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Nyokabi Kariuki
peace places: kenyan memories Antonio Poscic , April 26th, 2022 08:11

The Kenyan musician and composer explores the resonance of place via manipulated vocals and acoustic instruments

Certain places travel with us wherever and whenever we go. Our childhood homes, that special spot on a secluded beach, the bench where we used to sit with our grandparents, and all those locations that held our firsts – loves, hates, disappointments, successes – can never truly be forgotten. And when we are displaced and struck with homesickness, then their essence seems to overflow, infecting every corner of the soul. Kenyan musician and composer Nyokabi Kariũki found herself stuck between Maryland and New York during the pandemic. Unable to visit her home in Nairobi, she started shaping impressions of her favourite places in Kenya into music, meant for reminiscing, exploring, and evoking both joy and melancholy.

Memories are rarely tied only to the physical nature of a place. Rather, they represent a coming together of time, space, and emotion of events that inhabit it. Perhaps conscious of this pattern, Peace Places: Kenyan Memories feels like a vision of an artist’s inner world filtered through the tangible, while each of the six cuts on the EP creates its own psychogeography. Thoughts, emotions, and memories are told through vignettes collaged from field recordings found on Kariũki’s phone, spoken word in Kiswahili, Kikuyu, Maa, and English, manipulated vocal lines, and an array of acoustic instruments. In meshing all these elements together, Kariũki’s touch is deft and ambiguous. She weaves her own sort of magic realism into tones, blurring the line between the what, where, and when, intensifying field recordings with mbira and vibraphone hits and mellowing her layered-over pop-inflected vocals with found sounds.

On ‘Equator Song’, birdsong strives to become a harsh texture, as if processed with some sort of macro-level granular synthesis, only to fly right into the trap of Kariũki’s own blissful singsong. ‘A Walk Through My Cūcū's Farm’ takes us on a stroll through her grandmother’s farm, retelling the stories that unfolded through the years. Everything heard there is saturated with a child’s amazement: the lush ambient textures, the crunch of footfall on gravel, and the carefree whistling. Elsewhere, ‘Galu’ brings together sounds of splashing waves, comforting humming, and Chris O’Leary’s nimble drumwork into a sensation of maternal safety and innocence, right before ‘Home’ gathers some darker clouds with grave piano arpeggios and tingling percussion.

But perhaps the most important line on the album is recited on ‘Naila’s Peace Place’. "It doesn't feel real this place, it just doesn't,” we hear in a part wistful, part joyous tone, highlighting the ambiguity of the song. As if saying that the whooshing winds, streaks of glistening noise, Foley-like faint screams, and the inescapable New Age sheen can be understood at face value, as a reference to a specific coastal town called Lamu in Kenya and its magical scenery, or as an acknowledgement of the music occupying its own magical place between imagination and reality.