Kombe Kithi and Reuben Mangi
Kombe Kithi is a Narobian musician doing Afro-Fusion music. He plays guitar and sings. He studies media and communication and is doing his master´s degree.
Reuben Mangi is an Afro-Fusion musician, playing various instruments. In his professional life, he is a technologist.
Interviewers: Nadine Lorenz and Philipp Günther
What was the first thing you remember when you first got in touch with music?
RM: In family. I come from a background where almost everybody is a musician. Starting from my grandfather, my uncles, my dad, my aunts, they all committed to me. So I come from a singing family. Therefore, music has been my life.
KK: The first time, I was still in primary school. In our church, I was introduced to music. I loved music then, I grew up with it and here I am. That is how it went.
What was your motivation to start doing music by yourself?
KK: When I was young, there were instruments at home. I saw my uncle doing music. I got interested and learned it up from there on. However, I am just interested in music. That is how I got to where I am right now.
RM: As I told you, I have been singing all along ever since my childhood. But when I went to campus, that´s when I came to meet different people, playing different instruments and I got interested. Actually, it was on campus when I picked the guitar and started playing. Even before I started playing the instrument, I noted that I could compose. I started writing songs way back before I started playing. So when I started playing the guitar, it even complemented what I was doing. I picked up interest from there, have done quite a number of songs, I have directed to people. Music is a learning process. You keep learning here and there, when you meet good people you learn from them, when you meet people, who are not good, as well you say “You got to learn that”. And then you keep learning day by day.
You are doing Afro-Fusion. What kind of music is that?
RM: I usually say that nobody can ever come up with something new in this world. Whatever you can play, whatever you can sing is an influence of many other things that you have listened to. The reason why I am saying this is because I come from a rich African background, but the guitar is not an African instrument. So having learned the guitar and doing whatever I am doing with my African thing, using the guitar which is Western, and also having listened to so much of Western music (blues, country, reggae and all that) is influencing what I am doing. This is a fusion between the African music and the West-African and that is why you call it Afro-Fusion.
KK: And in addition to that, it is simply modernizing the African style of music. In the past, our forefathers would not sing a particular song in a particular key. But right now, that is what we are doing. We are trying to break these songs, those compartments, singing particular chords, keys and also bringing some of this Western art, these Western instruments. That is how to get to Afro-Fusion.
Who are the people you are doing the music for?
KK: Well, the target is actually everyone.
RM: True, target is everyone. But you cannot sing a Swahili song targeting a German market. There are limits to whatever we are doing. Perhaps, if you want to reach the German market, then you will try to put some German lyrics or language in the song, so that you reach the people. But what we try to do is to have a message. In today’s generation, music really does not have a message.
It lacks content and the creativity behind the lyrics and melodies. So what we are trying to do is to bring a message in a creative and musical way and still according to the existing music-rules.
What is your message?
RM: Messages can vary. At the end of the day, the message has to be measured. For example, I have sung about love, about peace, about living in harmony in Kenya, I have praised people in my songs. As long as you have a message you are fine, but the way you present this message is important and it has to be precise. In a song, you are limited to around three minutes and within these three minutes, you have to provide your message, it has to be dealt with.
KK: It depends also on the feeling of the artist. Sometimes, I feel something that I want to communicate. In some cases, you feel you want to do a gospel-song. In that time-frame, you bring something like that to some people. Also I have done mainly love-songs. So not much.
Why don't you do music in and with a band?
RM: Running a band in Kenya is quite expensive and not many musician play music this way. Most people are doing computer-raised, digital music. What is happening right now is that you go to a studio, do your track and then you go for it. But what we are doing now is the old style of things. You have to learn an instrument and master it so that you can even perform on your own as a single person. What I am saying is that if you are not to do a concept, if you just cannot do it with a guitar, you have to bring on professional people who have been there long enough. So you have to pay them for doing these things. Therefore, you need to be ‘up there’ to be able to afford these people.
When you think back a decade or so, has something changed in the music-scene?
RM: Music is like fashion. It is like a trend. What happened in the past? People, who were doing music the live way, playing instruments and all that. For you to make it in the music-industry, you have to be talented and really good. When the digital-era came, people moved away from doing instruments. But funny enough, these days you see a lot of people carrying guitars and saxophones. People are going back to the old times to do music the hard way, because that is appreciated more than this other music that will not last.
KK: 50 years ago, the music was not really organized and it was not following a specific format. To sing nowadays, you will realize that there are things like off-tunes and off-beats. These are changes I can see since we started.
What about the audience? Has it changed or does it change right now?
KK: Regarding the audience, there are various audiences to different types of music. At the end of the day, it does not matter how good you are at playing an instrument or singing. If you do not have an audience, you are not in business. Music these days has found new elements of show-business. You have to be an entertainer.
The most popular music these days is hip-hop and rap – which are Western styles of music. The only issue is that more than one song may get a massive audience. So it does not last. You are just there for a few moments and then you are gone. But music, that is live-music that is played by professionals, instrumentalists and singers, is music that stands the tests of time. And it has an audience, maybe not as big, because it is music that is found to be appreciated by the old people. Perhaps the people who are listening to hip-hop now will realize in some years that they are back to the old music.
RM: I think that the musicians or the artists have also to challenge the test of the audience. As it stands now, the audience is scattered. If you want to target all of them, the artist has to come up with a song that will have a combination of things, to stand the test which is very hard. Like he said, you cannot really come to all the audience.
KK: I must also notice this, by the way. As much as you may target very different specific audiences, anything that is good will turn out, regardless of the listeners. For example, there is a song currently, that´s a hit for quite some time already, Eric Wainaina´s song “Daima Kenya”. That song is sort of a classical song, but it´s appreciated by all Kenyans across the border. There is also a group that is doing so good right now called Sauti Sol, they sing. In a normal situation they would only be appreciated by people who listen to singing music. But if you look at their performances, you´ll see that they are appreciated by all audiences across the border. Good things will always stand out, no matter what.
You told us that you are a journalist and technologist. Was it ever an aim of you to earn enough money with your music?
KK: At the end of the day, you have to get something from whatever you do. For me, I look at music as much as it launches my soul, it is entertaining me and I look at it also as business. So yes, I look forward to the time I make money. And not little money, much money. I have to put so much hard work into good music.
RM: Five years ago, I used to play in a band somewhere. I used to hang from it, the concerts. But for me music is not really business. I am not inclined for business, but for entertaining. I just love music. It suits my soul, something like that. When I am stressed, I play the guitar and get comfortable.
Is it also a matter of how society changes regarding music and art in general? Is it linked with better opportunities to earn money with music?
KK: It is true that society changes regarding art. Technology has really helped. The reason why one may struggle to live off art is because you do not get recognition from other people. You do your art, but you are just in your seclusion, in your workshop. You do not come out and there are no means for you to come out. But today, with these various platforms (TV, internet, and social networks) it is really easy for one to expose oneself to the entire world, and for people to view and appreciate one’s work. So yes, with time, as people see how creative some people are, they get to learn to appreciate it. And gradually, people are living off arts. Not just drawing, not just music, but even dancing. In the past, you would not see people coming out confidently saying “I am a professional dancer and live off that”. But today, there are dancers who being recruited to perform for big artists. And then they get quite much out of that.
RM: Three or four years ago, people could not live off this art and music. Today, law is protecting these artists. There is the issue of patents and copyright. So actually, the work of the artists is protected and from there, they can make some living.