“Artists are starting to realize that it is cool to look African, wear Africa and be all things Africa. I wish people could invest more in our local industries than they invest in foreign companies. Wear outfits made by local tailors and eat food that you have produced yourself.” – Ayrosh
Ayrosh is a talented singer and performer who has paved his own path in the music industry. His voice is unique and his sound unforgettable. He is passionate about telling African stories in a way that makes the most sense to Africans themselves. Though he sings in vernacular, he believes that music is a universal language that was meant to be shared and savoured by all.
I sat down this amazing artist and talked all about his humble beginnings, his unexpected introduction to music and his steady rise to becoming a formidable force in the Kenyan music scene.
Tell us about who you are and where you come from.
My name is Irungu, but you can also call me Irungu Njamba, which is the name I intend to use officially. I am a singer, songwriter and performer. I identify my style of music as “Folk Fusion” a blend of old music with a modernized feel to it. On stage, I go by Ayrosh or “Mr Karikii mani”.
I was born on the 13th of December 1991, so I have walked this earth for a long time. I was born in Embu though my mother had just gone there to visit. I was brought in Nairobi up until I was in pre-unit when we relocated to the village in Maragwa. I went to a school called Itaga primary school from class one all the way to class six. There is a line from my first song Wendo where I mention the school. I came back to Nairobi and joined Aquinas boys’ high school. From there I went to Kenyatta University where I studied Economics and Finance. I actually really enjoyed doing economics and I fondly look back at my days in university. It was a good time generally.
Did you start singing in university as well?
While in uni, times were really hard, and money was tight back home. I had to do odd jobs to make some money. I used to sell jewellery around campus, and I also made juice at home to sell to the students at popular food joints. The entire time I was doing all these jobs, I always carried the guitar my mum had bought me. When I got bored and there were no customers, I would start playing the guitar and that’s how I slowly realized that music was something I really wanted to do.
Is music something you always loved, or did you pick it up later in life?
I always had a special interest in music from the onset but for a long time, I didn’t see it as something I was going to venture into seriously. I just sang for the fun of it and mostly to impress the ladies. When I cleared high school, I had plans of doing music but just as a side hustle. Later however when I was in Kenyatta university, I started getting gigs to perform in restaurants and clubs. I enjoyed being on stage and performing. Through those performances I would get paid and it was at that point that I saw music as something I wanted to do seriously, not just as a side hustle but as a career.
With the gigs, your juice and jewellery business, education, it seems like you had a lot on your plate. Was it hard to manage all these things at the same time?
I had to do it all because my mum had just lost her job and things were getting tougher by the day. So, you see, I did not have any other option but to step up and do what needed to be done to survive and lessen the burden on my mother.
By God’s grace, I got a gig in Ruaka town in a club called “The Cask.” The manager there gave me a job to perform on a daily basis for Ksh 2500. Like I said, it was by God’s grace because I was at my lowest right before getting the gig. Things had mysteriously worked out because I had met someone who recommended that I should call a friend of his looking for performers at his club. I called the guy and when we met, he told me to sing. He must have liked how I sang because I got the job on the spot. So, every night after classes I was on my way to Ruaka to perform at the club.
What songs were you performing at these gigs?
I mostly did covers of mugithi songs but occasionally I would also perform original songs that I had written myself. In general, most of my performances were in Gikuyu. I grew up listening to mūgithi music and it has always been my preferred genre of music. I listened to a lot of Salim Junior, Joseph Kamaru, and John Ndichu. As you can see, most of my influences are the old school mugithi songs. Even though I was drawn to mūgithi music, I was exposed to current popular music from Sauti Sol and Wizkid. With a guitar on stage, I would try to fuse the two genres on stage to give the music a fresh and modern feel to it.
How many musical instruments can you play?
I can play the guitar and keyboard. The guitar I taught myself to play through YouTube videos. After my mum bought me the guitar, a friend of mine trained me a little but most of what I know now is self-taught. I feel like I am still learning how to play better so I wouldn’t say I am a pro-guitarist just yet.
For how long to did you perform at the club in Ruaka?
I performed there for around one year and it is from my time there that I met with other artists who I shared the stage with like Mutoriah, and Edu. Performing there gave me plenty of opportunities and opened doors for me to meet lots of people. Most importantly it gave me the financial freedom to afford things for myself and take my girlfriend to dates. It was also in that process that I also enrolled in Sauti Academy where I did a course in artist development.
Being at Sauti Academy and interacting with different styles of music, did you ever think of experimenting with other styles besides Folk fusion?
Like I said, I have always been drawn to the Gikuyu style of music and having played it extensively at the gigs, I had already resolved that it was the path I was going to pursue. The more I grew into it, the more it became a philosophy for me. I saw my craft as a way to ensure the continuity of the culture and the dialect. It also became my way of showing people that they could take pride in who they are and their roots. Sometimes we are afraid to lay claim to our roots and culture because we feel like we might be stigmatized for coming from a specific community. Instead of fear, we should respect each other and appreciate our uniqueness regardless of where we come from. I saw my music as an opportunity to teach other people about my culture and to learn about theirs.
Was it hard for you to do Gikuyu music especially as such a young man? Did your peers understand?
Any reference to your mother tongue whether it was speaking, or singing was regarded as uncool which is quite unfortunate because that is the thing, we should be most proud of. What people need to realize is that music is a universal language and you often don’t have to understand the words to enjoy it.
All in all, it wasn’t that hard because the audience has always been there. There is an audience for almost everything in our country, but the question is, are you confident enough to do it in an authentic way that people will relate with?
Other than the audience being there, I also enjoy writing Gikuyu music, I feel like it is a very natural process for me, I don’t struggle to do it. Gikuyu music is an important part of my life, it is something I am very passionate about and I believe I will still be proud of the work I am doing now even when I am 50.
From performing in clubs, how did you end up recording your first song?
While at one of the Sauti Academy concerts, I met a producer called Henry Wekesa from the Weks Media studio. They invited me to the studio, we drew up a contract and recorded the songs “Wendo” and Karanja. It was a good experience.
How was your first song received by the audiences?
I was very surprised by how the song was received especially because it was a Gikuyu song that was mostly being played in non Gikuyu tv and radio stations. The irony is, the Gikuyu stations only started to play my music recently when I released the song “Maheni”, before that, I didn’t feel like they took me seriously.
It would be good to also mention that DJ Pinye helped me a lot to push my music and to introduce me to the mainstream music scene. Through the exposure I got from the song “Wendo”, I was at a place in my young career that people had an idea about who I was, so I didn’t have to introduce myself to producers and people in the corporate space. That familiarity opened doors to more opportunities that have stayed open until today.
So, after the first song, what came next?
I had always wanted to work with a producer called Waithaka. He is based in US and when I contacted him, I sent him the song “Wendo” and that became the beginning of our working relationship. That first song has been very instrumental in my journey because like I said, it has opened so many doors for me. Waithaka and I still work together and we have done a lot of projects over the years like Shuga Mami, Love Respect Repeat and the most recently, my first EP.
As you can see, everything has found a way to fall into place. It is amazing. I actually met one of my major sponsors, the manager of “Floor Decor” through my producer Waithaka. They were school mates and once he heard my music he offered to sponsor the latest edition of the Folk Fusion Concert which is the most successful yet.
“Maheni” is one of your biggest songs, what was the inspiration behind it? Is it based on a true story?
If you ask a friend of mine Chris Masika, he will tell you that I sang about his experiences with his girlfriend but in truth, I wasn’t thinking about anyone in particular when I was writing that song. I was just chilling in the house feeling a little bored, I took the guitar, played the rhythm and wrote down the lyrics. It was as simple as that, I wish I could tell you a more interesting story, but I was actually just bored, I thought it would be fun to sing about the situation and did it as just a joke. I was hanging out with Mutoria that day.
I was going to record and release the song on the same day but after listening to the recorded version we felt that it was a special song, so we redid it, this time more seriously and released it as a complete song. At the time, I didn’t have the money to do a video, so I reached out to my friends and told them to take videos of themselves singing along to the song. We compiled the clips, made a video and posted it on YouTube, that was that.
I knew it was a nice song, but I honestly never expected it to do as well as it ended up doing. Every day it gets to greater heights and new people text me every time to tell me how much they love the song. I thought about doing a good video for it, but I decided to just let it work its magic on its own.
What gives you the greatest fulfilment as an artist?
What gives me the most joy is to do music that helps my listeners to be proud of their heritage and most importantly, their individuality. We cannot all be the same, each one of us has a different history and rather than divide us, these differences should make us become more interested in the lives and traditions of our brothers. A friend of mine does music in Luhya and his music is amazing. When I listen to the songs, I feel like I understand his heritage even more. That is the whole essence of making diversified music.
Do you think people believe in this message? Are they learning to appreciate others and are they immersing themselves in their cultures?
Definitely! I listen to music and people are incorporating their own dialect in the lyrics. You can also see the fusion of Afrocentric vibe in most of the art that is being put out. Artists are starting to realize that it is cool to look African, wear Africa and be African. I wish people could invest more in our local industries than they invest in foreign companies. Wear outfits made by local tailors, eat food that you have produced yourself, and don’t consume a lot of processed food. Basically, look at what is available locally before deciding to import products or services.
How immersed are you in all things Africa?
I wouldn’t say that I am 100% immersed in African or specifically Kenyan products and services but I try my best to support our local industries and talent. All the outfits I wear are mostly put together by Kenyan designers, you will hardly find me at Mr Price. The jewellery I wear is mostly the Maasai beads. My friend Wekesa has a fashion line known as sustainable fashion. That is the kind of stuff I wear. Just small things here and there.
Tell us about the Folk Fusion event.
Folk Fusion is an event I started out of necessity. I wasn’t getting enough shows that could pay well so I wanted to have my own platform where I could perform freely for my fans and get a good reward from it. The corporate space was very particular about me mixing the music around and not concentrating too much on just Gikuyu songs. Folk Fusion is meant to be a space where I can be my own artist, sing the songs I like and freely share my vision with my listeners.
The first edition was back in October 2017 and it was small gathering of around seventy people. As time went by, word about the concert got out and the following gradually got bigger. The editions that followed were more successful as attendance grew to around 200. Initially, the plan was to set up a monthly concert, but I later changed it to four times a year.
In 2018 I ended up doing just two shows because it was quite a busy year for me. In 2019 I did the Murasta EP launch and the fourth edition of the Folk Fusion in October. That edition has been the most successful so far, we broke even, paid all the guest artists, and for the venue. It was a good event. If trajectory is anything to go by, I project that in the future, it will be an even more financially successful event.
For those who have not being to Folk Fusion before, what is the vibe?
The vibe is basically, you can be a man of the future with your feet held solid by your roots. We give a futuristic feel to what we already know and what already is in music, food and art. Once you are in Folk Fusion, expect to be immersed in an Afro Futuristic vibe.
What are the charges?
The ticket goes for Ksh. 1500 at the gate and Ksh. 1000 advance.
Tell us about the Murasta EP
The EP is produced by Waithaka entertainment, the official release has six songs, but it has seven tracks in total. A song I did with Kwame called Gūūkū was not in the copy because it had already been released. I would call the EP an experimental project because it is mostly Afro-house and Afro-disco. I haven’t done too many collaborations in that project, but I have worked with a couple of producers.
Apart from music, you also have a podcast, tell us about it.
I have a podcast with my brother, it is called “Jus Kidding”. We basically talk about the things going on in our lives, current affairs, we talk about all manner of interesting issues and people should definitely check it out. It is a good platform for my fans and I to interact, they are used to seeing the mugithi singer now they can see the other side of me which is simply the funny Nairobi guy just trying to get through life.
Do you intend to do any collaborations with local artists?
I am currently working on my actual album which I hope to release next year. I am hoping to incorporate different artists in that project. I will be working with Mutoria, Kwame and hopefully Kareh B as well. Other collaborations will be revealed in future. As much as I want to Fuse different types of music, I will always stay true to Gikuyu music.
You have also performed on platforms such as the Mugithi festival, how does the experience compare to Folk Fusion?
Mugithi festival is such a huge platform. Very big vernacular artists like Samidoh, Mike Rua and Jose Gatutura take the stage. The audience of mugithi festival and those from Folk Fusion are pretty much the same. The good thing about the festival was that a big number of the audience did not know me and after the performance, everyone left there knowing my name. So, I would say it was a very good opportunity to broaden my fan base. I don’t think I am very famous yet so any chance I get to get my music out there, I will gladly make good use of it. I had an awesome time at the festival, and I felt like the audience also enjoyed the music.
You are scheduled to perform at the Jamhuri day celebrations, how did that happen and how do you feel about it?
I am very appreciative for the opportunity; it reassures me that people are aware of what we are doing, and our efforts are not in vain. The interesting thing is that I was called to perform in the Jamhuri celebrations and the songs I sing are from the colonial era when the freedom fighters were fighting for independence. On that day I hope to perform one song about the struggle, and of course do a “Maheni” rendition for my people.
Your fans know you as a very lively performer on stage, what is the secret?
I don’t think there is a secret to capturing the crowd. I would say a lot of preparation goes into every performance, it is important to make sure that the fans get a performance that is well put together and good value for what they have paid for. Before any performance I just meditate, collect my thoughts and try to get into the mood. Once I am on stage, I feed off the energy of the crowd and the rest is just about tapping into the vibe.
What can your fans expect from you in the future?
Besides the Jamhuri day celebrations, I will also be performing at “The Heng” in KICC on the 14th of December. 19th Dec I will be at the Club Bend in Thika and 22nd Dec I will be at the Nairobi flea Market. In January I will be dropping the video to the song “Kirinyaga”, afterwards I will drop more videos from the EP throughout 2020.
I will also launch my album next year and we will be having the Folk Fusion concerts every quarter of the year. I predict the concert will be bigger and better than the previous editions, we will be featuring different artists from Kenya and beyond. I can confidently say it is going to be a good year God willing.
Any last words?
I value any interaction I have with my fans so if you are in a position to attend my concerts, feel free and feel welcome to join us. If you feel like you would really want to attend the show, but you can’t because of one reason or the other just reach out to me and I am sure we can sort things out. Other than that, I wish everyone happy holidays. I hope the new year will be good to all of us and I can’t wait to interact with even more of my fans. Thank you!