Coming to America – The Just A Band Interview

KenyanVibe caught up with Just A Band, who were recently in New York City promoting their exhibit ‘Kudishnyao’ among other exciting things.

KV: So just give us a quick snap shot of how you guys came together, how did you guys meet?

JAB: Ok Jim and Bill knew each other from high school, so when they reconnected in KU (Kenyatta University) they started jamming together and later on Dan joined in maybe two weeks after we met and put down the beginnings of JAB. That was in 2003, and then we met Mbithi in like 2008, who  joined the group last year. Mbithi joined the group because he would help us out to the point where he started becoming part of the band.  The band kinda functions as a musical band on one level and as an arts collective on the other level and that’s where Mbithi comes in.

KV: So where did the name JAB come from?

JAB: We didn’t know what we were going to call ourselves and we had a performance at KU during Culture Week, which is usually at the beginning of every academic year and people were asking what we call ourselves, so we had a list of names and JAB was one of them. We thought it was funny.

KV: So what would you say your New York experience has been like?

JAB: I think in the beginning when we first got here we noticed it was just like the movies. The way people talk, so in a way everything that has arrived in Kenya in terms of movies, music, all the stuff we see on YouTube does a great job of showing how the place feels like, the way people talk, walk, move and think.

So for us it got us thinking about how our work can really reflect the situation that we’re in because people kinda look at our work and tell us that it doesn’t sound “Kenyan” So that came to perspective once we came here. So in a way we don’t want to give up our non-Kenyan influences in our music, but at the same time we don’t want people to pigeon hole us, it’s a question of finding that balance. You can kinda say we’re dealing with that question through our music.

Photo Courtesy of Gregory Chris

KV: How did the New York trip come to be?

JAB: Originally Binyavanga Wainaina who heads the Chinua Achebe Center for Africa Writers and Artist at Bard College and Sheba Hearst approached us to do a project at Bard and the Goethe Institut helped us put the video exhibit together to bring it to New York. While all this was happening Binyavanga introduced us to Wangechi Mutu, who took a personal interest in the project and introduced us to the Rush Gallery and MoCADA (Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Art) and after that the project took a life of its own.

KV: When you think of Urban Kenyan music, you mainly think of Genge, Kapuka. Was it hard for you guys to initially break into the scene and gain acceptance locally?

JAB: In Kenya it’s extremely hard to just sell audio, so what we did is we made videos for two of our songs and took them to the stations who refused to play them because they were very different from what they were used to plus they thought it would alienate their audience. So we decided to put them up online, where they caught on with the Diaspora, after that  the local crowd started getting interested. But it’s the art shows that started showing interest in our work first. The first time a JAB video showed in Kenya it was actually on the art scene, but that was cool. After we made the video for “Hey”, we started getting more interest and things started picking up momentum into Makmende.

 KV: Speaking of Makmende, do you guys feel like it became the monster that Dr Frankenstein created, where the character became bigger than the music, the song and even the group? What was your take on the whole Makmende experience?

JAB: It was exciting! Since making the video for “Hey” we’ve always made our videos as stories with characters in them, kinda making them as mini-movies, so they have always had characters and the videos have always spread in a very viral kind of way. So for Makmende, which eclipsed the band and the song, but it didn’t feel like a bad thing for us because story telling had become such an important part of what we do as a band, so for us if someone interacted with the story, it felt like we were making a connection. It was still the fans interacting with our work, so it still felt successful and helped put the band in certain places we hadn’t been before. People were approaching us kinda like an ad agency because they liked the ideas we came up with. So it made people to more so interact with our ideas and not look at us like we’re celebrities, which opened a lot of doors for us.

The Makmende thing also exposed us to a new audience who didn’t really care for the band or the music but loved the character. Meaning if we wanted to make more stories with Makmende, it would immediately reach more people than if we just made the music.  So it works! The only problem is that people now feel that they want to dictate what to do with the character because they feel they share it with you.

KV: So is there added pressure to do more with character, like movies, videos, short films?

JAB: Yes there is, but we don’t like to rush stuff out just for the sake of it. We feel it’s not about making money now, it’s more about making something that will have significance in the long run and that’s the main reason why we craft stuff slowly.

KV: So in the beginning did you guys consciously decide to do both music and art or was it something that just happened along the way?

JAB: When we started we knew that everyone in the band had other interests as well, like animation, photography, film. So we thought that it would be more interesting if we combined all that stuff to the band instead keeping all that separate from the music or as a separate entity. The art creates opportunities for us outside the music, as well as for our individual projects.

As being pushed into a fine arts space that came from the Goethe Institut the first time they approached us to do “Transmission”, they said they knew we had this other side of everything we do, and asked us what we thought about doing something specifically about that? Where instead of talking about the music, they wanted to talk about the visuals with the music supporting it.

KV: How did the Kuweni Serious project come about?

JAB: Kuweni Serious started after the post election violence, where there were a lot of unresolved issues and the point of it was to give people who had something to say an avenue to say it that was not just Facebook, which seemed limiting at the time. We wanted to create a platform where there was more dialogue going on. It then evolved from there.

Photo courtesy of Gregory Chris.

KV: Ok so back to the music, when one listens to your music there’s a little bit of house in there, electronica, Hip-Hop. Who would you say your influences are?

JAB: Well we all like very different stuff, so there’s French house like Daft Punk, Cassius, Bjork, Madlib, Jim likes Norah Jones, Bill likes funk acts like Sly and the Family Stone, Sugar Hill Gang. So when we all come and jam, the music sounds so different because of the different influences.

KV: Are there any local groups/artists you guys like?

JAB: We draw a lot of inspiration from Kalamashaka, not in terms of sound, but what they were able to achieve and how they made Kenyans to start loving local Kenyan music. Ogopa Deejays for their sound, their first album had a house theme to it.

KV: So is there a big house scene in Kenya?

JAB: A lot of right now is bedroom musicians making music, but there are deejays like 6AM DJs, theirs is a very progressive style of house. There are other Deejays here and there that play house music. In terms of finding a house sound that distinctively Kenyan, we’re kinda far from there. It’s still developing.

KV: Now your album titles. You guys have some interesting titles. ‘Scratch To Reveal’ and ‘82’. What’s the meaning behind the titles?

JAB: Well the first album Scratch To Reveal, that being the first album was as exploratory for us as would be the listeners, so we were discovering what we sounded like. The second album 82 was named that because we were all born in 1982.

KV: So from your view, give a quick snap shot of the Kenyan music industry. Is it progressively moving forward, or are we stagnant? What’s your take as insiders?

JAB: Well in Kenya if you want to do music, you have to get gigs and to get gigs you have to have club bangers, so you really can’t take chances. The industry doesn’t encourage experimentation. Most people put stuff out that people like,  stick to that and follow a formula. But if you search around there’s some pretty cool stuff. A part of it is also the people who are in charge of the distribution avenues are not really interested in promoting music that’s not mainstream. It’s like everyone just wants what they know is popular already, but for us we feel that Kenyan artists have an opportunity to create music that might change the way the Kenyan audience listens to music. It’s a catch 22 type scenario.

That’s part of the reason we started out by putting our music online, because online you’re not limited to a Kenyan audience. That was our way around it. The industry just needs time to develop and form its own identity and culture.  We need to find what works for Kenya.

KV: Speaking of which do you guys have merchandise?

JAB: Yes we do, we have t-shirts that are available through BONK (A Kenyan clothing company and retail store at Junction Mall, Nairobi) and all our music is available on iTunes. We also have a book coming out about the band in collaboration with the Goethe Institut.

KV: And lastly, we know you guys are working on the Red Hot + Riot: Tribute to Fela Kuti project. Could you guys touch a little bit on it?

JAB:  Well the Red Hot Organization has been around since the 80s and they do compilations that are based on re-interpreting music in different genres. So Red Hot + Riot came out in 2002 and was based on the re-interpretation of the music of Fela Kuti and featured artists like D’Angelo, Dead Prez, Sade, Manu Dibango, to just name a few. So the second one is coming out next year, 2012 and that’s what we’ve been working on.

The other project that we worked on is the BLNRB: Welcome to the Madhouse album, that’s was put together by the Goethe Institut. The idea behind the project was to take a bunch of artist from Berlin and mix them with artist from Nairobi and see what comes out. Some of the Kenyan artists featured include Ukoo Flani, Abbas, Nazizi, Jahcoozi, and Michel Ongaro among others. That album is already out.

KV: Guys thanks for taking the time out to talk about your music and what you guys do. Much success in the future.

JAB: No problem, thanks for having us.

Pictures courtesy of Gregory Chris.

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