Meet EA Wave, The Kenyan DJ/Producer Collective Championing Nairobi's Alternative Music Scene

 
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“There’s this platform, what’s this thing where you swipe right? Tinder! There’s this thing that’s like Tinder for producers. It’s called Soundcloud. We went on producer Tinder. I met Fvnk first. I swiped right and he accepted. Our first date was in studio and Fvnk was like, by the way, since you only scored one person on your profile, I have another, Brendan. Through Brendan we met Hiribae, then we met Sichangi.”

Grey, drizzly, frigid, Nairobi’s weather is uncharacteristically frosty. Still, this didn’t stop Jinku, 1⁄5 of DJ/producer Kenyan collective EA Wave, from humorously telling the story of how the collective came together. We’re at the upstairs lounge of the Alchemist, a popular venue that has become the home of Nairobi’s underground music scene. The sounds of the city’s hustle and bustle juxtaposed with afro-house music blaring from downstairs sit in the background. Despite the dismal weather, the guys are up-beat. They order some drinks and animatedly catch up as I set up. Eclectic, laid back and charismatic, Jinku, Hiribae, Ukweli, Sichangi and Nu Fvnk openly discuss both their individual journeys and that of the collective with me.

Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each member’s individual sound and persona fit perfectly together to create the collective’s unique identity. Jinku is the groove, fusing psychedelic dance music with polyrhythmic, Afro-percussion; Ukweli brings the melody, skillfully picking vocalists and producing stripped down tracks heavily influenced by R&B, indie pop and indie rock; Hiribae is the soul, blending his first love, jazz with EDM, lo-fi and hip-hop. Nu Fvnk brings the bounce, providing groovy samples and funk-infused beats. And Sichangi is the king of the low-end, incorporating future bass, low-frequency 808’s and heavy drums.

 
NU FVNK (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

NU FVNK (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

HIRIBAE (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

HIRIBAE (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

 

EA Wave are pioneers of Nu Nairobi, the city’s burgeoning urban, alternative music scene. The collective is rooted in disrupting the current notions of what Kenyan music should sound like and have been at the forefront of paving the way for alternative, eclectic, experimental music in Kenya. “We’re bringing the same sort of vibe that you get in other countries with artists like Soulection. Kenyans listen to a lot of music that’s not Kenyan but they don’t really accept it if a Kenyan does it. Like if Sauti Sol drop a future bass song, people will be like what the fuck is this shit. At least we found an audience that is accepting just like us. We were really open with the type of music we like”, says Ukweli. Hiribae adds, “We are about just opening doors. I feel like with the whole Nu Nairobi sound, it was full of a bunch of insane local producers, vocalists, rappers, people who I feel like would have never put out their talent to the world had it not been for us showing people that it’s possible.” They have always been about creating a space for artists to freely express their art and not feel trapped by the pressure of having to conform to commerciality. “It gave other people the confidence to not have to make music that they felt like can only play for the Kenyan audience, like I can’t do an R&B song because that’s not what people want. At least right now, Nu Nairobi has helped carve a new path for artists who are coming up right now.”

The first event they curated together, EA Wave and Friends, was a momentous point in not only their careers, but for the entire Nu Nairobi scene. Up until that point, they had strictly been online artists and so, unsure of whether the show was going to be successful or not, the crew invested everything they had. “We only paid 10,000kshs for the bands. That’s the only thing we had to pay upfront and to be honest that was the only money we had” Jinku recounts. “So we were just like lets just throw this event just to see what happens. And like people showed up, it was a fucking lit event” adds Ukweli. The collectivist nature and spirit of camaraderie of Nu Nairobi was evidenced as the majority of the scenes creatives attended in support of the collective. “Everyone showed up for us”, says Nu Fvnk. Not only did this event prove their prowess as performers, its success showed that Nairobi was ready for a new sound. As Hiribae notes, “I feel like everyone was looking for something fresh.”

 
JINKU (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

JINKU (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

 

The producers have an impressive track record in terms of collaborations as their repertoire includes notable African and international artists. As a collective, one of their most momentous collaborations was working with eclectic Ghanaian artist Jojo Abot. “I feel like all our collaborations have been memorable in a certain way but I feel like, well the music’s not out, but when we worked with Jojo Abot, that was an eye-opener.” says Hiribae. In terms of individually, both Ukweli and Sichangi have worked with Willow Smith, collaborations that will always go down as being some of their most memorable. “The fact that I could work with someone that I never met, never talked to before, and it ended up being Willow - it was a blessing. It was that extra push for me to know that I should be making music. It was totally unexpected.” says Ukweli; and Sichangi adds “That was a really awesome moment because I didn’t really have to force issues to get her to hear it. It was kind of like whatever happens happens. It was an encouraging moment for me to just allow my music to speak for itself without doing the most.” Some of the top Kenyan talents they’ve worked with include Blinky Bill, Karun, Kiwango, Janice Iche, Mvroe and Yellow Light Machine.

Their demand as performers both locally and internationally has been on the rise. When Boiler Room recently took over Nairobi, they were on the bill alongside Suraj, DJ Coco-Em, Muthoni the Drummer Queen and Taio. They have performed at IOMMA (2017) that takes place on Reunion Island, Sweden’sBråvalla Festival (2016) which is arguably the country’s largest and most popular venue, at South Africa’s Homecoming Africa Festival (2018). Jinku also recently streamed a live performance for Jerusalem.

 
SICHANGI (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

SICHANGI (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

UKWELI (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

UKWELI (Image courtesy of EA Wave)

 

However, in spite of EA Waves success, there are still obstacles they face by being artists in a country that doesn’t see the value in creativity. “The sustainability of being an artist in Nairobi, you have to put in thrice or five times the amount of work as somebody who is at the same skill level as you but is like European”, says Ukweli, “There’s no label here that can do for me what I can’t do for myself. It’s also part of the culture of Kenyans, not really respecting art or buying music you know. We need to shift the culture to reflect what is happening in the world. South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania are examples of countries in Africa where this is happening”. Lawyers, architects, graphic designers, radio personalities by day and artists by night, the current nature of Kenya’s music industry is therefore such that artists are unable to let their art work for them and instead have to rely other hustles in order to make a living. “Artists who are successful, is not because of music, its because of the stuff they do on the side” says Hiribae. And although there is a wide array of talented artists in Kenya, many aspects of the music industry are underdeveloped and outdated. “There’s no infrastructure” he adds.

Despite these challenges, EA Wave continues to thrive. Their creative drive and output is nothing short of impressive as they are currently working on a multitude of projects. From an upcoming album which is set to be “Kenyan as fuck”, fusing iconic 70’s Kenyan afro-punk with the fresh new sounds of Nu Nairobi, to an array of individual projects: Jinku’s magnum opus and EP with Karun; Nu Fvnk’s Asian-pop influenced EP with Loa Myst; Sichangi’s work with Ukweli and Karun, and Hiribae and Kiwango as well as his own album; and Hiribae’s EPs with Marushka and Jovi respectively alongside a jazz EP.

The collective continues to swim against the current and push against what is deemed ‘popular’ in the mainstream. Their mission has always been and still is to encourage people to expand their minds and listen to experimental music. As Ukweli put it, “Most people don’t know what they want from their favourite artist until you get it from them. You didn’t know you wanted Drake to release an R&B album until he did and then you loved it.” The legacy they hope to leave behind is proving to the world that East Africa is more than capable of producing top talent. “We want to put Kenya on the map musically - East Africa in general because we’re heavily underrepresented,” says Nu Fvnk. “So hopefully our legacy is that someone can name us in the same conversation as like, this is a dope song, it just happens to be from East Africa, or this is a dope artist, they just happen to be from East Africa.”