Tabu Osusa - Ketebul Music
Ketebul Music is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization based at the GoDown Arts Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Ketebul means “drum sticks”; the term derives from the Luo language of Western Kenya. The name was a natural choice for an organization that has a vision of an African society that celebrates its cultural identity, and also recognizes the special role that artists play in people’s lives, every day.
Tabu Osusa is a key part of the East African music industry. A Kenyan native, he is the founding Executive Director of Ketebul Music, and for the last 30 years, has been involved in the music industry as a promoter, producer, composer, and band manager.
Interviewer: Nadine Lorenz
What is Ketebul music about?
We do a lot of research and development of East African music. We do this through one main program, it´s called "Spotlight on Kenyan Music". We work very closely with the Alliance Francaise. It´s a talent search, but with a difference. Instead of waiting for the musicians to come to us, we go to them. We go to the villages and all the small centres to scout for talent. Because one thing I realized many years ago, is that a lot of talent search is based around Nairobi. They are located here, and then everybody has to come to them. Most good musicians are really poor. In fact, it turns it into an elite thing when only those with money who can come to Nairobi can end up in this research. It´s only the rich who can give this opportunity. So, we decided to give everybody a chance. That´s one program we do, and we started it in 2005.
The other one is called "Retracing Kenya´s popular music", because we realized that there was a big disconnect between the youth and the older generation. The reason being that most Kenyan youths don´t know their past. I don´t know what happens in Germany, but as in the States, all these hip-hop guys, they know who were there before them. The James Browns and the rest. But here it wasn´t like that. And it was not a fault of theirs, it was because they didn´t had anywhere to go to. (...) So through some grants we got through the foreign foundation, we were doing a lot of research. We put the outcome into a multimedia package. There is an audio in it and a DVD. The DVD is about one hour with interviews of the old musicians. For the audio, I have chosen some of the best music from the past. There is also a small booklet where you can read some background information about it.
Another project we do is called "Singing Wells". It´s a very ambitious program, we do all over East Africa. We have mobile studios. Our output is recording these sounds which are kind of culture sounds. A lot of older people know the good sounds and most of them are very old. Of course, they will never come to the studio. It´s like an extensional program of "Retracing Kenya´s music", but different because here we go for traditional sounds. You´ll find a lot of old men who got all these types of playing an old instrument that´s disappearing, and nobody knows who they are. It´s a collaboration with some partners in the UK called "Abubilla Music". The reason why we got all this started, was a gentleman called James Allen who was touring Kenya some years earlier. He heard about me going to the villages to record artists and so he wanted to assist. And I said “Yeah, mostly, I go to the villages but I don´t really record them, I bring them back to Nairobi, and then record them there”. But at some point, I realized that when I´m moving them from their element, it´s not the same thing anymore, the dynamics change. And when he asked how he could help, I said “If I could require a mobile studio, there´d be no need to record them in Nairobi, and I could record them were they are”. So we set up a mobile studio. We do it twice a year. And if you google it, you´ll find a card with all the areas we´ve been and the music. It´s very interesting. So that´s what it is.
What was your motivation to start Ketebul music?
My motivation was that I just didn´t like the music that was being produced around. Everything sounded so American. I don´t have a problem with hip-hop or American music, but I would love to listen to American music made by Americans. I would like Kenyans to do their own thing. And I mean, you know, hip-hop music evolves. And I thought, why can´t you even use hip-hop, but it should be rooted. That´s why I decided to do a lot of percussion. So I used to go and look out for artists. And so far, it has worked very well. I´ve created a lot of artists and a lot of them are starting to be very successful.
And how do you promote them?
First of all, we call them here, because promoting is one thing. You have to promote what already exits. So when I’m with an artist, I give them a direction. I listen to them if I like their style and I say fine “You have a good voice, but the style is wrong”. Okay. Not really wrong but I believe it´s not really right. (...) So we clear the sound and then record it well, package all the stuff well, adding a good video. Some of them are sold online, but we also look out for festivals. We send their CDs and, mostly because they are unique, they are taken. We do not force anything. It’s just like there´s a market and we fish, we sent the CDs. And as I said, it´s not that they are very good, but they are unique. They are not better than other Kenyan musicians, but they are unique.
And how do you choose the artists you promote?
I have been in the music industry for a long time. Just when I hear a guy and I like the style, and I say “Wow, this sounds good”. I won´t just go for a time-wasting thing. I mean, if you are good and do hip-hop, then why should I promote you? Then go to the States and become big if you want to become like this or like Eminem, that´s okay. If you are good at something, that is unique. Because what I talk about is not how good you are, it is how unique you are. When somebody just comes here, maybe he comes with a demo or something like that, and you want to hear the uniqueness.
How do you get the uniqueness as an artist?
By being yourself. By sticking to your roots. Why, in fact, the whole world would like to sing like an American, while there are so many Americans who are doing it there. The competition is just too big. But you will see, like the West Africans, what they are doing. They do their choral style. It´s different. Americans don´t sing like that. I´m just picking America, because they are the biggest power within the Western world. Or, when you listen to music from Congo. I don´t have to explain to anyone, that that´s Congolese music. They just have some elements that if you know African music, if you take time to study and understand African music, you´ll definitely know that this is Congolese music. It´s the same with music from South Africa. You will definitely know this is South African music, whether it is hip-hop or not. Right now, they play what they call house music, which is hip-hop. But it´s a different kind of hip-hop, so different to American hip-hop. But in Kenya, there´s too much confusion. We don´t have a proper identity. We have an identity crisis. And that´s what I´m trying to work on. It´s not that I´m trying to create anything, no, I just want to take the old style and do it well. Take music which is good and I´m not like that we must always play pure traditional African music with drums ‘who who who’, half naked, no! We can even do rock but let the rock be African-based. Our young artists are lazy that´s what people saying. They don´t have the time to research. (...) There´s such good music all over Kenya, or actually East Africa. We just don´t look. The youth, most of them who meet around here, they have to look beyond the borders. Because right now in Nigeria, they have some interesting young kind of hip-hop. I don´t know how they call it in Nigeria. Now, all the Kenyans want to sing like that. What they don´t realize is that the Nigerians just took their old Juju music with an old Afro-beat and made hip-hop. Our beats are called Benga. Why can´t we make hip-hop out of Benga? It´s laziness.
Look at a great guy, I don´t know if you know Ethiopian music? I like using him as an example, because I think he´s a good guy. He´s called Mulatu Astatke. He had studied Jazz in Berklee, American jazz. He´s an old man now. When he came back, he told “No, I´m not doing American jazz now. I´m not going to do that kind of jazz. I´m going to make Ethiopian music”, and it´s called Ethno jazz now. And if you google Ethno jazz, it´s a big, big thing. It´s jazz but it´s Ethiopian jazz. It´s so different from American jazz.
You said that there´s no national identity, anymore, like an identity crisis in between the Kenyans. What do you mean by that?
What I mean is that there´s no definite sound from the youth. So when you hear it, you´ll say, “This is Kenyan sound”. Just because they maybe don´t recall African music. But if you knew a lot of good African music, you would know what I´m talking about. Like when you listen to Congolese music. Do you know the Congo?
It´s so obvious. You just know this is Congolese music. The way they play. And it´s the same if you listen to South African music. It´s so different from Congolese music. And when you listen to West African music (...) it´s so different. But there´s no East African sound. Because we fail to develop our traditional music. We fail to take it to another level. That´s what I´m saying. It´s not that what I expect is us playing drums half naked, and really like some crazy people in the forest. You can do that, too. But you can take that music and make it very modern.
So you think that the secret about a unique sound is to take something old and...
I don´t want to use the word ‘old’. Old could be any sound. It´s to take something of your own. Your sounds that were there and take them to another level. It´s uniquely yours. Just like you are uniquely you. That´s what it is.
I mean, like me. The music I do today is the kind of music I liked listening to when I was young.
Good. Probably a thing, a problem that we have in most parts of Africa or in East Africa, maybe you have it in Germany and France too, is that the world, everybody, wants to become American. And if everybody wants to become American, we´ll always play second field. We cannot beat Americans in their own game. American hip-hop – it´s their culture, you see. It´s okay. Let´s do hip-hop, but let´s do it in our own terms, in our own way. Look at Indian music, it´s quite modern, but you will know that this is Indian music. When you listen to Ra´i music from the Arabs. It´s not old, it´s new but it is still theirs. That´s what I´m trying to talk about. And we have a lack of that here.
One last question I’d like to ask. You said you promote them through recording and also through videos. I think music videos are really big in Kenya, aren’t they?
Yes, they are. But they are done really cheaply. Those are the things I mean when I talk about production. There are several recordings done here every day, but how is the quality? I always think about the quality. These days, you can´t just have an audio without a video. You need video. The people want to see what they hear. But you need to put some effort in it. Like having someone write it, direct it or anything else, but at least something that is good. Not just some cheap things like a lady appearing half naked. I think that´s cheap. You should do more than that. I mean not just selling porno around here. I think that´s all crap. It´s a very easy way out of doing things. I repeat myself here, I don´t hate hip-hop. I just don´t like guys who use hip-hop as an easy way out of music. Because it´s so difficult to play the guitar, an instrument. It´s so difficult to sing. So you use hip-hop as an easy way out. That´s not correct. And you know the videos. Make good videos. Don´t shoot me your bottom and stuff like that. When I´m watching TV, I don´t see anything that makes me think artistic about it. Just some women (...) For me, that´s not really what it is.
But you say people like to watch while they are listening. So you say everybody likes music videos?
Yes. And I say I also like music videos when they are done properly.
I just asked because at my place it´s not that important to have a music video.
It´s very important. And I don´t think it´s just here, in the whole world it´s important. They want to listen to sound but they always want to see at the same time. Video is important. But if I can´t make a good video, I’d rather not do it!
Would you like to add something in the end?
I have nothing to add. For me, it´s work in progress. I can´t finish this topic we´re talking about. I´m sure, next time you come around, I am talking about different things. Because we´re still discovering ourselves. One thing I can say is that I think we´re sending a picture of having a good unique East African sound. Because the sound is already there. The sounds are there in Kenya. We play Benga, we play Momboko, we play Chakacha; those are well-rooted, known sounds from Kenya. But what we have failed at, is to take this sound from the past generation to the next. It´s developing the sound. And for you to do that, you need people who are very good artistically.
So where do you see the Kenyan music scene in the future?
We have a future. Because very soon, these young guys will reach a dead end, a brick wall. Then they have to go back to their roots. Because as we said, the world is now a state. Sorry, I mean the world is a village. So when you travel a lot, when they travel like all these young guys, these hip-hop guys, when they get the opportunity to go to the States, then they see what hip-hop is out there. They´ll come back here and say “This is not our thing, I should do something different”. It´s all ignorance and a lack of experience that´s making them do what they are doing. It´s a process, and very soon, as they keep on travelling and seeing (...) You know, when they see their video, they believe they sound like that when actually they don´t. But when they go out there and see that this is not their own thing, when they get that they can´t mash up with them. Because you can´t, because that´s their culture, no matter how good you are. Then they´ll also ask, “Hey guys, this is not the American sound, I hear you are from Africa, that´s beautiful, brother. Now show us something from Africa”. Then they are trying to do exactly what has been done. I think they look ridiculous.
Thanks a lot!