Music I’ve Loved : 3

“Kothbiro” – Ayub Ogada (nyatiti, vocals)

Ayub Ogada – has become perhaps the most well-known traditional musician of the Luo peoples of southwestern Kenya, and this particular piece of beautiful music is a principle reason why. His singing voice has a remarkable simplistic purity to it. And his instrument as well is almost astonishingly primitive and basic. In the Luo language the word Kothbiro means: it is going to rain, or the rain is coming. In parts of Africa, this can be a powerfully prophetic remark, carrying deep significace for the tribe or village when uttered from experience by an elder. The melody and power of this performance easily crashes through the linguistic and cultural barriers in place for a Western or European audience, and for a while Ayub was an in-demand world musician within those contexts. He now mostly remains under his beloved mango tree at home, playing music while being able to observe his familiar and meaningful landscape.

The Constant Gardener – This piercingly lovely song formed the closing moments of the 2005 film “The Constant Gardener” which was based upon a novel of international intrigue by John Le Carre. It was a well made movie which tangibly immersed one in the contradictory forces operating in the conflicts between modern global commerce and its servile ‘diplomacy’ on the one hand and the growth pains of Africans themselves caught up in the wild completely different natural identity of their homeland. When I heard this song at the film’s conclusion, I knew I had to immediately find out about the music and musician.

Nyatiti – is the Luo Kenyan name for the local 8-stringed lyre constructed of very rustic elements such as tree branches, a spherical sounding gourd, strings of wire, and sometimes strands of animal hide wound upon a crossing beam to separate the strings. The instrument is played in such a way that it is simultaneously both a rhythm or percussive aspect and a melodic aspect. The nyatiti is always tuned pentatonically, meaning there are only five distinct tones per octave. A large amount of traditional Chinese and Japanese music is pentatonic in structure. Also, many familiar popular songs utilize a pentatonic scale, for example “Auld Land Syne”, “Amazing Grace”, or the iconic opening riff from “My Girl” by the Temptations. You can get your own experiential feel for a pentatonic scale (C# minor) by messing around on exclusively the black keys of a piano. I’ve included the video below for those wishing to see Ayub introduce the instrument in situ, in his home village.


Note: A previous article about Music I’ve Loved can be found here.

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