It shows a laudable open-mindedness on the part of the Goethe Institut, a cultural institute promoting the German language beyond the nation’s borders, that Berlin’s thriving techno underground should be considered one of Germany’s gifts to the world. That, however, is the spur for Welcome to the Madhouse by Berlin-meets-Nairobi collective BLNRD.
This record’s backstory may give the impression of a slightly awkward cultural initiative – this is the recorded document of three of Berlin’s electronica groups, Jahcoozi, Modeselektor and Gebrüder Teichmann, transplanted to Kenya to work with some of the country’s most promising MCs and vocalists. Luckily, the results are anything but stilted or clinical: Living Room gives a good idea of the endearingly roughshod genesis of these tracks, as Teichmann’s sharp techno throb and Alai K’s hoarse-voiced rhyming is interrupted by the barking of the landlord’s dogs. Flani barks back for a bit, before dissolving into laughter – “F*** you, dogs!” he shouts – and the bass drops again.
The Berlin artists’ residency at the ‘Madhouse’, two studios above a townhouse in Nairobi, appears to have offered a firm base for collaboration and experimentation. Eighteen tracks span 20 artists, each with their own identity and take on the city they call ‘Nairobbery’. Nazizi, hailed as “the first lady of Kenyan rap”, adds fluid MC chat to the bleeps and skippy UK garage-tinged beats of Madhouse. Take It Higher drops Gospel Warriors – two 12-year-old MCs, Little King and Robo, from Kiberia – on a lurking, dubsteppy number from Jahcoozi’s Sasha Perera. And Msoto Millions finds ghetto rap trio Ukoo Flani in sorrowful mood, their musings on poverty and hardship set to gloomy sheets of electro-dub in a manner that should appeal to fans of Roots Manuva.
Those who clock the title, note the presence of Modeselektor, and prepare themselves for all-night raving antics may leave disappointed. The negative connotations of ‘Madhouse’ don’t appear to be lost on these artists, whose sometimes mournful or downbeat stories refuse to shy away from Kenya’s gritty realities. There is celebration here too though: most memorably on the beautiful Kibera Benga, Maasai Mbilili and William Warero singing an anthem to their homeland over ticking techno percussion and big, aching synth chords.