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Four Tracks: Sauti Sol Exclusive Interview

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We caught up with Kenyan supergroup Sauti Sol last week on their way through New York en route to South Africa for the MTV MAMA Awards, where they won best group! Afropop is offering a free pair of tickets to see Sauti Sol at Highline Ballroom this Sun., Oct. 30, kicking off their fall U.S. tour. Email us at info@afropop.org for your chance to win.

Morgan Greenstreet: Welcome to New York! Have you guys performed here before?

Savara Mudigi: Yes, we played at the Global Citizen Festival alongside Beyoncé at Central Park. It’s every year, this year it was a few weeks ago. We played there last year.

How was that?

Savara: It was a great experience, especially getting to hang out with a lot of big artists like Usher, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Chris Martin. It was a really good festival for us.

Bien-Aimé Baraza: But it wasn’t particularly our target audience, it was very broad, because you know, because Beyoncé was playing there, so it was a very international kind of crowd. This [show at Highline Ballroom] is our first solo show in New York, and we’re really excited to launch it. We’re hoping it’s going to be good!

Likewise! It’s a beautiful room, I think people will be very open and receptive to you guys. Let’s do a series we call “Four Track.” 

1. “Sura Yako”

I really love this song and the video. What is the meaning of the song, what are you singing?

Willis Austin Chimano: “Sura Yako” literally means, in direct translation, ‘Your Face’ but it’s talking about the beauty of African women. In the video, it’s generally how a traditional marriage happens, when you’re going to pick the girl and identify her in her village or in her rural home.

So the groom has to pick his bride out from amongst the other young women…

Yeah, she is covered up, and if you make a mistake, you have to pay. And the prize can be anything from money to a goat, to a cow.

Stylistically, this song seems a bit different from other music you guys have made. What can you tell us about the style of music?

Polycarp Otieno: “Sura Yako” is a very Kenyan beat. The sound comes from different tribes in Kenya, so traditional songs especially the coastal area. The style is called chakacha music, it’s very deep in the roots of Kenyan music, it’s very traditional. It’s a combination of the coastal region sound with the western region sound, with is Luo. This combination of two traditional Kenyan sounds is why it was really popular in the country, because of the rhythm, it was very strong. You know, in Africa, the rhythm is the same, so it was really beautiful and very African. We even had Obama dance to the song when he came to visit Kenya!

That’s awesome, what an honor!

2. “Kuliko Jana”

This song has been a really big viral success for you guys. What does the song mean, literally, and also symbolically for the group? You recorded it with the boys chorus of Upper Hill High School, which is where the band got started, right?

Bien-Aimé: Yes we did, we were in the choir, we were in that very choir that we performed with. So we grew from that to a gospel a cappella group, and then we morphed into what we are now.

The song “Kuliko Jana,” means “More Than Yesterday,” it’s very gospel and it talks about how it feels like God’s love grows for us grows every day despite our shortcomings. And doing the song with Upper Hill was so magical. We went there to visit the kids; at that time in Kenya, there was a lot of arson going on in high schools, kids were burning down dormitories. So we went back to give them a pep talk and the whole school showed up. They had done a cover of the song earlier, on YouTube, and when we were leaving, the boys insisted that we sing a song, and we started it and they joined in and that video went viral, of us just jamming. 

We were going to shoot the video for “Kuliko Jana” but we decided, why not do it a different version and put the boys in it? And it was so amazing for us, we enjoyed it, the boys enjoyed it and largely the world has received it really well. “Kuliko Jana” was our first crossover hit, because people from all over the world resonate with the vibe and the feeling, the emotion of the song.

3. “Slow”

So in 2012 you collaborated with South African producer-musician Spoek Mathambo. That music was very different stylistically…

Spoek! Spoek is very spooky!

[Laughs]

Bien-Aimé: It was a very experimental project. Our then-manager knew him personally, so we hooked up in the studio. Commercially it did not do very well, but it has a lot of good vibes, and there are people who resonate very well with project. Overall Spoek is an amazing and very talented musician and we learned a lot from him during the time we worked together.

Nice, I liked the tune “Slow,” with Spoek and Dela. This video was shot in Amsterdam, how did that come about?

Well, at the time, the label that signed us was Penya Africa and it was Dutch funded, so we used to play in Amsterdam frequently. So in the middle of our tour at that time was when we shot the video for “Range Rover” in Amsterdam, we did two songs.

4. “Nshike (Touch Me)”

There was some controversy about this video in Kenya. From a U.S. perspective, I feel that the controversy has been out of proportion with the video. What was your intention when you made the song, and the the video, and how do you feel about how it was received?

Savara: Well, the song is pretty straightforward. We didn’t see anything out of the norm in that really, but to our people, especially our Kenyan audience… The kind of music that we did before “Nshike” was very, very conservative in terms of expression, in terms of expressing sexual feelings. But it came to a point whereby we needed to push people’s tastebuds, we needed to do something out of the norm, and that’s why we did “Nshike.” And we understood that our kind of audience–especially in East Africa– would find it surprising, out of the norm. We always do it. We are always the guinea pigs, we push the limits for people. Then we did it and the video came out and everybody was just like, “Oh my God!” But till now it is one of our most successful videos.

Yeah, sometimes that’s what it takes, to push the limits a bit.

We did it intentionally I would say, we just needed to do something that people would talk about, and something that people would relate to, especially women. And guys would be like “Eshhh!” We had to go to the gym for like three months just to do that video! [Laughs] So we put in a little bit of work, it wasn’t just like that!

[Laughs] I even saw a video of Fally Ipupa from DRC singing it.

Yeah, he heard the song and he had to jump on it. He even wants to do a remix where he’s singing on it.

Nice! In conclusion, I really like the name of your latest album, Live and Die in Afrika. What is the meaning of that message for you?

Chimano: Live and Die in Afrika is Africans telling our own story, we are the drivers of our own destiny, we are the ones who are going to determine what comes out of us. We want to show the positive aspects of Africa, that in Africa we also have good things going on. The millennials in Africa are the ones who are going to change the perception of what Africa is. So that is what the album Live and Die in Afrika means to us. Telling African stories, it’s a state of mind, it’s about contributing to the betterment of Africa, it’s about showing Africa as a growing continent and as a continent of opportunity. It’s a blank canvas, it’s a space to think, breath, and create, pretty much.

Thank you! Very well said! Looking forward to the show on October 30th! What should we expect?

A nice, interactive, fun show. Come have fun with us and enjoy good music!

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