2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Nairobi’s Drummer Queen

This week on The Trip podcast: talking Kenyan culture and the elusive Kenyan sound with singer, songwriter, and cultural alchemist Muthoni Drummer Queen.

Joshua Obaga and I struck out at Diamond Plaza in Nairobi, looking for the Bumbu Rum that this week’s guest had asked me to bring over. But Muthoni Ndonga, better known as Muthoni Drummer Queen, is not the type to leave things to chance. She smartly was in possession of her own remnant stash of Bumbu, and so we’re just going to plow through that.

That we are drinking it and talking in her Nairobi apartment just before she is heading off to shoot yet another music video, is, well, just a sign of the hustle. Muthoni is not just an entertainer and entrepreneur, but also, as she puts it, a cultural alchemist, taking various parts of the African and global zeitgeist and repackaging it into a song, a show, a concert series, a video, whatever the moment calls for, as long as it is, in her words, “grounded in dopeness.”

“Grounded in dopeness.” As good a slogan as I could hope to summon for the city that has hosted me for these past five episodes: Nairobi. One of the dangers, if you could call it that, of putting in the miles that I put in, this sort of endless tour I’ve assigned myself on, is that the world tends to flatten out. A trip to the other side of San Francisco from where I grew up used to move my soul and make me want to write poetry; now I can fly across an ocean and be just familiar enough with where I land that the deepest emotion it conjures is a sort of mingy déjà vu. But not Nairobi. Nairobi has moved me. The people, the food, the chewable narcotics, the tremendous vibrational energy of the streets, and that thing that Muthoni calls a “bias for doing”. Nairobi gets it done. I am won over. Come and get some if you can.

Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Muthoni. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.

Muthoni Drummer Queen: There we are.

Nathan Thornburgh: All right. And you sound good. And it’s quiet and it’s beautiful and it’s Sunday and you’ve poured me this amazing rum, which I want you to tell me a little bit about. But cheers.

Muthoni: Thanks.

Nathan: Oh, thank you. Oh my goodness. That’s like a spiced, flavored, what is happening here? What’s going on in my mouth, dude?

Muthoni: Yeah, it’s spicy and sweet also.  It’s the first rum I ever drank that you could drink without a mixer.  Just straight. With some ice.

Nathan: Which is what we’re doing here.

Muthoni: Absolutely.

Nathan: And this is a Kenyan rum?

Muthoni: It’s not a Kenyan rum.

Nathan: No?

Muthoni: I wish it was. No.

Nathan: Oh.

Muthoni: I actually think Bumbu is, I want to say American. I could be very wrong. We should ask Google.

Nathan: Should we ask Google?

Muthoni: Yeah. Bumbu. B-U-M-B-U.

Nathan: I mean, first off, I could just say it again and again. Feels good on the tongue, you know? Bumbu. Bumbu rum. It sounds like Afro-Caribbean word or something.

Muthoni: Yeah.

I think my work is cultural alchemy.

Nathan: This is Bajan rum. Oh, I’m liking that. All right. We were just talking about how I’m from the islands-

Muthoni: Yeah.

Nathan: … and then here you are serving me some island rum. All right.

Muthoni: It’s good, no?

Nathan: Oh, it’s super good. Well, that explains my utter failure to find it in stores. This is special import and-

Muthoni: Yeah, it is a special import. There’s a company that brings it into Nairobi. My friend runs some marketing experiential stuff.  So he’s the one who gave it to me. So I actually buy it off of him.

Nathan: What the terrible thing is, of course, is my failure at two different liquor stores to get a bottle of Bumbu means that we are killing your bottle…

Muthoni: No, it’s cool.

Nathan: I just feel like it’s a party foul. On a Sunday? Come into this woman’s home and drink her last Bumbu rum?

Muthoni: No, it’s cool. I’m sure I can get some more.

Nathan: All right. Well, I wish you luck in that. This is an excellent rum.

So we have you here. It’s funny because I’ve been talking to people about who, everybody’s like, “All right, well, who are you talking to in Nairobi?” And no matter who I’m talking to, whether it’s the LGBT activist or the cook or the writer, everybody’s very fired up that I’m talking to you. They’re like, “Oh, Muthoni.” So let’s start there. What do are you doing to these people? Explain what I’ve been experiencing when using your name around town.

Muthoni: That’s funny. I wonder, maybe it’s because my work, the all work that with the festival, with the music, it intersects. It’s an intersection point for so many different people. So many groups of creators and just humans at large. So I’m not necessarily surprised that people are like, “Oh, you’re talking to Muthoni,” because, yeah. I think because of the work that we do, I just kind of end up knowing…

Nathan:You’re in a lot of communities.

Muthoni: Yeah. I’m in a lot of spaces. I know a lot of people.

Nathan: How would you describe the work that you do?

Muthoni: If I had to, I think my work is cultural alchemy. Yeah. So my thing is to take culture ideas and just kind of throw them into a pot and make a kind of, stew or sauce. And finding the right things and pairing the right people, right ideas, right opportunities. Being able to know what’s cool, what’s authentic, what’s popping, what’s culture.

Nathan:  And is that a moment to moment thing? Like you feel like, “Okay, this is what Nairobi needs right now.” Or is this, “This is what the moment is now,” and then you reinvent it and kind of work a different thing six months later?

Muthoni: Yeah. I think a little bit of both. I think it’s knowing what is needed and then doing the work to make good vibes and access to music and the arts at large.

Nathan: Yeah. Well, that’s funny, because in this whole description that’s the first time you said music. Right? I mean, you are the drummer queen, but there’s all of this other stuff that you put first when you think about what you’re doing.

Muthoni: Yeah. I think for me the music is personal expression but it’s also a means. The music allows me to be in spaces, in people’s minds and people’s homes and people’s head space. And it helps me compose an audience. The people who are attracted to the music that I make come and so we’re able sort of to co-create this, can I say community?

Nathan: Yeah.

Muthoni: With one another.

Nathan:  Yeah, you could say community. So it’s like your song is a plaza. You’ve just put it out there and you get a sense of the kind of people who are going to fill that place.

Muthoni: Yeah. Absolutely. The ones who gravitate to it. And then there’s people who don’t necessarily care about the music but they like the idea of a person who is creating. Whether I’m creating music or creating festivals or creating experiences, I think that there’s some people who are interested in me because I have a bias for doing. My doing-ness.

Nathan: That is an amazing phrase. What a thing to aspire to, to have a bias for doing. Right? No, it’s true. I’ve gone through periods in my life where I had a bias for couches or something. And then there are other times where you’re feeling it. But to stay on top of that. And that’s interesting because it’s really, Nairobi feels to me, and I’m sure this is in part because of the channels that I came into here, but it feels like a small, creative town where people generally know each other and are generally connected. How do you reach outside of that class? Obviously, you’re making art and you’re making things that inspire people to think hard about creativity, but what are your mass appeal goals? And is that even something you think about?

Muthoni: When you say mass appeal goals what do you mean?

Nathan: Just becoming a musician who resonates all around the country, all around the continent, you know.

Muthoni: Yeah.

Nathan: Outside of the continent.

Muthoni: So, I like to think of myself as an international African. I travel a lot for music. I see things. I have friends or acquaintances from many places in the world and I think that I have an above average understanding of cultural nuances and differences and all the stuff that happens when you’re curious when traveling. But I am an African. I’m concerned with the development of Africa. Africa for Africans. I think African leadership, African enterprise, African cultural icons. The music that I make, I think of it as global cool.

Nathan: Global cool?

Muthoni: It’s just like some cool shit that just resonates globally.

Nathan: Yeah.

Muthoni: It’s grounded in dope-ness.

Nathan: I’m starting to see it now. But from the bias for doing and being grounded in dope-ness, I feel like you are like a slogan machine.

Muthoni: I know. I’m so sorry. They’re not the best slogans.

Nathan: They’re amazing. I’m ready to go. I don’t know how I can become an international African, but I am fired up to do it.

Muthoni: You’re fired up to be global cool. I think you probably are.

There’s no such thing as Kenyan sound.

Nathan: We’ll stick to that aspiration. You know, it’s interesting because this is something that we obviously know a lot about in the States—huge parts of our culture extending now into television and Hollywood, it’s all African-American. I mean, that’s the base for it. So it’s interesting to think about you coming from Africa into those spaces, into Europe which has its own kind of Afro-European culture. What is that interaction like? How do you contribute? What’s the message when you collaborate with African-American or Afro-European artists?

Muthoni: I think for me it’s become increasingly important that there is a sonic signature? Stuff in the music that is abundantly clear that is not from, say, European culture or American culture. I think that that’s really important because it makes people curious about, “What is that and where is it from?” And we can have a nice conversation about Kenya.

Nathan: Right.

Muthoni: Right? And to be like, “Yeah. There’s no such thing as an African sound. There’s…”

Nathan: There are very specific sounds.

Muthoni: Very many African specific sounds. So I think that’s becoming more and more important for me. Now with the collaborations that we are aspiring to get, I think it’s going to be even more crucial. I think that there is a clear, can I say understanding that there’s like a mother sound almost in the thing that is very primal and very home. That’s from here. And I think that the cool thing is we already have, with the music we’ve made, we’ve made sometimes small references or small experimentations with different sounds from Kenya and it’s always worked but we haven’t necessarily leaned in all the way with that. In the new project that we’re working on now, there’s a more consciousness around drawing from that sort of root.

Nathan: And what is the Kenyan sound?

Muthoni: There’s no such thing.

Nathan: Okay. How granular do we have to go? Is it like a west Nairobi, east Nairobi sound?

Muthoni: No. So what happened, Kenya was invented by colonialists in like 1895. This didn’t exist. This was just a bunch of communities, nation states, everybody with their own language and their own sort of cultural vibes and music. And then the British came and said, “Okay, now you guys are one.”

Nathan: Great.

Muthoni: So interrupting what would’ve been the natural evolution…

Nathan: Right, and dividing the Luo right in half-

Muthoni: Yeah. Exactly. And the Maasai and the Somali and… So then having all those people mushed up as one and then taking KiSwahili, and saying there is this now national identity, there is this Kenya and this language that everybody speaks. Which is cool. KiSwahili was invented by Bantus on the coast with their interaction with the Arabs over many, many years. So it’s quite cool because I would say it’s the first remix language.

Nathan: Well, we were getting to a description of a slightly evil Esperanto, because the slave trade made it happen between Arabs and the Bantu on the coast—but it is. It’s this very global language, almost.

Muthoni: So then there’s that nuances of identity which is of that just kind of national level. Everybody speaks sort of this language. Because it is nothing, it is everything. Does that make any sense?

Nathan: Right. Yeah.

Muthoni: It doesn’t draw from sort of any ethnic root. It’s literally just like an invented ideology. There’s this one language that makes everybody the same because everybody is the same and now we are one.

Nathan: If you’re going to be stuck inside these borders that’s probably a good thing to have.

Muthoni: So it’s at that level and then maybe it’s built on some national values, right? We value x, y, z. So that’s one level of Kenya and then you have the other level of Kenya which is very ethnic, very fragmented. Everybody has their ethnic root and everybody has their language and everybody has their own kind of music. So I’d say the national, because the identities are always at this sort of two levels, the sound always, the sonically it’s also at two levels. And the national language, almost all Kenyans understand this sound called benga.

Nathan: I’ve seen the big Benga Retrospective billboards on the highway and stuff.

Muthoni: Yeah. Everybody understand benga rumba in one way or another because that music sort of really played at that level. And that’s also the level where there’s a lot of Western influence. And then you have the ethnic level which has ethnic pop, which picks elements of rumba or benga, and then you just have ethnic music—traditional music from the different communities.

Nathan: Which is about instrumentation…

Muthoni: It’s instrumentation, rhythm. Sometimes it’s also the key, the scale. There’s different scales in different communities. So this kind of ethnic root music. So I think if you were to try and say what could be a Kenyan sound, I think you would either have to draw from the ethnic roots, pick an ethnic root and then add your layers, or find a way to make rumba benga, then add your layers, right? Those are kind of the only two ways you can have. And so, we don’t necessarily have a Kenyan sound.

Listen to the full episode.

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