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Owiny Sigoma Band
Owiny Sigoma Band Richie Troughton , June 6th, 2011 10:31

Owiny Sigoma Band frontman Joseph Nyamungu says the songs on this record came to him while walking down the street, or in dreams. He takes you daydreaming with him, and tells you stories through interruptions of cow horn, and short keyboard flourishes setting a scene of dusty, busy urban bluster. Owiny Sigoma is a person, but he is not in the band that is named after him. He was Nyamungu’s grandfather in Kenya. Nyamungu runs a school, which also bears the name, at which he teaches and sells nyatitis - an eight-string lyre on which strings are played with a violin-like bow. And Nyamungu brings his musical teaching to this album, a collaboration with fellow Nairobi native and percussionist Charles Owoko and four London-based musicians. The songs are based on traditional Luo folk songs of Kenya, recognisable by their irregular chanted rhythms, the band add repetitive basslines, and a clatter of uptempo drums.

Nyamungu’s opener ‘Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi (Play The Music With Confidence)’ is as if he is instructing his new cohorts through fresh rhythms and musical ideas, and, like a conversation building pace, the dialogue picks up its own distinctive groove. And the vocals reinforce this, Nyamungu repeating lines with extra emphasis on the phrasing, which feels its way into your subconscious through creeping rhythms. ‘Odero Lwar’ follows suit, upping the tempo ever so slightly, the chanted vocals getting more strained, guttural and urgent. Whistling and off-mic breathing punctuate the dense atmosphere, made eerier still by the wail of the unusual cow horn. It’s a low, ominous groove and so it’s a surprise what happens next – with the melody and pop structure of third track ‘Wires.’ The tight wind-up/wind-down licks of the single - one of two English-language songs on this record - shows the English musicians are not just along for the ride. When they step out to do their own thing it is like a different group, and brings to mind the Afrobeat-influenced indie of the likes of Vampire Weekend. And they have chops of their own, keys player Jesse Hackett toured with Gorillaz and Africa Express, which explains the involvement of Damon Albarn, who makes an appearance on the Farfisa organ. Drummer Tom Skinner, bassist Louis Hackett and bouzouki and guitar player Chris Morphitis all adapt to their new environment, capturing the feel of what their hosts were sharing while bringing in wider African influences like Fela Kuti and Tony Allen, as well as late 70s New York no wave dance moves.

Elsewhere on the record the band are back to the unstructured and loose, natural grooves, which benefit from seven to eight minute durations. Deep dub roots come to the fore on ‘Margaret Okudo Dub (My Friend)’ with echo-drenched vocals and stabbing keyboards punctuate. They strip things back altogether on Nyamungu’s solo piece ‘Owegi Owandho,’ a simple wood block beat with vocals standing higher than the repetitive fiddly nyatiti line. Natural funk from the west takes over on root dance note-based instrumental Afro-disco ‘Nabed Nade El Piny Ka’ making it clear why Gilles Peterson, on whose Brownswood label the record is released, started comparing them to Liquid Liquid. It is understated, but undeniably funky, with a stripped down three-piece lineup of bass, drums and keys, a handful of the English musicians conjuring something new based on ideas and techniques only newly learned. Like Nyamungu humming a tune walking down the street, the Owiny Sigoma sound has personality, swagger and its own distinctive groove.

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