Sometimes I wish I could turn to Google Translate and learn how to say ‘‘this song goes hard’’ in 5 different vernaculars. Unfortunately for me, Google Translate does not list any Kenyan vernacular languages. It is 2023 and I barely know anyone my age who can fluently speak their mother tongue. The majority of the multi-linguists in my inner and outer circles are of the born town I-don’t-speak-but-I-can-understand variety, with the exception of a few outliers here and there who in adulthood, clocked in the painstaking time and effort to learn a new tongue so far removed from the Western lingua francas of English, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch and et cetera conditioned into our common psyche as the languages we as Africans should aspire to learn for a more global appeal.
Growing up in an ethnically mixed English-speaking household, it was unfortunate (now that I think about it) that Taita was reserved for the truly elderly back in shagz. Picture the old lady in the hut whom the village grapevine claimed was a witch, who only spoke the most rudimentary Kiswahili. Whereas Kikuyu was reserved for when my mother and her sisters wanted to gossip about grown folk business without the ears of nosy children, following their every word and running off to play broken-telephone with whatever tidbits they picked up from their parent’s conversations at the risk of igniting a family feud.
This dialectic mise en scene was only ever broken by music: the alto-soprano of my mother singing Taita hymns as she packs for a trip, a language not native to her Agikuyu heritage. Tabu Ley Rochereu’s honey voice wafting Lingala lyrics from the living room, my father controlling the sound selection of the evening.
All of these came back to me on 21 February 2023 as the world marked the International Mother Language Day, a day first recognised by UNESCO in 1999 – to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, multilingualism and the preservation of language. Largely since neither me nor most of my friends can string together a sentence in any of our native tongues, a fear looms over my head; the fear that by the next couple of generations, indigenous dialects will be a thing of the past for the ‘born-towns’, a collective noun used to refer to the generations of youth raised behind gates in the estates, apartments, and cul-de-sacs of metropolitan urban areas. It’s not completely our fault. 844 really did a number on us when teachers would wrap their wooden canes around one’s palm and backside for speaking their mother tongue rather than the English of the curriculum.
However, if I’m pointing fingers, I’m pointing the fattest one at colonialism and its hangover effects. A UNICEF report published in 2016 describes the colonial origins of Kenyans’ bias towards the English language. As the language of the rulers, English was seen as a revered, powerful and prestigious language, while the mother tongues were to be used “for mundane communicative needs” in the private sphere.
As Kenya shifted into its post-colonial era, these biases proved to be firmly entrenched in our collective psyches. It is therefore common for many to make fun of people who shrub, where the accent of their vernacular speech meets the English they were taught in school.
As a society, we hold in high esteem individuals who can hold a conversation with The King of England without the ghost of their first native language creeping past their teeth á la group of schools. The English speaker is viewed as modern and progressive compared to the tongue shrubber, in a Charles Njonjo-esque dystopian lens of culture and communication. The now deceased Former Attorney General once sneered at nationalists’ efforts to make Kiswahili Kenya’s national language. He referred to Kiswahili as a concoction of Arabic phrases with an inadequate vocabulary, arguing that admitting Kiswahili into the parliamentary floor would “make this house like that of Babel, because nobody would understand whatever the other said”, insisting that Kenyans should “avoid as much as possible an attempt which would make us narrow in our outlook”.
Me, my friends, and many more millennials and Gen Zs are currently in the throes of an epidemic of cultural cognitive dissonance. However, in a world that has evolved to snugly fit in the palm of a hand, as long as one has access to the internet, the narrative that local vernaculars are the language of the villagers, the uneducated and the tribalist is slowly unraveling itself. Ngugi Wa Thiongo is arguably the biggest thought-leader pushing the vernacular agenda by addressing global audiences in Kikuyu, never one to assimilate to the white man’s language of ceremony.
On the youthfront, music is what is democratizing the mother tongue. Trailblazing artists are blending mainstream and counterculture genres with their first languages, making vernacular cool again (for me). These musicians paving the avante-garde are injecting the language of their heritage into a vision of the future which comes together in a soluble emulsion to form the present… because if a track goes hard it goes hard. Regardless of the language of the lyrics. However, you might find that vernacular serves to add rich cultural texture to an already banging beat, scratching the deep ancestral part of your soul you didn’t even know was itching.
Here are five tracks which effortlessly fuse the magic of the ancestral with musical elements of the modern age. Because who are we if not the children of our mothers?
- Ndunde – Akhasamba Lukale (Luhya Drill)
In a video shot somewhere near Naivasha, off the corner of Kaniu Drive and Goat Road, Akhasamba Lukale effortlessly blends the punchy basslines and ominous melodies reminiscent of the United Kingdom’s drill, with Luhya lyricism dripping off his tongue. Singing in the Luhya dialect of Marama, the song is about the daily problems one may face, particularly the ones that led to the death of one Ndunde – the titular character of the track.
The word ‘Luhya’ is some dialects translates to ‘the north’ hence ‘Abaluhya’, the collective noun used to refer to the Bantu community from Western Kenya, means ‘people of the North’, while other dialectic translations translate it to ‘those of the same hearth’. Various Luhya sub groups speak distinct dialects depending on the speaker’s locale. There are 6 mutually interchangeable Luhya dialects, namely: Marama (AbaMarama), Hanga (OluWanga), Tsotso (OluTsoTso), Kisa (OluShisa), Kabras (LuKabarasi) and East Nyala (LuNyala).
The rapper Akhasamba Lukale, formerly known as Flow Harry, spent most of his life in Makongeni Estate in Eastlands, where he and his family migrated to after a childhood spent in Butere, Kakamega County. He was inspired to switch to rapping in his mother tongue after seeing how Gidi Gidi Maji Maji toured the world by chanting their hit tracks in their own native tongue of Dholuo. After Nairobi had failed to provide him with the life he wanted, Akhasamba Lukale packed his bags for Bukura Village, Kakamega County – which is where viral stardom found him when Kenyan netizens discovered the world of Lunje Drill.
2. Leko – Unganisha Music (Dholuo Electropop)
Unganisha is a cross-cultural duo comprising Labdi Ommes on vocals and the Orutu – the one stringed fiddle native to the Luo tribe, and Norwegian Bernt Isak on the instrumentation, blending the zaggering synths and transient melodies of Electropop with colourful Dholuo mysticism.
The animated music video tells a story of a girl who is transported to another dimension after an encounter with a magic stone. Her ancestors portend an omen that they cannot protect her from what’s coming, a man with burning purple eyes who cracks open her mind and sends her flying in a delirious euphoria. She wakes up. It was just a dream…or a nightmare. The song itself is laced with metaphorical adages, “The sheep that has raised its horns to fight resembles you, so in order as to play with it we must play with you.”
According to the 2009 census, the Western Nilotic Dholuo dialect or Nilotica Kavirondo is spoken by around 4.2 million people between Kenya and Tanzania, who occupy parts of the Eastern shore of Lake Victoria and areas to its south.
3. Ayrosh – Githambutha ft. Xtatic (Kikuyu R&B / Amapiano)
‘Githambutha’ loosely translates to ‘samosa’, delicious triangular shaped pastries stuffed with your meat or veg of choice, sometimes even with cheese. With the accompaniment of sultry guitar strings and an oiled up video vixen dancing in slow motion, the song is tongue in cheek with a video disclaimer that ‘this is a song about food’, jumping the lines between Mugithi, R&B and Amapiano with its unmistakable log drums.
Through Ayrosh’s husky voice – even if you don’t speak the Kikuyu language – you can tell that the food in reference is an innuendo to a more NSFW style of eating, tableside manners disregarded. And they say Kikuyu men are not romantic… this one literally wants to fold you and eat you like a samosa.
Ayrosh is a folk and fusion singer/songwriter who sings in his vernacular language of Agikuyu. In a podcast interview with the industry’s Anyiko Owoko, Ayrosh mentions how his motivation for singing in Kikuyu stems from a drive to push African positiveness and to inspire other Africans to be proud of themselves, their language and their culture.
The Kikuyu language hails from the Central Province of Kenya and has nearly 6.6 million speakers, according to the 2009 census. It has three mutually interchangeable dialects: Gichugu (Mũrang’a), Mathira (Nyeri) and Ndia (Kiambu).
4. Tsapi – Ziller Bas and Flexfab ft. Le Motel (Giriama Wave)
‘Tsapi’ is used to describe the feeling of a ground that is so hot, it burns your feet. In his very own dialect christened ‘Swengflow’, Kilifi-native Ziller Bas employs a combination of English, Swahili and his native language of Kigiriama to taunt his haters, suggesting that they should walk faster, the ground is hot.
With Swiss Producer Flexfab’s gritty bass lines and off-kilter trap-style drums, the song oscillates between the murky soundscapes and the arpeggiated harmonies of wave music, with Ziller Bas’ lyricism serving as a tutorial on how to block out the haters in Giriama.
The Giriama language has approximately 950,000 native speakers and is spoken by The Giriama Community who traditionally hail from the area bordered by the counties of Mombasa and Kilifi, up until the last stretch of Malindi town, as well as the inland towns of Mariakani and Kaloleni . The Giriama community make up one of the 9 Mijikenda sub-tribes, namely: Giriama, Digo, Duruma, Kauma, Kambe, Ribe, Rabai, Jibana, and Chonyi. The Giriama are the largest of these ethnic sub-groups.
5. Danganya Toto – Nabalayo (Swahili Altè)
In her bio, Nabalayo cites herself as a fairy godmother creating ethereal music that explores futuristic sound all while paying homage to her African roots. As a part time ethnomusicologist, Nabalayo is pioneering her own style which she calls ‘Changanya’, a Kiswahili word which means ‘to mix’, oscillating between Jazz, Rock and Afro-Indie music.
While ‘Danganya Toto’ maintains elements of altè, a style of music born in West Africa that blends afro-beats with genres like alternative R&B or dancehall- this track draws from the age-old spring of traditional Taarab with it’s slow-dance pace and hazy erotic Kiswahili lyricism on the games we play in the pursuit of love and intimacy. ‘Danganya Toto’ and its glittery percussion are a slow creeping vine merging the ancient world of Taarab with the 21st century sexiness of alternative R&B.
Because it is Kenya’s national language, many forget that Kiswahili first started as vernacular due to the increased contact of Arab Slave Traders and the Bantu Inhabitants of the East African Coast, as well as the intermarriage of the two communities. Kiswahili is one of three official languages (the others being English and French) of the East African Community (EAC) countries, namely Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. There are currently more than 200 million speakers of swahili in existence.
Listen to these songs in this Spotify playlist, ’Native Tongues: Vernacular Meets Modern’: