By Stanley Gazemba
Kagwe Mungai is a musical voyaging pigeon of sorts. Born in Nairobi’s Jamuhuri Estate, the Kagwe is hard-pressed to name his boyhood neighbourhood- what Nairobi kids call their ‘mtaa’. That is because he moved around quite a bit, at one time spending his childhood in Uganda and South Africa and then back to Kenya, and later to the UK for college. His mother’s career required she change stations frequently, and young Kagwe, second-born in a family of three boys, had to tag along.
While other kids might have been unsettled at all this moving, to Kagwe it was a boon because it was enriching his musical experience.
At only 10 years Kagwe was playing in a band, a rock band made up of nine of his school friends called The Jack Russels. That was in Johannesburg, where his mother was working at the time. Kagwe was fortunate because most of the schools he went to not only taught music, but had recording studios, which was all he needed to introduce him to the music business. While not doing his schoolwork he spent a lot of time practicing on the equipment on his own. He taught himself to play the saxophone, keyboard and the drums. When he transferred to the St Peter’s School he switched from rock to jazz, featuring in the school’s St Peter’s Jazz Band, which he formed with three of his schoolmates. They mostly played at shopping malls.
But his sojourn in South Africa was cut short when his mother transferred briefly to Kenya, and then to Uganda. Kagwe finally settled at Nairobi’s Brookhouse School, where he made the decision to go seriously into music. All this while he had been oscillating between Medicine and Law, trying to map his career path. Somehow, neither discipline proved enticing enough. And so he decided to follow his heart. “The environment at Brookhouse was right,” he said in an interview. He formed an a’capella group with his friends, following in the footsteps of the group Five Alive made up of his friend Eric Wainaina that was the rave at the time. The other singers influencing them were Michael Jackson (he singles out the Thriller and Bad albums), Cool & the Gang, The Commodores, and later on rapper Jay-Z. In Africa Kagwe was looking up to Hugh Masekela and Oliver Mtukudzi.
As the head of the school’s orchestra he was always in the glare of the limelight, leading his schoolmates in performances wherever they were invited. After school, still pursuing his musical dream, he went to the UK where he enrolled at the University of Southampton for a three-year course in Music and Management Sciences. It was in the college studio that he polished his recordings, working late into the night, sometimes forgetting to eat. .“I was focused on being a producer, but necessity pushed me to record.” Kagwe wanted to be sure that what he was doing was right. And the best way to find out was to test it on an audience. Back in Nairobi, he decided to approach club DJs in the Westlands area and persuade them to play his music. It is a strategy that pop star Madonna used in her frustrating restless years as a wanna-be in New York City. This was how Kagwe’s first official release, Chips Funga, turned into a massive club hit.
As they partied to Chips Funga, what the revelers probably didn’t know was that the song had been recorded in Kagwe’s kitchen store. The idea for the song, which he describes as Afro-house, came to him late one night when going to the studio wasn’t an option, and so he decided to improvise. As the rest of the family slept Kagwe was busy rounding up mattresses and cushions to use to soundproof the kitchen store. With a computer and a mike at hand- and a prayer that a nosy family member wouldn’t come to investigate what the noise coming from the store was- a hit record was cut. Glowing in the success of Chips Funga the following year Kagwe set himself the grueling target of recording and releasing one song every week, borrowing what rapper Kanye West was doing.
He admits it wasn’t child’s play, requiring he dig deep into his creative reserves. Most of these songs made up his first compilation CD titled It Only Gets Better, which he uploaded on Soundcloud for his fans to download for free and critic. “My outlook is that you should only move forward,” he says of the title of his album. “Anything that will come after will only get better.” He chose to have his music available for free on Soundcloud because he realized that with the proliferation of personal computers there were so many new songs coming up everyday, mostly done by people at home. The only way to gain a toehold and sample the reaction of the market was to give the first songs away for free.
He was thinking along the lines of businesses promoting a new brand. And he was keen on starting from home. “I’d like to have my music known on the continent because to have your music celebrated globally you have to have it celebrated locally first.” It Only Gets Better is made up of Marry You, Hey Mama, Get Down among others. So far he has performed at Blankets and Wine, backed by Sikin on vocals and David Gitoho on bass. He has also performed at the Carnival 2012 at Kasarani Stadium, among other venues.