The OneBeat Podcast

The Sounds of Kenya’s Past, Present and Future Part 2, with KMRU

Episode Summary

In the final part of a OneBeat diptych series episode, Kenyan ambient artist KMRU joins Nyokabi Kariũki in a conversation about the importance of archiving sound, and what the repatriation of sonic archives can do for the past, present, and possible futures of people from the African continent.

Episode Notes

“It's only the tangible objects that are being returned to their places, but these intangible [sounds], or like the ephemera, how would one return it? [...] You can give them back to the people.”

In the final part of a diptych series guided by Kenyan composer and FSN collaborator Nyokabi Kariũki, we meet KMRU, one of the leading ambient electronic artists in the world today. The conversation traces KMRU’s journey from how place influenced his music-making, into the way ethics have shaped his field recording practice, and finally, his 2022 project ‘Temporary Stored’. With this album and research project, the sound artist attempts to bring sound back into the conversation around the restitution of art objects back to Africa, which has been a growing topic in the world of museums and archives in recent years. “Sound, too, was a looted object,” KMRU says. This leads Nyokabi to pose the question, “what spaces are right to record? What spaces are better left alone?”

The interview between the two Kenyan sound artists, Nyokabi Kariũki and KMRU, offers a powerful second glance of some of the exciting things bubbling up in the Kenyan music scene; and it shines a light on how sound is an important part of how Africans understand their relationship to place, heritage, and life. 

Listen to our Youtube playlist of music heard across both episodes on sounds from Kenya.

Produced and Edited by Nyokabi Kariũki and Jeremy Thal

Mixed by Jeremy Thal

Executive Producers: Jeremy Thal, Elena Moon Park, and Kyla-Rose Smith

Featuring: Joseph Kamaru (aka KMRU)

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, & produced by Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation.

Episode Transcription

KMRU: Sounds, they have this sort of very close connection with memory. It's like the best way to remember. There's so much emotional memory that can be triggered of the past, or even the future. Sound does this very strongly. 

Elena Moon Park: Welcome back to The OneBeat Podcast: Season 2 where we are celebrating 10 years of innovative and dynamic OneBeat programming across the globe! 

This episode we are back with Kenyan composer and FSN collaborator Nyokabi Kariũki, who takes us on the second part of a journey through Nairobi, where she explores the sounds of Kenya’s past, present and future through the lens of some of the interesting Kenyan artists in the scene today. 

In the previous episode, we met a vinyl guru, an electronic futurist, and a dynamic percussionist and OneBeat Fellow. This second episode brings about a change of pace: a slowing down into the warm, lush, and patient worlds of the ambient electronic musician, Joseph Kamaru. 

Kamaru has been called “a master of quietness”, which is evident in his music, as he deftly combines field recordings and electronic sounds to create boundless soundscapes. In this interview, you hear this translates to his personality too; an artist fueled by a mind constantly in thought and deep reflection. 

The conversation traces Kamaru’s journey from his upbringing in Kenya, and shows how place influenced his music-making, and follows into his ethics when it comes to his field recording practice. Finally, he dives into his ongoing project, ‘Temporary Stored’, which he self-released as an album in July 2022. Through ‘Temporary Stored’, the now Berlin-based artist uses sound recordings from the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, which were repatriated in 2021, and he reconfigures them in what he calls “emancipatory sonic hearing of the archive”. 

At the OneBeat Podcast, we not only share stories from artists within the OneBeat alumni community, but also folks who we are fans of, for the imaginative ways they use art and music in the intersection of social change. The conversation between these two Kenyan sound artists, Nyokabi Kariũki and KMRU, offers a powerful closing picture of this two-part spotlight on the Kenyan music scene; shining a light on how sound is an important part of how Africans understand their relationship to place, heritage, and life. 

Nyokabi: In the first part of this two-part episode, we heard the voices of Kenyan music-makers that are finding, in sound, a way to inquire about the past, the present, and the future.

I asked, can sound reveal new things to us about ourselves and our history that other forms of archiving simply cannot do as well? 

We’d heard from Jimmy Rugami, a man who dubs himself “the real vinyl guru”, and he’s been running a record store in a popular outdoor market in Nairobi, since 1985, and has collected over 50,000 records.

Jimmy: Every time I find records somewhere, however much they cost — I’d rather rob a bank [Nyokabi: [laughs]] and make sure I end up with them [ laughs]. 

Nyokabi: Next, we met the electronic musician DJ Raph, who lit a fire in the electronic music scene in Nairobi, building several communities — from a performance space in the basement of an abandoned mall; to the Sound of Nairobi Archive, where he and his teams investigate how sound can be a potent source of information — through the consistent collection of field recordings of the city, over weeks, months, and years of time.

DJ Raph: There used to be sounds that you would hear in Nairobi, like 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that don’t exist today. What kind of sounds might there be in the future?  

Nyokabi: And lastly, we met Kasiva Mutua, a very talented percussionist and OneBeat alumna who is driven by the goal of being a culture bearer, passing on her knowledge of traditional African drumming through not only her solo projects and performances, but also through founding MOTRA Music, which has led over 40 women through a program of mentorship, sisterhood, and, of course, drumming. 

Kasiva: Me choosing to play drums and, the drums choosing me is if something that I really take pride in, not only because it's something that I do love, but it's something that actually represents where I come from.

Nyokabi: Now, adding to the conversation is the electronic musician KMRU, who adds a slightly different perspective to this story. Part of digging into the past includes confronting things that didn’t go so right, and finding ways to reclaim and recontextualise what is true to us, as people of the continent. 

His latest project, “Temporary Stored” is an attempt at bringing sound back into the conversation around restitution, which has been a growing topic in the world of museums and archives in recent years. “Sound, too, was a looted object,” KMRU says. 

This leads me to ponder on several questions with him: “What spaces are right to record? What spaces are better left alone?” And how can this idea of ‘restituting sound’ inform our larger question of what sound can truly offer as a medium to preserve African truths?

Nyokabi: My name is Nyokabi Kariũki, and let’s dig into part 2!

Music: KMRU - Peel

Nyokabi: What you’re currently listening to, is the boundless work of one of the most exciting ambient musicians today. It’s the titular track from ‘Peel’, an album described by By Philip Sherburne of Pitchfork as having “the depth of a Rothko painting”, with tracks, sometimes  13, 15, even 23 minutes long, “[like] obsidian-colored lakes that beckon the listener to sink into their lightless depths.”

The work is by the fascinating, and in many ways ubiquitous, 25-year old Kenyan sound artist, Joseph Kamaru, who releases music under the moniker pronounced as Kamaru but spelled K-M-R-U. 

For many of us Kenyans, it’s special to see him carry on the legacy of his late grandfather, who had the same name — Joseph Kamaru. He was a benga and gospel musician whose art was a persistent part of the Kenyan music landscape, especially in the 70s and 80s. 

Music: Joseph Kamaru - Safari ya Japan Pt 2

But the work of the 25-year old Kamaru, proves powerful enough on its own, and I’d say it absolutely offers a wonderful fragment of the bounds that African art continues to reach.

Since Peel’s release in 2020, KMRU has shown us he is a prolific artist and an electronic musician with his own unique vision. But this vision is one that he has been building for a long time. I interviewed him over Zoom while he is currently in Berlin, pursuing a postgraduate degree in Sound Studies. Here we go!  

Music: KMRU - Note 43 

Nyokabi: Thank you so much for joining me, Kamaru. 

KMRU: Cool yeah, thank you for having me. [laughs]. 

Nyokabi: I think, I think I’ll start from the beginning, and ask you whether you have any musical memories from when you were young?

KMRU: I do remember me and my older brother used to sing together, along with my mom, when I was a child, or like — just listening to lots of music and trying to sing along to them. We were surrounded with music, mostly cassette tapes, and just playing with tapes, and like my mom or my dad used to buy tapes, and we’d play them.

I don't know how old I was, but, this is like my very earliest memory of like, getting into this musical world and enjoying that you can play music, or you can hear sound through like, a device. 

Nyokabi: Do you remember any of the songs that you would sing? 

KMRU: We’d try and sing along to my grandfather's songs.

Music: Joseph Kamaru - Azimio La Harambee

KMRU: I do remember singing to pop music back then. I don't remember the artists, but it was like, mostly popular music.

Nyokabi: Like, Kenyan popular music or like, Western popular music? 

KMRU: Both! Me and my big brother have this very close connection ‘cause we grew up together a lot. We used to go to school together, and when we used to go to school, we used to go either with public transport where the music was like, the main medium, where I would hear like, lots of interesting music, and going back home we’d try and find this music and play. 

[Audio: Field Recording from Sound of Nairobi [SON000212]

Nyokabi: You mention being exposed to pop music on public transportation, and it’s only now hitting me — that because you and I grew up in Kenya — that this is very normal to us at home, but in Berlin (where you are right now) or in New York (where I am right now) — the natural state of public transport is just…silence! 

KMRU: Yeah, I think it's because things here, so systemized, like very rigid, where people are just like, from one point to the other. 

Western culture is like, drawn to silence, they love silence. And for us, I guess, for example in Nairobi, there's so much noise and it influences how they navigate through the spaces they’re living [in]. And, also Berlin as a city — it's still alive, but I think it's a bit dead in a way [laughs] that there isn't lots of human sounds happening. 

Nyokabi: Yeah, there’s powerful to me, equating life to sound. It’s truly very common that a matatu — which is what we call these public transport mini-buses in Kenya — will just pass by and you hear music blasting from the speakers, and it’s a sign of life and activity in the city. 

Something I’m curious about, and maybe you can speak to this either from when you were living in Kariokor, which is right in the middle of Nairobi, or from when you moved to Rongai, which is in the much quieter outskirts of the city — when you were using matatus growing up, did you find yourself choosing certain matatu or bus routes solely because of the music?

KMRU: When we moved to Rongai, and Rongai has a really huge matatu culture in Nairobi, because of the graffiti and the loud music, and also the sound systems in the buses. All of them are very competitive and there's always a new matatu every month, and people would know. 

You'd hear the matatus blaring the sound from afar, so you know, like, “okay, this, this matatu is coming, so we need to get ready for...” And people will scramble to like, get inside ‘cause it's gonna be the fastest to get home, and like the music is gonna be good, so yeah [laughs].

Music: KMRU - life at ouri

Nyokabi: From what I hear, it sounds like you grew up in a place with so much sonic activity, you know, how did that lead you to make the work that you make now, which I think a lot of people would describe as ‘ambient’, a lot more quiet, a lot more, just patient?

KMRU: I like how you said, “it's patient” [laughs]. I did grow up in a very noisy environment. Before moving to Rongai, we used to stay in a residence called Kariokor. Kariokor is a residence, really close to the city center, it’s like part of the CBD. We were living on Block A, which – Block A is just next to the main road that goes to town. 

I can imagine having to be close to high, loud noises from childhood and then moving to the outskirts of Nairobi in a place called Rongai, which is next to the National Park. It's so green. It's so chill. And you realize how much silence there is. 

Nyokabi: Except for when those matatus are coming. [laughs]

KMRU: [laughs]. Yeah, yeah. So it was a nice contrast of like, being in these two different places, and I guess I was already interested in the music making process, and I was experimenting with different genres and styles of music, but life felt so slow or like very calm in Rongai that, it translated to the music that I was making. 

It was very seamless, like, very effortless: you just hear sound, and record it. Or, the presence of nature was so close that, um, you get inspired a lot sonically, ‘cause there's so much sound you can hear. 

Music: KMRU - Change of Degree

KMRU: And I think if we didn't move to Rongai, I wouldn't be making music, ‘cause I think my head would've been somewhere else. Yeah. I always tell my parents this. 

Nyokabi: Wow. That’s so, that’s so interesting to hear. I think I recall in one of your interviews that you said, you started making noisier music when you moved to Berlin, because it was so silent. [Mm, [laughs]]. So that's an interesting thing, to think about how place, and the sound that you hear in these places affects the outcome of your music making. 

Music fades out

Nyokabi: I’m interested to hear how you identify the places that you take recordings in? 

KMRU: Initially when I was recording, I was just excited about the sounds themselves and not considering where I'm recording them from. Later, I became conscious of the places that I go — even if it's Nairobi or like a new place where I'm, I’m a new resident, or I don’t know  people who live there, it made me become a bit intentional with my recording. Also making an effort to go to the place and just listen and not have to record or get to know someone who lives there, or — 

Nyokabi: Mm, before you'd record anything?

KMRU: Yeah. I'd drive and stop and like, landmark somewhere and record the place [mm]; and then after, a week later, like, I'm gonna go and record again and then make this sort of continuous recording of the place where you'd become like part of the place itself, or like, you just feel comfortable. And also see what changes or what's still the same. And I appreciated this intention of like, okay, I'm gonna go back and, even go back and play the sounds you recorded before [laughs], to the place. 

Nyokabi: Yeah, I think what strikes me is that there’s this, what you say, intentionality, but also a respect of, of the environment. Um, you mentioned that as a field recordist, you ask yourself, “is the situation right to record or does the environment need to be recorded?” [Mm.] Where is the balance? When is the space right to record and when is it not necessarily right to record? 

KMRU: Maybe it's the feeling of being an outsider in a space where you’re trying to like, appropriate the space that you're not invited [to]. Maybe the space doesn't want to be recorded, like even a technical situation where everything just goes wrong and you maybe forgot your SD card and like, it's happened to me, um, sometime in new places, in new cities, where I'm like, “I forgot my SD card, so I'll just listen.” 

I think this idea of asking permission. My friend, they’re called AM Kanngieser, and they work a lot with fish, and they did this project where they ask permission to record the fish, and they have a whole concept around recording fish. 

And this made so much sense to me, where you feel like you don't have the urge to actually record a place because maybe the environments that you want to record don't really need to be recorded, ‘cause we are constantly listening and recording as we listen.

Audio: Field Recordings of Water, Nature taken by KMRU

Nyokabi: So, on the flip side, when is it right to record? Or when do you feel that it's necessary to record? 

KMRU: I think also with your motives of why you want to record. There's so much knowledge production from recording, or like, listening to a place that is important in some way to learn from, for example, with archives, past recordings. We can use them as references to understand possible futures.

Music: KMRU - Temporary Stored - MR1

Nyokabi: This idea of, of archiving of sound and, specifically in an African context, leads me to your project, ‘Temporary Stored’. Do you mind telling us about what the project is and what started it? 

KMRU: It began from a conversation that I had with uh, a festival director who got me in touch with the Royal Museum of Belgium. They have recordings of central Africa mainly, like Rwanda and Congo, but the larger continent.

And I reached out to them and they gave me access to the recordings to use. It was a very lengthy process because one couldn't hear what the recordings sounded like. It's very systemized information of like, the pitch, or like the person who recorded and where it's from or what instruments are used in the recording, and, I just selected a few, and then after some months I got the recordings themselves.

Music: KMRU - Temporary Stored - MR3

KMRU: I was listening back to them and thinking, what would I do with these recordings? Or how would I work with them? 

It's only like, the tangible objects that are being returned to their places, but this intangible or like the ephemera, how would one return it? 

It's a very sensitive project to just like, go and engage with it, so it's an ongoing research for me about archives and what this idea of ‘repatriating sounds’ means. 

Sounds are not tangible objects that are stored in museums, and you can give them back to the people. I think this fluidness, or like the multiplicity of ways you can transmit the sound, felt important because it's accessible to people, and there's so many mediums you can use to share the work.   

Nyokabi: I don't know if this is something you would have the answer to, but why is it difficult for these archives to be accessed, just by anyone that might be interested in having a listen?

KMRU: This was like, the challenges I had, like me thinking about having access to this museum, working with these recordings and then, sharing it out to the world. Why is it not publicly, why is it so hard to get the recordings from them? 

There's so much process going on through filtering the recordings, where you realize, humans were like removed and the person who recorded is considered as the, the protagonist of like, the recording, and the person who we should know actually did this recording. 

And also ties with this idea of my field recording practice, where I go to a place where you're like, recording, and you're the one who's like capturing this sound, and this sound is, is yours. I don't think it's like, ‘my’ sound. It's their sound, and the people who live there know the sound more than yourself. 

Music: KMRU - Temporary Stored - MR2

Nyokabi: As an African, what was it like going through these recordings? Maybe once what the, maybe the first time you received them, what was that like?

KMRU: Yeah, I remember being excited that I finally got the recordings. I don't know how many there were like maybe 200 or —

Nyokabi: jeez [laughs]. 

KMRU: [laughs]. Yeah, but there were lots of recordings, and...Some of them were so funny to hear ‘cause you understand the language and what's happening. and also at the same time, others were problematic, ‘cause you could hear an introduction of a white man explaining the recordings and what the music is and there's so much omission of like the musicians who were being recorded and you can feel that in the recording, them being told to like play it again or something like this — in the actual recording.

And, I approached the project, like, from a really broad sonic view where even the noises of the recordings were part of the sound.

Music: KMRU - Temporary Stored (Radiophonic)

Nyokabi: Yeah. I mean, in your description of the project, you say that the recordings are reconfigured in an “emancipatory sonic hearing of the archive”, which I really felt.

I was in Nairobi at the time when I listened to it, and I was on a run with my dad at 5:00 AM; my dad loves to run. The sun hadn't risen; so it only started rising. And the process of me listening to the work, was kind of partnered with this, uh, visual evolution, and I think “emancipatory” is like a really good word to describe that experience [mm]. What was emancipating, um, for you to work with these recordings and to release them in this reconfigured way? 

KMRU: There's nuances in these recordings that are still very valid now. And I think it's important to like, listen through the recordings and like, find ways in which you can bring them into like, a present, ‘cause I think for archives and recordings they're they were recorded in the past, but still, there's so much we in the present can learn from them now, and even for the possible future, and even using technology to like, enhance them more. Freeing how people listen.

Music: KMRU - drawing water

Nyokabi: What do you think is special about sound when it comes to archiving?

KMRU: Sounds, they have this sort of very close connection with memory. It's like the best way to remember ‘cause, you'd hear, and you don't have to see, you just like, listen. 

Through archiving sounds, there's so much emotional memory that can be triggered of the past or even the future. It's important that sound also can be part of, like, the tangible archive, yeah just to, to provoke knowledge or information, and memory. Sound does this very strongly. 

Nyokabi: Yeah. I'm just thinking of the phrase, you said, ‘storage of the intangible’. And I think that was so powerful. Thank you so much for speaking with me. 

I have a lot to think about after this conversation.

Nyokabi: That concludes the second and final part of a 2-part episode where I, Nyokabi Kariũki, explore how Kenyan artists are using sound to share the truths of our past, present, and our futures. 

In the first episode, I had asked, “can sound tell us things about ourselves that other forms of archiving cannot?” After talking to these musicians, it undoubtedly feels that the answer is yes! 

Through Jimmy Rugami’s love for collecting vintage African vinyl records, we get to hear and experience the thoughts of the artists who influenced cultural and political events, and we can ground ourselves in their foretellings of the future. 

Through DJ Raph’s project, the Sound of Nairobi Archive, a hundred years from now, people will be able to listen to Nairobi, and from that, will know everything about our lives today — from what bird species were thriving, to even the economic position of certain areas at the time —

And through OneBeat alumna, Kasiva Mutua, decades of tradition are kept alive, both in her own work and in the women that she mentors; giving many a way to connect with their heritage, while pushing behind the misogynist exclusion that comes often with the tradition and the industry.

But I think what KMRU says, sums it all up: with sound, we can store the ephemera, the transient, in a way that is living. The truth is, sound has always been a part of our history. We passed on stories and lullabies and wisdoms orally, for one. Today, our relationship with sound continues to take expanded forms, and I’m more than hopeful for the impact that sound is having — and will have — on the way that we move forward as people from the African continent. 

Once again, my name is Nyokabi Kariũki, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed this journey through the sounds of Kenya's past, present and future. 

If you like to hear the music that you heard in this episode, as well as the previous one, you can find them compiled in a playlist on Found Sound Nation’s Youtube channel. Happy Listening!

Outro Music: KMRU - Note 43

Elena Moon Park: Thank you for tuning in to The OneBeat Podcast. This episode was produced and edited by Nyokabi Kariũki with help from Jeremy Thal, Kyla-Rose Smith, and me, Elena Moon Park. 

As Nyokabi mentions, you can find all of the music you heard in this episode, and more, on a playlist linked in the episode description and on our Youtube page. 

Please follow our work, and the work of this incredible community of OneBeat artists - visit for more information (that’s the number 1… And if you are enjoying what you hear, please subscribe to this podcast, leave us comments and share with your friends. 

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (also known as the ECA) in collaboration with Bang On A Can’s Found Sound Nation

The views and opinions expressed by our guests on this podcast are their own and not those of the ECA, Bang On A Can, Found Sound Nation, or any of its employees.