By Stanley Gazemba
He has the humility to accept instructions from his producer, and at the same time he has his sights set on bagging a Grammy some day. These are rare traits in a talented musician, most of whom are renowned for ego trips and eccentric inclinations. Meet Dempsey, signed to the Nairobi-based Sauti Academy.
A product of the National Music Festivals where he competed for Moi High School, Kabarak against Starehe Boys at the quartet finals, Dempsey is a self-taught guitarist and pianist who honed his skills as a back-up singer for musician Stan. He made his debut as a back-up vocalist for Stan in live shows to promote his 2009 album Kenya Debut; but all the while he was waiting for his chance in the limelight.
“I met Stan after I completed school. I was introduced to him by a friend. Soon I started borrowing his guitar,” he said in an interview at the Penya Afrika studios. As he strummed Stan’s guitar, he was not seeking to imitate the older musician but to find an identity of his own. It is an identity that he expects to project in his debut album. “I would like it to be an expression of the raw innocence… it will be a clear depiction of my musical individuality,” he says of the 12-track album.
Born in Nairobi’s Zimmerman and partly raised in the UK where his father was working as a surveyor, Dempsey liked the music of London Beat a lot. He cites the group as his biggest influence in the UK pop scene. He is also a big fan of Stevie Wonder and Ugandan musician Lemar Obika, who he says has a “good music-lyric marriage.” Dempsey is not afraid of hard work. And his producer, MG, concurs. “I understand Dempsey, and he understands me. He is one of my favourite musicians.” The two are quite at ease in each other’s company, a rarity in Kenya where spats between producers and the talent are the order of the day. “The best thing that can come from a musical relationship is if you believe in the music. The challenges we face are mostly musical…technical in nature,” says MG. “The problem we have as Kenyan musicians is that people think they are indispensable,” says Dempsey. “The catch is, are they (musicians) willing to listen?”
Getting signed at Penya Afrika doesn’t necessarily depend on your wallet. When Dempsey first turned up at the studio and asked for a trial MG admits he thought he was one of the run-of-the-mill wannabes who are a dime a dozen. “You can sing? Well, go on and sing,” MG told him. And Dempsey did just that; they were impressed enough to sign him up. When MG says Dempsey is good he speaks from a position of authority. He has worked with renowned musicians like Ayub Ogada, Ukoo Flani Mau Mau, Didge, Wyre and many others. Unlike the common practice on the Kenyan scene, MG doesn’t feed Dempsey with a computer-generated track over which he ‘lays’ his lyrics. The two work together building the tune and melodies brick by brick. “In composing we feed off each other,” says Dempsey. “The producer comes in with his part and I with mine. It is hard work. But at the end, it is worth it.”
Usually they have to do tens of takes before they capture the perfect recording, which Dempsey admits to be the biggest challenge of the musical journey. “Sometimes I just lie down on the studio floor, and we have to stop it.” Currently Dempsey is finding his feet on stage; he says it isn’t easy to conquer stage fright. He has performed at the 30th edition of Blankets and Wine, the Kinanda Festival, and the last Art and Beer Festival. He also curtain-raised for Sauti Sol when they launched their second album Sol Filosofia. Dempsey would like to have a full back-up band, but he admits it is a challenge keeping a full band together. During live gigs Thomas Olang’o backs him on the bass and Tetu Shani on percussion. MG is on hand to handle the technical aspects of the show. “I’m aiming for the Grammys,” he says with a soft-spoken but deep-held conviction. “I’ll go as far as the universe can take me.”