Glass talks to Owiny Sigoma Band

THE genesis of Owiny Sigoma Band is special. It tells the story of three Londoners who travel to Kenya as part of a musical collaboration funded by the Arts Council of England. As a result, we have been gifted with a band that exceed most expectations of world music, as their special transcontinental relationship gives the music magic and cultural depth.

I spoke to vocalist and keys player, Jesse Hackett at Brownswood Studios, London about their upcoming tour, drinking moonshine and general adventures they’ve had as a band.


When you went to Kenya, you hadn’t met the other members of the band. What was your first encounter like?
We didn’t talk about that much because the guys couldn’t speak English. I remember being hungover after being out the night before, and Joseph was there in the front room drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette with his instrument by his side.

We started to communicate a bit with him through our friend Hetti who was translating, and then we had an acoustic jam session trying to pick up the rhythm of what he was playing. Then we went down to this music institute, the Kenyan National centre in Nairobi with him, and he introduced us to some of his friends, one of which was Charles who had some drums. It was all very relaxed as we were meeting and greeting people, then Charles got his drums out and started to show us the traditional style of drumming.

I just remember him passing the sticks to our drummer Tom Skinner, and him just taking to this beat really quickly, and all the Africans being quite surprised. It was nice, and we sat around in the sun and had some beers and food, and then got into a rehearsal room that afternoon but we were all kind of going “what’s this about?”.

No one was stepping out and playing solos or anything – we were just grooving on happily, getting stoned and drinking beers with them. We didn’t really know what was happening so we were just looking at each other giggling and cracking up. It was fun.

You have recorded in a mobile studio and a regular studio. Which recording setting works best?
My favourite experiences have been recording out in Kenya because the environment provokes a lot of inspiration. I love recording outside, and being in the sun. It’s beautiful. Things change with the atmosphere, size of room and equipment so there’s a lot of things that can affect the recording.

Has African music always been a key interest?
I’ve always been into all music. Growing up, my dad had a couple of good African records in his collection which I loved as a kid. Then growing up i was into everything from jungle to early hip hop to jazz to dub and reggae. In that there was an appreciation in good stuff, and I would hear African music that i liked, but I never played any. I don’t think any of us knew about Kenyan music.

You’re often categorised as world music. Do think this is a fair description for the band?
I hate the term “world”. I often have problems with labelling genres. People talk about Afro-futurism and things like that and it makes me cringe. I’d say we’re a mixture of very traditional Kenyan music crossed with five musicians from London who just play bass, drums, guitar, keyboards and vocals. There’s elements of pop music and experimental electronic. It’s hard to label because it’s not like anything else.

How do you approach the writing process?
I tend to be the lyric writer in the band on the English side. There’s no specific one way about it though, because on the last album I had a few sketches of starts of songs that I took to Kenya but there’s no method to it because sometimes you labour over trying to get lyrics and rewrite things, but other times something comes up really quickly and you just go with it.

We also have Joseph singing his old folk songs and often those tunes are about subject matter that we can’t even fully understand, because it’s so culturally different. His tunes are unpredictable. They could be about his favourite mechanic to a widow’s cat who that gets jealous about a new husband coming into the house or about his best friends hotel, and how well stocked it is with beers. Our tunes are weird as well, I tend to write some quite abstract lyrics.

How do you rehearse when half the band are in another continent?
We usually prepare a bit before the guys turn up and then we get straight into a rehearsal room.

Do your songs differ much when you play live?
When we play live we stretch the tunes out a little more to get the hypnotic energy going. Joseph is not used to playing short tunes, so he’s used to playing songs that go on for half an hour. In their music they’re used to playing for long periods of time, and they play all night just sitting on one groove.

Do you have the same stamina as the Kenyans?
No! They have got a different stamina, and they have a very different approach to playing. It’s so physical especially when you’re playing one thing over and over again, and when we went to Kenya we saw guys who were even younger than us playing for like 10 hours. With them, when the music stops, the party is over. They also get pretty fuelled up on their local drink.

Did you try the local drink?
When we were with them we got the proper brew and it was too much! I was taking small sips and I could feel the power of it. I started to hallucinate a lot that night. We all hit it fairly hard.

What has been your stand out moment as a band?
We all loved going on tour with Thom Yorke for Atoms for Peace. It was great because a lot of us in the band have a lot of respect for Thom and we’ve all been into Radiohead and things like that.

We also had a really good gig at the village underground two years ago. It was  in the middle of the summer, and it was totally full and incredibly hot on stage. Everybody was sweating so much, and we rocked quite hard that night. It was a good one.

How do you approach writing new material?
With the last album we were just writing and recording and jamming every day and then going back to the place where we were staying and listening back on our laptop, chopping things, looping things and making beats. We had it set up in a way where we could capture the experience on the go. We were writing music every day and seeing what happened.

On the very first night we had a jam and we recorded it with a dictaphone. The next day we listened to it, chopped it up, and just started writing using that as the basis for new songs.

Which country do you think your music is better received? Kenya or England?
Here. I don’t think there’s been the same promotion to get it onto radio. We don’t understand the market out there, especially because we don’t live there. It would seem that when we’ve talked to people its largely involved paying radio stations to get our tunes played. Our sound is not what’s popular in Kenya at the moment. I think they like it, but they aren’t used to it.

What is the perfect performing environment for Owiny Sigoma Band?
Somewhere in a nice natural setting, with a good sound system. A beach would do!

What has changed since your last tour?
Well, we don’t have Charles anymore, but we’re bringing in a new musicians in from Uganda. He’s somebody that I worked with separately from Owiny Sigoma, and he’s a fantastic young musician who plays all sorts of Ugandan instruments. He plays the xylophone, one string fiddle and the thumb piano. We’re bringing him into the group as a special guest so we’re going to see how that’s going to work. It will be something very different. We decided to do that because we wanted to keep that strong African element in the band to keep the balance.

What has the involvement of the Arts Council been like?
After Charles died, we didn’t really know how to proceed. Fortunately we got some funding from the Arts Council, and UK tour support. Their funding for projects is amazing. The fact we still have that in this country is a blessing with all the cuts.

What is your favourite song to play live?
I always liked the song Johnny Ra Ha a lot. It’s really upbeat, fun and happy.

by Katrina Mirpuri

See Owiny Sigoma Band on their UK tour:
May 22, Brudenell, Leeds
May 23, The Harley, Sheffield
May 24, Hare and Hounds, Birmingham
May 26, Colston Hall, Bristol
May 27,  Rich Mix, London
May 28, Chorlton Arts Festival, Manchester
May 29, The Welfare, Swansea

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