Internationally renowned Kenyan folk music singer/songwriter Ayub Ogada’s music style is defined by the matrimony between his deep smooth voice and the soothing sounds of the nyatiti (a traditional lyre famed of the Luo people of Western Kenya). With just [one] solo album and award, an Academy Awards nomination, countless tours around the world and more than 80 compositions, Ayub is now set to release his sophomore album.

On a breezy warm August evening, I am at the Godown Art Centre sitting at its restaurant patio, minutes early for my interview with Ayub—who I wouldn’t have recognized had he not called on arrival (and on time). “I am at the parking lot, will be with you in a few.”

Ayub is known for his conspicuous stage regalia— African dresses and ornaments. Today, off duty, he’s bespectacled and dressed down in plain jeans, a stud, cap and a black leather jacket—coming off as an ordinary guy. “Traditional African adornment simply reinforces my music. I dress like normal people when I am not performing to avoid attracting unwanted attention. It’s the only way I can easily relate with people—an important part of being an artist,” he says.

Ayub speaks with a rare conviction exuding the kind of peace-of-mind many wish to attain. To achieve it however, the man had to embark on a bitter-sweet long journey, which forced him to detach himself from family and success. He relocated to the UK, where he spent years in search of “the right minds”. Being discovered by Real World Records changed his music career, but it was until returning home (Kenya), that Ayub finally found himself.

When music called, I responded

“My dad showed me how to play my first guitar chords. Ironically, after that, he never wanted me to even touch his guitar. I would only play it while he was away from home,” says the self-taught guitarist who wrote his first song at the age of 13.

Ayub’s father was a guitarist and mother—a singer. But despite the musical family background, his father wanted him to become either a doctor or a technocrat. However, the father unable to beat his son’s voracity for musical knowledge finally caved in and enrolled him into piano and trumpet lessons, a time during which the family was living in USA. To complete his final year of elementary school, he returned to Kenya to join Our Lady of Mercy School and later enrolled at Lenana High School. “Even while at school, [I knew] that I wanted nothing other than music”, asserts Ayub, who—after school, decided to do away with the idea of even starting university, to start building on a career in music.

Soon, he started working at the Alliance Française (then French Cultural Center) as a session instrumentalist. The budding musician was eager for any opportunity, and one unexpectedly came, in form of a man.

“I remember 19th Nov 1979 vividly. It’s the day I met the man who changed my life.”

While en route to the Kenya National Theatre Ayub bumped into Allan Donovan (Director, African Heritage). Allan was looking to start a band that would play at his fashion shows around the world. Ayub found his right match. The duo teamed up to start one of Kenya’s pioneer bands, the six-man African Heritage Band.

After a few weeks of taxing rehearsals, the band was off to Belgium for their first international tour, effectively marking the beginning of a successful career.

Marrying Nyatiti

(In Luo, Nyar is daughter, and Titi—a clan).

Through Allan, Ayub got in contact with the African Heritage Art Gallery. It was while [there] admiring traditional African instruments that his eyes first caught the nyatiti. Soon after, he got [one] built for him as he enrolled for a six-week course on playing nyatiti at the Bomas of Kenya. He further amplified his quest for knowing the instrument inside-out by listening to nyatiti music recorded on tapes. Eventually falling in love with the daughter of the clan, Ayub’s grandmother saw the depth at which he was awestruck and warned, “She’s going to take over your life!”

“With all due respect, nyatiti looks like a woman. Its sound box resembles a breast and the two holes at its front look like eyes, making the area somewhat similar to a face,” he says. But like the frivolity of relationships, Ayub was soon discontent. “At first I found nyatiti limiting as I wanted more notes and harmonics. But with time I learnt and emulated its simplicity—distinct of minimal notes and vast rhythmic sequences.”

For years, Ayub has been appearing solo with his nyatiti at various international platforms considered for bands, and getting great reception all the same. At the 2012 London Olympics, he was among musicians from East Africa and Rwanda performing at the Pre-Olympics concert in front of an audience of over 20,000 people.

“I knew I chose the right partner, several years back, when after my performance at Canada’s Waterfront Music festival, I was met by Ry Cooder (famed American guitarist) backstage. He praised my performance and invited me to a hang out. We went on a cruise in his yatch full of girls in bikinis, and strawberries. Then I asked myself, ‘what more could nyatiti get me?’” Ayub poses.

“I pay tribute to older generations that made such classical instruments. I can play several instruments but my life revolves around nyatiti. So much that I refer to myself as ‘me, myself and my nyatiti’. We’ve been married for 24 years now.”

Leaving Kenya & getting discovered

By 1985, African Heritage band had released two albums, Niko Saikini and Handas. Adding to their triumphant belt were international tours to Germany, Switzerland, Estonia and Spain, among other countries.

However, fame and success didn’t satisfy Ayub— a hunter eyeing finesse.

“I wanted to be an excellent percussionist and hang out with musicians of like minds. That was a tough dream because at the time, there were no such musicians I could learn from in Kenya. The [greats] were still from West Africa and South America then, so I decided to move. There were however no direct flights to West Africa; passengers would have to fly there via the UK. And because many West African percussionists were already based in London, I settled there.”

That was 1986. The same year, The African Heritage Band split.

In London, he met the portrait in his mind—talented musicians from all over the world whom he got a chance to interact with and learn from. But painting his own-portrait was tasking. He struggled to make a living—juggling business studies and part-time jobs.

His big break finally came after four years of street performances, busking rather. One day, while playing at Tottenham court road, he caught the attention of many, among them a lady who worked at Real World Records, partners of WOMAD (a 3-day festival featuring music, art and dance from around the world).

“She promised me a chance to curtain-raise at WOMAD and I thought, …’alright’.”

The Kafala Brothers from Angola were to headline at the fest but they missed their flight. Fortunate for Ayub, being at the right place and time granted him a grand welcoming into the world music stage. He played in place of the Angolans, and recounts his stint at WOMAD, “When I began playing the nyatiti, no one paid attention but by the time I finished, there were over 6,000 people applauding.”

He later met Peter Gabriel (founder, Real World Records) to sign [his] first record deal. En Mana Kuoyo (Luo for It’s Just Sand), Ayub’s debut album was released in 1993.

Coming Home

After two decades of living in the UK, Ayub was home sick and still the dissatisfied huntsman. His song writing skills suddenly reached a dead-end. “I missed Kenyan people, food, language and mostly inspiration. Writing African songs away from Africa in a place where all other Africans (me included) had been influenced by the western world was a challenge,” says a seemingly distressed Ayub at the memory.

In 2006, an invitation to perform in Kenya at a concert organized by Sarakasi Trust saw Ayub’s visit extend into an abrupt permanent residency, finally providing his resilient heart with serenity. “I [just] left my house and everything in London unexpectedly but I still have ties with my friends and label. Finding my happiness in Kenya made me stay.”

Music writing is my sole business

Among other avenues, Ayub’s music has enjoyed wide publishing. His poignant compositions have made soundtracks for a number of international films including War Dance, Blood Diamond and Out of Africa.

The original to Ayub’s celebrated song, Koth Biro was rumba and written by Black Savage (Ayub’s other former band) during their tenure. “I have fond memories of the day we wrote the song. We were rehearsing in a Westlands garage.” By 1993—when Ayub was compiling his debut album, some members of the band had since passed away.

“It was the ‘forgotten song’ so I decided to re-do it to honor my former band members. Though the new version was hugely influenced by Ghanaian, Malian, West and East African traditional folk, on it—I worked with musicians from Nigeria and London. Making the song was damn simple but what came out was a pleasant surprise and amazing reaction, to date.”

Koth Biro earned Ayub an Academy Awards nomination for Best Original Score for the film, The Constant Gardener.

With such an impressive repertoire, ironically, the singer had to wait till 2011 to receive his [first] award. At the inaugural African Heritage Awards held in Nairobi in 2011, he was honored for his outstanding contribution to African music. He says as-a-matter-of-fact-ly, “I get a certain amount of respect but I am not looking for it because when I got into this business, I never expected to be any kind of well-known musician. I only wanted to write songs.”

He credits the success of his music to his simple approach towards it, paired with the efficiency of his manager Rob Bozas. “If I have to play music along computer programs, then it’s not music.”

Nearly two decades since his debut album, 2012 will finally see the release of Ayub’s sophomore. He says, “I am a slow writer who goes by the saying ‘Haraka haraka haina baraka’ (a famous Swahili saying advocating for caution where speed is involved).”

Since returning, the singer has been enjoying writing new songs, most of which have been recorded under the sky in his portable studio at open environments around Kenya— providing a sense of freedom, which lacks in normal recording booths, that he refers to as, “…claustrophobic”.

The album features other musicians: Isaac Gem and Trevor Warren, from western Kenya and UK, respectively.

Political turmoil endangers music

Kenya’s music is vibrant. And contemporary musicians have great ideas, says Ayub who then expresses his disappointment with the education system, and ministries of communication, and culture/heritage, for failing to grant music the importance it deserves. “Music is a great income earner and the government of Kenya should tap into it holistically. The education system should impart basic music education to generations.”

To Ayub, politics and musicians make a no-no combo. “You can perform at rallies but you must not associate yourself with any party by endorsement. Corruption is now using the popularity of musicians to flourish.”

I am whole, thanks to my child and new album

At 56—the new album and first child certainly make 2012 Ayub’s annus mirabilis. The proud dad to nine-month old baby Tazlin Achien’g says, “The life of musicians is tough. There’s a lot of pressure, especially for those who travel often. Family requires stability but most importantly, a sense of things happening at the right time—it’s where am at.” It’s his turn to feed her tonight, he tells me excitedly.

While unwinding Ayub enjoys versatile music including sounds of Stevie Wonder and The O’Jays. He’s met and performed alongside renown African musicians including Selif Keta, Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Hugh Masekhela. “We are friends who talk about life when we get off stage. Music is for stage/rehearsals, yet the painstaking mirror image of life.”

It’s now dark. And the whispering warm breeze has turned cold. We’ve been lost in conversations for over two hours. Ayub finds his watch and says, “This has taken longer than I had anticipated but your questions are good. I’ve done so many interviews, it can get boring. I even thought of making a tape on myself to give it out to journalists.” We laugh about it. He starts to ask me questions about myself and seems particularly impressed by the fact that I juggle jobs. “So you’re a busy lady?” It’s awkward suddenly being an interviewee. “Well … If I wasn’t working, I’d just be home watching TV,” my reply. He poses, “Why watch TV while you can be on TV?”

Pundits reference Ayub as a ‘world music’ star. He’s fast to set the record straight. “I sing African music. Europeans created the world music genre while in the real sense, it’s Africans who invented world music. Violins are like Orutus and rock & roll/jazz is nothing without drums—which Africans invented. If human beings came from Africa, so did music.” That statement makes me want to wear a sisal skirt, go bare-chested and do some crazy African-yele-yele dance 🙂

“Anything else you want to say that I haven’t asked yet?” I prod him. “When can I buy you dinner?” he warmly jokes OR maybe not … I will hold him to that. I really enjoyed the walk through Ayub’s beautiful mind. I haven’t met many of such broad-minded, assertive and content people.

Testimonial for his recent sprouting musical inspiration, and growth, Ayub’s new album will either be titled Mbegu or Kothi (Swahili and Luo for seed, respectively), and will be released in the course of 2012.

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