I had planned to write this blog post one year ago, but thinking about it now, it wouldn’t have made as much sense then as it does now.
Last weekend, on a Saturday afternoon, I sat down with my friends to sample various music CDs in my house. Thanks to my former boss Sigbjorn Nedland of Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) most of these are originals done by foreign musicians.
As we listened, one of my friends Esther Ingolo, a radio Presenter at Radio Maisha in Nairobi remarked, “I wish Kenyan musicians can get to this stage where they make such quality products. I don’t like it when an artist brings me a music CD that looks cheap from the outside and you can be sure has nothing much to offer in his songs.”
This elicited a long discussion over a cup of tea. We all gave our opinions concerning the production quality of Kenyan music. We took our time to go through my collection, closely looking at the packaging of some of the CDs and then comparing them with what is produced in Kenya.
The Kenyan productions obviously fell way short in terms of quality. It is important to note that, the blame does not solely lie on the artists but on all the people involved; the musicians, the producers, the graphics people, the promoters and of course the consumers who almost never give feedback except maybe when the music is played through the electronic media.
Some Kenyan artists, we concluded, definitely have a long way to go.
This has been the Kenyan scenario for such a long time. Kenyan artists want to quickly hit the airwaves, become famous and make money without much hustle. They endeavor to use the cheapest means to get their song out and expect to get high returns. When that does not happen, then of course it’s time to blame the local media for being biased, and more inclined towards international musicians.
“I hear a lot of talk that in Kenya you have to bribe presenters to have your song hit the airwaves. Then I ask them, when do we get to meet the likes of Rihanna, P.square, Neyo, Juliana of Tanzania and many other international musicians? How do they bribe us? The truth is that many Kenyan musicians wako down tu sana, (are not so good).” said Esther.
As it appears, packaging a good sellable song has been a great challenge to several Kenyan musicians. Without quality, distribution becomes even harder. In desperation some of them even resort to near-underhand methods to get their music out. In my mind, I assume this is the process: They buy recordable CDs, whip out their singles and send them to radio stations. Here, there is absolutely no guarantee of air-play. Sometimes they go there in person and insist on seeing particular radio presenters whom they know, with or without appointments. Usually, as a strategy, they never mention before-hand that they are bringing their CD with them.
Then you receive the CD, as plain as it is with the title and stage name printed with felt pen on the surface, it comes along with the instructions: (Kindly rip the CD, I will pick it up in a week’s time, this is my master copy.) This person expects you to listen to his music, and figure out important details such as his real name, the record label, the date of release and the rest of other artists featured in the song. All the vital details have been left out. Then, they ask for your telephone number.
Once they hand the music CDs to the presenters, many of them imagine that their songs will automatically be played. “Laughably, others will enclose 200 shillings as a way to lure you into playing their singles,” added Esther.
And because of the 200 shillings, they call you during the show. Normally, you wouldn’t pick up such calls but because you never saved their number, and because you are not sure who is calling so you pick up and hear, “Hey how come you are not playing my song? I have been waiting and my fans are waiting, I told them to listen to your show. You know that is such a hit song!” said another Radio Presenter.
Music Manager and the Playlist
“While still on the phone call, this musician gives you a list of people who you need to dedicate the song to. It is clear that many do not even know that in professional stations, there is always a music manager who listens to the music and makes playlists. He makes a decision on whether this artist’s song can play on the station or not, of course considering the station’s programming and playlist,” Esther concludes.
Looking at some of these CDs in my library, it is clear many international musicians are going out of their way, putting in extra work just to entice you into buying their music even without having to really know them. The packaging itself gives you an impression that the musician takes their career seriously. Plus they attach a sheet of paper clearly labelled with all the details on each song. Others will even include the lyrics. And this is whatmany Kenyan artists lack.
“If you cannot convince me at the cover page that I need to listen to your songs, what makes me want to spend my money on your CD? Those singing gospel songs are even worse. Their covers and the title of their songs are equally boring. The likes of, Tumkemee Shetani ashindwe or even Mapambano na Ibilisi Shetani. Why are the International artists going for one word titles, like, Disturbia, Umbrella, Ensemble?” asked Mary.
The lack of creativity in the design of the CD covers adds to the long boring titles that lack allure and the cliché cover photos of the artists. One asks, who says that we have to see your whole body on your CD cover? Then somehow, they all have to go and take cover photos on some fake beaches and super-imposed waterfalls. On music videos, many are using fake effects. What is so hard in going to Mombasa on a real beach and make a real video?
“It is quite ridiculous for a musician to want to spend less than 300 shillings for the whole production, having used very cheap resources and expect us to pay at least 500 shillings for their CD. This explains why Kenyans do not buy original CDs,” commented Mary.
All said and done, we had to give credit where it is deserved. Some Kenyan musicians have tried their best and many of those with foreign managers have definitely done much more. Some of these include Sauti Soul, Daddy Owen, Denise Gordon, Joseph Hellon, Emmy Kosgei, Esther Wahome, Makadem and a few others.
“When you make a mistake, do not look back at it long. Take the reason of the thing into your mind and then look forward. Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.”Hugh White