I do not blog. I have never blogged, and no, I am not about to start. I do not consider myself a writer. As a matter of fact, my days at the University were spent failing my written papers, and if my life depended on it, and a gun put to my head, I’d be shot. The situation is so dire, my sister jokes that I learnt to read/write English from a box of cereal. Also, since I spend plenty of time criticizing authors and bloggers and writers and papers, I would rather stick to what I know… Singing.

That being said, I realized possibly too late that I have something to say about FEB 28th. I am reminded of the scene in A King’s Speech where the soon-to-be King was with his speech therapist rehearse in the cathedral and despite his stutters and stammers shouts “I HAVE A VOICE!” Like him, I too need to be heard.

I will begin by saying that I do have my reservations about Feb 28th. Like every cynical blogger, twitter and super-analytical Kenyan and activist, I can engage you in a 4 hour conversation on the flaws of the “philosophy” or “ideology” or whatever different people have tagged FEB 28th. I struggle with the ‘And then what?” question. The idea of “the world watching” and a myriad of others details that I can defend as an activist. If you gave me another hour I would give you a SWOT analysis  – my very own Powerpoint presentation, and an extensive talk on the Middle Class in Kenya, why making us sing the national anthem is a bad idea, and major points on a revolution. Then I would crown it with a song to finish it off on an emotional note.

When one says FEB 28th, what run through my mind are those common NGO phrases that make us laugh and/or annoy us. Expressions like ‘mobilize’, ‘resources’, ‘sustainability’, ‘funding’, ‘grassroots’, ‘disadvantaged’, ‘civil society’, ‘social capital’ and so on and so forth. Clichés. These are the things that I am exposed to on an everyday basis while interacting with my colleagues in the NGO sector, during the gigs I have played.

This morning, however, my thinking was challenged.

I am a born again Christian. I make no apologies about my faith and belief in Christ. This Sunday morning it dawned on me that when we are in trouble we do not hesitate to pray, whether it is for those we love, or simply turning to God for direction and comfort. I thought of those that struggled for our country’s independence and I shuddered to think that they would be saddened by the state of the government and our country today. I was sad, for in all my life I have never prayed for my country. I have never spent all of 5 minutes pleading for the Lord to bless our nation.

I doubt that singing the national anthem will cause a great revolution. Were we not forced by our primary and high school teachers to stand at attention, raise the flag and sing the anthem every Monday and Friday during assembly? If this were the basis of a revolution, my goodness what a great one Kenya would have. Powered by school children. Besides, how many of you reading this can get past the first verse?

Nonetheless I will pray for the country during those 5 minutes. Quietly in my room I will recite the words of our national anthem to God, for those great musicians that wrote the anthem prayed that Justice would be our shield and defender – we have been overtaken by corruption, where they hoped that we would have peace, we have killed each other. Like our own lives we desire to be blessed but hardly ever do we pray for a blessing for our nation. I imagine that as those great songwriters wrote that beautiful piece of music they shed a tear or two. Prayer can change things and people. And this time, in the secrecy of my home, I will pray. I have sung the anthem countless times, both locally and internationally, before dignitaries and laymen alike. Once again, tomorrow I will sing our national anthem. I will sing it like I’ve never sung it before and this time I will mean it. Because I will be praying.

Sara Mitaru.

Sara Mitaru is a Singer/Songwriter, UN Habitat Messenger of Truth, and UNMC MDG advocate based in Nairobi. Follow her on Twitter @saramitaru

Imagine a mother hen brooding four eggs. Upon hatching, one of her chicks looks different from the rest. The thing has a pointed beak, a sharp eye, and some menacing talons. To make matters worse, it is not at all moved by cereal. During its teenage weeks it begins to display peculiar behavior, wanting to take flight and what not. The nerve! Signs of sibling rivalry also begin to manifest, what with the incessant pecking and de-feathering of its brethren. Mother hen is confused. We don’t behave like that in this family! And for the last time, we eat maize!

This phenomenon is also common among human beings. Where proper, grounded parents sire the odd artistic child that wears strange clothes, has a different opinion on pretty much everything, and who, by all definitions, is mad as a March hare.

See the thing about parents is, they know everything. Downright omniscient. “Dad.. What’s that bird called?” “It’s called a stork. It’s the national symbol of Uganda”. Poor kid is pointing at a vulture.  Or “Mum, what does that machine do?” “It is called a generator. It produces electricity.” No mother, it’s a concrete mixer. Once, a father even sat up the whole night attempting a complex math problem, just because his daughter had said “Daddy you can’t do it!” This parent, like all the rest, was always “No. 1 in school”. And, like other parents worldwide, walked 12 km to school everyday. Barefoot. They know what every building is, what every machine does, the make, model and chassis number of every vehicle that drives by, and most annoyingly, they know what you should be when you grow up. And you, oh foolish child, know nothing.

And woe unto you if you’re artistic. To put it mathematically, your affinity to the sciences and academia in general is alleged to be inversely proportional to your future rate of success. It is my opinion, which is a fact, that parents do not know what to do with artistic children. Worse. They won’t admit it, or seek help. When you show off some new chord you learnt, “that’s nice, now go do your homework!” Daddy I got the part in that play! “What play? Have you studied for your exams?” Now exams are unavoidable, and homework a rite of passage, but that stuff only occupies twelve to sixteen years of a future artist’s life. No one prepares you for the other fifty something that come after. And fifty something is A LOT of years.

So you grow up insecure, trapped even, between who you really are and who society thinks you should be. You feel lost and confused. Your self-esteem is in the basement. It starts at an early age too. By the time you begin primary school you stand out. And you get ridiculed for it. Whether it’s your skinny legs or shy demeanor, or the strange doodling on your desk, you really get it. At school they tease you and at home they ignore you. In some cases you even get compared to your siblings. You learn to shut yourself in and withdraw from the cruelty of your surrounding. You don’t feel safe. The only thing that keeps you alive is your art. So you sharpen it vigorously and secretly. Or you give it up.

You look forward to finishing high school. Beyond that lies freedom, you tell yourself. You’ll go to Barklee and study Composition or you’ll get a scholarship to Central St. Martins and walk the corridors where Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney once walked. Or you’ll get a record deal and one day do a collabo with Jay Z. Or maybe painting is your thing and you dream of spending a year touring Italy.

Problem is, though, that is eagle speak in a chicken coop. It just doesn’t fly. Your options are limited to lawyer, doctor, pilot. You have two choices. You could fight. You could fight tooth and nail for your rights. Rebel the deuces out of it. Refuse to attend class, move out, get a tattoo and more piercings than Elaine Davidson. Now move in with your friend Mike and those six other guys at his room in Southlands. There. That should do it. These are a few of a parent’s (least) favorite things. Now you can spend the rest of your life disentangling yourself from the complicated web that is your relationship with your parents. And blaming them, correctly so, for the death of your dreams.

Or you could be nice and obedient. Finish college, pass with flying colors, get a nice job like your folks wanted. Make them happy. Move into a nice apartment, buy a nice car, marry a nice person, have nice kids, go to a nice church. Volunteer once a month at a soup kitchen and start a foundation. By Jove, you’re nice! And then one day you turn 43.  And all hell breaks loose. You join a band. They’re in college. You pierce an ear, and you quit your job. You buy a Kawasaki Ninja 650R. Yellow. Complete with matching leathers. And then it all comes tumbling down. We all know how this story ends. And it’s daddy’s fault.

But what if, instead of all that drama, you accepted reality. You are an eagle among chickens. You can sit around and waste precious time arguing stratosphere, or you can use your time on the ground to prepare for flight. Seeing as you have no nest high up in the mountains from which to spread your wings, it is of great import that you spend more time preparing for take off. You buckle down and do what you’re “supposed to”, in the meantime never losing focus of where you’re going. Who you are. What you were born to achieve. Become the best that you can be at your art. For every two hours spent on homework, you spend two drawing. Playing guitar. Designing. For every dull class you attend, spend an hour doing research. Keep going. Never giving up. Truth of the matter is, the earth won’t pause from its spin to wait for you. And the other eaglets are already in the sky mastering their tricks. You’re on the ground. Handicapped. You must work twice as hard to be half as good. It’s unfair, I know. But life generally is. So you just do your part. Then patiently wait for the right opportunity. I guarantee you… It will come.

It Was The Sound!

Posted: September 1, 2010 in A Producer's Perspective

Last Friday, August 27th 2010, 2 days after my own birthday, Kenya was reborn. It was a historic event. There were thousands of spectators, important people came from across the continent, long processions and a splendent display of military hardware, 21 gun salute, even the president had on a Dookie Rope! But all it took was a bunch of off-key singers, some water balloons, a rebellious dove and a wanted president to make a mess of the thing. Speaking of off-key singers. How in the world did we get here? I’ll tell you.

It was the sound. Evidently. Something happened to the thing that connects the other things to the thing with the many buttons. This must have caused the voices of Kenya’s best and most talented to sound a bit muddy. Yes, that’s it! That, or the fellow tweaking the many knobs was an illiterate novice. Ought to be flogged in public! And so should you, if you chalk up that horrid violation of human rights to ”bad sound”. Sure, the sound guy is not eligible for any stone-throwing. These fellows often have egos the size of Jupiter. Which would be fine, if they knew their compressors from their EQ’s. I have witnessed the ruin of many of a good event at the hands of a sound man. Either the artiste couldn’t hear the keyboards, or the bass was too loud, or the guitar too sharp. Or maybe everything was all muddled up causing the audience’s ears to bleed. Their list of sins is endless, but they are not, repeat NOT capable of causing you to sing badly.

Right, now that we’ve acquitted the sound man, let us embark on a quest to find the idiot that has caused our ears agony by way of atonal torture to such levels that the cancer has snuck, largely unnoticed, all the way to the king’s court. Let us round up the usual suspects.

The Producer: Wait, that’s me! Well, in my defense, the poor artiste couldn’t sing. At least not so well. But it would be cruel to tell him that, wouldn’t it? Also, far be it from me to decide a lad’s fate! Or to turn away work! Besides, the chap had practiced his lines for weeks! Plus he’d recorded said song twice before. First time he’d sounded appalling, you know how it is when you record yourself at home with a Skype microphone on a software you downloaded for free off the internet. Second time he’d recorded it at his boy’s crib. His boy had a small setup, nothing fancy, just some home entertainment system hooked to a PC and a cheap microphone. There was also an issue with the “mixing”. But it was free, so hey. And now he’d found me. Never mind how, but he did. Caught me at a vulnerable time too, it being the end of the month and all. So I auto-tuned the deuces out of him, took the moolah and burned him a disc. Complete with performance tracks. How was I to know he’d become successful and that his illusion of talent would take him before kings?

Perhaps the Radio DJ then. This lot have been known to shove songs down our gullets to the point where we convince ourselves the rubbish we’re hearing, and which we loathed at first, is pure, fluid, melodic genius. And boy do we swallow the stuff! And copy it into our iPods and bluetooth it from smartphone to smartphone and make it into ringtones and such. We watch the video on YouTube and paste it on our Facebook walls. We spread this ignorance like swine flu. Until one day we see the artiste live, and we blame the sound, for surely, they did not sound that way on the radio.

So if not the radio DJ, then who? The other kind? The one who used to have two record players and a mixer that he ditched for two CD decks and a mixer and lately, a laptop and a mixer? The one who keeps highly inebriated individuals shaking to a “mix” of tunes? The one who takes my hard work, strips it of the vocals, slaps on vocals from a different song (never mind the difference in key, time signature, and chord progression) and calls it a mix-tape? After all, this bloke is responsible for creating hits. Perhaps more so than his radio counterpart. Thing is, you see, everything sounds heavenly when your blood alcohol levels are above 0.06. At least that’s what I’m told.

Or maybe it’s your fault, oh dear listener, and fan, “without whom I’d be nothing”. It’s your fault for having such low expectations of your entertainers and for devouring, without a second thought, everything that we, the “industry folk” squeeze into your minds. Maybe it’s your fault for not demanding more. For lowering your standards to accommodate every Tom Lucy and What’s-His-Face that has a song out. For hating on the “haters” who speak ill, albeit truthfully, of the untalented.

While we’re at it why not also blame the government for not creating opportunities for the youth, Kenya Power and Lighting Company for the frequent power cuts during recording sessions, the weather for messing up with our voices, the music industry at large for being so darn difficult to penetrate, or the wildebeest for migrating annually. Or even the moon for causing ocean tides, the Grammy Committee and BET and Channel O and The Beat and Lady Gaga. Heck, let’s even blame Post Election Violence, the poor state of the economy and China. And journalists and Safaricom and slow internet speeds. And 12-year-old girls and Soulja Boy Tell Em. And the Vuvuzela.

Or we could just be honest. We’re all lazy. And impartial to shortcuts. Needless to say, it has now caught up with us. The desperate singer walks into the studio with a catchy hook and some semblance of a verse, hoping to make something of it, the producer sweetens it with some bootleg software, takes the money and runs, the Dj convinces us it’s magic, therefore earning serious bragging rights, teenage girls request it on TV, and the rest of the populace go from frowning at the effort to smiling at it in a week flat. Then the corporates sign deals with the new star, money changes hands, bling is bought, and now it’s a fad. Everyone’s a rapper. Or worse. A singer. All for a quick shilling. The whole affair is circling the drain. Fast. All the while the Grammy and its friends become more and more elusive.

I only hope therefore, that the debacle that was a celebratory song for a new Kenya, was a wake up call to the sad state of affairs. That standards will begin to rise and nonsense met with hostility. I expect to see more creativity and dedication and hard work. Much in the same way that I expect pigs to have achieved flight by 2030.

Picture this. you’re in high school, form one to be precise. Music runs through your veins. You are completely obsessed! So much so that every night, during preps, you drum tunes on your locker with your pens. Softly of course, so as not to distract your classmates. Or so you think. Until your very pretty and very cool desk-mate reports you to the class teacher for disturbing the peace. The class-teacher calls you to the staff room, and after that, the thing pretty much just skids into the ditch. Out comes the cane, and as she administers sentence, at the last of three relatively painless strokes, the deputy headmaster happens by. A little chinwag takes place between the two educationists and you soon change hands. You swallow. Perhaps to describe the man. He stands at 6’2” with arms like posts. Did I mention he doubles as the school’s tennis coach? He’s got quite the backhand. You swallow again. And fart. Fear-fart. He opens a window and rolls a sleeve. 8 strokes and two weeks of sideways-sitting later, you hate music. And your desk-mate. In fact, when you go home for the holidays, you look at your beloved guitar, which you’ve played since you were six, and all you see is firewood. You’d drink a pint of gall before you play another note.

So you make it through your four years at Sing Sing and now you’re at the University. A fine institute too, to be honest. The degree? Communication. Freshman year is a breeze. Your sense of fashion changes a great deal, you learn how to speak to the opposite sex more intelligibly and so on and so forth. Somewhere in there you also make it to a class or two. Then suddenly the bug bites again. Right in the middle of your sophomore year. It happens when you discover your best friend is a bass player. And good at it too. You pull out your guitar from the dusty attic and tune it. Soon you’re jamming with your pals in the old music room. Wow! This is so much fun! Now you’re playing in the Chapel weekly, on Wednesday night meetings… Before long you’re in the school choir. Then one day some idiot plays the wrong note on the keyboard. Repeatedly. It angers you. You must do something about it! So you learn how to play the keyboard. Never mind that you’re now missing classes, and your grades are slipping rapidly. But who can blame you? Between your practice sessions, chapel, et cetera et cetera, your pool addiction and your computer games, who has the time for class? The logical thing is to take a semester off from school, to prevent imminent discontinuation. That’s the official story. Really what you want is to sharpen your craft.

And sharpen your craft you do. You begin to mess around on the keyboard and discover how to make music tracks on it, and save them in the in-built floppy drive. Now you’re really in heaven. You begin to see dollar signs in your sleep. It is at this point that you catch wind of a revolutionary software called Fruity Loops. The thing is as rare as a Comet. However your zeal knows no bounds. You finally get yourself a copy. After that you burn barrels of midnight oil figuring it out. Amateur rappers begin to frequent your bedroom to sample your work. Soon you’re a pro. Charging 2,500 shillings a track. But you’ll take 2,000. Crickets, tumbleweed, goat bleating in the distance… Alright, alright. 1,000 then. 500? Your parents were right. Music does not pay!

A year and a half later you’re back in class. Focused as ever! You are, after all, a Junior. You finally get to attend some meaningful lectures. Journalism classes, law classes, script writing and directing, research and what have you. You even get to direct a feature film and design a website! and then in your final year you do an internship at a leading media house. Graduation comes and goes and you’re out in the world. Armed with a degree and a variety of skills. The music bug however, is still in the blood. “If it doesn’t work this time, I’ll get a real job.” So you seek gainful employment at a production house. A major one. Might as well shoot for the stars. Three production houses and a few strolls later, you get a job! There’s a catch though. You’ll have to do six months as a trainee producer. For 10,000 shillings a month you’ll take it! You’re playing with the big boys now!

Before long you’ve done your first hit song. Your boss gets the credit for it. So you begin to brand your tracks by shouting your newly acquired super-cool producer name at the beginning of each track. Another few weeks and you’ve finished work on your first album. One of the songs is even on radio. You are beaming with pride. But your boss is still getting the credit for your work and doing all the interviews. Then a miracle happens. You produce such a hit, it reaches number one on radio charts. And, it has your name on it. Phone rings, first radio interview is booked, and you’re famous. Not rich, just famous. Folks begin to whisper your name at events as you walk by. Months pass, the fame grows, but the pockets remain porous. Paychecks are few and far between. Until talk of Oranges and Bananas begins to circulate. One day a bunch of political types in Prados and E Classes come through to the studio seeking songs to enhance their cause. Their budget: a million shillings. The whole place goes into 5th gear and the music is ready in no time. LPO, Invoice, silence. The swindlers disappear, as they say, like a fart in a hurricane. You’re back to the grind. You wade through months of horrible singing and poor pay, punctuated by the occasional glimmer of hope when true talent steps into the booth, but you’re barely staying afloat.

Three years, a number of hits and an award or two later, you branch out on your own. With nothing but a good name, some contacts and a resourceful new wife. And hope. You suffer together, putting away each coin you make to buy studio gear, in the meantime hiring other people’s studios and getting cheated off your meagre earnings. The one laptop you have breaks down, and rent is always two weeks late. Several times your car, which came with the wife (she was doing very well for herself until you came along) often runs out of fuel. Power is cut frequently. The fridge is empty. You’re really in the stew. One day you get a fat job and the entire cheque goes into buying a new computer. An iMac, no less. Things begin to look up. Soon you have a basic studio setup. And work is flowing. You begin to pay rent almost on time, power is cut less frequently and there’s at least a loaf of bread in the pantry. Folks are even willingly paying your slightly exorbitant fees. You receive more awards, and your inbox is constantly full of chaps who are dying to work with you. You are even booked for international gigs producing work for films and documentaries and such. You’re getting paid in dollars and Euros. You are respected among your peers and have several awards to your name. Yeah, Google me, baby!

Then from somewhere way in left field comes this blighter of a fellow, this graduate of a third-rate school of journalism. Complete nincompoop who couldn’t tell a harp from a palm tree. And what does he do? Writes a review about a song you produced! Gives it two stars. Fellow couldn’t tell you from Queen Elizabeth and he dares write about your work! And what’s worse, he misspells your name! If only you were licensed to carry a concealed weapon…

It usually begins with a distant bell, which naturally, you ignore and turn over, pulling your duvet over your head. Except the annoyingly persistent thing torments you every five minutes with increasing loudness. By the third ding it occurs to you that the loud marching band is actually your alarm clock. Your hand, strictly of its own volition, and without help from any other bodily organ, reaches out and shuts down the racket. It even knows not to hit the “Snooze” button. And we’re back to sleep. Until another racket commences. This time your eyes pop wide open and bat about uncontrollably as you try to suck in the light. Your heart is racing and thoughts speed through your skull, none stopping long enough to be identified. The world is undoubtedly ending! It happens again, the distant rapping on the front door. You manage a quick gander at your clock. It is 9:27 am. She’s late. Why is she always late? Never mind her, where are my trousers? If you’re lucky you don’t smash your toe into the bedpost on your way out of the bedroom. Now your phone is ringing. It’s her. Christ! Why didn’t I resist that Top Gear episode last night! Now you’re splashing gelid water in your face and trying with much difficulty to tidy your hair. She knocks again. There’s really no time to brush your teeth, so you splash the ice in there and gurgle a bit. A quick wipe of the mug with a towel, then it’s a mad dash for the front door, all the while clearing your throat in an attempt to remove all evidence of your encounters with Morpheus.

Naturally, she’s not pleased one bit. I wouldn’t be neither, if I walked into the bank and caught the teller in his bathrobe. My 9 am session steps in after an awkward greeting. She is embarrassed for being late, again, (I had, not a week ago, given her a bit of a roasting over her habitual lateness, and followed it with an elaborate monologue on the merits of keeping time and time is money and what not) but is now evidently miffed at my evident duplicity. We walk into the living room where she curtly turns down my offer for breakfast. It’s going to be a long day. I excuse myself and step into the studio to switch on the equipment. As the electronics warm up I put on the kettle, determined to have tea. I can’t function without the precious liquid. By now it’s 9:42 am.

The session begins with a recap of the previous one. We’re recording songs for an album and so far, three songs are done. We’re on the fourth, which we stopped last week, due to a rather unfriendly harmony that I insisted we put in the tune, her voice refused to coöperate, and that was that. The whole thing was shelved, and I put it on a CD for her to practice at home. This time however, she gets it right and the song is done. One more listen and we’re both happy with the results. She takes a bathroom break, and I prepare to start on a new song. She returns, smile on her face, my earlier antics forgotten. Now she wants tea. Sigh. I head for the kitchen as she riffles through her notebook trying to decide what number to work on next. Having picked a song, she begins to sing it as I fiddle about on my keyboard trying to see what’s what. Then my phone rings. It’s some kid that I had meant to call back about working together. He’d rang me during a recording session, I’d promised to call him back, I forgot… I’m not doing so well these days. I answer the telephone and swear to him that I hadn’t forgotten about him, and promise to call him back shortly. I hang up and then everything goes dark. Blasted power-cut. I REALLY need to get that UPS!! Sighs and grunts of frustration all round, curses to KPLC, then silence. Followed by small talk about this and that. Hope of power returning wanes with the passing of each 10 minutes. Books are put away, and a discussion ensues about the next session, payments and deadlines. Speaking of payments, I have a cheque to deposit. Then I walk her out and slump on the couch. 11:09 am.

The walk to the bank is short and uneventful. Remember the chappie that called? I call him back. He is offering less than half my standard rate. The nerve! I dismiss him and move on to more important matters. Half an hour later, I’m back at the house. And, thankfully, so is electricity. I head straight for the shower. Then it’s back into the studio. There’s a lad I’d previously recorded, and I now must “mix” his effort. This is a deucedly intricate process that involves EQs and Compressors and Gates and Autotune and what have you. A lot of Autotune on this one especially. I fiddle with a knob here and a knob there and by 2 pm it sounds bearable, so I abandon it and stick my head in the fridge in search of a snack. A chapati and leftover stew later, I’m back in the studio laboring away at some mood music for a TV program. It’s one of those deadlines you really want to meet on account of it fetching a healthy and regular income. “Regular” is a word you don’t hear often among music-folk. Then the phone rings again and it’s another job. I book a session for Friday, and continue with my work. It is 6 pm when I walk out of the workshop, back broken and belly growling.

The rest of the evening is spent lazing about and futzing about with the remote, unless of course there’s a new feature at the movie house. After which, I shall return home and busy myself with an episode of Top Gear. It is to me, after all, much like tea. Absolutely necessary. I nod off. Shortly, the blighted marching band is back. Grunt.