Name: Nyokabi Kariũki
Occupation: Sound artist, composer, performer
Current release: Nyokabi Kariũki's new EP peace places: kenyan memories is out via SA Recordings.
If these thoughts by Nyokabi Kariũki piqued your interest, visit her official website. She is also on Facebook, Instagram, and twitter. Her works have been performed by ensembles like Third Coast Percussion.
[Read our Third Coast Percussion interview]
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
My journey into sound happened through music, when my parents had me try out Western classical piano lessons as an afterschool activity when I was around 5 or 6 years old. Each day of the week, my sibling and I would have to alternate between swimming training and piano lessons. And because I really didn’t like swimming, I began to associate ‘piano day’ as a day of relief and rest; a break from the shivering and the wetness and the cold. I also noticed that I was quite good at the piano, so my parents encouraged me to keep going. One thing I loved about being a pianist was that it was fulfilling to play alone for hours, but also fulfilling to play around with friends and other musicians.
Seventeen years on, the piano continues to be that place that I feel understood; sort of like an altar that I can release all my feelings onto and just breathe. So I’d say it was one of my first ‘peace places’. The track, ‘home piano’ in my EP is a little celebration of that — I recorded myself improvising on the piano I’ve had from age 8, in my home in Nairobi, on a rainy day.
Sound is such an intriguing medium to work with, because it’s this ever-expanding world, and I find myself uncovering new things about it every second — that’s what keeps it interesting. The music I’m making now isn’t the music I made a couple months ago, and isn’t the music I made a year, or even two years, ago.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
Nairobi is this bustling city full of music and art from everywhere, and I feel very fortunate to have had access to different environments that exposed me to a constellation of sonic influences.
I grew up listening to popular African music from afrobeats and local hip-hop, to traditional and folk music from all over the continent, from Suzanna Owiyo to Brenda Fassie and Oliver Mtukudzi. The African church was a part of my upbringing, and I learned a lot about music through that: music and dance is a big part of praise and celebration, and everyone is a part of that music-making.
Concurrently to all this absorption of music from home, I was also plugged in to Western popular music, downloading albums by Rihanna and Of Monsters and Men to listen to when I wanted to shut the world out. And of course, through the piano lessons and thereafter my degree in music composition in New York, I was exposed to some really incredible classical and classical contemporary music.
I find it hard, sometimes, to describe my own music, and I reckon that’s because my ‘sonic preferences’ — from having an affinity for vocal harmonies, to my sense of rhythm, and being drawn to improvisation — can be traced back to all the music I absorbed consciously and subconsciously, and formally and informally, from such a diverse range of cultures and music-makers.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
There is so much I’m learning about with regards to the philosophical and social ways Africans approach(ed) music, and I feel this is so present and ever-growing in my work and truly a way of honouring and participating in a lineage of African music makers and storytellers.
One thing that I look at, for example, is how in Africa, musical engagements are often not divided between ‘stage’ and ‘audience’, as is often the case in Western classical spaces. Here, everyone is and was a contributor to the sound, regardless of ‘training’ or not. When I look at how much I enjoy inviting other sonic perspectives to be a part of my work, I feel that it really is drawing from that understanding of music as a communal effort and activity.
On my EP, peace places: kenyan memories, you hear the voices and sounds made by my parents, my brother, my grandmother, extended family, friends, and the natural environment. And I sought to use these audio contributions not as embellishments, but in ways that felt necessary to and inextricable from the music.
So I think that's one (of several) that I feel that lineage is living on in my work. Really, it’s been such a worthwhile journey to reflect and search on how Africans understand music in ways beyond just the technical.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
I wouldn’t say that I had a particular ‘system’ or ‘process’ around collecting and organising the field recordings on the EP. They were all taken on my phone, with a notable number of the audio/field recordings being extracted from videos that I’d taken casually while visiting some of the places that the EP explored.
In one track, “Ngurumo, or Feeding Goats Mangoes”, you hear the audio from a video I took while my brother and I fed some mango peels to goats huddling in a little shed. In the second track, “A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm”, the audio is from a video where you can hear my Mum exclaiming in Kikuyu (our language) how hard it is to pull an onion out of the ground.
I felt that there was this organic feeling to the music that came about as a result of using these unplanned recordings, taken in such quotidian moments but moments that somehow felt very meaningful still.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
Sound and music has always been the way that I process things: situations, feelings, experiences. There are countless times where I was feeling upset about a situation and I would just go to the piano and make music.
But more than that, I’ve also realised that sound is a way that I discover and rediscover my cultural identity. I think this EP, peace places: kenyan memories, is a good example of how sound aided this journey of cultural re-discovery: choosing to express in Kenyan languages that I’m not as comfortable in expressing in, for instance — such as in “Equator song”, where I sing in Kiswahili and Maa — was a way to establish my own personal relationship with the languages.
I also look at some of my other works outside of the EP that I’ve done and plan to do, which similarly want to tell more African stories through the inclusion of field recordings, interviews, and more. Creating these works have led me on a path of asking, and asking and asking in order to learn what was lost.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
This is continually evolving. I don't feel that I need to approach things the same way; different projects ask for different approaches. On peace places: kenyan memories, so much of that process was about letting the sounds show me where the music was within them, and go from there — in other words, letting the sounds guide me. This meant that a lot of the process included improvisation and experimentation.
A track like “Naila’s Peace Place” is a really strong example of this.
Naila Aroni is a dear childhood friend, who painted the gorgeous artwork of the EP, and the idea was that she would paint a certain number of pieces based on the places in the EP. So I decided to give back to her in a similar way: I asked her to send me any videos she had taken while somewhere in Kenya that she’d call her ‘peace place’.
She sent over a video of her and her best friend walking along the beach in Lamu during sunset (a beautiful and unique coastal town in Kenya). I'd never been to Lamu myself, which was the fun part — I had to trust the audio to guide the writing of the piece. And it did: the audio is a brief but expressive conversation between the close friends experiencing an unforgettable sunset together, and to me, it sounded like the emotion of pure joy and euphoria was distilled into a single audio file. So I built the piece around this moment, around wanting to slow it down and have the listener simply marinate in the feeling of the joy these friends were experiencing in the place.
But, the piece would be completely different if I had chosen a different audio recording. So when working with sounds, I’m trying to connect with the audio the way it is, and attempt to bring it out to its fullest potential.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
Many artists have related that certain sounds trigger compositional ideas in them or are even a compositional element in their own right. Provided this is the case for you – what, exactly, is about certain sounds that triggers such ideas in you?
It’s happened often times that I hear an interesting texture on an instrument or an interesting sound in the environment that I’m in and quickly write it down or pull out my phone to record it. Most of the time, I won’t know what I’ll use it for, but it’s stored somewhere in my mind for another time.
I'd say that I find myself drawn to peculiar sounds. The other day there was a group of vervet monkeys playing in some branches close to my backyard and they made the most loud and bizarre croak-y sound, and I knew I had to record them. Or even with the weaverbirds on “Equator song”, off my EP — I was casually standing on a balcony in Laikipia county, Kenya, and the yellow birds were suddenly so active in a nearby tree. The sound they emitted was so harsh and dissonant and striking and I thought that it could be an interesting challenge to experiment with making music around their sound.
Humans are often characterised as "visual beings". In your opinion, what role does our sense of hearing play in our understanding of the world? How do sounds affect you, compared to other senses like sight or smell?
There’s a film I’d watched called The Sound of Silence, and it’s about a ‘house tuner’ who is invited to people’s houses to identify whether certain sounds in their homes have been contributing to physical and mental issues like anxiety, lack of sleep, headaches, etc. For instance, the house tuner would notice that the droning sound that one appliance made, combined with the buzz of another appliance in the same room, was creating an unsettling interval, and the person living in that home was subconsciously absorbing that sonic energy which manifested in these health issues. We’re constantly hearing various silences, noises, and sounds, and the movie attempted to ponder this point — that these sonic inputs have a formative imprint on our bodies.
But even beyond its effect on our physical bodies, our sense of hearing plays a huge role in terms of what we can learn about our environment. I recently spoke to two Kenyan electronic musicians, DJ Raph and 7headc0, two electronic musicians who are part of a team spearheading an open-access archive of field recordings of Nairobi (called the Sound of Nairobi Archive), whose goal is to take field recordings of Nairobi over the span of 50+ years. During our conversation, we’d talked about how even in as little as the past 10 years, the sound of the city has changed so much.
A decade or two ago, you’d hear the very specific sound of a horn that was installed into the public transport buses. Now, you don’t hear that; but it’s almost assured that you will hear the sound of boda bodas (motorbikes) buzzing in the distance.
While these are both seemingly ordinary sounds heard in the day to day, pondering on the sound of Nairobi ‘then’ versus ‘now’, even in this ‘buses then’ versus ‘motorbikes now’ way, already provides political, economical and ecological revelations about the city. Sound is a pocket that we can glean so much about ourselves, and about our world, from. (I could go on about this for ages — just yesterday, I found out about this East African bird that has been singing the same song for a million years. I had never thought of nature as being a ‘natural archivist’ — but of course it is!) The more I learn about sound, the more I find myself hearing.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
I think of this in the African context. Where Baka women in Cameroon and Gabon find music in the river when they create liquindi (water drumming) music. Or how the dundun drum of the Yoruba in Nigeria was created to mimic the patterns and cadences of their language.
I think this is the most perfect way to illustrate the connection; that music that we make is around us already, and what we present as “music” is essentially a distillation of the sounds we experience around us. Growing up in Africa, I feel that you understand, innately, that all sound within and around us, in our environment and beyond, is music.