Owiny Sigoma Band
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- Cafe Oto, London »
A few years ago, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called Meet The Natives. Intended as a sort of corrective to all those programmes where some English anthropologist goes poking around some remote tribe, the pitch was this: a group of Polynesian islanders were taken to London to analyse the weird inhabitants going about their crazy customs. And surveying all the music made by westerners going to jam with the locals in more exotic climes, you occasionally feel a musical version of Meet The Natives might be nice. Specifically one for African musicians, who have probably endured more than their fair share of guys with guitars – be they gap year buskers or Robert Plant – banging on their doors in search of some ‘authenticity’ over the years. Although whether dumping them in the middle of Ministry’s dancefloor or getting them to singalong with a busker mauling ‘Wonderwall’ so they can experience Britain’s ‘indigenous musical culture’ is a fair way to redress the balance is open to question.
In fairness, the Art of Protest organisation which took five London musicians - keyboard player Jesse Hackett and his bassist brother Louis, drummer Tom Skinner and guitarists Sam Lewis and Chris Morphitis – over to Kenya in 2009 has the more noble objective of fostering genuine collaborations between British and Kenyan musicians, rather than just drafting the latter in for a few lintungu solos. But the fact remains that most African musicians are still reliant on being ‘discovered’ by British artists or record labels if they want to make it over here. That’s how we find Joseph Nyamungu and Charles Owoko on-stage in Dalston leading the Owiny Sigoma Band, the outfit they formed with the Hacketts and co. on that first trip to Nairobi, where Nyamungu and Owoko teach the traditional music of the Luo tribe. Which combined with the Brits’ dubby bass and guitar came out sounding more like a tribal version of Liquid Liquid than the pale imitation of Vampire Weekend you might fear. They were signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings for their recent self-titled album and have now been whisked away for a world tour, making their British debut tonight.
Yet even though we’re a long way from Nyamungu’s school in Nairobi – and this time they’re ostensibly the tourists on their bandmates’ home turf – the Kenyans are still the teachers tonight, particularly when it comes to the art of moving a crowd. That’s despite the fact that sat at the front – with Nyamungu playing the traditional eight-string African lyre known as the nyatiti and Owoko banging out the percussion – they’re entirely out of the eyesight of anyone behind the front row, the only thing visible further back being Owiny Sigoma Band’s five British members. But as the bassline of ‘Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi’ begins its cocky strut and Owoko’s rhythms start skittering around, it’s clearly the two dynamos at the fivesome’s feet will be powering the show, Nyamungu’s whoops of "More fire!" getting the entire room swaying within seconds. Apart from the Afro-Americana ballad ‘Here On The Line’ sung by Lewis, the London contingent seem content in the background, rolling along with the loose grooves of ‘Rapar Nyanza’ or tightening up for the clipped funk and dallying organ of ‘Nabed Nade Ei Piny Ka’, whilst Nyamungu does his thing down the front; leading the crowd in impromptu dances not unlike a Kenyan ‘Hokey Cokey’.
In fact, so rapt do they keep the crowd that it takes a few moments for most people to clock that the scruffy guy who shambles on-stage around three songs in looks vaguely familiar. Although the delayed recognition might also be due to the fact that we’re more used to seeing Damon Albarn – who appeared on Owiny Sigoma Band’s album – cavorting on stadium stages with Blur or pretending to be a cartoon Gorilla, than huddled over an organ in a cafe of a couple of hundred people as ‘Margaret Okudo’ kicks into gear; a psychedelic Afro-dub beast that could have been birthed from the loins of On-U Sound. But if anyone’s awestruck here it seems to be Albarn himself, particularly when he reappears for the closing ‘Vitamin C’, ending with his eyes agape in wonderment and wafting a towel to cool the sweating Nymaungu, still hollering his vocals and driving up the pace with the same undimmed energy he had an hour earlier. For there’s no doubt that it’s the Kenyans that are the stars of this show, and that they had East London’s natives in the palms of their hands.