“We Are All Keepers of Our Culture”: 2013 OneBeat Fellow Kasiva Mutua on Uniting Kenyan Women in Music

Found Sound Nation’s Nyokabi Kariuki talks to the second round recipients of OneBeat’s Accelerator Grant

Kasiva Mutua at TEDGlobal 2017 in Arusha, Tanzania | Photo by Ryan Lash/TED

2013 OneBeat Fellow Kasiva Mutua is an internationally touring drummer and percussionist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her electric performances reflect a panoply of influences, including afrobeat, zouk, samba, reggae and soul. She was awarded the OneBeat Accelerator Grant for ‘Vibe na Queen’, an interview series she hosted, aimed at uniting female musicians in the country during the pandemic through musical collaboration and conversations.

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Nyokabi: I was watching your TED Talk, “How I Use the Drum to Tell My Story”, and it struck me how you explain that, from a young age, you heard music in everything around you: “with the keenest of ears, I would hear family chatter, laughter, the wind howling, and even crickets chirping. All these sounds criss-crossed into each other, and I would hear rhythm in between”. Can you paint us a picture of where you grew up, and how that environment led you to a career in music?

Kasiva: I grew up in your typical rural Kenyan village in Ukambani: going out to the farm to dig, taking the goats out to the forest, and being surrounded by that sense of community that is usually in the village. I think that that environment of community life is similar to the making of music because in both situations, you meet different people from different backgrounds and you immerse yourself and learn the other ways that people do things, and become part of making that community. You learn how to listen to the bounces of their language and the melodies in their languages. That’s how you hear their stories, and relate them back to your own stories from your community. Growing up, the things that I had and the things that I experienced have really, really shaped me into to the person that I am right now, and have influenced my music. And even now as I keep experiencing more, as I keep traveling, the shape keeps taking different turns.

I’ve grown to become passionate about women’s issues in terms of the placement of women in the music industry. Traveling to other communities and getting to relate to the women in these communities gave me so much perspective. That’s what gives direction in the work that I’m doing right now.

Nyokabi: Right. And on that note, most people would agree that percussion is the heartbeat of African music, and while in some cultures on the continent women do have drumming roles, others exclude women from it, assigning musical parts or instruments that are perceived to be more “feminine”. Just in 2017, Burundi issued a national law forbidding women to play drums. What is your culture’s take on women being drummers, and what has your experience been as a woman in the industry?

Kasiva: It’s interesting that you mentioned the Burundi law from 2017. I was outspoken about it at the time because it was quite shocking in this era — what does that mean for the placement of women in society, in the music industry, and in terms of preservation of culture? I always say that men and women are all keepers of our culture and, if it takes either of us to preserve our culture, then let us do it. So when I’m drumming, I’m not telling the stories of the women of Ukambani —I am telling the story of Ukambani, period. This entails the stories of all sexes, all genders, all identities. I’m speaking about our ways of life: our hopes, our dreams, our laughter, our future, everything. I could’ve easily been one of those women in Burundi who have been told that they cannot drum the national drum. And with how I feel about drums, I would be miserable if I was living under such laws, because this is the only way that I speak my deepest thoughts. If you take that away from me, then you’re taking something super essential to my being, you know? (Sorry, but…what was the question again?)

Nyokabi: The question was about your experience being a percussionist in your culture, whether that be within your ethnic group of the Kamba, and/or in the overall Kenyan community!

Kasiva: In Ukambani there are subcultures or sub-traditions which each have different types of music for different ceremonies or events. In one of these subcultures, there’s a certain drum that is used in a certain type of music called kilumi, and this was traditionally a women’s type of dance or a musical piece per se, used in a spiritual ceremony. And in kilumi, there’s a drum called the mukanda, played by women. So it’s a dance for women, by women, and we are allowed to play this drum in my community. However, there’s pieces and dances that are for men that women are not allowed near and you cannot participate in them. I’ve seen that this happens in most of Africa— generally, it’s taboo for women to play drums. So yes I am Kamba, but I stand in a place of representing Africans because I move with the notion that we are one people, just separated by little lines called borders and territories. So I stand from a place where I represent African people.

“If it takes either of us to preserve our culture, then let us do it.

People corrupted kilumi over time, associating it with evil spirits, and people still do. Just last year I met somebody and they told me, “you better take care that the spirits of kilumi don’t get into you.” And generally in Kenya, it’s still strange for people to see a woman play drums, such that even in the Kamba community, where people know of kilumi and that it’s for women, people will still stare at you, and ask questions. Women’s music is still a minority, and as much as we are trying to sensitize people, the truth of the matter is I don’t think there’s a large number of people that are doing this work. A while ago, I participated in this festival called the Akamba Foods Festival in Makueni, and when I played, from the way people looked at me, it was clear they were too shocked to appreciate what was going on. I could see people thinking, ‘what the hell is this woman doing?’ I’m still trying to understand this kind of disconnect.

I’ve also come to realize power dynamics are in play in our cultures, in our schools, and even because of religion: we see the Bible say that the husband leads in the home, and that adds another layer. But I’m not trying to be a rebel per se, but just a player. I’m not trying to spite the leadership roles, or to spite my culture. I respect culture, I speak our language fluently, and I understand our proverbs and stories. But I also have the knowledge of living in the now. It is my role then to change this in however little way I can. So I don’t play to spite, I play to represent my people, and to tell those stories because I have the avenue, the skill, the gift. If I don’t use it, then will I wait for somebody else?

“Culture is dynamic; we can give space for things to evolve.”

It’s been difficult because we are molded to stick to our cultures and traditions, and while I love that Africans are resilient in terms of preserving our cultures (because westernization has brought a thing or two that I don’t appreciate), I am for healthy cultures that include all types of people from all walks of life. Culture is dynamic; we can give space for things to evolve. In our culture, dowry used to be paid in cattle. Now, we use M-Pesa, a Kenyan digital money service. If people are able to accept that dowry, one of our traditions, can be now paid via M-Pesa, why can’t people evolve into the belief that it’s not just men that can tell the stories of our people? Look, I have no reservations about men doing things; I’m just saying that we just need to be fair: if somebody can do it, let them do it. It’s not at the expense of culture. There are women who are born that can run, that can sing, that have been given the talent of storytelling. So in the same way, you can allow the woman that can play that drum, to play for the village feast.

Nyokabi: That’s really powerful and true. And when I hear what you’re saying about women being the minority in music, I can imagine that over time, it has become increasingly important for you to connect with other women in the industry. Can you tell me about your journey to finding and forming a community with other women in music, particularly percussionists? How do you support one another?

Kasiva: Going this journey was demoralizing because I initially found myself alone in this whole struggle. I started looking for people just like me, and couldn’t find any. Shock to me though, is that there’s so many women out here who actually love drumming and want to practice drumming actively, but they just didn’t know where to start, or were scared of doing so because of the social and cultural repercussions that other women had faced. One day, I posted on social media that I was looking for other women drummers, and I started getting responses telling me, ‘I used to drum in high school, but I stopped because of my mother or my father or husband.’ So, we exist. It’s just that we just have to get over these hurdles.

As a result, I started MOTRA Music with two friends, and it’s an all-female percussion project (the name combines the words ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’). MOTRA is a project that sees girls in and out of drumming for 12 months. It creates the dynamic of women working together, and so it even became a family, a sisterhood in the sense that the girls share stories, ideas, and life together — they’re friends, beyond the drumming. And to me, this is the start of a movement. I want to empower and teach percussion and show these women who drum that there is actually a way. And once you empower somebody, you give them the skills to figure it out by themselves — it might not necessarily be that they want to go into drumming, but that power in percussion and the power in sisterhood motivates you to go for whatever it is you want to do. So far, 35 girls have gone through MOTRA, and we have about six new recruits, and it keeps growing and growing.

Nyokabi: And the project that you received the OneBeat Accelerator Grant for also furthers your mission to support women in the industry. Before we dive into what that project is, how has the pandemic affected musicians in Kenya (including yourself)?

Kasiva: It’s been crazy. I’ve been following the effect of COVID-19 on musicians all over the world, and it’s been even harder in developing countries as opposed to developed ones. For me, I usually have my year planned out, so I had bookings that were supposed to happen last year, 2020. Everything was just canceled and that was very, very hard on me mentally and financially. I took one month off to reflect and figure out how to start shifting gears, and to look at the industry, which was badly hit. When you look at developed countries, there are organizations that are supporting musicians and their work, but with the government and systems here, to be honest, the arts are the last thing on economic development goals. For most of the industry, it’s a hand to mouth kind of situation. So with COVID, I saw musicians moving from the city back to their village because it’s cheaper there. I almost got depressed because I lost so much.

The positive side, though, is that I had spent so much time traveling in the past years, so I had not had enough time to be by myself and to be by myself at home. So finally, I was forced to be in my house, and to restructure, refocus. It’s given me a whole new perspective on things. So I’m appreciative of the time that I’ve gotten, because then I was able to pick up a new instrument, the guitar, and I realized that I have collected so much knowledge, from travelling and touring with people from different cultures. I’m now using all that knowledge to make my own music. And looking for grants too, to do some work, because it takes money for things to be done. After I applied for grants, OneBeat came through, andI was really happy — there’s a lot of work that I’ve always wanted to do and now I have time to do it.

Nyokabi: That brings me to my next question. I’d love to hear about what led you to start the interview series ‘Vibe na Queen’ (‘Vibe with Queen’), the project you received the grant for. I believe all the episodes already aired through the month of January.

Watch the final episode here

Kasiva: I’m passionate about women’s issues in Kenya, in the space of the music industry. And I feel like, as much as women are doing exemplary work in music, and going through all the hurdles to become exceptional instrumentalists and musicians, we’re not connected with each other in the sense that we don’t even have forums to discuss women issues in the industry. We need to start having these conversations, so I thought maybe this is something that I could do as a start.

With the grant, I created an online series, ‘Vibe na Queen’, that I described as a virtual giving program focused on musical collaboration and conversations that aims at uniting Kenyan women in music. It was posted on my social media and I hosted different musicians for each episode.

Nyokabi: I checked out some of the episodes and they were extremely engaging; you can see how much skill and joy there is in you, as well as in the other musicians you interviewed! Can you tell us about who these musicians were, and what some of the conversations were about?

Kasiva: First, I had this amazing musician called Labdi Ommes. She plays a traditional Luo fiddle called the orutu. She’s amazing because she takes the oruto and effortlessly puts it into a modern setting. I really admire her, she’s very powerful. We performed together and spoke about her journey.

Next, I spoke to guitarist Ivy Alexander, who is a OneBeat alumni of 2019. She’s one of the youngest instrumentalists in the industry who has achieved so much in such a short time. It’s shocking to find a guitarist as good as her, she’s done exemplary work with big artists, played in major festivals in Kenya, traveled quite a bit, and just shows so much resilience. She’s a very good friend of mine, I’ve played with her for such a long time.

I also hosted an amazing singer called Shitaqua. When she speaks and sings, she reminds me of Miriam Makeba — she has a very bold voice and she’s one of those who can fit into sounding modern and very traditional at the same time. I find it so magical. I wanted to understand her perspective as a singer, because I find that in Kenya, singers tend to get more work than instrumentalists, so I’m interested in finding out how COVID has affected singers in the industry.

And then I interviewed the MOTRA girls. I wanted to give them a lot of chances to speak, ask questions of things I don’t know about them: what drives them, what they expect in their future with drumming and outside of that.

Nyokabi: Being from Kenya myself, it was particularly warming to get the chance to journey back home for a little bit, through watching your series, and learning from some of the amazing women in the music scene there. I also noticed that in addition to interviewing them, you were jamming together too!

Kasiva: Yes! The sessions were both conversation and jamming, so it’s more or less just wanting to hang out. And if we don’t feel like talking much, we’ll let the music speak.

Nyokabi: I love that — “let the music speak”. I’m curious if your time at OneBeat 2013 informed how you approach that process of working with other artists.

Kasiva: Yeah, totally. Before I went, I hadn’t been in a situation that required collaboration on that level. But I have to admit, it was hard at the time, because I was coming from a background of never interacting with cultures from other parts of the world. It was like, it’s your first time at the pool, and they throw you in the deep end. I was super young at the time, just a ‘little girl’ from East Africa. I hadn’t collaborated with anybody. Then suddenly there I was, with somebody from Egypt, from the Philippines, from Russia. Just interacting with these people was hard, and it forced my mind open into accepting other people’s cultures in a span of a month. It was quite an experience for me — difficult, but also one of the best experiences because it took me out of my comfort zone, and it put me in a place to understand other musical cultures.

Kasiva at Atlantic Center for the Arts during OneBeat 2013 | Photo by Hannah Devereux

If I were to go back to OneBeat now, there’s so much that I would do differently, because over the years I’ve learned more about the art of collaborating with other artists and how to place myself in different cultures. But my time at OneBeat really helped set a foundation in terms of understanding collaboration.

Nyokabi: Thank you for sharing that. And what do you hope people will take away from your interview series, ‘Vibe na Queen’? And perhaps not only what the viewers of the show will take away, but also the musicians that you hosted?

Kasiva: One of the women I’m interviewing said, “I’m not vocal. I only just play the instrument. I don’t like talking.” But the show is a way of encouraging her, and other women in the industry, to be more vocal about the work that they’re doing because it’s important. Our younger sisters are looking up to us.

And most of the people that follow me follow me because of my drumming, and I really want them to see that there’s these other amazing women doing amazing things — there’s other drummers, there’s a guitarist, there’s an oruto player, there’s an amazing singer, a bass player.

Lastly, the greatest thing I hope to be taken away is, I’m huge on storytelling, because stories impact lives. And for me, the stories and the conversations we’re going to have, including the musical conversations, are going to stick on people’s hearts and minds.

Nyokabi: I don’t doubt that they will. Kasiva, what are you most hopeful about for 2021?

Kasiva: I hope the pandemic ends so we can get back to normal — get back to sharing our stories physically, drumming and making music for the people, because people are really, really hungry for the music. I will say that the pandemic has pushed people to learn about other ways we can interact with each other, so we now have even more knowledge and tools for outreach in situations where we can’t be together physically. I hope we can use both ways of doing things to send out more art into the world.

Photograph courtesy of The Nile Project

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with the groundbreaking New York-based music organization Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation that employs collaborative original music as a potent new form of cultural diplomacy.

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Found Sound Nation

Found Sound Nation

Found Sound Nation is a collective that designs collaborative music projects. www.foundsoundnation.org