NAIROBI, Kenya — The members of Sauti Sol rehearse in a cramped recording studio above a chapati restaurant off a noisy highway in Nairobi. Bien-Aime Baraza, Delvin Mudigi and Willis Chimano — the founding members, all 25 — have been friends since they sang together as part of a gospel ensemble in high school. When they graduated in 2005, they didn’t want to stop singing, so they formed Sauti Sol. Sauti is Swahili for voice, while sol is Spanish for sun. “Voices of light.”
They wrote songs and rehearsed for three years before releasing their first album, Mwanzo, in 2008 — it sold well. When the band made its debut, the music scene in Nairobi was dominated by DJs playing party music. Sauti Sol took a different approach and formed a new sound.
“It was rare to find a young band that crafted live music onstage, with rich three-part harmonies,” says Buddha Blaze, a well-known Kenyan music promoter. “They were the first that actually sang, the first from that generation of young Kenyans who were actually singing and telling stories. So obviously they were different. Here are some young people who don’t want to be rappers.”
Every member of the band is a college graduate. In “Soma Kijana,” they urge young people to pursue an education. In “Asante Baba,” they thank fathers who raise their families instead of abandoning them. And there is “Awinja,” written by Baraza, who says it comes from a personal place.
“It’s a tribute to all the African women who go to work abroad,” Baraza says. “They do all sorts of odd jobs, and they send money home. Their kids are able to go to school; their families are able to have better lives. Awinja is my mother’s name. She sacrificed. She went abroad when I was really young, when I was in high school. I was 15. And she left Kenya, and she’s never come back since.”
Another of the band’s hits is “Blue Uniform,” about police misconduct. Guitarist Polycarp Otieno says it’s popular because so many of the group’s fans have had run-ins with the cops.
“They’re really tough,” Otieno says. “When they get you in the street, they really harass you, and they take bribes a lot in Kenya.”
A Changing Climate For Message Music
There is an opening in Kenyan society today to sing about sensitive themes — like police and government corruption and venal politicians — that didn’t exist before…
Read more: NPR