The Soulful benga Of Udulele


John Udulele is an afroeclectic, folk singer-songwriter whose evolution as a musician has been steeped in Benga culture. An avid experimentalist he is co-founder of the bengatronics collective, an outfit that is blending the benga sound with EDM - Electronic Dance Music. This self-effacing, soft-spoken music man is now pushing a new project that is dear to his heart. He labels this genre as Soulful Benga. A sound that aptly describes him as an artist and mirrors him as an individual.

I remember when I first met John Udulele. It was at 'The Terrace',  a scenic open-air makuti tavern perched cliff-side right by the Kilifi bridge. We were having a sundowner jam session and the sea rippled gold. Udulele was singing solo, improvising lyrics as he strummed the guitar. His music complimented the scene. He had everyone enthralled. It was quite a surreal moment.

We then kept bumping into each other within the arts and culture event spaces and we became acquainted. I slowly came to recognize him as a keystone artiste within the new generation of Afro-fusion and folk music scene, his musical presence having been experienced throughout urban East Africa.

I sought him out to capture his story. We were finally able to schedule a sit-down, again at sundown but this time at the open air spaces of the 'The Alchemist' in Westlands, Nairobi.

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Theru: I've always been curious about your name. It's quite unique. What does it mean?

Udulele: It means forever.

Forever huh, interesting. And Is that your stage name or your birth name?

It's a name that came to me through my dreams. For a time I would hear someone call me by that name when I was asleep dreaming.

That's quite peculiar, about what period was that?

Between my 17th and 18th years. It was during my high school. That was about that time that I got into music.

What got you into music - who and what was your inspiration?

Ethnic sounds from all over East Africa has been a trigger to what I'm playing now, in terms of my sound.

I used to live in different places so I listened to traditional music from Western, Central, Eastern... all parts of Kenya without knowing that this will one day influence my sound.

What made you move around from place to place at such a young age?

Well, I was a 'kichwa ngumu' (hard head) when young and I was moved from home to home to stay with different relatives as I kept getting expelled from different schools.

(Chuckle) I could never picture that. You are quite soft spoken with such a calm demeanor... quite humble actually.  

(Laughter)I used to be rude 'kidogo' (a little) when I was young but I outgrew that.

So tell me the story of your journey into music. Your evolution into Benga. When did you pick up that guitar and become a music man?

It was In high school when I came across this group that was performing community theater, then I just wanted to be a performing artists. I had yet to define what it was exactly what I wanted to do.

So, I was with the group for about a year before it disbanded. One of the trainers, the choreographer of the group... his name is Mudembo, was also a musician - a guitarist. I became friends with him and started learning from him.

So Mudembo became the mentor who Initiated you into your music path.

Yes, he taught me the basic chords. He wasn't an accomplished guitarist, so from there I continued to teach myself.

And here you are now.

(laughter) - well after that I formed so many bands... joined different groups and they ranged from jazz to funk ...lots of cover bands.

So you are comfortable across genres.

Yes, I was a bassist in those bands. A musician for hire. Then after about 4 years I decided to stop playing bass and begun focussing on percussion. It's then we... myself and a few colleagues formed Abaki Simba.

I started training percussion and I learned about different percussive instruments from different parts of Kenya.

What does 'Abaki Simba' mean and what is it all about?

'Abaki Simba' actually means the remaining lions and it was all about Kenyan percussion from different parts of the country, also about interpreting the sounds of Kenya in a percussive way.  

It was also experimental. Rather than remaining on the traditional path we would collect different percussive instruments and styles from all over the country and then create something different that relates to us now.

Was this period with 'Abaki Simba' also another self-training experience?

No, we had a master teacher. His name is  Jumba Chagala. He used to play with the famous Jabali Afrika. He is now settled back here (in Kenya) and now focuses on training.

How did this experience with 'Abaki Simba' influence your growth as a musician?

Yes, it pushed the boundary of my experimental creative side... during this time of Abaki Simba, we used to do this thing were Deejays would play their music and we would back them with percussions. At around that time we met with a Deejay called Greg (Mwalimu Greg Tendwa)  he used to host large parties at his home. He used to invite 'Abaki Simba' to jam with him. At one point he decided that rather than play sounds from other parts of Africa that time Afro-house and Afro-tech were using sounds from South Africa, Nigeria...he decided to use benga and bengatronics was born.

I then became a bassist in that genre. We had decided to go in the direction of a collective - the bengatronic collective rather than a band whereby we could invite  different musicians to join us and jam... create music.

What has been the reception of bengatronic in the general public?

People really, really like it. We have performed at several festivals, 'Nyege Nyege', 'Kilifi New Years', Dala Festival, ...pretty much all these music festivals across East Africa. A lot of musicians are out there joining the movement.

And what is the next step in the evolution of Udulele the music artiste ?

Ah yes, the Soulful Benga - that's where I really am strong as a singer-songwriter.   It is music that is born from the soul and connects to the soul. It's slow to mid-tempo acoustic driven sound with its baseline sound mimicking the nyatiti. It is music that can bring healing to someone. I am the first person championing and pushing this Soulful Benga thing.

How long have you been developing this soulful benga project?

Since 2017... two years now. I have like an album, about 30 songs which I'm planning to start recording. I plan to start releasing a single and video monthly starting February and thru the year 2019.  

Any famous person we should know of who will be a part of the release?  

I already have one recorded single with DeeJay Sinbad from the U.K. that we will be releasing this month.

Also Michele Ongaro. One of the best guitarist out there ... a virtuoso, a very talented multi-instrumentalist. We are collaborating on a love song with a Swahili touch and a benga vibe.

I will also be collaborating with some members of the Bengatronic collective.

Which of the African greats in your eyes would you want to collaborate with?

I love Richard Bona. He is an artist from Cameroon who I think is now based in New York. The kind of music he plays really inspires me....the versatility of his skills is on a whole other level yet he still, plays and truly enjoys his music.

You know one thing I have seen with so many musicians who are really good, they end up becoming too technical, they stop feeling the music in their soul. But with Bona, he has maintained the balance. He has remained good and still sings songs in a way that you can really connect with.

Worldwide who would be your dream collaboration?  

Stevie wonder

What advise would you give to the young upcoming Artist?

The most important thing that I have learned now spanning 10 years is that... get to know your sound, have a sound - a sonic direction and master something (a skill),  even if it's a small thing, master it, dive deep into It.

It has been a decade now for you in this music game and it's clear now that thru' this Benga Soul initiative you are truly coming into your own. What does the next decade look like for John Udulele?  

I see myself doing a lot of tours in the next 5 to 10 years, making sure this folk music - benga of Kenya is heard in almost every part of the Globe.