It is truly a small world. Recently, I was listening to Sidetracks on WTIP when DJ Matthew Brown announced that he was playing a song by the Owiny Sigoma Band. I was stopped in my tracks by that band name and a big smile appeared on my face.
Here is rest of the story. Back in 2001, my son, Adam Hansen, traveled to the African country of Kenya to study for a year at the University of Nairobi. Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and is a city of over three million people. Adam's program included living with a Kenyan family for the year. The very first day, on the advice of his host mother, he visited the Kenyan National Theater in the heart of Nairobi. Just outside the National Theater there is a lively street scene featuring musicians who play for tips from tourists and residents alike. It's a common spot for exchange students to visit, because they can check out authentic culture, yet it's within easy walking distance of the university campus. Adam was immediately attracted to one of the musicians playing a tribal instrument called the nyatiti. It is a stringed instrument that looks a bit like a small harp. The nyatiti is played while squatting on the ground and features slinky, poly-rhythmic melodies plucked with both hands. As crazy as it sounds, the player wears a heavy brass ring on his or her big toe, which is used to strike the instrument to provide syncopated accompaniment. The player also wears a bunch of small bells on the calf of the same leg, providing more rhythmic interest. On top of all this, the musician sings, sometimes with composed lyrics and sometimes improvised lyrics.
The nyatiti player that Adam stumbled across that day was an incredibly accomplished musician named Joseph Nyamungu. He had only recently moved to Nairobi from his home village of Uranga, which is clear across Kenya near the Ugandan border, just a few kilometers north of Lake Victoria. Nyamungu was orphaned as a baby and was literally raised by his village, which is basically a large extended family. He never attended a single day of formal school and, for most of his life, only spoke the language of the Luo Tribe, although by 2001 he had picked up the Nairobi street dialect of Swahili, which is the common language of east and South Africa. To this day he speaks only a few words of English. Some of the other street musicians were fluent in English, so Adam was able to ask questions using them as translators.
Long story short, Adam began taking nyatiti lessons from Nyamungu and the two soon became fast friends. Nyamungu is a master musician, with same intensity and depth of knowledge that a top concert violinist would have in American culture. He is a demanding teacher and Adam soon found himself deeply involved with the nyatiti, meanwhile becoming fluent in Swahili and the culture of the Luo tribe. Before the year was over, Adam had graduated as a journeyman nyatiti player, which included a couple of extended visits to Nyamungu's home village and finally a formal ceremony of acknowledgment from the village, which included the gift of a piece of land where Adam can build a house if he so chooses. It was a profound experience for Adam and he kept in touch with Nyamungu, and many other Kenyan friends, after returning to the U.S. to finish his college education and start his career.
Fast forward to last year, when Adam was able to carve out three months of free time between jobs. He spent the time in Kenya, renewing his friendships and particularly spending time with his great friend, Nyamungu. Adam invited me to join him for a couple of weeks, which I eagerly did. On my first day in Nairobi, jet lagged and culture shocked, Adam took me down to the National Theater to meet Nyamungu. By now, he has become quite a fixture and has the formal support of the National Theater. He has an "office", which is a quiet, shady spot in front of the theater and a closet in the theater where he can safe store his instruments and tools. He was very welcoming to me, mostly because he is just a great guy, but also because in Kenyan culture, parents are highly respected. I quickly had to learn my new name - Baba Adam - Adam's father.
Before I had arrived in Kenya Adam and Nyamungu had decided to start a commercial fish farm on Nyamungu's land in Uranga. I actually brought 180 pounds of solar panels and pumps with me on the airplane, which was an adventure in itself. The three of us spent the next couple of days rounding up parts and equipment for the fishpond and then rode the chaotic country bus for 15 hours overnight from Nairobi to Uranga. I spent most of my time in Africa living deep in the bush working with Nyamungu, Adam and their partners getting the fish pond up and running. We had many adventures and treasure my memories from that great time. I grew to have great respect for Nyamungu's musical skills and enjoyed his outgoing personality. He is quite a celebrity in Uranga and, of course, knows everyone. I remarked to Adam that walking around Uranga with Nyamungu reminded me of walking around Tofte with Jan Horak. You have to stop and talk to everyone.
Shortly after I left Africa, Nyamungu formed a band with a drummer friend and some young British musicians who had traveled to Kenya to experience tribal music. As Nyamungu put it, "We jammed and there was good chemistry, so we formed a band." With Adam's help, the British musicians arranged for Nyamungu and his English-speaking drummer to travel to Britain for some gigs. The band, with Nyamungu taking the leadership role, was an instant hit in London and they went on to play around the festival circuit in Europe most of the summer. They shared the stage with some of the biggest names in the European rock scene and garnered rave reviews. Their name is The Owiny Sigoma Band and the recording of their song; "Wires" made its way, with no help from me, all the way to WTIP in Cook County, Minnesota.