Nairobi is a place I have yet to visit, but already I’m hooked to its bustling, cosmopolitan atmosphere. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Just A Band, I follow Sauti Sol on Twitter, I’ve been listening to Kenyan hip hop, hearing about Kenya’s nightlife and now Anto. I’d never heard of him. Clearly, I don’t reside in Nairobi, because it seems everybody there knows him; he’s an actor in Kenya’s top drama series Siri, and now also in Shuga on MTV. I didn’t know any of this, all I had was a tweet with a link to a video. I get a lot of those. I usually let them play in the background, and unfortunately rarely feel the need to even remember the artists’ name.
Download: Anto, “Chips Funga”
Not this time. Anto definitely caught my attention, first with his voice and his arrangements, then with the quality of his video. As it turns out, “Chips Funga” is the result of months and months of decanting in the studio, Anto being his own hardest critic. Before the studio were years and years of singing, 20 to be exact, ever since Anto started singing Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly when he was six years old. Anto grew up soaking in soul music from his dad’s record collection and was lucky enough to be born into a family that was highly supportive of his talent and taste for singing. He sang at church, he sang in school. In his own words, Anto was “unstoppable”.
And so is my appetite for Kenyan music. Detractors say Kenyan culture is dead, because folklore and tradition are nowhere near the limelight. I don’t understand how you can tell millions of people their culture is dead. I hear Anto and think to myself, Clearly Kenya is booming. I’m amazed a song like this can be created and recorded so well in Nairobi, so of course I had to geek out and ask Anto about this process.
“Recording live in Kenya is no walk in the park, since not many recording companies can accommodate full bands in their studios,” Anto says. The story is all too familiar: artists are mainly self-funded, which means they cannot afford to take chances. So when they go to the studio, it’s to record a hit. They aim at the most mainstream sound and the most immediate success. Anto laughs, “[Artists] want to churn out music that pleases the air for now, regardless of the possibility of longevity, because some want a quick return and some unfortunately fame.”
This quick hit, quick money, quick fame logic has spurred the growth of home studios, “mushrooming in people’s bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms,” as Anto puts it. Finding a producer who understands an artists’ vision, who can advise on arrangements and deliver on the engineering side has been a real challenge, but the situation is evolving: “Fortunately in Kenya now, music is coming full circle, and there are engineers and producers who are more inclined in quality of music, rather than releasing songs in massive numbers in the hopes of getting hits. And that has really challenged artists to come up with great music,” he says.