By Stanley Gazemba
China is better known in the region for large-scale infrastructural projects that its nationals are constructing. Manufactured goods from China are all over the stores in the region. However the Chinese culture is still alien to many Kenyans. This changed recently when two musicians from two cultures worlds apart went into the studio to record.
Twenty-four-year-old Sitara King from Changsha in China was recently in the country, drawn by her love for music, and collaborated with Kenyan musician Olith Ratego in a studio recording at Ketebul Studio at The GoDown Arts Centre.
Talking to the two musicians, it emerges that the project wasn’t as complicated as it may seem, largely because they easily fell into each other’s groove, giving vent to the adage that music is a universal language. Sitara, whose real name is Wang Xingzhi, first recorded Olith and listened to his music, following the rhythm and melody of the kodo, Olith’s homemade instrument fashioned on the Luo nyatiti. “He sang first, and then I thought about his melody then followed,” said Sitara in a recent interview at the studio. “It was a little difficult at first. I tried to follow the African melody so we could combine. In order to do this I had to change my Chinese thinking. When I listened to the sound of Olith’s kodo it brought inspiration to me. The sound is very smooth and it can go into your heart. It makes you feel nature and warmth.”
The two had known each other for just two weeks before they went into the studio. According to the two musicians the chemistry just happened. “I like African music and I have my Chinese music system in my mind. So it just fell in place,” said Sitara. Sitara studied the Chinese language and literature at Hunan University in Changsha City, Hunan Province in China. She first travelled to Uganda, where she taught Chinese at Luyanzi College in Kampala for one year. She also taught the language to children and older professionals in her free time. It is after her contract with the college ended that she decided to cross over into Kenya. According to her, she came to East Africa because of her love for music, and taught Chinese to help her stay longer.
Sitara started singing at age 9, performing traditional Chinese music in her hometown as she taught herself to play the guitar. At university she composed and recorded her first release, editing it herself. She and her friends had a few gigs, but the loose band later disbanded after college, with everyone embarking on individual pursuits. Other than at her university she has also performed at the Freedom House bar in Changsha City. She is currently working on recording commercially. While in Uganda she recorded one song with a Ugandan musician. Sitara and Olith have since recorded two songs, ‘Isaya-saya’ and ‘Nian Hua’ (meaning ‘golden moments’ in Chinese).
According to Olith, in ‘Isaya-saya’ he started and Sitara followed. He plucked out the rhythm on his kodo and Sitara inserted her vocals. But in ‘Nian Hua’ it was Sitara who laid down the rhythm on her guitar and Olith followed with the lyrics. Just like Sitara Olith says their chemistry was instantaneous. “We sat down, talked to each other and came up with the storyline. We then composed the two songs on the same day,” said Olith. “We only practiced for one day with the kodo before going to the studio. Any errors were rectified in the studio as we went along.”
Asked why he chose to do a collaboration with a Chinese musician Olith says, “I felt the need to spread my music to China given they are doing so many things in our country. I’ve never been to China, but I’d love to spread my music there.” The two musicians are planning to release the two songs first as they plan an album, part of the reason being they want to test it on the audience to see how they will react. They have also completed the video for ‘Isaya saya’, which will be out in two weeks’ time. Sitara has since gone back to China, but she will be back next year to carry on from where they left. “The people who have listened to our music have been impressed,” said Olith. “They are happy that I am the first Kenyan to collaborate with a Chinese musician.”