Mics And Beats: Tetu Shani

Tetu Shani. Picture courtesy

He has a unique type of performance, part storytelling and part performance and once you listen to Tetu Shani you will get hooked. Because there is something about how he describes perfectly the things you have been thinking but you are too shy to say out loud. Well, today on Mics And Beats we get to find out more about Tetu Shani. Tetu Shani is a self-taught percussionist and guitarist. In 2014, Tetu Shani got accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music with a scholarship to study performance. He, however, turned it down desiring to be a part of the musical renaissance happening in Nairobi and to help build up the local music scene.

Tetu Shani has since become an award-winning singer-songwriter who currently describes his sound as Afro pop-rock, which is a blend of indie rock, Afro-pop and folkloric rhythms from Kenya. He was nominated for East African Male Musician of the year in 2016 at the Kenya Buzz Awards, won the Silver Award at the 2017 Global Music Awards for his song Samalina, and won Best New Age Contemporary Artist at the inaugural 2017 Cafe Ngoma Awards.

He has also become a performing artist known for his versatility, storytelling and dynamic range which has led to him playing shows in Ethiopia, Uganda and Zanzibar as well as sharing the stage with artists such as Sauti Sol, Nneka from Nigeria, Toya Delazy from South Africa and Grammy nominee and UK recording artist Joss Stone.


Tetu Shani. Image – courtesy

“What I have done with my music is to take away the layers of foundation, mascara, make-up, and eyeliner and then present the song to you in its raw, naked, vulnerable form.” Tetu Shani.

Tetu Shani- Network Failure (Official Video)

When and why did you start playing/singing? Which instruments do you play?

I picked up the guitar when I was in campo. That was back like in 2005 and I was obsessed with it… And then I left it alone for like another three years. I picked up again in two thousand… around 2013 is when I started to kind of fiddle around with the guitar again, by 2014 I was writing and by 2015 I was performing. I am a singer and songwriter. When it comes to percussion because I’m also a percussionist, that one I picked up a long time ago when I used to live in Dakar, Senegal. I lived in Dakar Senegal for seven years and while there I picked up playing the percussion.

Do you have a formal music education?

I do not have formal music education. I almost had a formal music education in 2014. I got accepted to Berklee College of Music, I got a scholarship to study performance with a focus on percussion but I turned it down because I wanted to remain in Nairobi. I felt there are so many things, amazing things happening in Nairobi City that I wanted to be a part of, Boston could wait. Everything that I do I’m self-taught. Playing the percussion, playing guitar, writing, singing, everything I have taught myself.

Thinking back to early childhood what was your first experience with music? What songs do you remember most as a child?

Apparently, my first experience with music (my mum’s the one who told me this story, she says that when I was a young, young baby) I must have been like 8 months or something I was standing in my coat and my auntie gave me a shaker and I began shaking it. They were surprised and so amused because they said, who taught this child that when you give them a shaker you shake, I was shaking it on beat. That’s kind of an interesting story that I guess was a foreshadowing of the fact that that I would become a musician one day. But my earliest memories of music, I can’t even remember where it all began I just remember that at one point I would listen to my mom’s gospel music and my dad’s sort of folk singer/songwriter music from the seventies.


What musical influences did you have a child?

My musical influences as a child were two-fold. Basically from my mum and from my dad. So, when it comes to my mum, like my mum really is the one that kind of as a child taught me how to sing. We used to sing every morning, in the car, on the way to school because she’s the one who’d drop us off every single morning to a point where I knew all those songs by heart, gospel songs. Of course, you know, she always had music playing in the house of her favourite artistes. With my dad, it was a little bit different. His tastes were more eclectic so the musical influence that came from my dad are artistes like James Taylor, Simon, basically a lot of these white artistes, singers/songwriters from the seventies and the sixties.

Tetu Shani- Samalina (official lyric video) 

How is the music different from what you listen to now?

I mean, of course, this is 2018 and back when I was listening to this stuff was probably in the nineties because I’m a nineties kid eighties baby. But you know, the stuff that I am listening to now is more groovy, a bit more eclectic, yeah.

What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?

I first realized that I wanted to pursue a career in music when I felt like I couldn’t really pursue anything else. You know they say that you don’t choose music, music chooses you. I was just sitting down trying to think and picture myself in a corporate setting because that’s what my education had prepared me for. Then I realized that that was not going to energize me so I remember distinctly looking at the corner and there were all the instruments my mum and dad had bought from Senegal. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I’m good at playing this, I wonder if I could start a career with this’. So literary my career in music started with a question, ‘Mmmm, I wonder if I could do this!’


Tetu Shani. Image – Courtesy

Who are your favourite musicians now? Groups?

This might come as a bit of a surprise but I think I’m so focused on creating music and on trying to come up with dope stuff that I don’t make time to listen to other musicians and groups so I mean, the people who I really love are the people who I was listening to, probably four or five years ago. Which was Asa for Nigeria’s Jailer, Fame, people like Barz also from Nigeria, Coldplay which was the kind of music that I lived on back in Campo, and for now there’s no music that I listen to intently, I just hear songs every now and then.

How do you handle mistakes during a performance?

I just laugh about it, you know, I think one of the breakthroughs as a musician is when you realize that people don’t care as much about mistakes doing a live performance as the artiste does. In fact, most people don’t even know that you made a mistake. So the best thing that I do is just laugh and move on, maybe crack a joke about it but the most important thing is that I don’t allow the mistake to kind of, throw off my vibe.

Tetu Shani- Chemistry ft. Mayonde (Prod. by Jinku)[Official Audio]

How often and for how long do you practice?

I think one of the things that made me go far in music, both in percussion and in what I’m doing right now is practice. There’s something you can practise but you have to know how to practise right. So there is time and space to rehearse, the movements and the likes. Practice skills and roles or whatever it is, but you know the type of practice that is most effective for me is that I do like a sort of mental practice. Well, you’re wondering what a mental practice is? I go through the show in my head. I literally like to imagine who’s going to be there, I picture what the place is going to look like, what it’s going to smell like and what it will sound like.

Actually, this is a very powerful technique that is used by some of the greatest athletes and artists in the world, which is that sort of imagining the situation and it’s very powerful because when you imagine it becomes so real that now on the day you feel like you have lived that moment before. That type of practice I do every single day.

What advice would you give beginners who are nervous?

The advice I’d give to beginners who are nervous is, any time you are nervous or let’s call it stage fright … stage fright is a product or it has an element of selfishness because if you’re so nervous on stage guess who you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about yourself. You’re worried about yourself, you’re worried about how you’re going to sound and how you’re going do it. The real breakthrough for me to overcome nervousness was, as soon as I get to the stage I focus everything on the people who are out there. The people who’ve paid to come and watch me. The people who are looking for me, the people who are rooting for my music, the people who are excited to have a good time. And when I focus on them, the nervousness goes away. So that’s the advice I’d give a beginner, focus on your audience, not yourself. Focus on yourself during practice and focus on your audience during the live performance.

How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you play/sing before?

For someone who’s never heard me perform or play or sing or whatever, I would describe my music as Asher-meets-Coldplay. With a little bit of Afropop. So, that would be Asher and Coldplay had a baby, and that baby ate Afropop every day, that’s my music.

What can people expect to see at your live performance?

What people can expect to see in my live performance is basically a lot of spontaneity, connection, laughter; those are the things I value highly. Moments, vibes, those are the kinds of things that have made Tetu Shani so special, as well as storytelling. People keep saying that, my music has a strong element of storytelling.

Out of the songs that you have performed what’s your favourite song?

My favourite song is always changing but I’d say here, for now, my favourite song is Upendo. It’s a very moving sort of ballad/love song.

Tetu Shani Upendo 

What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?

I believe that probably my biggest break was to play on NTV’s The Trend with Amina Abdi. And, it was nice because I think it gave me a sort of exposure I haven’t reached, or haven’t experienced before. I had lots of people, all sorts of people, hundreds of people calling me, ‘oh I saw you on TV’. They were there tweeting me, sending me messages and so far, that has been my biggest break.

How much creative control do you have over what you perform?

I have 100% creative control. Many times if I don’t feel like I’m in a situation where I have that control, I just don’t do it.

Do you write your own music?

Yes, I do.

If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?

I’d say to change the mentality towards music. Because we’re still trying to break out of this notion that, music is this thing for people that people who have failed in life, people who are not academically smart. So once the music industry begins to recognize the value in what people are doing is when the music industry is going to be taken seriously, and that will translate to serious money being made.

What is your favourite type of music?

It really depends on how I’m feeling fam! Like I really don’t think there’s any kind of music that someone wants to listen to 24/7. The kind of music people listen to when they are sad is different from the kind of music they listen to when they’re happy. And so my favourite kind of music is the music that matches the emotion that  I’m feeling at the time that I’m listening to it.

Tetu Shani x Moritz Regentag- Sleepless in Nairobi

What are your other interests outside of music?

I love basketball, I used to play basketball in high school and I played it recreationally in college. The other thing is I love reading, and I love reading books that help expand my mind especially books about the music business. I’m also really passionate about entrepreneurship, marketing and branding also.  So my interests are basketball, reading and probably watching movies.

What keeps you going as a musician?

Because… What keeps me going as a musician is the desire to feed my family.

If you were to perform with any musician dead or alive who would it be?

Oh man, I have to say Bob Marley. There are just so many greats, my goodness. There’s Bob Marley and there’s Hill, D’Angelo, wow! Nina Simon, there are just a lot of people that I look up to. Coldplay, my goodness! Coldplay, yes!

Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years as an artist? What are your long term career goals?

I don’t know, I have no idea where. You know where I am right now is nothing, I mean five years ago I was barely even playing the percussion so how would I have known five years ago that I’d right now be one of the biggest brands in Kenya in terms of music and a singer/songwriter.  So, you know, I’d be lying and pretending if I said I knew what the next five years hold but I’d l say that I hope in five years to have completed at least two albums.

What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours? News

I’ve got an upcoming performance at Afrolect Festival that’s happening on Saturday at Pretty Arms (It was last weekend).  I’m pretty much focusing on tightening up my live shows and on finishing recording my album. Yeap, that’s it.

If you would like to interact with Tetu Shani you can find him on Twitter at  @TetuShani, Instagram, Facebook and SoundCloud.

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Potentash Founder. A creative writer and editor at Potentash. Passionate about telling African stories. Find me at [email protected]