The first major release from Kenyan sound artist Nyokabi Kariũki follows a beguilng pair of videos and a number of works for everything from choir to marimba trio. peace places: kenyan memories is not only a reflection on her home, but on all homes, echoing the writings of Pico Iyer. Travel restrictions locked her in Maryland, unable to visit her ancestral land, but by Integrating the instruments of East Africa ~ mbira, kalimba, gyil ~ as well as the Maa, Kikuya and Kiswahili languages, she creates a collage of impressions that feels like home.
“Equator song” is both song and chant, backed by birds and trills, the listener unsure of who is taking the lead. The harmonies are exquisite, although the composition is anything but linear. “Galu,” earlier featured in SA Recordings’ Singles Series, preserves a happy memory of wading in the Indian Ocean just before the pandemic hit. “reveling in the secrecy of mornings.” Field recordings are overladen by Kariũki’s gentle voice: “I go down / I go down at 6 a.m. / I go down at 6 a.m. to swim.” It’s hard to avoid intimations of colonialism and outdated gender roles, and the idea that these are stolen moments. As the music picks up, so does the mood of the singer, until a drum beat breaks through and the tone elevates to joy. This joy is replicated in another water piece, “Naila’s Peace Place” as the gyil (a type of xylophone) dances upon the lapping waves. Two friends frolic at the Lamu Coast, one remarking to the other, “Naila! How happy are you!”
This happiness was deferred for Kariũki until she was finally able to return home in December 2020. “A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm” is an intensely personal piece, reflecting a visit with her grandmother on Christmas Day. One need not understand the language to feel the tone of relief. “Ngurumo, or Feeding Goats Mangoes” celebrates a site-specific task with conversation, choral vocals, thumb piano, and of course, goats, leading a brief outburst of tribal exaltation.
Home is not just where one comes from or lives; home is also a state of mind. Ironically, distance and deprivation pulled the composer closer to her cultural roots, leading her to try languages in which she was less fluent. These sonic experiments deepened through sharing, as her recordings sparked an outpouring of stories from her own family, which were woven into later drafts. The unique nature of the EP, which unfolds like a radio-play, leads us to believe that the composer may eventually produce even more intense and unflinching works in the manner of Matana Roberts, rescuing history from distortion, producing a form of sonic enlightenment. (Richard Allen)