(Muthoni Ndonga, variously known as Muthoni the Drummer Queen or Muthoni DQ, is one of the most successful event-organizers in Kenya at the moment besides other big names like Rani Jamal of Ranee Productions. A musician in her other self, Muthoni turned what started out as a side-hustle into a fully-fledged enterprise that has managed to host 50 quality live shows since its inception in 2008, showcasing not just top Kenyan musicians but international stars as well. Here’s a candid interview by Ketebul Music's Steve Kivutia with the founder of the Blankets & Wine Festival)
MDQ: My name’s Muthoni Ndonga, I’m also Muthoni the Drummer Queen. I am a singer, a rapper and a drummer. I play a set of traditional drums from one of the Kenyan communities called the ohangla drums. I also run a music event called Blankets & Wine in Nairobi and Kampala.
SK: How did you start your music, what were your influences?
MDQ: I’ve always been surrounded by music growing up. We grew up in a very typical urban Nairobi lower middle-class family...just listening to the radio and whatever records my parents had bought when they were younger. So I always sang, I danced, I was in the church choir when I was ten years old, which is actually where I picked up playing percussions. In school I was in the choir, I was in the drama club, it’s just one of those things, it’s just been part and parcel of my life and I didn’t really think much of it until high school.
“In high school during my first audition for the choir I remember the choir leader saying I had a beautiful voice and for me that became a distinguishing moment. I didn’t realize that singing is not ordinary to everybody. In primary school everyone sings. So then I was in the choir, I was in drama and there was no real thought that music would be a career because first these thoughts had been stifled very much in my younger days. If I said I wanted to be a musician my parents were like, no, it’s not a respectable thing to do. And it made sense. You grew up in Kenya in the 80s and you became something…a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher… you had to have a profession.
“So when I was at St Mary’s (school) for my International baccalaureate I met a girl friend of mine called Njeri and we really enjoyed singing together as a duet. It was in 2003 and she was singing backup for some rappers in Nairobi West. There was a studio in Nairobi West and she was a backup singer for choruses and harmonies, and I remember her saying to me how bored she was with the whole process. I said to her, why don’t you write music, and she said to me, why don’t we write music? I don’t know why I said yes (laughs) I was like, cool, let’s write music! So what does this mean? So we went back to our old school, St. Mary’s, we talked to the music teacher, Mr Obaga, we said please would you train our voices? He was cool. And so we just began voice training and learning how to compose songs.
“And then in 2004 we were like, great, we’ve had enough of voice classes, we are gonna put on our first concert. The group was called Tight. So we went back to St Mary’s and said, look, we are gonna do our first concert, so can we please borrow the hall? They thought it was a very funny idea. I think the principal was like, ok, I guess so (laughs). And so we did our first concert in April in 2004. That was an amazing experience because we got all our friends who were musicians. They were now the band. We got all our friends who could dance to be the dancers, and all our friends who could organize events to do that and…it was a very successful event. All things said and done we raised about Ksh 36, 000.
“We now had money to go to the studio to record a track. And then began the problems of finding a studio. At that time there was a very big song called ‘Manyake’. I remember one producer told us unless you have a song like ‘Manyake’ there’s no way. You can’t make it. It was very heart-breaking. So we took long to find a studio that could understand us and we happened on Ted Josiah. He liked our vibe, so we were like it finally is going to happen! But we were wrong. Part of that was because we were quite raw, and we didn’t know it. Ted’s approach was to like let artists simmer in the studio and learn how to sing, you just had to get acquainted with the equipment. It was a very frustrating experience for us because we were just ready to record our song and get out there and be a duet and be musicians and shoot videos…
“So, for a while there it was grey. It was really tough. This was now 2004-2005. In 2006 we got a band together and started doing live shows at Tamambo (restaurant). The idea was to sing partly covers and partly our own music. We were working with a voice teacher at that time to expand our voices. In 2006 my friend Njeri was like, I don’t think I want to pursue music seriously, and I was like, what do I do? TPF (Tusker Project Fame) came along and I applied. I was in the first TPF for about three weeks. And then I was like, what does this mean now? In 2007 I finished University and I applied to a programme at the British Council called Bring the Voice. The idea was that artists would collaborate with one another and that it would reflect 50 years of freedom in Africa since the abolition of slave trade.
“That was a very expanding experience for me because I got to meet people from all over the continent. We toured the UK and a bit of Africa. So when I came out of that experience one of the things I took out was, you know what, Muthoni? It is 2008. You’ve just come off a tour where people are willing to listen to music from musicians they have no idea about and who they don’t even know. So, the idea was that it is possible for you to be a musician. Then the post-election violence happened and while I was on tour I had penned something, and that was the first recording I made in February 2008. So I saved the money from the tour and went to the studio and cut an EP.
“The sound was very soulful, very melodic, and then I started being on the gig set. I established a gig of my own at a bar in Westlands. So that’s what I did for most of 2008. I had this EP that I was selling and I was trying to get on the radio. And then the gig stopped working, partly because we had resistance from the venue owner. He made the situation complicated partly because of the dynamics of doing a gig in Nairobi on a Friday night. There was the traffic and getting people there on time and making the gig start on time and making the revenue for the venue. So that became for me a big crossroad because now the gig wasn’t working, I was sure that I wanted to do music, I was exiting my job. Between 2007 and 2008 I worked a full-time job by day and a full-time job by night as a musician. I was really feeling that I needed to pursue the music angle. The contract was coming to an end, anyway, and this situation wasn’t working, so the question was, what happens next? I was having a conversation with some friends of mine around August, I was truly frustrated because the situation wasn’t working. We had exited our contract at this venue and I was like, so what happens next?
“I remember at that brainstorm the key idea was that everything that you do you just have to do the opposite. That was because this gig wasn’t working, and if you find another bar in Nairobi to do another gig it might take off for a while and again collapse. So, perhaps you want to consider a totally different environment. So that’s where the idea for me was born. It was very destructive thinking, having to do things the very opposite. So if you were doing this gig by night do it by day. If you do this gig alone invite other artists on. If you do this gig in a central location take it far, make it deliberate for people to come. And so I woke up the following morning and it was very clear in my head; this is how Blankets & Wine will look like and feel like. I knew the exact location: Tiana Garden in Ridgeways because the owner of Tiana had invited me to use the space before. So, I was ready! (laughs).
“For three months we did the market research, I talked to all my friends about how they would do it, I built the client in my head very clearly, and we had to start. So really, Blankets & Wine was born out of that frustration. The need for my gig to work, and for it to work in a way that would be sustainable. I don’t have a job and I am a full-time musician so, I had to make it work. Bearing in mind all the problems I was facing, like trying to get airplay because we were doing this music that was considered alternative, so it was very difficult to get on radio or TV, it was so intense trying to get ahead. It was not something that was unique to me. Many artists were experiencing that. And so, if I could fix it for myself I saw an opportunity to do it for others. While I would be promoting others they would be promoting me. While performing at my event they would also be promoting me. I would bear the risk of the event and they would get paid for the performance. It seemed like a win-win.
“It was November 2008 when we put on our first concert. We had about a hundred and twenty people and there was resounding success. All the money that we put in we made back. We didn’t make any new money but there was enough cash-flow. We did it again in December. I remember there were about six different big events competing with us taking place and we had about a hundred and six people …and it was like, look, we can hold our own! In January I took some time and I thought about it all and really dreamt. In January of 2009 is when I expanded the vision, for me it became clear that this was something I wanted to do, that would grow in Kenya and the region, and which would have branches across Africa.
“It was very ambitious and almost child-like. I think I slept maybe ten hours just scheming on doing this thing. And then when we resumed in February 2009 it was like somehow people had heard about it and it just grew slow and steady. There was never a huge leap of people, just like three hundred people, four hundred… you know this kind of slow word-of-mouth progress. I feel like that’s how it was formed and that’s how it grew.
SK: You were in a unique position where by you were an event organizer and an artist as well. How did you manage to balance that, especially in the beginning?
MDQ: Being an event organizer is one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. There have been good earnings but it is especially challenging trying to do that and being a self-managed artist as well. It was an extremely difficult period and initially it actually made me sick. I would finish an event and be run down, I’d be sick for a week. It was a huge mental and emotional thing. But I also felt a deep conviction for this thing that I was doing because I am an artist and therefore I am in a position to truly address the problems that we are facing as artists. I also felt that I have started it, and so I just had to keep on moving.
“The other thing I felt was that there was a service that I was providing to the music industry and to the community at large. There was a huge gap in the industry, how do you get people to, listen to bands that are in sort of start-up or pre-take off stage, how do you link these two people. I cannot say that I knew what I was doing. It was just like conviction and hard work and character. It was just perseverance. When I start something I’ve just got to see it through. I got two friends to come in and it kept growing and we felt confident to start asking sponsors for money. In 2010 we moved to Hillcrest School and the event grew bigger, bringing in a different audience. We were now averaging about 600 people per event and it was great. We had built some partnerships with low-level sponsors and it was going somewhere. The media kind of picked up.
“In 2010 we moved to Mamba Village in Karen. Again the space was bigger. By end of 2010 we started to feel that we really needed to switch. We had three events so to speak of B&W featuring the Kenyan artists who were coming up on rotation. It was good but we felt that if you had come five times why would you come the sixth time? So we felt that we needed to bring in something that would wow the audience, something that would expand the imagination of the Kenyan artists because it was different. We landed our first real sponsor in 2011, KCB (Kenya Commercial Bank), and thanks to KCB they sponsored the event four times. Thanks to their sponsorship we brought in Manou Gallo, Oliver Mtukudzi and Mafikizolo.
“What that did for the market was that it raised the status of the event. It raised expectations and excitement for the event. It also brought new sponsors in. After that we eventually just took off. In 2012 we worked with South Africa Brewers, and that way we were able to do something that we had desired for a long time, and that is to sponsor collaborations between different artists. We would have artists coming in from different regions like say South Africa and they would be in a creative session with a band from Kenya. We would pay them and give them about 48-72 hours to get to work through each other’s set and we would exchange ideas to present a collaborative set. We did that about six times. My favourite was Ntini, a South African rapper, merged with Yunasi. For me that was a mix of culture and a mix of vibe, like the very urban and very contemporary traditional. It was such a beautiful vibe and both artists were really expanded. That for me was perhaps the best year.
“But again you know, the more you grow the more the problems. For me the biggest one was balance. You know, the event was growing and we had a small team of three people, and a lot of the decisions were still made by myself. It was complicated to try and grow a brand and to be an artist. In the middle of that in 2009 I released an album, The Human Condition, which I recorded at Penya (Records) with Wawesh. It was a wonderful album, but there was just no way to try and translate that album live on stage. It was electronic music and I think at that time it was just me and Just a Band who were doing electronic music, and to produce this music on stage required a skill-set that wasn’t available locally. No matter how many times we would have revised it just wouldn’t have translated on stage.
“So, there was a deep frustration on my end and there was that lack of time to figure this out. Around 2011 I was like, I will just hang up the musician bit for a while and just get this thing on. And it was real, the frustrations, the emotional turmoil, it was real. It seemed like it was cost benefit. As an artist I feel like as a city we have gained something. We have gained this cultural experience and we have gained an opportunity to put Kenya on the map and suddenly we were getting requests to us from all over the world, even American artists wanted to come here and perform because it was like the only platform for music.
“In 2015 it had become a full blown-out festival. Every single month we had an artist from somewhere across Africa. We’ve played just about anybody the audience would have wanted to watch. We’ve had South African acts, Zimbabwean acts, Ugandans and Tanzanians…and we came to the end of 2013 when we turned five we had done 50 events live. So we said, ok, what do we do? So we have a two-day festival. That was an intense and extremely beautiful experience. I think it felt like this thing had now evolved into a real festival experience, and people wanted to have this huge larger-than-life concentrated extended levels of fun with East African musicians. It was a wonderful experience. By this time Kampala was already off the ground, the launch in Kampala was in 2013. So Kampala was doing it four times a year and we had unsuccessfully tried to get into Tanzania but, you know, some things just take longer than others.
“When 2015 came around there was a deep conversation in terms of myself and the team, by which time it had expanded and the big question was, ‘do we wanna keep doing this? Does it still make sense? Are we still servicing the industry? We kind of felt that why are we doing Blankets & Wine? In 2013 I had taken some time off for myself and gone to Switzerland to record an amazing hip-hop album because somewhere along the line I had discovered that I like rap music and in 2012 I put out two rap singles that did extremely well, and so I felt this was a way to evolve and much easier to convey your emotions than the electronic direction. Plus this felt consistent with where I was. So we decided two key things, from 2014 we’d figure out the transition for the artist Muthoni DQ to move back into full-time music. So we planned an 18-month phasing out.
“Then we said we were going back to the basics with Blankets & Wine, we’d put on a show for international artists as well as emerging artists. We’d increase the reach and have a stage for upcoming and established writers, have a stage for DJs and instrumentalists, have a centre where visual artists can create installations and live art. This in 2014 morphed into the new extended Blankets & Wine. The name Blankets & Wine was born from the brainstorm in August of 2008. It is my friend Emukule who said, ‘Call it something to do with wine and blankets.’ And I was like, yeah, but I think ‘blankets and wine’ sounds better… wharever! Just something that was going to be telling people when they hear about it, they are going to be like, ‘what happens there?’
“I must agree it is one of those things…it’s a perfect name which just struck home. Perfect because everyone was ok with that. But it was very telling with us because it was like…carry your picnic, carry your wine and enjoy music. It didn’t tell you that it was a music event, but it told you that there was something cultural and…it was about vibe! Like there was gonna be some chilling and some good time to be had, and I liked that.
“Over the years we had big struggles with some of the people who wanted us to drop the wine name…but one of the things we categorically refused was to annex the name of anybody…it was just… ‘Blankets & Wine in collaboration with….or sponsored by so and so. The reason for that was because sponsors come and go. And so if you change it so much to suit a sponsor, what happens when the sponsor leaves? I think because of the integrity of what we brought to the table we got away with it because they (sponsors) understood that the brand had come before any sponsor, and it was just one of those things where you just get into the programme and keep moving. (To Be Continued....)