By Stanley Gazemba
When he participated in the 2010 Tusker Project Fame he practically soared among the clouds, the experience overwhelming. But when eight weeks later he fell back to the ground where ordinary mortals tread it was stunning. It quickly dawned on him that TPF had been a fix of speed, literally, a well-coordinated and splendidly-executed rollercoaster ride that was bound to come crashing to an end. Most musicians have never recovered from the sudden massive popularity that TPF thrusts their way. As a matter of fact few of the participants have gone on to make full musical careers. But Steve Nyabwa is set on changing that sorry state of affairs. He is back. And with a bang.
Steve, who is an accountant by profession, was born by the roadside, by the bridge in South C where the West Mall now stands. His mother was being rushed to hospital to have him but they never got there. Whether this was an indicator of his restlessness remains to be seen in his music. But the one thing that surprises his Nairobi West childhood friends is the fact that he is a teetotaler. Nairobi West is an estate that has a pub on practically every block.
Although Tusker Project Fame was his first major break, Steve had been angling to join music for a while. It was while working at Swivel Marketing after college that he got thinking. “At Swivel I used to pay the artists we were working with, and yet I never earned much myself.” Slowly he started honing his singing skills, starting at his church. Soon he started getting gigs at weddings through a sister who was an event organizer. By the time TPF came along he was ready.
“TPF was an eye-opener on what the music industry is about,” he said in an interview. “I used to do music before, but I never really took it seriously until after TPF.”
Participating in Tusker Project Fame made him realize the work and money involved in turning a musician into a star. He had a long discussion with his girlfriend, Lydia, who helped him cope with the reality of the challenges lying ahead. He decided to take a break and concentrate on building a war-chest that would be necessary for an effective comeback.
In the following years he would land a spot as a TV host for the Miss Kenya pageant. In 2011 he, together with the other TPF participants were sent to a music festival in Ukraine by the Permanent Presidential Music Commission.
“Ukraine was another experience on its own,” he said. It was his first international exposure as a musician. On returning he again sat down with his girlfriend to plan the future and how he was going to invest the money he had made.
“Lydia asked me to think carefully about my future in music,” he said. “At the time I was thinking of doing a video and some more recordings. But then I realized that the industry was unpredictable. I may never recover even the money I invested.”
He therefore decided to venture into the construction industry as a supplier. They set up a family business, SLI International and started nosing around for opportunities.
“We discovered that a lot of material needed by real estate developers in Nairobi was coming from China. From luxury bathroom fittings, locks, floor finishing…anything. All these things were available cheaply in China, and if we could bring them in then we would sell at a good profit.”
So they travelled to China and bought and brought in bamboo floors for a client. Because their mark-up was lower than all the leading suppliers of these materials in town their reputation started growing. Soon they were able to ask for seventy percent upfront from clients, who trusted them to deliver the orders.
Meanwhile he hadn’t completely abandoned music. He was still writing lyrics and experimenting with different producers. Actually, his girlfriend had noticed that he wasn’t very happy with making money. His real happiness came from music. And she encouraged him to pursue his musical dream even as they hustled for supply deals. He admits he kept changing producers because he couldn’t find someone who could interpret his musical idea exactly the way he wanted.
“I was always skeptical of the producers. I realized that what I needed was to work with a band. With a band I was able to do the music the way I wanted it as opposed to working with a producer, who tended to see the music the way he thought it should be.”
Given he didn’t have a professional grounding in music he often felt frustrated. And yet he could never rest until he got exactly what he was looking for. Still, this quest wasn’t cheap. He admits spending two-hundred thousand making his song Jasuba; but even after, he still wasn’t satisfied with the production.
He says he got a lot of help from more experienced musicians like Dan ‘Chizi’ Aceda and Suzanna Owiyo. “Chizi taught me that benga isn’t just about objectifying women. He told me real benga tells stories in the music. Benga is about lessons. Suzanna told me I needed to come up with a hit song that would give me clout if I wanted to make it in Kenyan music. I needed to create a song that everyone would remember. This one song is what would catapult me to stardom.” From Kidum he learnt the discipline involved in keeping a band together.
He was also taking guitar lessons from his friend Davis, a professional guitarist. So far he can pluck a handful of chords, and is getting better. Meanwhile he has been practicing with drummer Pascal, keyboardist Bryo, and bassist Kevo. After these practice sessions they felt confident enough to start doing gigs. Their first gig was a fundraiser ‘Share Your Christmas’ was meant to raise funds for an orphanage.
Soon after Providence started taking over; things started conspiring to get him back on stage. His official comeback show was The GoDown Gig at The GoDown Arts Centre in Industrial Area, where he gave a stellar performance alongside rock musician Fena and Kidum.
He doesn’t really know why The GoDown chose him, but the moment he got the opportunity he knew he was going to give it his best. He was impressive with his singing, flamboyant stage presence, and the way he instantly jelled with the audience. The lessons from TPF were obviously not wasted.
He is working with RKay and JBlessing on the song and video for Jaber. Among the songs he has recorded are Nyar Suba, Mawololo, In kanye, I remember and Songa Mbele, which he did with Chizi.