you can stand and criticize the president really harshly, and you can get away with it. The media freedom nowadays would be unthinkable just 10 years ago.

BURNETT: There are still limits, and Sauti occasionally learns just how far it can push social criticism. A few years ago, the musicians had their first live radio interview. And they began singing this song:

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) Police are shooting, police are shooting innocent people, and the women crying 'cause their sons are dying, and we just don't care anymore.

CHIMANO: And after we sang that song - the owner of the station is a billionaire - and he just called 'cause his friends are the police. And he said, why are you singing those stupid things on my radio? I'll kill you! Never come back to my station again. Get out!

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

BURNETT: On a lazy Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Nairobi, Sauti Sol is playing an outdoor concert. People are sprawled on blankets, sipping wine, puffing water pipes, and swaying to the beat. The musicians have done small tours in Africa and Europe, and appeared twice at South by Southwest in Austin. But this is their favorite crowd. For all the political themes in the band's music, it's the love songs that seem to touch many fans - like Beldina Gikundi, a 27-year-old doctor who works in refugee camps.

BELDINA GIKUNDI: They're Kenyan, authentic Kenyan; and the fact that they sing in Swahili most of their songs, and the romance that comes out in their music - it's about love and relationships and women, and all that. I think it's what makes them so good. And of course, they can sing really, really well.

BURNETT: Kenya is a very young nation. The median age is between 18 and 19, for both male and female. The moldering political class is decidedly middle-aged and older. Sauti Sol, with its tremendous following, feels a certain responsibility to address its generation.

BARAZA: We speak to a critical mass in this country.

BURNETT: Again, songwriter and tenor Bien Aime Baraza.

BARAZA: A lot of the people we speak to are young. And injecting some moral obligation into them, is one of our biggest goals. And in every album we do, there is a song that is just about a new generation.

BURNETT: A new generation that thinks differently about this turbulent country, and about how to be citizens and parents. As the song says, it's the Sauti Sol generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOL GENERATION")

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) We are the leaders of tomorrow. We will lead, and they will follow. So don't you listen when they tell you, 'cause you're bigger than you think you are.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOL GENERATION")

BURNETT: So don't you put down your brother 'cause together you are stronger...

SIMON: And you can watch a performance by Sauti Sol, on nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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