Singing Wells, the East African Music Research Programme

Singing Wells Recording Session of Sagat Traditional Dancers © James Allen

Singing Wells is the name of a folk music research programme in East Africa initiated by William Tabu Osusa, owner of the Ketebul Music Studios in Nairobi/Kenya. In the following interview Osusa talks about his activities as a researcher, producer and promotor of East African folk music.

Mr. Osusa, your field research in East Africa reminds me of the work that the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók did in the Balkans a hundred years ago.

That may be so, but I was mainly influenced by Hugh Tracey, the English musicologist from South Africa, who did a lot of field research in South and Central parts of Africa in the 20th century. Nobody cared about continuing his work in East Africa, so I thought: Well, then I want to do it. The first thing I did was to buy a mobile recording studio, and with that we continue to travel around East Africa recording traditional music. The project is called Singing Wells and is also featured in my latest publication, „Shades of Benga. The Story of Popular Music in Kenya 1946 – 2016“.

Tabu Osusa
Tabu Osusa with his book „Shades of Benga“

A demanding task and a lot of work, I suppose.

Sure. And it is very expensive because of the logistics involved including the payment of participants. Normally, we give participating groups each about 500 dollars as a token of appreciation for the time they spend for us and for the content. The Singing Wells project takes place once a year and is a partnership between Ketebul Music and the Abubilla Music Foundation in London. However, we are open to more partnerships.

How long does a project tour last?

About three weeks. For example, we fly to Entebbe in Uganda, rent a car there and drive overland. First, we go on an exploratory trip to contact local coordinators who help us in identifying the groups and musicians we can work with. The participants are then initiated into the project.

Since when have you been doing this?

Since 2011. All the material we have collected over the years is available to the public on the Singing Wells website: locations, names of the musicians and information about their story.

The Return of Bigwala

Training professional musicians

You have helped many folk musicians to build up a professional career. How did you go about it?

In 2005, Ketebul Music with the support of the Alliance Française in Nairobi and local stake holders  interested in the music sector launched the „Spotlight on Kenyan Music“ programme.  For over a decade we conducted talents searches across the country. With the best musicians we made recording and released six compilation albums. That was the genesis of Afro fusion music in Kenya.

Did you do the same kind of research for „Spotlight on Kenyan Music“  as for „Singing Wells“?

Not quite. We took them to our studio in Nairobi and brought them together with a professional band they could work with.

Who are these musicians? Can you give me a few names?

Makadem, Sauti Sol, Ontiri, Gargar and Juma Tutu.

The four women of Gargar are sensational.

We discovered them in the north-eastern Kenyan province of Garissa county, heading towards Somalia. They come from a Muslim village. Their way from the village to the national and international concert stage was somehow revolutionary. They have become very influential role models and cultural icons in the region.

Gargar on stage
Gargar on stage. © Paul Munene/ Quaint Photography, Courtesy Ketebul Music

The media play a decisive role in the start of a career. Are video recordings important or is audio sufficient?

A larger audience can only be reached with video. But it has to be well done, and it needs a good script and a professional video director. The musicians who come from the village need professional supervision.

Do you teach these beginners how to behave in front of the camera?

Yes, absolutely. That’s another reason why we need the video director. I don’t do it myself, but hire someone.

How long does it take to produce a song?

It varies a lot depending on the artists and genre. It could take from a week to a month because I never set a time limit. We sit down, make a concept and discuss the production before we begin working with the sound engineer. The principle is: Take your time!

Western influence and African identity

What is the idea behind your discovery work with Singing Wells and Spotlight on Kenyan Music?

I feared that the authentic Kenyan music genres were slowly getting extinct; the younger generation is no more familiar with them. The western influence is very strong in the Kenyan mainstream music scene. The fact is that we have talented musicians; however, many look up to American musicians as their role model, which makes them lose their African identity. Therefore, by setting up Ketebul Music Studios I wanted to record these artists and ensure that whichever music genre they did, there was an element of a Kenyan identity.

You have already been to the USA with Kenyan musicians. What were your experiences there?

In 2014 the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. invited us to perform at the festival for ten days, and Ketebul Music curated the performances. It was a great success, and the organisers of the festivals said it was better than the music featured the previous year, which was from Mali. I could hardly believe it, since Mali has world class musicians. However, they were fascinated by the variety of Kenyan music genres, such as chakacha, benga, rumba, omutiba, mwomboko, ohangla and taarab.

How are your musicians received by the audience?

Their music is  recognized more internationally than in Kenya. Most have played at huge festivals in Europe because the organizers there want to hear something African, not an imitation of international styles. However, the trend seems to be changing as recently, our musicians have been performing more often in Kenya. Our music promoters seem to have realized that the audience wants to hear more local sounds.


Winyo, one of the younger Kenyan artists, at Acces 2018 in Nairobi.

Money: The Market, the State and the media support

How do you assess the African market? Can it develop under its own steam, or does it need Western support from Europe and the States?

That is an important question. I think without the West it can still work as long as the government increases its interest and invests in the sector. African music has most consumers outside the continent. African artists are getting royalties from international streaming platforms, the same cannot be said for the local streaming platforms. In Africa artists make more money through performances at concerts and festivals than by selling music in the media.
However, the problem is not so much on the consumers but the Collecting Management Organiations (CMOs). As artists representatives they should ensure that proper implementation of laws and good infrastructures are in place to enable artists earn from their works.  At Ketebul Music, our biggest financial supporters have always come from the West.

Last year at Acces 2018 in Nairobi, there was talk that Uganda, for example, wanted to make money available for culture.

That’s good to hear. However, it comes down to accountability. In most countries, there is a certain amount of money allocated to the arts. However, the funds are never utilised to benefit the creative sector. The solution is to appoint people who understand the cultural needs and have an interest in the artists at heart.

And what about the media?

Today’s journalists are mostly young, and consider traditional music as not funky enough. For them, „traditional“ is synonymous with “outdated” and therefore uninteresting. But there have always been such views everywhere. I can tell you a little story about that. A few months ago, I gave a presentation at the International Music Council in Paris and told how things were when I went still to school. At that time you got a reprimand if you spoke in class your mother tongue instead of English. At the end of the day, the total was added up: The person with the most demerits had to clean the toilet. That meant: mother tongue is shit. When I told this in Paris, a Brit from Wales said: „That’s exactly what I experienced at school.” He said it was called the „Wales Note“.

„The basis of the music should be African“

Fortunately, things are changing today. You should not slacken in your efforts to promote East African folk music.

I do not want to fight in this world until I drop dead. I’m 65 now, let the younger ones do it. We have excellent artists here. But the influence from outside is great: formerly the British, today the Americans, and already the Chinese are coming.

Watch out.

Yes, but on the other hand we need these contacts. African cultures have always been mixed cultures. I’m not a purist. You can work with electronics today. But if the African part disappears behind the western part, then there is a problem. Every song is different, but the basis should be African. You have to pay attention to that in the production. It depends on how things are mixed: the instruments, the bass, the arrangement, the voice, the language. In the end, the voice is decisive. When a young musician sings in his mother tongue, the harmonies can even be Western. South Africans speak English with an American accent, but when they sing, it’s different, they come back to their roots. African culture is a complex issue. There is no reason to call our music outdated. It is open to modernity.


Video production of „Nakupenda kama sukari“ ( I love you like sugar), the polyrhythmic song from 2009 which was a huge success for the Kenyan artist Juma Tutu.

See also: Report from Acces 2017, the Music in Africa conference in Dakar.

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