S1E4: Sauti Sol: Amping up Africa’s Music Scene

January 26, 2022

IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with Sauti Sol, one of Kenya’s most well-known afro-pop groups, to discuss the evolution of music education and copyrights in Africa, music as storytelling, and how artists can document and share the complexity of their sounds with the world.

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IFC Managing Director Makhtar Diop sits down with Sauti Sol, one of Kenya’s most well-known afro-pop groups, to discuss the evolution of music education and copyrights in Africa, music as storytelling, and how artists can document and share the complexity of their sounds with the world.

Highlights from Episode 4


This is a podcast of the International Finance Corporation.

Makhtar Diop (MD): Hello and welcome to the podcast, Creative Development, with IFC. I'm your host Makhtar Diop.

Today, I'm talking to Sauti Sol, a four-member band from Nairobi, Kenya. The band is composed of Polycarp Otieno, Savara Mudigi, Willis Chimano and Bien-Aimé Baraza.

Habari, Sauti Sol!

Sauti Sol (SS): Mzuri sana.

MD: Asante sana. I love Nairobi. Some of your elders in your industry were good friends when I was there. Mercy Myra, Gido, Eric Wainaina were people that I dealt with. But I'm here to listen to you guys and to hear.

So, how are you? How is the music scene in Nairobi?

SS: The music is great. The weather today has been perfect. We are just coming out of the cold season. If you know Nairobi cold, you know how cold it gets. And, you know, we've just been practicing. We're actually about to go on tour. We're going to London for six shows in the next day or so. So on Thursday, we leave for the UK. And we're going to be going on tour for the first time, then again in two years. So we're just about to resume working. And it's exciting.

MD: Now, I want to first congratulate you for your great success. You make all of us Africans proud of seeing a group which is doing so well and who has been going on the international scene. When I was in Nairobi, you must have been very, very young. But I know that Nairobi had already had a very lively music scene and fantastic acapella singers, which was really something that struck me when I was in Kenya.

So tell us, how did you put this band together? What is the story of Sauti Sol?

SS: The Story? The real story. A bunch of good friends who were classmates in high school and decided that we can be lifemates. We [have been] married for the last 15 years. We've been playing music together for the last 15 years. And it's been a journey of ups and downs. But we are really grateful we have had a lot of fun playing music and just sharing our gifts. And doing beautiful things.

It's been an amazing marriage of four individuals who are very different, yet so in tandem in thought and then legacy. And it's just been a good journey, getting people, finding people who [will] work with us, people who we align with, people who we disagree with. And I think the life process, and it's just a journey, and we are happy and we are thankful for that.

MD: What happened [that was] special to Sauti Sol, because when I was there, you had a very talented musician in Kenya, Mercy Myra, but the fantastic voice, you had Eric Wainaina, you had Susan Owiyo. But, you know, you took it to the next level, from what I can see in your production.

What did you do differently from your elders?

SS: Well, I think, first and foremost, [it] is just important that as a people, as a civilization, we always get better with every generation. And I would say that we would not be who we are, if our elders didn't do what they had to do. You know, like, I actually just heard the song you did with Mercy Myra. And I was remembering, like how as kids that song really, really was an amazing piece of art that nourished us and inspired us now to become the people we are today. So, I think just by our existence, we've been able to raise the bar. And we are also expecting that the coming generations will raise the bar by just being themselves and being authentic and staying true to their craft.

MD: One of the things that I've seen before coming to Kenya, I was in my own country in Senegal, and in my position, I pushed for copyrights. It really was quite unusual, because I was Minister of Finance and usually Ministers of Finance are not looking into music. So my peers [said], why are you putting your nose in music. But my conviction is that because I know, music is something that I like and enjoy. But secondly, it was clear for me that it was a job creation activity and a significant source of income [and] industry for the youth. So it was important to have a framework to make, you know, a company. So one of the things that we did, and actually we did it with a bank at the time, was to revisit all the copyright laws and change the governance of the copyright body, which was public to make it really now in the hands of the musician.

So what has been the evolution in Kenya on this and what are your views on the legal framework, copyright laws and regulation?

SS: I mean, first of all, I have to commend you for what you've done back at home. It's amazing what you've done, because these problems that you had are the same things that we are facing right now, or we've been facing for many years when it comes to copyright. And I mean, it's kind of also showing people the value of, you know, music as a career. And the policyholders, unfortunately, some of them do not see it that way. And it's a fight that we've been, you know, trying to win. Or rather, we know, we're gonna win, of course, very soon, but it's a process, it's a journey. And, yeah, we just, we hope for the best for that. And we hope to even get in places where we can be the policymakers. Because copyright, I mean, it transcends across generations, and it's our kids and our kids’ kids that will really suffer if we don't sort this out now. So it's up to us to make sure that everything is aligned. And there's so many kinds of cases in court right now, when it comes to our governing bodies, in terms of copyright right now. And I mean, that shows that things are going to change. And it's a good sign.

When you abide by the rule of law, when you follow the rule of law, you’re okay, and I feel like copyright is a law, like it's obedience to someone's craft. So once we pay respect to someone's creation, we will give opportunity to the next generation to be free to create knowing that they are safe. So respect to copyright is just respect to creation and the next creative economy. So I think it's just rule of law. And it shouldn't be like, it's an obvious, it's part of the law.

MD: I think two things that maybe will be useful moving forward, first of all, to share with you what we did. And maybe if you don't have yet this contact among African artists, who are struggling with the same issues, to maybe encourage you and maybe facilitate if I, if you can, the exchange of laws that have been applied using other countries that might be relevant, and try just to foster that…the South-South cooperation between African countries.

One of the things that I also would love to hear from you is that some of the artists have told me that, you know, now is a digital way of distribution of music, which is becoming the main way of distributing music. One can make some leapfrogs and be able to use this technology to be able to better secure the copyrights by reducing their ability to copy a CD. In my time, you know, you bought a CD with 12 songs. Now, that’s totally outdated. You don't buy 12 songs, you just buy this song or the two songs you like and you put it on your iPhone, and you listen to it. So how do you see the use of technology to help you really on your copyright discussion?

SS: It's a beautiful time to be an artist. I think artists are making the most money that ever made now, from music sales and record sales. What happened before in previous years was that the distribution was handled by the major labels. So access to your music was limited to the different territories where your label represented you or where you were able to, you know, just buy independently get your music to.

However, right now, with the music online, and with distribution being done online, and with digital sales being the dominant way of, you know, us guys getting revenues from our music, at least, you can assure yourself that every artist who is working hard, and is in a good contract, is getting paid. Also, it's been very easy right now because of digital sales to track the royalty allocation to the rights holders of the music. So very delicate, you know, parts of corporate, like, you know, the publishing side of things. And these things that were in the past, [that were] not really recognized are being recognized. Session musicians are getting their money. If you played guitar in a song, if you played bass in a song, you're getting paid right now. Your publisher is following up on your check, and you're getting a check. And what are you going to see in the future? I think the more we keep on educating our artists, because information is power, the more you'll realize that now, artists are going to become more and more independent, and there's going to be very many more art millionaires. But I think Kenya is on the right track. And Africa is on the right track as well.

MD: Let me tell you something that seemed to be also important in music and some questions were asked about education in music. If you look at countries like the US or other countries, you know, you have turn of offering from a BA to a master’s and you have just performance programs, Berklee School of Music or the department. You go to the [African] continent, you have much less offerings. Maybe South Africa is a place where you have the strongest music department on the continent. And sometimes, when I was talking to people in the industry, they told me you know, it is very uneven. You can have in a country, people–because of a tradition–they have excellent percussionists, they have excellent bass players, but they don't have necessarily have excellent keyboard players or excellent trumpet players. So therefore, there is not necessarily the consistency that they have to be able to develop the industry and take it to the next level, or people don't transcribe the music in music sheet to be able to share it with musicians.

So what is your take about education and the music industry? What is your view? What do you think of it?

SS: I think music education is very relative, and it is relative to the region, relative to the culture of the people, and is relative to the expression and the language in which people integrate and associate. So a statement like being a very renowned jazz musician, because you can play all the skills in the world. And I don't think there's a difference between a very good jazz renowned musician and a village person who, in the same way, expresses his sentiments, and his music and his art in the same way. So I feel like skill level should be geographical and situational. It shouldn't be standard with the world, because we have villages, we have people, like even people who are not even civilized, but they are accustomed to melody and sound. And music is so pure and nice and so amazing. And they're the same in the scale of someone who studied like the best jazz chords. So I feel like music is a vibration and the integration, it's very situational. So skill wise, I feel this is something that has happened.

Since time immemorial, our forefathers passed the information of music to us in the most simplest form in terms of a lullaby as a kid, and you'd listen and you'd sing along, and you'd get the intuition. So I feel in terms of skill and education, we've always done it. And I feel we can do more, especially right now with the use of technology now, people can be able to look online, people in their village can be able to do online classes without even having to travel to the city, but still get the same experience. So I feel like right now, it's a more informational kind of age, and it should be faster. So we are lucky to be children of our time.

And also like African music is not really written to be expressed in the kind of Western ways. So like, you will find that okay, maybe there are no grade 12 piano players. But in Kenya, for example, we have ohangla music. Ohangla music has a keyboard that only plays three chords, but those three chords are used to express a certain emotion that blends with the drums, that blends with everything around there. And that's what builds the beauty about it. So it's not really about the sight reading and the technicalities of the music in the back. We use music differently. In our societies, Africans use music differently, and we consume it differently.

Storytelling, like yeah, the spread of information, especially like for example, that we used to do, or our forefathers used to do, just information. I think music has been used for a very long time just to pass information.

MD: Maybe we can talk about also the link between the two: learning from different styles. Fully agree that every musician has his stories, his social contacts in his route and the techniques per se is not the panacea. Even though the techniques are traditional musician has is very difficult to learn. I told you, you see a lot of very talented classical musician or jazz musician, who just cannot get into groove sometime of some of the traditional musicians who have just a string instrument and going on the groove. So for me, the technique is a broader word. So I'm just learning scales and doing good sight reading. But I feel that there is maybe a value to be able to learn from different styles. And I think that was very interesting experiment that I've seen recently. A classical guitar player from South Africa, we've never seen a Kora player before, took the music of kora to transcribe it on classical music, and it was just fantastic. The benefit of it is that he was able to transcribe very complex music. For those who know kora music, it is very complex and very subtle, in a way that makes it much more accessible to a larger number of people. For instance, you can read that music, you can say, okay, let me just pick some idea from a kora player and use it in your music or whatever you want to do. Maybe just helping formalize what is coming from the continent, to be able to better share with to the world, and to better value it to the world. That may be something that we might want to think about.

SS: Yes, I agree. It's very important also for our music to be documented in notation. It stands the test of time. It can be studied, it can be made better, it can be reviewed. And there's also so many advantages to what you're saying. So I totally agree with what you're saying,

MD: Oh, guys, I'm here. As you can see, I'm passionate about music. I love it, it is not my profession. But I can appreciate really the importance of it. I think for many reasons, I think that it's a social builder, it influences people much more than anything else, because this is touching to your emotion, many things, you find yourself singing something in the shower, and just those lyrics come back to us all the time. So a lot of the social changes were driven by music you'll see, always the emancipation of black people in the US have been coming from music, you take the fight against apartheid, it was the music, you look at Europe all the movements against dictatorships, and so forth. So this is something that for me is very important. Lastly, it mobilizes the youth. So for me, I would like to push my institution that I have the responsibility for, IFC, to try to look at how we can work more closely with the creative industries, and see what we can do and look at options and opportunities. Which advice would you give me?

SS: I feel like I would like to urge anybody, any creative out there, or anybody, any young person out there who thinks they can be in the creative economy. Savara here did journalism, he is a graduate with honors, Polycarp did actuarial science, Bien-Aimé did broadcast journalism, I did business finance. But we chose art, you know, so art is not for failures. Actually, most people who do art are very well read. So I feel like it's a very good economy and I feel like most young people should just join and let's make it active. The more the merrier. From Sauti Sol, we love you guys.

MD: Thank you so very much for giving me the chance to know you and to chat with you. You're doing great and we are very proud of your success and keep on the great work.

SS: Thank you very much. Bless. Thank you.

MD: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your networks and tell a friend.