Song-by-Song: Owiny Sigoma Band – ‘Nyanza’ (Brownswood Recordings)

Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings have already brought us two stunning full-lengths from cross-cultural, boundary smashing project Owiny Sigoma Band. The group emerged with their eponymous debut in 2011, before following up with 2013’s ‘Power Punch’, that saw Kenya’s own nyatiti virtuoso Joseph Nyamungu and Luo drummer Charles Owoko travel to London to record with fellow members Jesse Hackett (vocals, keys), Louis Hackett (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums).

The group are back with their third full-length, ‘Nyanza’, which follows the cross country journey taken by the Owiny Sigoma Band to the rural district of Nyanza where band leader Joseph Nyamungu originally comes from. Since its birth in 2009, the band have talked about visiting Nyanza to get closer to the roots of Luo culture. The new album loosely follows this journey which took place in December of 2014.

We had the guys take us through their experiences in Kenya creating the LP, track by track. Stream it below and read on for fascinating in-depth commentary on the voyage that is ‘Nyanza’

1. (Nairobi) Too Hot

In the weeks leading up to the trip there were a series of Al Shabub attacks across Kenya. This had created quite a tense atmosphere in Nairobi when we first landed, and our overwhelming feeling was wanting to leave the city and head to the higher grounds of Nyanza. The gun fire references some of these events as do the lyrics.

2. Luo Land.

This track took shape after a night of Changaa fuelled jamming in Alego. Having stayed up all night partaking in a local gig and watching a 12 hr nyatiti battle, we returned back to our temporary abode with our minds pretty blown. The rhythm track of this song was written in reference to the intense musical experience we shared that night, and when Joseph heard the track, he immediately reached for the mic and recorded the lyrics in one take.

There’s a bit of confusion about the exact translation of the song, but from what we understood at the time of recording, the song is about a tortoise with a Rasta rain coat.

3. Owour Won Gembe.

This track was recorded at Utamaduni Kajulu centre in the hills of Kisumu.

The rustic rehearsal space run by Jah Mic and was a cultural hub for lots of interesting projects. As soon as we got to the rehearsal room we knew it would make a great space for recording. Roots vibes, kids running around outside. Chickens and goats making noise through glassless windows set the perfect scene for us to experiment and capture ideas with our portable studio setup.

This song captures a particularly quiet moment in these 2 days of recording.

Nyamungu sings with a beautifully hushed tone which is accompanied by a Wally Badren style synth line to capture the mystical roots vibrations of the surroundings.

This is a story of Owour the father of Gembe who tills or cultivates his land and provides for his family. But then there is this young man in the village who is named Odindo, who doesn’t work and wants to eat and in this particular story he goes to Owour’s house and eats beans from the pot and kicks the pot. When Owour comes back he is told it’s Odindo. He goes looking for him at the market, when he gets there his friends start laughing at him as they see him approaching for they know what has happened. He also meets with Odindo who is not bothered and denies having anything to do with the incident.

Owour decides that he will visit Odindo at his home the next morning, only to be met by very aggressive dogs that could not even let him in into the compound. He wanted to ask Odindo to show him his land so that he can replace what is missing, out of frustration, he lives.

This highlights the trend that happens so much in rural Nyanza – young people don’t want to be associated with crop cultivation and agriculture.

4. I made You/You Made Me

This song relates to the newly born child of singer Jesse Hackett. His daughter was born weeks before our trip, and the lyrics bear testament to the power and magnitude of this life changing moment in time. On numerous occasions we’d find ourselves out in local nightspots, hearing pure happy Pop music and we wanted to create a song with that kind of joyous energy. We also were influenced by hearing Gospel music emanating from the churches in the mornings.

5. Fishermans camp Pt 1

This track was made using samples from a Live Jam/Concert recorded at Fishermans camp in lake Nyavasha. The band were on route to Nyanza, but had stopped overnight to perform a loosely arranged gig at a night called Fambula. The Zoom recording was then chopped up and rearranged by Jesse who spliced the track together despite having chronic food poisoning at the time from eating a spiky cucumber from the roadside.  There were also a few other variations on this process which will surface over time!

6. Ojoni Wopio.

Recorded on the porch of our AirBnB home stay on the edge of lake Victoria, this track was definitely more of a nod back to the roots of Owiny. The atmosphere of the wind and trees can be heard in the track along with kids shouting and birds chirping. Nyamungu was in high spirits at the time of recording and his jubilant vocals reflect this mood. Sadly I don’t know what the lyrics of this tune are about, but the mood is certainly one of joy and good times!


7. Nyanza Night.

Takes a glimpse at the journey we took to Nyamungu’s rural village, where we partook in a concert and all night Nyatiti battle. The magical experience was both humbling and inspiring.

Fuelled on Changaa we all had our heads blown as we had our first chance to perform this hybrid of Luo/London music to a local crowd. The response was both elated and completely baffled. Some kids danced, some kids cried…that seemed like a fitting response to this often bizarre hybrid of musical styles. We were all in a complete trance by the end of it, and felt moved and lucky to have had the honour to play at the event.

The lyrics of this tune follow this journey into the wilderness and gives glimpses of the mind altering experience we had there.

8. Tech 9

Produced by Tom Skinner and featuring Charles on vocal duties, this dubby Techno inspired track was also recorded at Jah Mic’s rehearsal space. Using drum machines as well as live percussive elements the track was built around Charles’ chanting lyrics. Again the hazy mystical environment of this space was rooted in the music.

9. Deep Kisumu Fish

Sees both Nyamungu and Jesse on vocal duties discussing the many deep water creatures living in Lake Victoria. Jesse brought a keyboard with a series of presets. It was a preset rhythm from this very cheap Yamaha keyboard which he picked up in cash converters for 15 quid, and it felt like a nice different sound for Owiny…a kind of strange 80s Cure like flavour.

10. Changaa Attack

Changaa is not a joke. Stories of battery acid and jet fuel brews are common place in Kenya. This potentially lethal cocktail kills people on a regular basis and causes problems all across Kenya.

However, there is a different side to Changaa as we discovered. The properly brewed version of the drink which is consumed and celebrated widely across Kenya was the corner stone to the Nyatiti celebration we experienced in Alego. Nyamungu claimed it helped with illness and weight loss as well as stopping farts! This track looks at both sides of this cultural phenomenon.

11. Jah Mic.

Also recorded at the Utamaduni Kajulu Centre, this psychedelic jam session features Jah Mic himself on percussion. The lyrics sung by Charles refer to himself as a Bachelor married to the bottle. The track also featured the great Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone.

12. Amolo Tienga

The vocal take felt like a Blues tune so a lot of the other instrumentation was inspired by this vocal sound. We decided not to go full on rhythm, more of an ambient feel on the drums, which felt a bit different to previous works.

‘Nyanza’ is out now on Brownswood Recordings. Buy it here.