Kenya’s Sauti Sol turn up the heat with their new album, Afrikan Sauce, and ambitious plans for 2018

Sauti Sol have embarked on their 10th year in music with something of a masterful plan. Kenya’s finest are dropping a single every month – each one a collaboration with a different African artist – building up to the full release of their forth album, Afrikan Sauce, in November. They’re also establishing a record label and using a nationwide TV talent show to discover and sign new artists. And on the afternoon I sit down with them, the band are just rounding up a two-day photo shoot in and around Nairobi’s Tribe Hotel wearing a series of impeccable outfits. “We’re creating imagery for the whole year because so much is happening - we’ve been recording a lot and writing a lot,” Bien-Aimé Baraza tells me.

I remind him and his band mates, Willis Chimano, Polycarp Otieno and Savara Mudigi, that we originally met in 2010. “Seven years ago! Time flies when you’re having fun,” quips Otieno, which is perhaps putting it mildly. Back then the foursome, who first formed as an a cappella act at school, had released their first album Mwanzo and were graduating from teenagers making gentle, harmony-laden afro pop into bona fide, grown up music stars. Their second album, 2011’s Sol Filosofia, and self titled EP with Spoek Mathambo a year later, raised the game yet further and their 2015 album, Live And Die In Afrika, cemented their reputation as Kenya’s, if not Africa’s, biggest mainstream band. With multiple awards and global tours to their name, as well as accolades including having performed for both presidents Barak Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta, Sauti Sol are now stepping it up yet another gear.

“The album is the result of a lot of travelling, meeting artists and sharing good vibes”

“For the longest time, we’ve been finding ourselves,” reflects Baraza. “We were a world music act. Then we morphed into a pop act, then when we got to the top of the pops, we realised it ain’t popping! Now we’re bringing it back to the live elements of our original sound. We’ve just spent a week recording an EP that is so natural, so real. It sounds like drinking water.” Chimano agrees: “It’s very different but it’s also very us - like our first album on steroids. It’s mature music. People who really know Sauti Sol will not be surprised, but it will still be a shocker when it’s released later in the year in the middle of all of our collaborations.”

Right now though, it’s about Afrikan Sauce. The first dise came in the form of Melanin featuring Nigeria’s Patoranking. Released late last year, the accompanying Clarence Peters-directed video has received well over 6million views so far, thanks in part to the song’s authentic rhythms and sentiments, and partly because of the succession of barely dressed, glistening beauties who are pictured dancing seductively to the music. “We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into,” claims Mudigi with mock innocence. “Clarence gave the shoot his all and we love it. The song was the product of a jam session with Patoranking. Often girls with dark skin don't feel appreciated, so this song is about loving yourself as you are.”

January saw the release of the project’s second single, Girl Next Door featuring Tiwa Savage. Produced by Maleek Berry, the song sees Sauti Sol back in Lagos, this time focussing their amorous attentions on just one woman. Savage isn’t exactly a homely type though as she sings sweetly about how tasty she is. The Afrikan Sauce roll out will only get more flavoursome as 2018 progresses with tracks to come from Wizkid, Fally Ipupa and Casper Nyovest. “The album is the result of a lot of travelling, meeting artists and sharing good vibes,” says Baraza. “We ended up doing so many collaborations that we thought, why not put all of these ingredients from around Africa together onto one album.”

The record is also making a statement about the currency music from the continent has right now. “Africa has always exchanged with the West but now we’re exchanging with each other,” says Otieno. “It’s an exciting time for African music in general, so these collaborations are moving the music around the continent. South Africa and Nigeria are killing it right now but Kenya is still missing the party, which is one reason why we’re starting our own record label. We want to create more stars from Kenya and put them on the world stage. We see the opportunity and want to invest in making Kenyan music and culture sustainable.”

To the same end, Sauti Sol have been backing the Sauti Academy for several years, which offers programmes in voice training, song writing, performance coaching and industry know-how. “We need better educated musicians in our country. We want to expand into teaching music management, A&R and traditional instruments too,” says Mudigi. “It’s about making iconic Kenyan bands and improving people’s musical taste buds.”

The timing is certainly ripe for Sauti Sol’s bold moves as their native city  increasingly boasts of its thriving creative industries. The New Nairobi narrative is not only taking hold but beginning to take over. The band has in many ways helped to pave the way for others and is continuing to push the boundaries of what’s possible. “When you go out now you can feel the energy - in the street style, the art, the music - which even five years ago wasn’t there,” says Chimano. Baraza interjects to put it more bluntly: “This is the best time to be alive in Africa if you’re young and have a dream. Anything that you do is opening doors for other people because there are still so many things that haven’t been done. We’re part of that process of shifting things in a new direction. We’re leading, not following.”

So where will Sauti Sol be at the end of this seismic anniversary year? “We’re developing our live experience and we’re going to shut it down with something ballsy that hasn’t been done before,” promises Mudigi. “It’s been a long journey of friendship and growth and now we’re ready to dive into the next ten years.”

With thanks to the British Council’s East Africa Arts programme

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Published on 04/02/2018