Nina Ogot: Unwavering pillar of Afro-fusion music

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Award winning singer and songwriter, Nina Ogot. [Photo Courtesy]

Nina Ogot's name is synonymous with Afro-fusion music, she has been at it for more than 15 years.

With every project, her music feels like a breath of fresh air and her latest project, Ukumbu.KE is refreshing.

Now based in Germany and globetrotting and staging concerts, this interview is a heartwarming homecoming. Aside from music, Nina has also made a name for herself in TV, film, and radio.

She was the host of The Wedding Show on Citizen TV, bagged the role of the lead character, Sofia in the MTV ‘Shuga: Love, Sex, Money’ radio series and worked with Radio France International.

Today, Nina is immersed in her music career and live music is her forte.

A look at her upcoming event schedule on her website shows how busy she is considering days of several hours of rehearsals ahead of live shows. 

The Kalasha award-winning actress has graced numerous international stages including the Afrika Festival (The original) - Wurzburg, the Chiala Festival in Austria, the Afro-Asia Festival in Kerala-India, the Bayimba Festival in Kampala- Uganda and the Moshito Festival in Johannesburg-South Africa.

For more than a decade, the vocalist and guitarist performed in a trio band set up in 2018 when a 13-piece band lineup was formed for an event in Cologne, Germany dubbed ‘Jambo Day’, a yearly cultural event by the Treasures of Kenya Initiative.

For five years, Nina has been an ambassador for Kenyan music for Treasures of Kenya Trust, a nonprofit trust based in Kenya and Germany dedicated to the conservation of Kenya’s natural and cultural heritage. 

She has in the past also joined the OneBeat Musical and Cultural Exchange Programme, where she utilised the American platform to advocate for the plight of Kenyan street people.

Her efforts – together with the Kuruka Maisha Foundation – were awarded the prestigious American National Arts and Humanities Youth Programme Awards-NASAA, a project initiated by former US First Lady, Michelle Obama.

With a new album Ukumbu.KE in tow, Nina is in Nairobi and has been on a press run, held an album listening party at Snowball Industries and is performing at Geco Cafe, the hotspot for live contemporary music, this weekend.

On her latest album she says: “Working on this project was a wonderful experience for me to reminisce about different moments, events and elements that have enriched my life over the years. In the process, I rediscovered a plethora of ideas that transformed into music and transports the listener from the past into the present.” 

In Ukumbu.KE all kinds of images from Nina’s childhood and parts of her adulthood come to life through her songs. The track Ungwana is inspired by the 90s popular TV show Je Huu ni Ungwana hosted by veteran journalist Leonard Mambo Mbotela and here, Nina questions the new age culture of phone, internet and social media consumption.

In Kanye tells of relationships that suffer from physical distance, separation and sudden loss. The lyrics trace the thoughts and worries of a person who loses track of a close friend and is left in a desperate attempt to reach them. Nina reflects on the emotional strain that the three-year pandemic brought upon friends and families.

She has mastered the art of fusing traditional sounds from the Kenyan culture with modern instruments and international styles of music and with endearing sounds from her numerous projects. Looking into her latest project, the songs are predominantly sung in Kiswahili and her mother tongue, Luo. 

The sounds and rhythmical references in the music are drawn from the Coastal and Western regions of Kenya. They are characterised by the percussive sounds of the Isukuti, melodic references from Taarab music, traditional spiritual Luo gospel music and a vibrant horn section from Germany that reinterprets the music with modern melodies.

Her warm expressive voice transports you into an exotic world far beyond the restrictive borders of language.

Her soulful sound, unforgettable melodies and delightful rhythms usher you into a foreign universe that promptly begins to feel comfortable and familiar. As a composer, Ninas succeeds in translating her experiences into notes and lyrics that speak to listeners in many parts of the world.

The singer jump-started her career with her soulful acoustic album Ninairobi in 2008 and its title ‘Ninairobi’ had the clever wordplay of Nina, then Nairobi.

So for the latest project Ukumbu.KE, the title sounds intriguing and this writer couldn’t figure it out so he had to check with Nina on the inspiration.

And true to her creativity, the title contains a word game, transforming ukumbu (memories in Swahili) into a modern context as ukumbuke (let us remember) with an added twist of ‘.ke’ to represent a vault for Kenyan music and culture. 

“I invite you to experience the diversity of ideas I managed to capture in lyrics and to rediscover the cultural melodies that we once knew, but almost forgot. This album will take you on a musical adventure that will fill your hearts with nostalgia, and keep your heads bobbing and feet dancing to the rhythm,” says Nina.

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