Artist Spotlight: Nyokabi Kariũki

    Nyokabi Kariũki is a Kenyan sound artist, composer, and performer based between Maryland, New York, and Nairobi. A classically trained pianist, her interest in music grew from an early age – on the song ‘home piano’, Kariũki records herself improvising on the piano she’s had since she was 8. It appears on her recent EP peace places: kenyan memories, which captures the sounds of people, things, and natural environments that have been important to her growing up, letting them guide the music as well as the sometimes conflicted feelings that it invokes. Helping transport the listener in that journey are field recordings, traditional African instruments such as mbira, kalimba, and gyil, and experimental textures, and languages heard on the project include English, Kiswahili, Kikuyu, and Maa. In the process, a “peace place” becomes less of a metaphor than a vivid representation of a memory, the way it can be both specific and abstract at the same time, and how, even as time goes on and it changes shape, something about it remains profoundly resonant.

    We caught up with Nyokabi Kariũki for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her upbringing, the process of making her new EP, the concept of peace places, and more.

    How do you feel about the way that people are engaging with the EP?

    I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I was not expecting so much of it. It’s really exciting that people are relating to it, especially because it’s personal in a way that is quite maybe esoteric in terms of, it’s about Kenya and most of the EP is largely not even in English. Not to mention the fact that it’s quite experimental. But it’s been really lovely to see that people are resonating with it.

    Was there anything in particular that you weren’t expecting in terms of the response?

    Yeah, in terms of the languages specifically, like in the second track where it’s entirely in Kiswahili and I’m talking about avocados, which is maparachichi – I say that word quite a bit. And people who don’t even speak Swahili have messaged me being like, “Oh, I love that word.” I was just surprised to see that people are still enjoying it even though they don’t understand the linguistic content, I suppose. Even in Kenya, where I had a listening party with my friends, and most of my friends in Nairobi are not musicians, are not listening to experimental music, they’re mostly listening to popular stuff. Just hearing how that was a really wonderful experience for them, it’s been really cool. And it meant a lot.

    When considering this project as a whole, it seems like the act of sharing or exchanging peace places is as important as the process of discovering or rediscovering them yourself. Which is why I wanted to start by asking you about your childhood friend, Naila Aroni, who created the artwork for the EP and whose peace place you capture on the final track. Do you mind sharing any memories that you have from your childhood together, and what was it like to connect for this project?

    She’s such a dear friend. We were in the same school from year one, and then I think she moved to a different school in year three or four. We were not best friends or anything, but I think that she was someone who was just present in a way, we’d see each other during sports matches and stuff like this. I remember when we were teenagers, we were friends on Facebook, and I remember she had painted Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean character, Jack Sparrow, and I was really into that franchise when I was a teenager. I was just so in awe that she had painted that, so I think I bookmarked that in my head. And then she kept doing art, but also not so much because she was not able to do it in university.

    I just knew that when I started this EP – and it actually started out as a concert work, it was meant to be for the live stage, and then I decided to proceed with it as a digital experience. But even from when it was a concert work, I just thought that I wanted to commission her to create some pieces related to the EP as well. And as I was working on the EP, I was like, “I would love to do a final track in a way that kind of gives back to you in a similar way,” because she had been painting based on the pieces that I was sending her. I would also tell her some colours that were in my mind for each of these places, and I think the music was kind of a distillation of these colours. And so I’d given those to her, and I decided to return the favour, where I just asked for her peace place, if she had any videos from it and stuff. And I built an entire piece around that.

    Aside from the project, did you talk about your childhood or home at all?

    That’s a good question. Yeah, I think we did. It was so special to have her on board for this project, honestly. Even in this situation where I was working with a label, and they’re all lovely, but the fact that it’s a completely different kind of engagement to what I’ve done previously, where I was just out of college and the opportunities I had were mainly with friends. So it was so lovely to have someone from home along with me on this journey, where we would talk about our fears and talk about what we were excited about. But most of the time, it was just about being nervous that we weren’t able to live up to whatever we were working towards. There was this element of supporting each other through this journey of the creation of the EP and the paintings, which was so amazing. Even in terms of just being able to talk about these places and her knowing where they are or having been there went such a long way. We’d, like, have a call with the label about the artwork and then afterwards we’d call each other so quickly and be like, “Oh my god, were you nervous?” [laughs] It was really sweet to support each other.

    How did you feel when you saw her final interpretation of the places? And how do you think she responded to your track?

    The first time I saw these works in person was this year, and I was so emotional. I teared up, I think I was crying, because they’re so stunning in real life. I had seen them before digitally, and even then I was in awe. The first one she did was ‘Equator song’, which is the cover of the single as well, and I was just stunned. I obviously had not envisioned what she was going to paint to, and it’s just amazing that that’s what she was seeing in her mind.

    And your question about how she responded to the track – I’m actually quite curious, I don’t know. It was very positive, I think there’s just this awe that we have of each other’s art. ‘Gallu’, for instance, to me has these sets of colours, she’d be like, “Oh, I see that too. But I think it might be nice with a little bit of pink.” And I’d be like, “Okay, I trust you.” And she’d just do it, and it was incredible. I was like, “Yeah, pink is exactly what it is.” It’s this interesting thing of having this connection, but also this trust, where we both had visions that the other might not see, but trusting in what the other was able to come up with. It was honestly so wholesome.

    You’ve said that, for you, ‘Naila’s Peace Place’ is the sound of joy. When hearing the words “It doesn’t feel real this place, it just doesn’t” against the soundscape that you’ve created, I wondered if there was an element of nostalgia as well, for the places you haven’t been able to visit.

    I think that there’s a way that nostalgia is an undercurrent in a lot of the tracks in this EP, because I’m imagining the places but also the times that I spent in them. But I think for ‘Naila’s Peace Place’, I really love the fact that I hadn’t been to her peace place because that means my own emotion or experience was not necessarily written into the track. It’s a beautiful coastal town, Lamu in Kenya, and it’s very unique, it’s got a very unique culture. There’s no cars allowed, you get around by boat or by donkey or by walking. At least from the photos I’ve seen, it’s very yellow architecturally, like yellow and whites. So in a way, I think I was maybe using my own dreams of this place, but also using Naila’s – it was a video actually, I extracted the audio from a video, just kind of using that to guide me in terms of the creation. And the vibraphone is in the piece, it’s a very yellow instrument to me, so maybe that’s why I had that in there. And that was also a really cool collaboration with Chris O’Leary.

    The process of making the EP allowed you to explore your heritage through music in a way that you hadn’t before. Are there any aspects of your upbringing or any memories that you’ve written or can talk about that you’re still figuring out how to communicate in musical terms?

    Going back to language – language is something I talk about so often, because I suppose I think about it so often. I think it’s been such a natural medium for me, in a way. I always found that writing was natural to me, so I think maybe I just have a relationship with language that finds its way onto this EP. My relationship with my languages, not counting English, which is obviously the colonizer’s language, it’s been very disconnected. Because of the disruption that colonialism caused to the preservation or to just the livingness of culture, of the cultures that existed prior to that. Also, the schools that I went to were international schools and the systems were British. So once again, just finding pressures not only from the curricula, but even from the social life and what was considered attractive or proper, and so much of that was the dismissal of the local languages or even the local accents. You’d be made fun of if you sounded more Kenyan, and so you wanted to sound more British. So I think there’s a reflection of these experiences and an element of mourning in a way, but also having to accept it and use the music as a way to reconcile with that.

    And there’s a way to rediscover these languages. I haven’t said this too much in interviews, but the word I was telling you about, maparachichi, which means avocado – I learned that from Duolingo. I started Duolingo Swahili during the pandemic. And it’s such an awkward, sort of embarrassing thing to say, right? [laughs] That I am learning Swahili from Duolingo but I grew up in Kenya and it’s the national language of that country. But that’s the reality, in a way. And so I think this EP was me trying to be, like, excited by maybe the discomfort of having to do that, and just sitting in that embarrassment and being like: this is my language regardless of whether I don’t know too much of it. Even sharing this EP with people in Kenya, I was nervous about it. I was like, they’re gonna make fun of my Swahili, people that know me, but that’s okay. I should sit in that discomfort. Because I think people are seeing that I was trying, or my family members are so excited to hear these languages in the music. I think it’s been positive, and I’m becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, which I think is healing, in a way?

    I’ve never thought about it that way, but yeah, I think it is.

    I think as I’m explaining it to you, I feel that it’s quite healing. And I’m making so many efforts to reacquaint myself with these languages. I have not gone back to Duolingo, I need to do that. But I’m also taking Kikuyu lessons, stuff like this that just hadn’t necessarily crossed my mind. There’s been a lot of really lovely things that have come from that.

    Aside from collecting audio from videos on your phone, what other ways did you have of reconnecting with your homeland, such as books, art, or music outside your own?

    Yeah, books definitely. I’m currently reading Dreams in a Time of War by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He is a Kenyan writer, very celebrated. He writes so much on language and decolonizing, so that’s been so wonderful to read. There’s a series of short stories by him as well that I was reading, and it was the first time I saw my name in a story. I was like, “Oh my god, is this how white people feel all the time?” [laughs] When I read his work, I just feel so emotional because it’s kind of seeing yourself in small ways – even like, I don’t know, he’s talking about eating ugali, which is the biggest staple in Kenya. Even seeing that in a book was a weird sort of validation, of seeing your own stories cemented in a way. Especially when you’re always engaging with Western texts, you’re used to that being the story that you’re seeing. You just feel connected to this larger story of being, I suppose – being African, being Kenyan or Kikuyu. It’s been very powerful. I look to his writings a lot.

    Which other ways – I mean, going to the source, like, talking to people, having conversations I never used to have about things. When I was in Nairobi this time around, I think it’s actually the longest I’ve stayed at home in recent years. Because most of the time it’s just like one month and then I’m out, I’m back in college, or now it’s one month and I’m back in the US for working purposes. I was introduced to this wonderful community of electronic musicians. And even beyond that, just seeing all these beautiful art exhibitions that are going on, or even just art spaces, and somehow being welcomed into them and meeting people and having conversations. Even in the art you see yourself, but you’re also seeing how we are all trying to kind of grapple with similar things and expressing them in similar or different ways. The art community in Nairobi is just beautiful and it’s blooming and there’s so much that’s inspiring about it.

    Can you talk a little bit about your musical background and what ignited your interest in electronic composition?

    I have been playing the piano since I was like five, so that’s always been a part of me. And then I when I was 14, I was like, “I want to be a composer.” I have mentioned the story in a few interviews of watching this film at a cinema. And it’s not the film we wanted to watch, I was with my dad. We had wanted to watch Life of Pi and it was sold out, so we ended up watching Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away. I had no idea what to expect and it was so boring because there’s no speaking at all –I think they only said one line towards the end. But the music was insane. I think that’s the first time I watched a film and was completely blown away by the school. And I had no choice but to focus on the score in order to not fall asleep. I remember I was really crying in that theatre, and right after we got outside I told my dad, I know what I want to do. And he was like, “Okay, do that.” A very simple one-line response.

    From then on, I suppose it was working towards that vision. So the next step would be, after high school, go to uni and do composition. But I think at the time, from when I was 14 and on, I thought film scoring was how composers existed today. So I think that’s kind of what I was seeing myself as, and then I landed in New York and I was like, Whoa, this world is so big. So in college I was exploring so many different things and learning that I like doing concert composition as much as I like songwriting and some pop music, as much as I like writing for films and for choreographers. But I think mostly the music that I was writing was presented in a concert context, so my engagement with electronic music, or at least using synths, for some reason was mostly if I was scoring a student film or something and there was not really a performance context involved.

    And then when the pandemic hit, that’s when I think that changed almost instantly. As a composer, I think of how people experience my music and how that’s going to feel like, and I think that there was just element of discontent with the whole, let me just write a concert work and submit a MIDI file, fake instruments for like a virtual concert. Because at the end of the day, the feeling was always the same of like, I wish I could hear this in person. So I was like, I want to write music that is fulfilling and that will be fulfilling for how people will experience it. And not only people, but myself. I didn’t want to feel that every time I was writing music in the pandemic, that I was just gonna feel that feeling.

    We had to submit a project for our senior recital, which is going to be like a 45-minute concert. And so I’ve been writing concert pieces for that, and then the pandemic came and we were given the option of, you can just hand in the scores or however you want. And I just decided to completely throw out the pieces I was writing or put them on pause. And I started a sound journal, where I would take field recordings at the same time every single day, and kind of make music around them. And it became really cool because I started asking friends who were experiencing lockdown in different countries around the world to send me their recordings. They were like, “Oh my god, I’m so excited, I can’t imagine  what you would make with this.” And it just became a really fulfilling project to do and before I knew it, I had like 40 minutes worth of music or sound art. That’s I think when the definition of music for me started to expand in such a big way.

    What would you say you’ve learned about yourself through this exploration of home?

    That I can finish projects, that I can see them through to completion? [laughs] I don’t know, in a way that sounds like a joke, but actually, I look back on it and I’m like, “Holy shit, I did that.” I had this idea in October of 2020, and somehow it became this thing that I created. It’s just amazing when I look back on that year of making it and I’m very proud of how it turned out., I think the whole thing was kind of beyond what I ever imagined for it, and it’s affirming in a way, being able to complete a project as an artist because that doesn’t happen very often. A lot of us have so many different ideas, but this was something that felt grounded from the moment that I started. It’s just really wonderful to look back on the way that the EP grew and every part of the process fell into place. I’m just excited for what I’m going to make next, because I don’t know what I’m going to make next. And that’s the fun part, I think.

    For you, is there a way to feel at peace when you’re not at home?

    Well, making this record, that was a way. I think that’s how I calmed a lot of anxious energy that I had, by imagining places at home. But other that, I feel at peace listening to music. I have sort of maybe peace albums, currently KMRU’s Logue. That’s something that if I’m feeling super anxious, I’m just gonna plug in earphones and listen to that. The piano is still always going to be a piece place for me. Regardless of where I am, it’s just so familiar. Friends, people that I love, that I get to talk to, they are peace places, too. I’m so fortunate to have really beautiful people around me who have such beautiful energy that I know that a conversation with them, it’s just gonna make me feel okay.

    Do you mind sharing a recent moment like that?

    I mean, this morning, I was speaking to a friend from home. She was like, “Hit me up, I have a conundrum and I need your help.” And it was so nice to just talk to her. It was just talking to someone, you know, there’s not necessarily anything more interesting than that.

    Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that you’d like to add?

    I mentioned that the EP started as a concert work – I’ve been thinking about translating it back to the concert stage. And that’s been quite interesting and exciting, so I think that might be what’s next. I don’t know how much I should say, but it makes me excited for the other lives that this EP can have, the different ways that it can be experienced. I think maybe it’s that kind of classical composer part of me that’s looking forward to thinking about it again in this live context now.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Nyokabi Kariũki’s peace places: kenyan memories is out now via SA Recordings.

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