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Nyokabi Kariũki (b. 1998) is a Kenyan composer and performer based between Maryland, New York, and Nairobi. Her sonic imagination is ever-evolving, with compositions ranging from classical contemporary & experimental music, to film, choral, pop, and explorations into sound art, electronics, and (East) African musical traditions. Her new EP peace places: kenyan memories, takes you on a journey through memories formed throughout her upbringing in Kenya, transporting us to places around the country using field recordings, keyboards, kalimbas, experimental electronics, and languages including English, Kiswahili, Kikuyu, and Maa.
Each track on the EP is based on a specific place in Kenya that had emotional significance in her growing up, with the musical creations stemming from visual cues of the places she reminisced on: “When I see a colour, I hear a certain sound. This is why art plays such a pivotal part in the creation of this project. The EP’s closing track, “Naila’s Peace Place”, is the peace place of Kenyan artist and childhood friend of Nyokabi, Naila Aroni, who painted the artwork on the EP cover. On this, Nyokabi mentioned, “I love her art so much, so I asked her to paint 3 pieces based on some places the EP tracks featured for the cover art. I would send her photos and colour schemes as references. Then, I wanted to give back to Naila in a similar way: by asking her to send videos of her own ‘peace place’, and I created the final track around it. Her peace place was in Lamu on the Kenyan coast. It was fun because I had never been there before and it wasn’t my peace place at all. I was using the audio she gave me of her and her best friend walking down the beach. It felt very beautiful using that exchange between two friends, making the sound of joy a very tangible and visceral sonic experience. I think it was a perfect way of acknowledging the symbiosis between visual art and music in this EP”.
Written during the pandemic, whilst in the United States, unable to visit her home of 18 years, Nyokabi took solace in imaging Kenya in the early stages of the EP, when she couldn’t have been further away. She was finally able to return in the December of 2020, realising the pandemic had shone a new light on the home that she had known for so long: “It felt very symbolic being there that December. I felt like I was watching everything through this lens, looking in from the outside, everything felt so precious in a way it had never felt before. It felt like I was walking through a metaphor”. For instance, “A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm” (with Cũcũ meaning ‘Grandmother’ in her language of Kikuyu) came from Nyokabi visiting her Grandmother on Christmas Day 2020: “It felt like a really precious moment, with the pandemic spotlighting the vulnerability of our grandparents. I am seeing the same things but not in the same way anymore”.
Nyokabi’s connection to Kenya and her cultural heritage is an important aspect to her work including exploring the disconnect to it caused by colonialism and its aftereffects. This is why language plays such an important part in peace places: “I think a lot about colonisation, living in post colonial Kenya and how it has impacted my connection to my culture. One of the most visible ways it impacted me was through the loss of my languages.” The EP features up to four languages, including Kiswahili, the national language of Kenya; Kikuyu, her ethnic group’s language, as well as Maa, as an ode to her Maasai lineage. Talking about her use of Kiswahili on the EP: “I am not fluent in this language and there’s a discomfort I am having to deal with, in choosing to express in it as heavily as I do in this music — but that is a part of it. It’s ‘peace places’, but there’s still always going to be some disharmony within peace”.
As a classically trained pianist of 17+ years, Nyokabi had found herself in environments that were not recognising her culture within formal institutions, she had to make a conscious effort to rediscover the African music traditions she had lost. Reconnecting through music, books, with artists from the continent and traditional instruments like the mbira, kalimba, and gyil, which can be heard on the EP. Nyokabi utilises her music as a launch pad to look back into her culture and represent it on a platform that is not usually presented on. “My family members started to find themselves in my music, from the field recordings, or even when I would ask about their experiences — they had all these stories that I had no idea about. That began to inspire the work. I was using my music to look back into my culture and represent it in the work I was writing, and that feels very fulfilling”.