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.”
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?”