Owiny Sigoma Band Talk
The story of The Owiny Sigoma Band is a good one.
In 2009, three Londoners (brothers Louis and Jesse Hackett, and their school friend Tom Skinner) travel to Kenya as part of a cultural project, discover the local music and team up with two musicians (Charles Owoko and Joseph Nyamungu) to form a band producing transcontinental and transcendental dance music.
When Gilles Peterson heard the four tracks created in a disused factory, he immediately signed them to his label Brownswood and sent them back to record some more! The result was the self-titled album 'Owiny Sigoma Band' released in 2011 which would lead to gigs around Europe and an invitation by Thom Yorke to join his Atoms For Peace tour.
Growing in confidence following their nomination for a MOBO award, they released their second album 'Power Punch' in 2013. Recorded in London, they looked to take a bolder approach in bringing out the uniquely London vibe, but without losing the Luo influence. Louis Hackett told R$N: "We had to be fairly sensitive and simultaneously brutal in the decision making."
Their new album is inspired by another Kenya trip, this time to Nyanza, the home town of Joseph and Charles (both masters of traditional Luo instruments, the Nyatiti and the Nyidoungue drums respectively) to meet their families and perform a show. While there, they created field recordings which would form the basis of the record and the trip was also documented in a captivating short film of the same name, directed by Ivan Ogilvie.
In a similar vein to Cobblestone Jazz, the live arena is where The Owiny Sigoma band really come into their own. Their ability to elevate the audience to fever pitch through improvising intense hypnotic excursions is where the collaboration between Luo music and western electronic music starts to make perfect sense.
R$N caught up with the band to talk opening changaa breweries in London and the rules to melting people's marbles;
Your new album is said to be inspired by your trip to Nyanza – are the individual tracks about specific events or stories or is it more about conveying a general feeling?
This album was mostly written during a two-week trip to Nyanza . We took quite a loose approach to the writing process and were often recording, arranging and developing tracks on the fly as we travelled. Most of the lyrics were influenced by the experiences we encountered on this journey. So I'd like to think the general feeling reflects the time we spent there, which was pretty intense at times!
How does this album differ from your previous records?
Our third album took us to the birthplace of Nyamungu and Owoko and gave as a deeper insight into their homeland and the roots of their musical heritage. Until this point, we'd only really visited Nairobi and lake Nyavasha, which are both amazing places in their own right. But getting a chance visit Nyanza was something we had talked about for more than five years since we first formed The Owiny Sigoma band.
The record was slightly different in that we took our own portable studio set up, and basically recorded as and when we could in various spaces that were not traditional music studio set ups. This kept us all on our toes and made for some interesting sonic soup.
When you're playing live how much fluidity is there in terms of improvising or is it fairly strict to the original recording?
Nyatiti music originally follows the form of call and response. Sometime tunes can go on for 10/20 mins and get higher and higher in intensity/speed/power as the caller pushes the crowd further and further. Our live shows definitely lend from this ideal. Of course we still use the frame work from our records, but don't be surprised if you see a 10 min trance out rendition of one of our tunes if the mood takes us…. We live in the drone zone, so loosen up your briefs and prepare to sweat around your ankles.
What do Charles (Owoko) and Joseph (Nyamungu) make of music over here in the UK?
We're always surprised at how receptive the gents are to all the weird and wonderful music we have shared together.
Whether it be electronic or acoustic, new or really old, they always take a real interest in sound. Some of the best times we have had are travelling from place to place with an iPod on shuffle – and as you can imagine, this can throw up some pretty odd shit!
Making music by combining different genres of music together must be tricky sometimes – are there any rules you have learnt over the years?
The only rules are to try and use your ears and be free with the process. Trust each other's ideas even if you don't like them. We never really have anything prepared when we start recording and try to let things happen in the moment otherwise it can get a bit convoluted.
Do you ever suffer the wrath of Luo traditionalists who feel you may be perverting their music?
I've got no doubt that some traditionalists will be pretty confused by a lot of the music we have created together and that's absolutely great news. We never set out this band to be a puritanical experience.
We are a pretty diverse bunch as you may or may not have noticed, and the music we create is a reflection of this.
There is loads and loads of amazing traditional music from Kenya, which we totally love. But that's not what we aim to create with this particular project. So if that's what you're after, please feel free to exit quietly from the rear of the building.
How has the reception been in the UK – do you have to be selective about your venues or does everyone get into it no matter where you are?
We have had some amazing gigs, not just here in the UK, but across Europe and Africa. Of course, you have some gigs where people are more laid back and waiting to see what you have to offer. But on the whole our live shows are mostly about energy and getting people moving. Sometimes this take more effort, other times we have sweat dripping from the ceiling within the first few minutes, so it all kind of depends on the crowd and what they are feeling at the time.
In terms of venues, we are really just as happy playing at a festival to a sunny crowd of revellers as a dark and dingy techno rave where we can get nasty and string out the tunes to melt peoples marbles. That's the beauty of this group, it can work in either way!
What do you think you would be doing now if you had not made that original trip to Kenya in 2009?
Playing with our collection of tin whistles?? I dunno.
How do you see the sound of the band progressing in the future?
Just keep moving forward, being creating, having a laugh, drinking cold ones, burning sticks, bubbling on the dance floor, and mostly enjoying each others company and the process of making sounds together.
Any plans to open a changaa [Kenyan alcoholic drink] brewery over here?
Yeah, we actually invested all the earning from our latest album into buying the Truman Brewery on Brick lane and we are currently converting it into a Giant Changaa Palace fitted with rotating dance floors and crystal disco balls! Or was it all just a dream???
Nyanza is out on 28th August via Brownswood.