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Sarabi: Inside, Out

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Sarabi: Inside, Out

A young band drawn from Nairobi’s mean streets is fast-becoming a staple of the middle-class live music circuit. By David Meffe.

Somewhere on a moonlit rooftop of Nairobi, a group huddles together, humming a refrain that’s become hypnotic in its reverberating mantra. Their faces, obscured by masks, evoke no emotion, only an unequivocal sense of anonymity, like being no one and everyone all at once. The outlines of beady eyes flicker amidst rows of dangling halogen bulbs.

The affair could pass for a midnight gathering of sinister underground radicals plotting the great demise of civilisation as we know it. Parishioners hold stencilled signs with vague messages of protest. “Kenya ni Kwetu” reads one. “Kenyans United Against Vultures!” screams another. Some sit fidgeting with caricatures in the likeness of Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, William Ruto and other Kenyan political figures.

The roots of a revolution are taking hold in the sounds of a faceless generation, but against who or what is anyone’s guess. A stoic graffiti portrait of an aged Nelson Mandela looks on approvingly, watching the scene unfold, unblinking.

Somewhere in the distance, a shrill voice yells “cut!” over the music that stops so abruptly, only the scratch of an interrupted vinyl is missing to nail the fabricated seriousness of a music video shoot. The masks come off. Laughter erupts. Wafting cigarette smoke fills the spaces in between, and the Pawa254 rooftop takes a breather. The scene is over, another begins. Within a few days, the video and single Nitabaki Na Nini (What Will I Remain With?) will be online and trending throughout the country.

Since they came together, members of Nairobi’s swinging Sarabi band have transformed themselves from a ragtag pack of street musicians into a polished, well-oiled political Afro-fusion megaphone machine. By combining elements of traditional East African music with pop and dance, they’ve constructed a popular image based on musicianship and powerful performances led by their soul-crooning lead singer Mandela.

Their sound is articulated through rhythmic beats and layered lyrical songwriting that touches on life and love in the slums of Nairobi, to calls for peace and political reform in their native Kenya. But their rise to
A fame is much more than just good timing, it’s the longawaited embodiment of everything the East African music scene has hoped for. A musical marriage of pop and politics.

The first chorus

I first met Sarabi in August 2013 after a chance meeting at their place in Kariobungi South, a rough Nairobi neighbourhood known for poverty and unemployed youth. At the time, some band members rented a series of adjacent rooms connected by a narrow hallway and an unfinished rooftop overlooking the slum community. Friends and bandmates floated effortlessly through the spaces and lounged around as if it was their own.

“We’re more than just friends who live together,” Mandela mused. “This is a community. This is our family.”

Their neighbourhood offered no shortage of colourful characters in a revolving door of would-be musicians, hustlers, hawkers, and political malcontents. Mandela produced a small guitar held together by bits of adhesive and more than a little good faith – if Nairobi itself was a guitar, this was its incarnation. A small piece of tape identified the instrument by name.

“You get it? ‘Food Remains.’ Because that’s all we’ve got here in the slums,” Mandela told me coyly. “It’s all we have left to eat.”

Guitarist Adam “Dushman” Mwadama brought in his own sleek black acoustic to balance out the equation. The image to me would become symbolic of the band’s style and inspirations: a calculated mix of precision musicianship and weathered afro-soul.

We spent the night playing music as the guys showed off stripped down tracks like Rescue Us and Siu Lazima, singles that would later become major hits in their repertoire. They assured me their big break was just over the horizon. As luck would have it, they were right.

Roots of rebellion

Their meteoric rise to fame may be recent, but the band traces its roots way back to a time when most members had never even picked up an instrument.

Sarabi was born from a community programme by the Mathare Youth Sports Association called Habana haba (Step by Step), which focused on getting kids away from idle crime and into traditional dance.

“We all came from different hoods, we called them zones. Some of us were from Mathare, some of us were from Eastleigh, from Dandora,” says Mandela. “Out of that traditional dancing, we got to come up with the idea of playing music, of learning how to do even more things.”

The band’s inception was the brainchild of musician George Ndeche Ndiritu, then heading the programme. After visiting Norway in 1997, he realised how little he knew about his own Kenyan culture. Once home, he brought together musicians with a few simple instruments (drums, shakers, etc.,) and started putting on small amateur performances in slum streets.

information,” he says. “So we just needed to put the right message into this music, and people would listen.”

Children increasingly started hanging around the evening performances and listening to the music, at which point George says a light flicked on over his head.

“Kids need to learn about their roots, and music and theatre and dance was a means to do that,” he says. “So we shifted our focus from what we were doing to starting to teach kids. And that was the birth of Sarabi.”

George continues to act as the band’s primary manager, helping with some music composition and songwriting. If Sarabi is a family, he is undoubtedly the godfather. “It’s a very interesting role to play,” he says. “I sometimes have to take a step back and regard them as the young adults they are, rather than the kids I’ve seen grow. Because they are their own people now.”

The influence of traditional dance can be seen in the band’s live performances, where synchronised routines between members, notably Mandela and Adam, draw rousing cries from the crowd. From traditional instruments, the band slowly added more, though Sarabi’s sound still leans heavily on percussion.

The group went through a variety of incarnations, mergers, line-up changes and band names, eventually settling on Sarabi around 2009. The name translates into English as ‘Mirage’.

“The name has always really showed what we want to achieve. We want to give hope, not only to ourselves, but to other people who are listening, to the upcoming generation,” says Mandela. “We can be that which is lacking in the world.”

These days the full band line-up consists of Mandela, Haron Waceke, Christabel “Bella” Were, Nelson Akelo, Antony Kimangu, Bernard Oduor, Adam Mwadama, John Maluni and Peter Mbau on a host of instruments.

In July 2013, Sarabi launched their debut album Oyaore to critical acclaim. Since their first official gig in 2010, the band has played hundreds of shows across East Africa and brought their unique sound to European festivals like Denmark’s Roskilde and the World Music Expo in Hungary.

“We don’t want to brainwash the people, we don’t want to trick them. We just want to reverse a bit of psychology. Just a little,” says Mandela. “But we must tell them the truth; if we want to build a nation, we must work together. An artist has a lot of power in this nation.”

A social romance

What followed my original meeting with the band was a series of encounters not entirely unlike the first. Their neighbourhood was a welcoming forum for political discussions, laid-back gatherings and general madness. As their reputation grew, so did the size of the groups, but for the most part, the original faces and places stayed the same.

“People in the area have always known us, but now they know we’re musicians, they know people are actually listening,” says bassist Haron. “So we have to be careful about what we do in public sometimes. It comes with the game, I guess.”

The band was the subject of a 2013 independent documentary by Foresee Films titled Maramaso. Filmed between February and June 2013, it chronicled Sarabi’s metamorphosis from puppy-love balladeers into legitimate voices of political reform following the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya that left over 1500 dead.

Director Ashley Beckett says she originally intended to make a film about the power of art in conflict areas, assuming she’d find her story in Uganda.

“Before leaving Kenya, there was a protest in Kibera that made me miss my bus. I had met a few members of Sarabi and had heard murmurs of maramaso,” she says. “I decided to stick around a week and dig into the elections and the band … and there I found my story.”

The film takes its title from the band’s official mantra in everything from lyrics to living: a ‘Man Raise Man Society.’ Its significance is incarnated in their symbol: an index and middle finger tightly wrapped together, pointing upward.

I remember flashing Mandela a peace sign on my way out of his home one day. He was playfully indignant; he wouldn’t stand for it. Walking over, he grabbed my two fingers in ‘V’ formation and explained, “this doesn’t mean peace, this means we’re apart, this means we’re divided.”

He pushed my two fingers together, interlocked them, and started again: “This means that we’re together. Tuko pamoja. Get it? That’s what maramaso means. We need to work together if we’re going to get anything done in this world.”

The documentary focuses on the post-election crisis through the lens of Sarabi’s music and their experiences growing up in low-income areas of Nairobi that were hit hardest by the violence.

“We’ve always believed in this lifestyle we call maramaso – a ‘man raise man’ society, whereby, we always share. We share the house with those that don’t have shelter, we share clothes, we cook together, we eat together, everything,” says Mandela.

A scene in the documentary depicts the charismatic lead singer’s first meeting with Kenyan photojournalist and political activist Boniface Mwangi, who rose to international fame during the post-election violence for his graphic coverage of the crisis.

It would be the beginning of a fruitful relationship that would help reshape the band’s image and lyrical direction. ‘Food Remains’ came along for the ride.

“He blew me away with his kind of music, by the level of consciousness,” Mwangi recalls of the encounter. “It was like seeing a younger version of Bob Marley.”

After seeing Sarabi play, he proposed a collaboration between Sarabi and Nairobi street rapper/poet Juliani. He wanted to help them write a song for the 50th anniversary of Kenya.

“So they came up with that song Follow the Law (Sheriah Fuata),” says Mwangi. “It highlights the injustices, corruption, impunity, political assassinations, land grabbing of the past 50 years.”

Mwangi currently runs PAWA254, a creative hub in the heart of Nairobi that houses an eclectic mix of graffiti artists, photographers, writers and political activists. PAWA runs a sizable portion of Sarabi’s marketing, and is frequently a venue for concerts and video shoots. He describes their relationship as a “social romance.”

“We care about social issues, and so do they. I’ve heard Kenyans complain that they need to cut down the politics because their music is very good. But how do you separate the two? They don’t make music just because they want to make music, they make music because they can see what’s going on.

“They make music because they want to relate to what’s happening in the country,” says Mwangi. “I think they’ll become the voice of reason in this country. So as politicians are trying to get money to win people’s hearts and bribe their way to power, they’re using art to communicate and really reach out to the people.”

On 13 February 2014, Mwangi staged one of his renowned protests aimed at forcing the establishment to address a laundry list of social issues such as corruption, governmental nepotism, and ever-present tribalism in matters of governance.

This time however, the Kenyan government was ready with their counter-offer to Mwangi and the protesters’ demands. Almost before it even began, police and security forces used tear gas and intimidation to disperse the crowd. Members of Sarabi were of course present.

“It’s called ‘go as far as your legs can carry’,” laughs Mandela, recalling the event. “We always say ‘youth man, don’t cause no trouble. Survival is for the humble.’ But on that day …”

Though most band members escaped the madness relatively unscathed, both Mandela and Mwangi were arrested as police forces descended on the peaceful protesters.

“I was supposed to play a song, but on that day my guitar couldn’t be heard clearly, so I just started reciting lyrics aloud, like a poem.” Mandela started singing the words to Unite and Siu Lazima (You Don’t Have To). “Unite. When will the leaders of Kenya unite? Where is the future? Check the vision, it’s so bleak. Cuz still I see authority, oppressing on the weak.” The officers, apparently, were not impressed with his spoken-word rendition.

Mwangi escaped custody by jumping out of the back of a policy lorry while it was stuck in traffic. Mandela was not so lucky. When asked to leave behind his instrument as he was being arrested, he allegedly replied to the officer: “If you leave your gun behind, I’ll leave my guitar. You have your weapon, I have mine.”

Inside the prison, Mandela allegedly led a rousing chorus of inmates in singing the refrain of Fuata Sheria, Siu Lazmina, and Bob Marley songs like Natural Mystic. As Mwangi and other “friends of Kenya” scrambled to put together bail money, Mandela and three others protesters spent a night in jail. Since the ordeal, Mwangi and the PAWA254 team have halted protests in favour of a more nuanced approach to fighting the powers that be.

“The next revolution is not going to be documented on the streets, it’s going to be a mutual feeling. A natural mystic flowing all over, and people will feel like something is wrong and see the need to stand up,” says Mandela.

Sarabi is now the subject of another documentary film titled ‘Music is Our Weapon’, which chronicles their musical journey from humble beginnings to leading the fight for class equality and social revolution across Kenya. As their popularity grows, so too has their artistic platform as a means to both entertain and propagate a political message.

A far cry from the superficial balladeers of old, Sarabi represents a new breed of African storytellers that are not only internationally commercially viable, but also speak to a new generation in a voice that is their own. From rags to records deals. From activists to active participants in a new order. One track at a time.

“Kenyans need to wake up, we’re done protesting in the streets. You’ll never run into a politician on the street, you only run from the policeman,” says bassist Haron. “What we’re doing is more like an art uprising, it’s the next level of revolution. The next stage of revolution is going to be artistic revolution.” 

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Written by David Meffe

David is a Canadian freelance journalist, photographer and blogger from Montreal – his work focuses on human rights, development and music in Africa. He is currently based in Aarhus, Denmark, completing a master’s degree in war & conflict reporting.

  • Millie Mwihaki

    Doesn’t seem like Mandela is part of the band anymore though. It’s sad.

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