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.
Great music, and a great band. Anto plays with Paragasha—words fail, music speaks. They are constantly upping their game. Anto says, "there are more gigs pushing live music, and more corporate sponsorship, so it’s a time to grow creatively and sustainably." Together Anto and Paragasha are working on his 12 track album. "Chips Funga" is the first single. The title means "take away", a metaphor for quick and easy relationships, or put more simply, one night stands. In the song Anto's girlfriend, an aspiring model, leaves him for a photographer, "who she believes will give her a huge modeling break." The two get down, the girl falls for him, "but soon after he has already moved on to a new chips funga.” Like music, social practices are changing rapidly in Nairobi.
Despite his growing name and these tempting practices, Anto remains focused and grounded. "I’m lucky because I believe soul runs in my blood. When I sing, I sing because I feel the truth in my words, and that is why I write all my music, because I sing what I feel. The idea of pleasing a crowd doesn’t occur to me, because I will feed them with love, joy, pain, pleasure, peace, laughter, and they will in return send that right back at me." This is what I love to hear. So often artists ask me what they should be doing and how they should be sounding to make it. I always answer the same thing Anto says, keep the music personal, make music that matters to you rather than music to try and please the largest audience. Don't think about this week end as the ultimate objective, look further. And practice!
But I'm not hear to give lessons, I'm here to discover and soak in the exciting new flavors emerging from all sides of Africa. Thank you Anto for making my week.