On today’s Mics and Beats we feature Mambo Tribe, a band made up of multi-cultural musicians that come from different parts of Kenya on the local scene and musicians of different nationalities on the international scene. The main band members of Mambo Tribe are Wakake Otieno and Michel Ongaro. They started their journey almost a decade ago and have grown together ever since.
Mambo Tribe describes itself as a cultural ensemble due to the fact that they take on the nature of the location and collaborations they do. This year, they garnered an amazing opportunity to be among the two local bands selected to perform at the 2017 Safaricom Jazz Lounge – November Edition.
Mambo Tribe is made up of:
Wakake Otieno who is one of Kenya’s most prolific percussionists. He is also the band leader of Mambo Tribe.
Michel Ongaro is a guitarist, singer/songwriter and music director based in Nairobi. He is very adaptive to different music and artistic situations.
Saumu Mwatela (Bi-Kidude), a young and rising female traditional percussion of Mijikenda back ground.
Ali Tungwa, an undiscovered coastal percussionist from the Duruma sub tribe.
Deejay Zabu has been around for quite a while. He was among the first ever to do a live band & deejay mix way back in 2007 before others picked it up as a style of delivery.
How long have you known each other? How did you meet?
Wakake: Nairobi is a very small town musically speaking. So in 2007 I was working on my first album ‘Hilo na Lile’ with different artists from Kenya and Norway. The idea was to go back to a more traditional music platform. So I happened to hear of Michel. He was the finest flutist I had ever heard in Kenya and we needed flute sounds for the album. At the time I was working with Zach Amunga, a keyboard player and Stanley Kyalo, a base player. So after we sort services from Michel we kept in touch since realized we had such great chemistry.
When did you form your band? What inspired you to make music together?
We are not a conventional band. This is because the musicianship changes a lot. The music we do adapts to different musicians, locations and cultures. However, in 2015 we started a platform called ‘Jazz conversation’. It was a set up where we talked about the kind of jazz that we think Kenya needs to have as an identity. Since we had already worked together before, it was easier to get back to continue working together more often. We also have our DJ, Zablone, who works with us on our music sets. Our inspiration stems from our love of making music that comes from different cultures. We love experiencing the different ways the music intertwines with the different cultures, in a way ‘corrupting’ it and making it our own.
Which instruments do you play?
Wakake: I am mainly a percussionist but I am also a song writer and producer. I sing a little here and there.
Michel: I am a multi-instrumentalist. I am a flutist and a percussionist. I also play the guitar, drums and I also sing.
What genre of music do you consider your work to be?
We do not really have a specific genre. We do techno, blues, jazz and afro. We would also like to try out a little of reggae. We are currently getting out of our way to do more traditional music then changing it up a little bit to make it a little more mainstream.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
People can expect to hear and enjoy a lot of diverse music. Music is about getting people to enjoy your musical content. If you love your craft then someone else is also bound to love it and get lost in the groove. We love having fun on stage so we are hoping that that will rub off on the audience too.
Who writes your songs? What are the main themes or topics for most of your songs?
We write our own music. We do our research on the kind of music we want to do beforehand. Research is an important part of writing music and most musicians may sometimes not fully do all the research required for their music. The biggest theme in our music I think is appreciation of music. We do not really have topics or themes. If we start looking at our music from a thematic point, we would be confining ourselves which we do not want to do. We have worked with very many skilled musicians in different genres. So when you get the opportunity to work with such great talent across the board, you do not limit yourself.
What has been your biggest challenge so far as a Band? Have you been able to overcome the challenge? If so how?
When you have different musical individuals working together, they have different ideas and of course this creates conflict. But the thing is, you have to disagree to create music. There are also infrastructural and finance issues here and there. However, we like the challenges because you cannot compare them to the reward of understanding music not only artistically but also understanding people’s culture. Challenges will always be there but it only works to bring more significance to what we are doing. Like this Safaricom Jazz Festival. It comes after Kenya has gone through a trying political period and this brings people together regardless of their differences.
What advice would you give to people who want to form a band?
Basically to form a band you need to have common purpose or you will have conflict of interest. You will be a band heading in different directions. Also as an individual, it is important to respect your art. Forming a band should not be the end of individual practice. Band rehearsal makes up to 20% of how good you get. The other 80% is individual practice. You also need to love what you do because this industry isn’t an easy one.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
Think on your feet. Besides your band members are always there to rescue you in case it gets really bad. Jazz teaches you that there is no wrong note. It is about how you make use of that note to create something. The truth is, things do happen on stage and it is normal. You just need to have fun and make those mistakes with confidence. Play those wrong notes just as loud as the right ones. You never know, people may not even notice.
What advice would you give to people who are nervous?
Musicians are always on stage or performing in front of an audience. It is normal to be nervous especially if you are performing with experts in any platform or event. The important thing to remember is that if you are doing something you love, it will get easier. Once you start performing you get lost in your own music and even forget you were nervous in the first place.
How often and for how long do you rehearse?
Wakake: Our rehearsal time is very limited because we do not reside in the same place. I live in Malindi while Mitchel lives in Nairobi so the financial implications of meeting often can give you a headache. However, we plan our rehearsal meetings once a month on a weekend. Then ensure we maximize the two days to our benefit. We also use WhatsApp where we record music then share it and share our opinions like 6-7 times a week.
What do you think your biggest break or your greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
Wakake: I have one album out. That is a great break for any artist. Having an album means that I have elevated myself as a product in the market now.
Michel: I would consider them joyful experiences rather than big breaks. I have released a solo album and another album in collaboration with a German based band.
As a band we would say being called out to perform in the Safaricom Jazz Festival is our biggest break since unlike other Jazz festivals, this one is our own, a Kenyan brand.
Playing at Safaricom Jazz is a big opportunity. Are you excited about it? What was your reaction when you found out you made it?
We have always been very positive critics of the Safaricom Jazz Festival. Five years later, we decide to go for auditions and just like that 2 weeks later we got an email telling us we had gotten picked. The really shocking thing is that our music is not quite jazz so it was extremely exciting to be picked for the festival. As we have said before, our music is not typical jazz so we felt we had broken the boundaries and that makes extremely excited. We even printed the email out just to keep it as a memento.
What keeps you going as a band?
Our chemistry and love for what we do is what keeps us reaching out to each other to create music. We work very well together. We are able to understand people’s cultures and lifestyles by sharing our music and interacting with other musicians as well.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years as a band? What are your long-term career goals?
We are playing our part in revolutionizing music. Actually we tend to look at things step by step. Currently we are creating a platform in Malindi separate from all others. We have had different nights where we create a theme and import different cultures. We are in conversation with a couple of people to make the platform a more permanent idea. We hope to have set it up fully by December. If we continue on like that, our only competition will be Sauti Sol.
If you were to play with anybody/group in the world, dead or alive, who would it be?
Wakake: I would love to work with Richard Bona, a Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist of Cameroonian decent. He really has great music. I have also met with him here and there and I think he is a very humble man. I would love that humility to rub off on me (laughing). I would also enjoy working with Cocombassi also from Cameroon. She is an amazing musician and people should definitely check out her music.
Mitchel: I love Andrea Bocelli’s music. He is an Italian Classical/Pop Performer whose music I cannot get enough of. Another musician I would enjoying working with would be Marrizza.
What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News?
Well we are hoping to go on tour very soon so we can showcase our music and mingle with other musicians. We also have an album called ‘Kaya Uprising’ set to be released in February 2018. Kaya simply means home and our music will be our own version of traditional music. We also hope to release another album called ‘Diversity’ but we are yet to organize the details of that album release yet.