News: September 15th, 2021 - “I’m on a Journey of Understanding what a Composer is, away from whiteness”: SA Recordings’ ‘Recompose’ Competition Winner Nyokabi Kariũki talks to Alev Lenz about Identity, Place, and Decolonising Our Hearing for Composer Day

In November last year, SA Recordings announced the ‘Recompose’ Competition Series to mark the 1 year anniversary of Alev Lenz’s album ‘3’. Members of the Spitfire Audio community were invited to submit their re-imagining of any one of the songs Lenz’ s album. The winner was announced as Kenyan composer Nyokabi Kariũki, and the music video for her “unforgettable” entry, created by the imaginative British animator, Prehuman, premiered on Composer Magazine on March 11th.


Alev: I thought we should start by talking about the “Recompose” Competition I initiated with SA Recordings, and how that brought us together. I had the idea for it because of the pandemic. The album ‘3’ is mainly a cappella, so when I was touring the album in 2019, I would sing with a local choir and local singers in each city. We hoped that the tour could continue through 2020, and all of that fell flat. But I was like, ‘well, people could still sing it’. So I thought to connect to musicians by releasing the sheet music, because PDFs can go anywhere they want, right? And perhaps musicians could not only download the music, but also re-compose a song from it. So we announced the Recompose Competition with SA Recordings, and we got over a 100 submissions. When I was listening through the entries, I was really touched and surprised by how intimate and connecting it was — it felt like I was having individual conversations with each composer. How did it feel on your end, with receiving the sheet music and creating an entry for the competition?

Nyokabi: I found out about it from a friend, who just sent me the link and said, ‘this seems like something up your alley’. So I checked it out and was really intrigued by the competition, because most of the opportunities I see in the composition community ask you to write for random instrumentation and you generally just don’t engage much with who you’re writing for during or after it’s over, so they're very impersonal in that sense. But the Recompose Competition was you inviting us into your work, while inviting us to be ourselves within that as well — so I connected to the concept of reworking one of your pieces very quickly. Looking through the scores and listening through the album was such a beautiful experience, there were so many songs I felt I could use. I settled on ‘Fishermen’, because it was the easiest one to ‘half-’ learn, as I didn't want to learn a song too much that I couldn't divorce myself from your performance of it. On the score, you had just written the one line notated and indicated in a sentence below to ‘sing it as a canon going up chromatically’, and I really liked that you'd notated it that way because the score felt open. There was so much space to put my own voice into the work.

Alev: I’m glad to hear you say that, because my aim was to make the competition personal because that’s what I wanted with the live shows as well, to really connect to the place where I was. Especially with the song ‘Fishermen’, we wouldn't really rehearse it for the shows. I'd just tell the singers to do whatever they feel; move up chromatically and follow me where it fits. Everyone just brings their own personality into it. So this brings me to the next question, because I think this connects quite well, but it's also really hard to answer. What does it mean to be a composer?

Nyokabi: Wow. I think about this question a lot in many different contexts. As a composer, you hear music in everything around you. The more that I have called myself a composer, the more that everything starts to become musical. My Aunt, who I’m currently living with in Maryland, sometimes gets annoyed at me because I'll be washing the dishes, for instance, and then the dishes clink together and I’m like ‘whoa what a cool sound!’ so I keep banging them against each other and she’ll be like, ‘ok that’s enough!’ But your mind just has this relationship to the sounds around you, and anyone who wants to explore that relationship, I’d say is a composer.
But what’s interesting about context is that I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya, and listened to so many kinds of music, but my ‘formal’ training was in Western classical piano, so my understanding of what a composer was was always centred around the typical European classical composers. I remember writing a piano piece when I was nine years old, but I didn't connect that I was a composer by virtue of the fact that I was composing, just because who I saw a composer to be was that image of white men who existed ages ago. Or, with film composers today, seeing how it’s predominantly white men. So something that's been part of my journey is understanding what a composer is away from whiteness. Because I'm Kenyan, it has been really important to see what it means to be an ‘African composer’. Granted, anyone from Africa who writes music, is an African composer, regardless of what idiom that they choose to write in. But for me, I’ve wanted to reflect on who were, and who are, the music-makers of Africa? And what is our own relationship to sound, away from the white man?

Alev: Very similarly to you actually, I also started even using the term composer really late although what I was doing was composing, because of exactly the same — our general Eurocentric, colonised schooling, was focused on just white men. So I really did think that that a ‘composer’ was simply something I could not be, because I didn't see myself in that, as a woman. It's interesting how much you internalise certain messaging. It's not that there's no female composers, or Black composers, or composers from completely different musical styles that have nothing to do with Western classical teachings. But it's just been taught in one way for so long, that you're at the end of that circle thinking, ‘I guess women don't do that, I guess that white men have invented something that no one was ever better at’. I read an essay of yours that was published last year, ‘A Child of Various Tongues’, and in it you say, ‘to decolonise’. We have to break away and to decolonise ourselves from that kind of thinking.

Nyokabi: Yeah. I've had people even today, when I say I'm a composer, they ask, “Oh, those still exist?” Or, even when I go as far as to send them links to my music, they say, “oh, that's not what I thought composition was, or that's not what I expected.” Our education around an artform like composition is still very much tied to the exclusionary nature of colonialism, but not everyone sees — or wants to see — that just yet. So we truly need to pick apart why we still see things in the way that we do and altogether step away from that thinking.

Alev: Yes. In that sense, I want to thank you for really giving me such a gift with your submission to the Recompose Competition. It was this whole journey you took me (and my entire family for that matter) on, where I started questioning, ‘how am I listening? What do my ears call a composition?’ It was really special to listen to all of the composition entries, but to see the effect your particular composition had on everyone, in different ways, was so special. I think it was so special because you were questioning us with your work. It just was this beautiful way of opening a new space in my heart and brain and soul and being like, ‘ah, you know stuff but you really don't’. So I think that's maybe what it means to be a composer: when you manage to open a space for a listener, that they didn't even have access to before. That's definitely what your composition did. I think a composer is much more than what we allow it to be.

Nyokabi: Agreed. Thank you so much.

Alev: So, you touched on this a little bit earlier on, where you talked about decolonizing our music theory and how you’re personally wanting to reconnect with what it means to be a composer from Africa. Something I've been asked a lot, being half-Turkish, is, “Where’s the Turkish in the music?” And that question would just narrow it down to representing something, rather than actually participating in something. I would say, “I don't know, I'm just the person, and the music I make is the result of everything I carry.” But then there's obviously also really important parts of where you, for example, bring back the mbira and weave that into your compositional voice in your Recompose entry. What is your experience with this? Does your heritage need to be heard? And how is it heard?

Nyokabi: This is something that I think about a lot. It's part of what sparked this whole journey of reassessing what it means to be a composer from where I’m from. But again, I want to reiterate that I firmly believe that any person who is from somewhere and who writes music, that music belongs to that place, regardless of the idiom. I've written music that doesn't “sound African” or doesn't “sound Kenyan”. But that is still Kenyan music because I'm Kenyan, and that is how it should be. I think this idea of “make it sound more African” or whatever is very rooted in this idea of ‘othering’ people that are not the ‘standard’, which is white. What they’re actually saying is, “make it sound like what we stereotype your heritage to be”. But I’m very much of mind that we have the power to define what our sound is and where it’s from.
But at the same time, it was still important for me to rediscover the things that were edited out, or erased. And one of the ways that I did that was by picking up the mbira, which has been such a fascinating and rewarding process. It’s got such a rich history because there are so many iterations of it all over the continent, not only by name, but in tuning, scale, materials used, and even in terms of how and in what contexts they’re performed. So like in Cameroon, they call it the ‘sanza’, in Zimbabwe it’s the ‘mbira’, and in Kenya, some ethnic groups call it the ‘adongo’, or ‘kalimba’. The latter is maybe the most familiar name to other people because an English ethnomusicologist, Hugh Tracey, took the instrument and sold it under that name and had the notes follow the typical Western classical major scale. So I've been collecting various mbiras and exploring them in my work, including in my entry to the Recompose Competition — so all the sounds you hear are either made by my voice or by the mbira, but because I was also experimenting with electronic processing, it might sound different than you expect. But it has been really empowering in terms of reconnecting with home and with finding my own voice in that reconnection.

Alev: It did something very emotional with me just now, when you said, “wherever you are located, and you simply write music, then that's music from there”. It had never occurred to me that that's simply that. When people ask where my “Turkish” is or where your “Kenyan” is, it’s not only making you ‘other’ from where you are, it actually also takes ownership away.

Nyokabi: Yes, exactly.

Alev: But it’s also really important, especially in where culture has been so severely erased and destroyed, to pull certain things back in, so those stories aren't actually forgotten. Because if we don't retell them, replay them, recompose them, they're lost, which is which is also a big tool of oppression — making people believe that there’s a disconnect from their past; creating something that builds a wall to the past, so that they’re like, “well, I stand on nothing, so I probably have nothing”. Which is obviously a lie. So how do you approach rediscovering the stories of where you’re from?

Nyokabi: Through languages and just listening to and reading stories from home. Anyone who knows me knows I'm obsessed with languages and the idea of what that is to identity. Things changed so quickly due to colonialism, and so where my parents grew up speaking Kikuyu, I understand it but I'm barely able to speak. My Kiswahili is conversational enough, but it's not the best. So I think there's just that of me feeling like I don't have language in the same way like my parents do that allows them to feel more connected. So I’ve been working to retrace my languages, and using them a bit more in my work. Then with regards to storytelling, I've been talking to my family more about their lives growing up, and so several of my compositions are centred around these stories from home. For example, I recently wrote a marimba trio for Heartland Marimba based on a season on the Kikuyu calendar called ‘mbura ya njahĩ’. And so I would ask my parents and other family members questions about that, like “what did this time of year mean to you, what do you remember from your childhood?” and so on. Just hearing their stories has been a really powerful way of reconnecting. And then stories from contemporary African writers as well. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is a huge influence — I essentially echo years of his work when I talk about languages and the concept of ‘decolonising’, you know?

Alev: Was there a moment when it clicked, and you said, ‘I’ve had enough of sitting here and never learning anything else about other compositional styles?’ Or was it more of a realisation over time?

Nyokabi: That's a good question. I think that it was a gradual realisation over the years during my time in college. Being away from home leads you to really ask questions about your identity. There are moments where, when I think about it retrospectively, it's so clear that I was disconnected from some topics in the music curriculum, but at the time I hadn't realised it yet. It’s funny though because as a creative writing minor, my writing was focused a lot on postcolonial identity, so perhaps in a way, my writing was a little bit ahead of my music in terms of the thoughts that I was having. Then towards my final year, I looked into classes I could take that were about African music, and I found one, and just as I was gearing up to take it, it got cancelled. So I just realised that I was going to have to do that learning myself. Which has come with its own set of complications, but it's been very fulfilling so far, and I want to continue to learn more about music from home. And there are so many other African musicians who are doing this work too, which makes me so hopeful about the knowledge that will be available for future generations.

Alev: Me too. Speaking of your time in college and being away from home. You grew up in Nairobi, then moved to New York for four years, and are in Maryland during the pandemic. How does being placed in different places affect your music making? Do you incorporate being in all these different places into your music at all? Does it expand your creativity? Or is it difficult to travel and split time between places?

Nyokabi: My parents have always enjoyed and prioritised travelling, and I was fortunate to grow up visiting all these incredible places, both within Kenya and abroad. And then in college, living in multiple places became my reality. There’s definitely whiplash from going between places, but I have loved being able to experience the world in different forms. So yes, place undoubtedly affects the music I write, because I’m very sensitive to the energy around me—I feed off of it. A bunch of my music has been based on, or inspired by, a particular place. Colours and atmosphere and sounds are so different everywhere. Even in this pandemic where we can’t go out too much, different rooms in the house are inspiring me differently as well. Perhaps ‘place’ is so prevalent in my work because this idea of identity and belonging is often tied to place. So that definitely seeps into my musical expression.

Alev: Just listening to you, I'm travelling. Do you think there's such a distinction to be made between journeys and destinations? We both have a big place in our heart reserved for New York City, which I think a lot of people do as well, because it’s this extremely energetically enchanted place, a destination — I have no explanation why it has this special power to it. But with me moving to Berlin, for example, that was a journey for me, where I got to see the differences between the city where I'm from and the city where I'm going. And then I ventured to London, and it was more a journey also. So I was just thinking about being an artist and travelling, and whether for you, you also feel that some places are a journey, and that is the inspiration; while others are a destination, and that is the inspiring part?

Nyokabi: In a way, I think everything and everywhere is a journey. New York as you say is interesting, because for the artist, it’s always framed as the place you go when you finally ‘make it’. But because I went during the formative period of college, where so much exponential growth happens in a short amount of time, I think that this idea of ‘journey’ was connected to New York. Because to me, a journey is when you're constantly growing, constantly absorbing new things and learning, and I don't think that stops. But also in a way, New York does feel like a destination, doesn’t it? It’s definitely weird trying to settle in other places after being in New York.

Alev: A lot of places do feel transitional, where it feels like I'm still going somewhere else. But that’s also a big part of being a composer for me, just feeling the world and experiencing it and expressing that through music. But in New York, I was like, “I'm in New York. This is it”. I felt so much that it was where I needed to be. Some places do that, where I'm like, “Yes, this is enough”.

Nyokabi: Yes. I like how you say, “this is where I needed to be”. I certainly felt that about New York. But also, my feelings about it might change in a couple of years. But I do resonate with that a lot — of feeling like I truly am where I need to be. I’m very grateful to have been able to take from everywhere I’ve been, from Nairobi to New York to Maryland, and put that all into the music that I create. My Recompose entry is a good starting point, I feel. I hope that people listen to it and are transported on a kind of journey through the song. •

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