It starts with a simple guitar riff that lingers, taking claim of a recurring note; then a gentle explosion of shimmering harmonies fills the ear. “Daughter,” she sings. “They will see you as a flower.”
That’s just one line, one song, from Wanja Wohoro’s much-anticipated debut album, Matriarch. From her online fundraising initiatives to shy sneak peeks in the studio, Wanja has carried fans through Matriarch’s creation journey, unafraid to show the work, care and thought that goes into making an album. And it pays off. The final result is impressive, genuine and ultimately satisfying to listen to.
The album gives gentle nods towards various genres. There’s the sultry guitar playing soaring melodic lines underscored by rich, clean, jazz chords; there’s the Afro rhythms and harmonies, but also the acoustic guitar and lyricism that points towards indie and alternative influences. Not to mention folk, highlighted by a feature with award-winning artist Tetu Shani. There’s some pop and rock influence in there too. It’s tricky to fuse all these together in one album, but Wanja weaves them all into a sound unique and true to herself, glued by the propelling concept of – well, the matriarchy.
Featuring on this album are some familiar names in the Kenyan music scene. In addition to Shani, there is a track called “Home” featuring the Nairobi Horns Project, a group fronted by a saxophone, trombone and trumpet trio. “Leo ni siku njema, Nairobi”, she tells us in the verse, and you almost feel like your day is going to be full of hope. (I must admit that there’s a pang of homesickness that comes as a result of listening to it all the way from New York). Another feature is on a track called “Youth” (which I’d have to say is my most favourite on the album) featuring self-taught guitarist Kato Change, a vibrant member of Coke Studio Africa who has performed with the likes of Seun Kuti, Aloe Blacc, and Yemi Alade.
One thing that’s most impressive is how she balances voice with instrumentation and creates musical atmospheres. Even the uncredited musicians on the project shine through – you can feel the solid musicianship oozing between the notes of every track. It is her patience with each piece’s musicality that highlights the magic of each song: she is not afraid to let the instruments sing out in their own appropriate way (songs like “Mine” have a voiceless 2- minute interlude between verses, “Mumbi” has a almost a minute and half buildup into the first verse). And when she lends her voice to the tunes, we get a sense of Wanja’s stunning vocal range. Not to mention her aptitude for scatting and riffing. That she has an understanding of the power of both the voice and the featured instruments shows a trust for the studio musicians featured on this album; a trust for her own songwriting skill; and ultimately a trust that the listener will go on the whole journey with her.
Then there’s Wanja’s gift for lyricism. Matriarch is full of vibrant imagery, using nature – better yet, mother nature – to create a sound world exploring themes of womanhood, heritage, and the ever relatable themes of self-growth and love. In the track “Voices”, Wanja’s explores the painful and very relevant theme of sexual assault. “Sometimes I hate this body I’m in,” she sings. “Me too, me too.” The song is quieted down, but its resonance is unmissable. The melody will stay with you even after it fades away; and perhaps most importantly, it is guaranteed to have greatest significance on those who are victims of sexual assault. But cue the titular song: “Matriarch”. Providing a powerful response to the emotional weight of “Voices”, the listener is immediately grabbed with firm piano chords and transparent lyrics. “I’m not going to stand behind you.../I’m tired of deconstructing/why I’m still angry.” It’s uplifting, relevant, and very relatable.
Overall, then, Wanja Wohoro’s debut album has added a gorgeous standard for the Kenyan artist. This album is testament to the fact that vulnerability is strength. She manages to leave a piece of herself in each and every song, yet there is still a universality to it all: heritage is beautiful; being a woman is something to be celebrated. And that’s only to mention a few. Whether you’ve watched her “Matriarch Episodes” online or not, the music itself speaks to her meticulous attention to concept and execution. The beauty is in the detail. You’ll hear waves crashing, a helicopter sound, a slightly off-tune guitar string. You’ll hear the congas, the keys, the bass guitar; the polyrhythms, the sus-chords. And then you’ll hear Wanja, in all her purity and rawness – and you’ll feel empowered to see yourself, too.