New music for 2023: Nyokabi Kariũki, the Kenyan composer using field recordings to conjure Nairobi from afar

Kariũki’s intimate music summoned her home while she was stuck in the US during lockdown – and her darker new album delves into her experience of long Covid

From Nairobi, Kenya
Recommended if you like KMRU, Claire Rousay, Mica Levi
Up next Debut album Feeling Body released 3 March via Cmntx Records

“When we talk about art coming out of Africa, there’s this overemphasis on ‘complex polyrhythms’, or ‘call and response’,” Kenyan composer and sound artist Nyokabi Kariũki says, rolling her eyes. “But I think it’s so much deeper than that. When you’re looking back on African music, so much of the thought and philosophy was erased during the periods of colonisation.”

Her music – a magic patchwork of found sounds of family and nature, alongside electronic instrumentation and musings on piano – seeks to remedy this. (Call it contemporary classical or experimental electronic, she’s not bothered.) “A lot was taken,” she continues, speaking via video call, “so my music is trying to find a way to reclaim that, for myself and for other people from the continent.”

Nyokabi Kariũki: Equator Song – video

Kariũki moves between Nairobi (where she was born and raised), New York and Maryland. During lockdowns, she was stuck in the US. That was when she made her sublime debut EP, Peace Places, her way of conjuring Nairobi from afar. Her work uses literal and more subtle cultural markers: different languages, rhythms and instruments, alongside audio from recordings on her phone. “African music is very participatory and so I see my field recordings as participating; my own musical language,” she says. “On the EP you hear the voices of my mum, my dad, my grandmother – they are central to what these pieces are.” The result was one of the standout releases of the year, an evocation of home and a rumination on displacement.

Her forthcoming debut album, Feeling Body, takes a similarly diaristic approach, although it’s more spacious and leftfield, making room for darker textures, gentle murmurs and rich singing. An exploration of her experience of long Covid, it is vivid, channelling Kikuyu tribal philosophies about water healing, and at times uncomfortably vulnerable. “In one of the tracks I’m blowing my nose,” she laughs.

Kariũki first became interested in classical composition as a teenager, but had assumed the only way to pursue it was to work in film scoring. Studying music composition at New York University, she began to lean in to electronics, carving out her own intricate, intimate sonic space, learning about herself as well as the lineage of African composers and electronic artists such as Halim El-Dabh and Francis Bebey. “So much of the time we want to frame things in a western context,” she says. “But I’m like, why can’t I trace it back to something from home?”


Tara Joshi

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New music for 2023: George Riley, the R&B songwriter and club kid who is switching on the joy
Her acclaimed debut album came out of a dark place – but the experimental London musician has a new lease of life for 2023

Christine Ochefu

02, Jan, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Nyokabi Kariūki: Peace Places: Kenyan Memories review – sounds of nature, people and home
This transcendent debut shows how a new generation of African musicians are using field recordings to explore their own heritage

John Lewis

04, Mar, 2022 @8:30 AM

Article image
New music for 2023: Monaleo, the Texas rapper moving from body bags and breakups to killer bars
Taking emasculation to an artform, 21-year-old Monaleo planned to be a funeral director before heartbreak transformed her

Shaad D'Souza

30, Dec, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Valentina Goncharova: Recordings 1987​-​1991 Vol 2 review | Jennifer Lucy Allan's contemporary album of the month
With household objects, an electric violin and a tape recorder, the composer and her collaborators made this magnetically playful DIY music

Jennifer Lucy Allan

07, Jan, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
New music for 2023: Thus Love, the small-town trio creating clangorous, fabulous post-punk pop
They bonded over ridiculous headgear, and during Covid found themselves with nothing to do. So they made a great album

Alexis Petridis

30, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
New music for 2023: Clavish, the quiet London rapper who lets his aloof music do the talking
He only needed 40 seconds to light up the internet in 2018. Now the man of few words is finally releasing his debut mixtape

Will Pritchard

03, Jan, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Jörg Thomasius: Acht gesänge der schwarzen Hunde review | John Lewis's contemporary album of the month
A compilation of DIY releases smuggled out of 1980s East Berlin on cassette includes glistening minimalism, pulsating grooves and wonky techno

John Lewis

29, Apr, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
Gazelle Twin & NYX: Deep England review | John Lewis's contemporary album of the month
A dramatic reworking of Gazelle Twin’s techno-folk Pastoral album with the NYX choir adds layers of hair-raising chills

John Lewis

12, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sonic Youth: In/Out/In review – tantalising scraps from end of an era
Largely unheard, mostly instrumental rarities from the alt-rock band’s final decade offer flashes of their chemistry

Dave Simpson

18, Mar, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Avishai Cohen: Naked Truth review | John Fordham's jazz album of the month
An evocative mini album performed by band members who never lose their individuality is beautifully executed

John Fordham

18, Feb, 2022 @9:00 AM