The New York Times recently ran a fantastic article about the next generation of partnerships between Western labels and African artists. It touches on the efforts being made to avoid the cultural imperialism of earlier attempts to capture and market African music. In the past, labels would seek out and reissue recordings from the most obscure corners of the world, railroading over the creative rights of the musicians themselves and shabbily tagging the final versions “exotic.”
The Goethe-Institut faces a similar set of problems when deciding to back a project that refashions field recordings of rural, often noncommercial Kenyan musicians. At worst, it risks being a collection of racist Africanisms, borne of an oversimplified understanding of the music being heard. Fortunately for all of us, Sven Kacirek — jazz drummer, electronic producer, and impresario of The Kenya Sessions — avoids those pitfalls.
Using recordings taken during a month of traveling along the Kenyan coast and in the hinterland near Lake Victoria, Kacirek plays marimba, piano, and various other percussion to flesh out his conception of a musical journey through the country. Excursions to the latter region occupy most of the first half of the album. “Turkey Dance,” recorded in the western province of Nyanza, is an upbeat but restrained number that locks into something like a groove around the minute-and-a-half mark. Especially here, where the Jack Nyadundo Orchestra provides dense percussion and string parts, it’s difficult to tell where the field recordings end and the studio wizardry begins.
“Dear Anastasia” is a mysterious combination of marimba, piano, and percussion set beneath the singing of Ogoya Nengo, a local star and 80-year-old champion of dodo music. Kacirek evokes the timelessness of Nengo’s voice by creating motion in a harmonically static framework, building in density as the lead vocal is momentarily replaced by a chorus of hand drums and group singing.
On The Palmin Sessions, Kacirek experimented with combining ambient soundscapes with percussion patterns on found objects, but it had a decidedly modern, cosmopolitan feel. Still, his first album hints at a common aesthetic ground with his Kenyan collaborators with its use of exclusively acoustic instrumentation, and Kenya Sessions finds him taking that next step.
“Takaye Preaching,” the final track, shows Kacirek’s determination to be faithful to the sonic character of his colleagues’ music, if not exactly the letter of what they’re saying. He brings in a hand drum at the same tempo as the recording of a staccato religious expostulation and mixes in brighter percussion sounds at irregular moments to imitate the pastor’s frenetic pacing.
According to the trailer for the upcoming film, the collaboration won’t end with the release of The Kenya Sessions; Kacirek has plans to return to Kenya and give the other musicians a copy of the record, and a handful of shows in New York have been planned for this winter. Without those extra steps, it’s tempting to understate the hybridity of the album — recorded in different locations, with the Kenyan music appearing out of its own context, and the overall musical arc of the album controlled by a German percussionist and producer. But Kacirek wants to continue the conversation, a genuine effort that portends future partnerships and validates the excursions — musical and otherwise — of The Kenya Sessions.