Sven Kacirek - ‘ The Kenya Sessions’

Artist: Sven Kacirek

Album: The Kenya Sessions

Label: Pungipung/ Kompakt, 2011


Sven Kacirek's CD The Kenya Sessions
Sven Kacirek's CD The Kenya Sessions

By Mufu Luvai.

When we talk of electronic music, we think of synthesizers, drum machines, MIDI software, the computer and more. Due to the techno savoir faire required, some take the trouble to study the science, while scores of others rely heavily on programmed software to provide beats and musical sounds without the use of a single musical instrument. We hear it on radio every day, from Hip hop to RnB, rock to trance. And now, Sven takes it to a whole new level, creating electronic music – acoustically.

Born of an Austrian mother and German father, 37 year old drummer Sven Kacirek is the ultimate percussionist, creating beats from anything that can be shaken, scratched or beaten. In his travels to Kenya, Sven lost himself in the Lake Victoria region and then again at the coast to unearth the rich music culture we often take for granted and turned it into an amalgam of sounds, known only as The Kenya Sessions.

Taking his first drumming lesson at 10, Sven later studied at the Drummer Collective in New York and at a music conservatoire in Arnhem, Switzerland. At around 21, he picked up the marimba, stepped up his piano playing and began to learn more about harmonics structures of various composers. It was during his stint at the Field project in Hamburg that he learnt to incorporate sounds, programme beats and was exposed to lots of electronic music. Sven had also been drumming for various bands, but by age 24 decided to explore a solo career. Signed by Pingipung label, he released his first album, The Palmin Sessions, in 2007.

While on  tour in Kenya in 2008 with renowned dance choreographer Antje Pfundtner, Sven met Goethe Institut director Johannes Hossfeld and The Kenya Sessions idea was born. Two years later, together with Tabu Osusa’s  Ketebul team, he was out into the villages of Nyanza and Coast Provinces, in search of traditional music.

Released in 2011, The Kenya Sessions is a unique blend of traditional Kenyan music with western acoustic instruments and elements, in a fashion that mirrors electronic music.

“I decided not to use any synthesizers or to programme any beats at all, I really wanted to – and still do – play everything live,” said Sven, “It’s very important to play with my hands. The cuts, edits and looping in the recording sounds programmed, but it is all acoustic music.”

In the recordings we hear all manner of sounds, from the crackling of a fire used by drummers tuning their instruments in Paperflowers, to the beat inspired by a child playing with stones in the background in Turkey Dance; from the cockerel’s crow and the mooing cattle in Dear Anastacia, to the muezzin’s call at dawn and the footsteps of people going about their affairs in On the Coast. Says the producer, “I tried to record all musicians as pure and natural as possible; I didn’t want to interrupt so much.  I also realized it was more fitting to record the musicians in their area, their huts or villages.”

Sven demonstrates how to use traditional music to create a modern acoustic genre. Here, he shares with Mufu Luvai about the project:

Mufu: In Arsenal Aluny Village, how did you manage to record Korengo without his nyatiti and then the nyatiti without his singing? Typically, the two are not performed separately.

Sven: It was difficult at first because he had been playing it that way for his whole life. I suppose it’s like asking a drummer to play with only the right hand when he usually uses all limbs, or asking a pianist to use only two fingers of the right hand. But then it finally worked, so I was able to record the nyatiti alone, have the nyatiti recording in his head phones then he sang on top. For me it was great to have this music divided into voice and nyatiti, that way I could use some bars for just voice and some with just nyatiti, making it easy for me to find new structure.

Which of the two regions did you find easier or more difficult to fuse with western styles? How did you find the key or meter?

By listening to it over and over again. I think it doesn’t depend on the region. From the first second, I was very impressed by Anastasia, Ogoya  Nengo, because I have never heard that kind of singing before. I think I spent most of the time on this track because it took me a long time to realize where the pulse was, when she was singing while accompanying herself with a shaker, everything was clear but when the shaker disappeared then I was totally lost. In some recordings she clapped the quarter-notes and this gave me a hint.

How do the local artists benefit from the project?

We set up a contract with the musicians that they get a recording fee. We share the copyrights equally. There is no connection between the copyright society in Germany, GEMA and the MCSK. In such a case, GEMA would send the money to UK and UK would send to MCSK. Officially, we have agreed that 100% comes to me and then I would in turn share it out to the local artists involved; otherwise the music society in UK and Kenya would have got a lot of that money, which doesn’t make sense. Also, Ogada Oganga was invited to Europe. He played in 27 concerts and got some good money. [Ogoya  Nengo was also invited to perform at the E se Festival in New York, but at the last minute she was denied a visa.] It’s good that people like Ogoya  Nengo and Ogada  Oganga would get this kind of attention.

We need more dodo singers among the youth. Maybe it should be taught in schools at the Lake region. How else can we preserve our traditional music culture?

This generation now is strongly influenced by Facebook, Youtube… they all have mobile phones and therefore they’re getting more and more inspired by western music like hip hop and RnB. It’s not about changing traditional music; it’s more about neglecting traditional music - not using it any more. This is the real problem, because it’s very important for cultural identity.

What’s next for you?

My new album, Scarlet Pitch Dreams, is ready. Soon, I have a theatre pieces based on Peter and the Wolf, playing drums and marimba. End of May, I will travel to south Japan, to Okinawa, my first time to go to Asia. The music there is totally unique; it is inspired by Japan, China and Taiwan. Then I will do another album on recordings of Japan. In December, I will work with Antje Pfundtner on a contemporary dance piece based on Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

The Kenya Sessions, opens our minds to Kenya’s rich musical culture, but it also demonstrates music creativity and innovation. It takes traditional music out the huts and into our hearts.

Watch Ogoya Nengo and Sven Kacirek here


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