Written by Joy Ruguru
Unlike the owner of this blog, I’m not an ardent fan of jazz. Maybe as background music when I’m eating or reading. I blame it on not being born in a musical family that enjoyed a side of classical and jazz music with dinner. I had to discover them on my own. After all, I am the musical one in the family.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t get Nairobi Horns Project at first. Everyone around me seemed to, especially during their high energy performances. The Kenyan jazz ensemble would play their instrumental interpretations of popular Kenyan classics and the crowd would go wild. All except me.
Was I missing something?
I heard them in passing at Africa Nouveau Festival 2019 but I was too busy chasing the Sunday sunset. They finally caught up with me at a Gig Dynamics gig at The Elephant. It was the first time I truly listened to their Afro-jazz music. And as soon as I got home, I looked for their album Black In Gold online.
Just like in their live set, their world-class musicianship is apparent in their debut album. Nairobi Horns Project is a group effort by Mackinlay Mutsembi on trumpet, the sax therapist Rabai Mokua and Victor Kinama on trombone. The original members of NHP are accompanied by a strong rhythm section: Steve Mwanzia on keys, Amani Baya on drums, Jack Muguna on guitar, Moise Basinza on bass and Kasiva Mutua on percussions. These are all professional Kenyan musicians so you can expect a lot.
Black in Gold opens with Muguna Muguna named after their celebrated guitarist. The Kenyan virtuoso shines in whichever local band he plays in, from Makadem to Lulu Abdalla’s. And his playful African guitar is ever-present in Furaha and most of the album’s tracks.
Just as the name implies, the fourth track gives you some Rhumba Nostalgia. Muthurwa Express then picks up the pace of benga rhythms. You almost feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of the bustling Nairobi market.
Eclectic in nature, Nairobi Horns Project Show Off their funky soul and later keep it Smooth and sexy. The reggae interlude in the latter sneaked up on me and I’m quite glad it did. But I won’t bore you with details of where the saxophone crescendos and the trumpet falls in Let’s Get Away. You have to listen to experience the sweet subtleties of jazz music.
Unlike other popular genres of music such as R&B and hip-hop, there’s nothing like “What is the message”; jazz is about the feeling. Some songs can feel up to 7 minutes. That said, the only track with lyrics is Mukoye. It begins with a traditional Luhya song field recording and the distinct metal ring rings constantly throughout the 4:36 minutes.
Talk about the strength of a woman.
The closing song in both their album and live set was a clear crowd favourite at The Elephant. Bandleader and music director Mackinlay Mutsembi animated the stage with a heavy Luhya accent as an ode to his ancestral home. And we couldn’t help but shake our shoulders and everything our mamas gave us.
Other than Mukoye, Black In Gold sounds like jazz music you’d want to listen to at a fancy restaurant. Or even at home while enjoying your ugali and sukuma wiki (which is what I did). On a chilly gloomy evening, you can only heat up with good food and better music.
Nairobi Horns Project is as good as any international jazz band I’ve ever heard. And they’ve proven it, playing at noteable concerts such as Koroga Festival 2017 and Standard Bank Joy of Jazz 2018 in Johannesburg. They are also regulars at Safaricom International Jazz Festival, https://safaricomjazzfestival.co.ke/ the annual Kenyan jazz event birthed by the late Bob Collymore that has made typically misunderstood jazz music palatable and even danceable.
During their inaugural performance in 2016, Nairobi Horns Project opened for South African maestro Hugh Masekela and later recorded a tribute to him “Mr. Masekela” in their debut EP Kipepeo.
But in a world where so many people are doing the same thing, what makes you stand out? How did Hugh Masekela stand out from all the Afro-jazz musicians of his time? It makes me wonder what NHP’s USP is. Every artist needs to know what their unique thing is (I’m still figuring that out as a writer of 3 years).
As their artist bio suggests , it would be refreshing to hear more Kenyan folk influences in their jazz music as with Rhumba Nostalgia and Mukoye. Sounds that reflect more of Africa and especially Nairobi which is their selected home. We all want to belong to our music, even if it’s jazz.
Maybe I’ll enjoy their modern Kenyan classics music project once it’s out. And even though I’m not an ardent jazz fan, I wouldn’t mind listening to Black In Gold again.
About Joy Ruguru:
Joy Ruguru is adept with all thing music, an online radio presenter, who loves to get high on music. She writes on her blog, LaMusicJunkie