Bear with me: Joseph Kamaru did not give birth to himself (I said bear with me). Rather, his son gave birth to him. An ambient/experimentally electronic iteration of him. Like grandfather, like grandson. Joseph Kamaru of Kangema, Muranga, was one of the greatest Kikuyu folk musicians who ever lived. He recorded, give or take, around 1000 songs throughout his career, and as the popularity of cassettes rose in the 1980s, so did Kamaru’s – having sold over half a million records by the ‘80s, a figure I reckon has more than doubled ever since.
In a career that spans from a freshly-independent Kenya circa 1965 up until his death on 3 October 2018, the legendary Joseph Kamaru walked the earth as a giant on the Benga music scene. In the late 1980s, Joseph Kamaru broke ethno-racial glass ceilings by becoming the first Kenyan musician to perform at the landmark Carnivore Restaurant, at a time when only foreign artists were deemed worthy enough to grace its stage. Martin Dunford, chairman of the Tamarind Group which owns the Carnivore Restaurant, recalled to The Nation a night of intoxication as much by Joseph Kamaru’s nimble guitar and coffee-flavored voice, as by the rounds of muratina flowing with ease – the traditional brew of the Kikuyu. Kamaru’s performance at the Carnivore was a watershed moment for Kenyan artists in the ‘80s, as it opened the doors for opportunity and due recognition.
In this second half of the interview, the critically acclaimed grandson of Joseph Kamaru, also named Joseph Kamaru but more commonly known as the experimental and ambient DJ/Producer KMRU, reminisces on his grandfather’s legacy and how his music lives forever in the digital realm of Bandcamp, where KMRU has archived around 40 of his grandfather’s albums.
Joseph Kamaru (the first) has largely been lauded as Kenya’s ‘Jim Reeves’. Now more than 40 years later, his grandson KMRU is less Kenya’s Jim Reeves and more Kenya’s ‘Brian Eno’- a nod to the British composer and grandfather of ambient music. KMRU’s soundscapes are sonic ambient moods built on fragments of place, time and memory through ethereally layered textures of electronically processed field recordings.
Q: What was the project that changed the course of your career?
‘Peel’. I made this record during COVID. 2020 was a very interesting year. I had a plan to come to Europe because Ableton invited me to Europe for their festival, and then the pandemic hit and those plans got shattered. I had just finished uni and applied for my M.A here in Berlin. I made Peel during this time. I didn’t expect it to get that big. This record just changed everything about my career.
Q: Locally and internationally, who are your influences and how did they influence you?
Slikback has been one major influence. I met him in 2017 and I knew of his music and I was inspired by what he was doing with sound and how different it was from what I do. I mention him a lot because I think he’s one of the artists who’s kilometers far from how most people think about sound and what everyone is doing.
Leon Omondi/ Manchi!ld/ Debe. He’s one of the closest friends/producers I have. We understand each other on a very sonic level and we also do such different things with music. He produces for Chris Kaiga and it’s very inspiring knowing him because of how he thinks. He’s very smart.
There’s this DJ, she’s called Rezz. When I was getting into production I think she was 19 or something, and I was just so obsessed with what she was making. Now she’s so big and I remember when she was producing in her bedroom. It’s fun to see her grow this way.
Also, my grandfather’s music, because I grew up listening to him.
Q: Your grandfather is the famed Joseph Kamaru. You mentioned how you grew up listening to his music. In a way, you share a name (even though yours has less vowels) and you share a mission. What would you say that mission is? And how did he influence you?
Just as a person, because I knew him more as my grandfather than as a musician. Or rather, I didn’t see that side of him much, until people in high school and uni were like, “are you related to Kamaru?” and I realized that it was becoming important that I know my grandfather as a musician.
I started seeing him more and we would play guitar together because a guy in his band was teaching me how to play guitar. I think about the stuff he was singing about a lot. When he passed, I started releasing his music and I was listening to his music a lot and seeing how his music was politically and socially engaging.
Some of my works, actually all my school projects, end up being political or engaging with a specific topic or discourse that I want to put across through sound, because sound can have a meaningful impact and my grandfather’s music was like this. All the music he put out was so immense and I think he was genuine, like very honest with what he was making and I think I inherited that from him as a human being and a musician.
He was just making art for the people.
Q: Before he passed, did he ever get a chance to listen to the music you’re making as you’re making it now?
He listened to the house stuff that I was making early on when I was getting into production. He was so happy that I was into music and that his grandson was taking the same direction as him. He used to come home and talk to me about music, about life, about his career. I played him some of the music I was making on FL Studio and he thought the technology was so advanced. He always wanted me to get in the studio with actual musicians and I think he was more of a purist about how music should be made, because he was always like, “this technology is moving too fast for me,” because he would see me play guitar sounds on a piano.
Q: And you’re full Kikuyu, yeah?
Q: Does your Kikuyu heritage influence the music you make in any way?
I think in terms of the culture itself, not the language or the text. It’s not like my grandfather who was singing in Kikuyu where his means of expression was with the language itself. For me, it’s going deeper into the culture’s concepts of traditions. For example, I learnt that the Kikuyu calendar was different from the normal calendar hence time was experienced differently. Or that Kikuyus, and I think Kambas too, don’t have a tense for the future or a word they say which means ‘future’. So things like this, and then I try to think about how I can express that through sound; trying to understand the community’s ways of being and finding an element that I can borrow and work around.
Q: If your grandfather was alive now, what’s one question you’d really want to ask him? And how do you think he would answer?
I think first he’d be proud of me. Sometimes I wish my guka was here to see what’s happening and I think I’d just ask him about how his life was as a musician. I knew him more on a familial level and I think I would like to hear more of his travels and stories of him being the Joseph Kamaru and how that was for him as a musician.
I started having these conversations with him when he was almost passing away because that’s when I was getting into music, so we almost missed each other.
Q: So moving away from your grandfather, you’re based in Berlin and most of the labels you publish with are Berlin-based. What are your thoughts on Kenya’s recording industry or lack thereof and the current creative scene right now?
I don’t think it’s hard being an artist in Nairobi because I know artists who’ve built their names locally and on tour. For example, Slikback started making music from home and he’s still based in Kenya, but he’s working from a home context on a very global level. The system does not necessarily offer tools but there’s also so much possibility within the limitation.
When I moved here to Berlin is when I realized that, “okay, these people just have so much stuff.” Musically, like with equipment and all this stuff. It changes how artists in Berlin make things because they have so much access and sometimes I feel like it’s actually too much.
In Nairobi, it’s different. Whenever I bought something I would just go deep into it, kabisa, and I saw this with Leon as well. I usually go to his house when I’m back home and whenever I show him an instrument or a device, he’d go deeper into it and want to understand it on a more concrete level.
Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to navigate through the Kenyan industry because there isn’t much support. But also I think being in Nairobi is being appreciative of spaces like The Mist because there are many spaces like that here, where people just play and it’s not about the money. it’s just about the music and the scene, and artists being in the same space and enjoying this kind of music.
I always had this dream of just having a space where people can play anything they want because I think that’s the most important thing. And the scene in Nairobi is very homogenous, when I started going out I realized that I was listening to the same music every weekend until it made me wonder why I was going out every weekend. It’s not exciting. It’s not mind-blowing. I knew the DJ’s tracklist because they always played the same thing. So coming back home again, I saw a lot of the same DJs and I thought to myself, “things have to change.”
Here in Berlin, from Monday to Monday, there are really exciting artists playing and you even go out and question yourself like, “Am I doing the right thing?” Because I’m just so mind-blown. The first time I was in Berlin, it was just so much to see and I’d always think, “Wow, people are actually doing amazing stuff!” because it’s all so different. I appreciate Nairobi now because there’s a new generation of artists experimenting and doing all sorts of music and I think things are changing.
The Nairobi Ableton User Group was a way for me to show that there are other kinds of music and tools that one can explore. The Nairobi Ableton User Group was a way for guys like me and Leon and Mr. Lu to share ideas, outside the main ideas, that artists get to experience and explore.
Q: It’s a bathroom? I wondered why that space looked so familiar…
It’s just a small bathroom and they have these speakers and a camera. DJs just go there.
Q: You talked about your St. Petersburg set and I want to know, what’s the best set you’ve ever played? Like your best night out, where you’ve played a set and everything just aligned and it was just great. Where was it and why was it so great?
There’s one I played at the beginning of last year. At first, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna do it because it was a 3-hour show with a full orchestra, The London City Orchestra, in a space called The Barbican in London.
I never play sets that long so I was like, “how am I gonna play a 3-hour set?”
But I got so emotional at some point when I was playing with the LCO (London City Orchestra) and time went by so quickly. When it was finished, I couldn’t believe that I had done that for 3 hours. Time flew so quickly because I was just so in it: there were so many emotions happening and just being with other musicians just felt amazing. It was so beautiful.
Another one was part of a tour I did in the US. Last year, I toured with a band and another musician. The whole tour with Big Thief was special in so many ways. We played so many shows and I really enjoyed just being with them on the road. They’re an indie band and we play different music and I was playing in these spaces where people don’t know what to expect, they’ve come to see Big Thief. I came back home like, “wah, how did I do that?” Sometimes we do things and you wonder, “how is your body capable of doing all of this?”
Q: Who are you dying to collaborate with?
I was thinking about that today. There’s this artist, she’s called Nala Sinephro. There’s this record I was listening to today and I think I really want to make music with her. She’s the one at the top of my mind at the moment but there’s a long list.
Q: You mentioned that guys are much weirder in Berlin and there’s all these exciting things happening from Monday to Monday. Could you paint a picture of what the creative scene is like in Berlin? And how does it influence you?
I think Berlin is a very cultural city. It’s a city which offers a lot and you have to know how much you want to take in, because there’s so much art, so much fashion, all sorts of creative things happening here. I usually say that if you think of any idea, no matter how weird or extreme it might be, there’s already people in Berlin doing it.
When I started going out in Berlin, I realized that I was meeting the same people or I knew I would see or bump into certain people at certain events and I would feel like I’m part of something; like you’re part of this scene…whatever that is.
And there’s just a lot in Berlin. On a Friday, you’ll catch a big artist’s show and then maybe on a Wednesday evening, you can go to a bar where there’s this weird jazz experimental drummer playing, and then maybe on a Monday night, you can just go to this chill ambient bar where you have to remove your shoes, or on a Sunday, you can go to this art exhibition where there’s weird things happening. It’s just a lot. People move to Berlin to become artists but there’s just so much art here that sometimes, you begin questioning yourself as an artist.
Q: Who are the people, and or organizations who have been the most supportive to you on this journey?
My mum. She’s the one who’s seen me put in the hours in Nairobi. At like 3 am when I’m just making things in my bedroom, she would come in and ask me, “why are you not eating?” She’s been super supportive. My small brother too. Everything I make I give him to listen to, even if it’s raw.
My booking agent, Karin. She’s like my mum and I appreciate her a lot. I wouldn’t be doing all that I’m doing without her because she handles so much and I appreciate that she’s there for me. I have a friend, Layla, when I was getting into music she was the one fully supporting me. She pushed me to do my thing and she’s seen me grow on so many different levels. Also, Nyokabi Kariuki. These people have really got my back.
For organizations, Ableton has been super supportive.
Q: I want to circle back to your grandfather for a moment. I read somewhere that you were re-issuing his music on bandcamp, did you succeed?
After he passed, I decided to put his music online in 2019. I put out a lot on Bandcamp and it’s grown and developed its own voice. It’s a very personal project that needs its own time to grow.
Q: But some of it is already on Bandcamp?
I think I’ve uploaded like 40 albums so far. Every Wednesday since 2019, I would go through my grandfather’s archives, and just digitize them and archive them. After I finished uni, that was my project for a year and a half.
Q: What are you currently working on and what’s next?
School stuff. I need to finish my M.A, that’s my main priority. I have so much music to share this year, I think I’m just gonna release a lot.
Q: Do you know when you’re coming back to Kenya?
I might come back in February for the INSHA Project launch. When I finish my master’s, I want to be based here and travel back and forth.
Q: Tell me about the INSHA project.
When COVID happened and the workshops with the Nairobi User Ableton Group had to pause, Leon and I decided to make something physical. We wrote a proposal to Ableton about releasing a vinyl album and got a grant. It’s been in the works for 2 years and being able to do this, thinking of an idea and then making it happen- it has been very special. I’m grateful for that. I think INSHA is just one of the publications that we are doing and the User Group is becoming more than just a workshop space. To more and bigger projects, hopefully.
Q: Will it be on streaming platforms?
It will only be available on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and vinyl for now.