By Stanley Gazemba
The events of 9/11 rocked the world. But 9/11 also provided a turning point for a young Japanese musician, and subsequently gave the world the first female nyatiti player. On that day 33-year-old Eriko Mukoyami, better known by her given name Anyango, was set to travel to New York to study music. But her journey was cut short by the terrorist attack and she eventually ended up in Kenya.
Her real name is Eriko Mukoyama, but she was nicknamed Anyango, meaning someone born in the morning in Luo, by her nyatiti master, Okumu K’Orengo. It just happens that she was actually born in the morning!
Normally the nyatiti is played only by men, and so by Anyango choosing to learn it she became the first female nyatiti player in the world. Her feat would go on to inspire musician Suzanna Owiyo to also take up the nyatiti.
But learning the nyatiti was not without its challenges. As an only child, her parents really didn’t want her to come to Kenya to learn the nyatiti. But she insisted, and now that she is touring the world they have since become supportive. She first met her first nyatiti instructor, musician Nyamongo Odindo in Nairobi. It was from Odindo that she learnt about her eventual master Okumu K’Orengo, who had also trained Odindo.
She opted to seek lessons from K’Orengo because she longed to immerse herself in Luo culture, living in a Luo village in order to learn the instrument well. “In Nairobi I couldn’t see real deep traditional things,” she said in a recent studio interview after her successful show at The GoDown Arts Centre last Saturday (Nov, 30). “I believed in the village there is a lot of Luo kitgi gi timbegi (Luo traditions and culture) and I really wanted to learn about that. So I begged Nyamongo and he told me, yes, let’s go, Anyango, to Siaya.”
Asked about the differences in the personalities of Anyango and Eriko she believes the two are almost the same person. “Anyango is Eriko and Eriko is Anyango. I don’t feel a real difference.”
Although her grandfather was a famous Japanese traditional dancer, he was about the only musical influence in the family. Save for him, Anyango really chose the musical path on her own given he died before she was born. As a junior high school student she started singing, setting her sights on a career as a professional musician. At university she decided to go to the US to train in vocals. The day was 9/11/ 2001. It was an ill-fated trip because that was the day terrorists struck in New York and Washington, and she had to cut short the trip.
Back in Japan she attended a Kenyan traditional music concert in Tokyo which changed her life. She met a Japanese drummer called Tawara who could play Giriama percussions and other Kenyan traditional drums, which highly interested her. Tawara had lived in Gede and Madunguni at the Kenyan coast and mastered the bumbumbu and musondo drums. When he came back to Japan he founded a band called Mburukenge that was comprised of Japanese musicians. Anyango was impressed by their tight groove and decided to join them.
She played with them for one year, featuring on the percussion instruments shekere and agogo as well as singing and dancing. It was on her tour of Kenya with the Mburukenge band that she first encountered the nyatiti. She travelled to Gede and Madunguni to learn Giriama music. She also visited the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi to experience the various traditional instruments and dances there. She also frequented the Kenya National Theatre to meet traditional musicians. It is at this time that she finally decided to settle on the nyatiti, leading to her sojourn into Luoland in pursuit of intimacy with the instrument at the hands of a master player.
“The first time when I met Okumu K’Orengo I really felt samurai….I felt I had met a real African samurai. Okumu could only speak Luo, so I had to learn the language,” she said, citing her initial challenges.
But on landing in Siaya she quickly discovered that it was not going to be as easy as she thought. “Okumu couldn’t understand why a Japanese, and more so a lady, wanted to learn the nyatiti. Of course he refused to teach me at first. But I begged him, telling him I am Japanese but I had really fallen in love with this instrument. Please teach me. I am serious. But he refused, saying I am a foreigner and also a lady. But everyday…everyday…everyday I went to his house. At last he said to me, okay, you can stay with me in this village, Alego Kalapur, and you can see what is going on in Luoland. But to teach you nyatiti, first I have to see if you are the right person or not.”
And thus began her series of subtle tests to ascertain this. For the first two months there were no nyatiti lessons. She was instead required to wake up and go to the shamba or to fetch water at the river or firewood. Sometimes she accompanied Okumu to beer ceremonies in the village and partook of the traditional brews. Although she didn’t know it at the time, all these things were tests. Okumu wanted to see if she could learn the Luo language and also live in a traditional hut without electricity and piped water. He also wanted to see if she had a true heart for the instrument.
“After two months suddenly he started,” she said with a glow on her face. “He came to me and took his nyatiti without saying anything and suddenly he started showing me how to play it… titiri…tiri-ng…tirii…tiin….” she sang in an imitation of the Luo folk song, Koblo Gilong’ Marachar (supervisor with white trousers).
“After that he took his nyatiti and put it on my foot and told me, ‘Go, nyatiti… play, nyatiti.’ It was my first lesson from my master, Okumu K’Orengo.”
She has since recorded the albums Nyatiti Diva, Horizon, Tei Molo, Alego and Kilimanjaro. Alego was done as a tribute to her master following his death in January, 2012. “Alego was very simple with acoustic nyatiti and accompanying percussions done solo by myself because I wanted to show him my respect with my traditional style.”
Upon graduating from her lessons a ceremony was held for her in the village where Okumu said “Sasa Anyango si mchezo (Now Anyango is no push-over). You have to go to the places where I cannot go. Now you have to go paka mbali sana. Go far away… go far far away,” he said.
“What I understood was that physically he was too old to go to Japan, America and other far places. But later on I found a second meaning…third meaning…fourth meaning in what he said. The second meaning was that I was to modify the nyatiti music myself, for example by putting on a pick-up microphone and a little amplifier so that a thousand people could hear it. Technically I could also put maybe sound effects with the octava or with koras effect or with distortions sometimes to kind of technically modify nyatiti music. The third meaning was that Okumu K’Orengo was a traditional nyatiti musician, but I am Japanese. So maybe I can sing in Japanese, Kiswahili, English or the other languages, which meant he was saying Anyango…you have to go far away to the places where I cannot reach.”
She believes in the album Kilimanjaro she was pushing these limits with the nyatiti like Orengo asked her to do, given she infused so many languages and techniques.
Her first show was very exciting. Mostly people came out of curiosity to see this Japanese lady who could play the nyatiti. They were very happy when they found that it was real. The women took to the dance-floor, ululating with the sigalagala. When he saw that all was going well Orengo stopped the show and asked for the hat to be passed around for collections. It was time for her to go professional and charge a fee for her shows. She was finally ready to take the nyatiti to the world.
But the challenges were not over yet. When she later took the nyatiti to Japan it was a whole new learning experience for the Japanese sound engineers, who did not know the instrument at all. They had to start experimenting with new sound inserts and effects to refine the strange new music. Slowly by slowly everything fell in place. And within no time a traditional Kenyan instrument was gracing major world concerts, thanks to an adventurous young lady who solidly followed her heart.