It is a warm Tuesday evening and my whole being would rather be nowhere else but The Blues Restaurant on Loita Street in downtown Nairobi. And so I make my way to Barclays Plaza, getting off my taxi on the Market Street side of the building. Once in the high ceiling hallway, my footsteps echo as I make my way to the very steep staircase leading to the lower ground floor joint which has a bunker feel to it. This was going to be a short and possibly life-threatening descent since one misstep on the flight of stairs would easily lead to a dislocated spinal disc. Crossing the threshold, pieces of glass-stained art welcome me to the cozy wooden-floored section of the space. Monochromatic images of Miles Davis on his trumpet and John Coltrane on his sax, all in iconic poses, hang among photos of other Blues greats.
I sit at a table near the dimly lit stage. I spot an old friend, a well-known Rock DJ in Nairobi’s tiny circle of rockers. ‘Hey Edy’ I say with a wave over the lyrics of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag. I am audible since the music isn’t so loud yet. There’s a small number of people in the surrounding tables. It could be too early in the week to go out. But hey, no judgement.
Most of those deemed regulars of The Blues either stumbled upon the place by chance or were beckoned by ads of a guitar solo that promised to take its audience on a journey of a thousand notes. On most days, classical Blues ooze out of speakers, and on occasion a little mix of Jazz and Congolese Rhumba come up on certain days of the week.
However, Tuesdays were extra special at The Blues, especially for Nairobi’s dated Rock community. The veterans show up and you can tell of their frequent attendance from the number of people they greet. They pick-up conversations from where they left off as they move around the spot with such ease. You may be forgiven for mistaking them for management.
Edy, my DJ friend, keeps the hits coming. A few requests for karaoke roll in. Guys in their early and mid 20s dressed in official attire save for loosened ties and unbuttoned shirts gather in a circle and go crazy shaking their heads in all manner of ways as they let the music take control.
In a moment of hesitation, I take a chance and join in on the action. I am aware of the consequences which could render my neck movement obsolete for the next few days. Contrary to popular opinion, these Rock heads were not donned in all black leather with dark makeup on pale faces, coming complete with piercings and tattoos mimicking their musical idols.
We take a break from the mosh pit at 10PM. The music gets softer and less aggressive, and heads cool off over small talk and laughter, with the unruly of the lot ordering shots of something stronger in readiness for the next dance session. It is my cue to leave. With an early morning to look forward to and pending deadlines to beat, I could not run the risk of having a hung-over look in the mid-week office brief. I bid Edy farewell but before I pick my bag, I hear a ‘Same time next week?’ ‘Of course’, I answer as I step out.
After weeks of Tuesday Rock at The Blues, the crowd keeps growing, and Tuesday can no longer suffice. This is how the Saturday Rock karaoke is born.
From the word go, the Saturday night numbers don’t disappoint. The atmosphere is forever buzzed, louder than Tuesday nights. After months of this niceness, suddenly The Blues pulls the plug on both Saturday and Tuesday Rock. No one is prepared for this ‘sudden death’. It turns out the large numbers of Rockers weren’t reflecting on the cash register.
‘One of the reasons why Rock isn’t popular in Nairobi is because rockers don’t chafua meza when it comes to buying drinks,’’ DJ Eddy gave me this revelation over the phone when we caught up days later. ‘You can have the crowd but most of these guys are young and still in school, very few are working.’
Back in high school, Saturday afternoons were spent at the school hall. It was the only time we had to feel connected to the outside world away from books, not with current events but music. The entertainment Captain would cruise through the channels in an attempt to find the most suitable music content. On most occasions, the search culminated at Trace TV.
A few Rock songs would play and I couldn’t help but notice a select group of students singing along in possessed fashion, banging their heads in the air. Being a ‘90s RnB fan, this was new to me. I was curious to understand this ‘possessive’ music. ‘Since you’ve been gone, I can breathe for the first time…’ these were the words I caught on to from Kelly Clarkson’s hit song at the time, titled Since You’ve Been Gone. The words took me back to when my 17 year old self left a troubled relationship, yes I was young, naive and dumb. That was my situation at the time and this singer narrated it in her entire song. I was blown away. This is the day I became a believer.
Back home, the radio frequency was always on 105.5 X FM whenever I was in charge. A dedicated playlist of classical hits and new music kept me up to date with new releases from my new favorite bands. I was always making discoveries and updating my list of favourites.
There is no doubt that the early 2000s was the best time to be a Rock head. Numerous TV show theme songs and movie soundtracks were laced with this music. One Tree Hill, a popular teen drama at the time, had Gavin DeGraw’s I Don’t Want to Be playing at the beginning of every episode. Smallville, which followed the life of the hero Superman had Save Me by Remy Zero, and so on.
Years later after school, other genres dominated the airwaves with time. My musical taste became more accommodative, often moving with what was hot at the time. Being a night life veteran, Kanairo has proven considerate providing spots that cater for different musical needs. My favorite watering hole which happens to be my local, 1824, always got me covered with Amapiano Fridays for the culture, a mix of chart-topping tunes on Saturdays, Sunday School Sundays to end the week and Reggae Mondays to start me off on mellow vibes. However, finding a place that plays Rock, even just on a single night of the week, has been a daunting task. With plenty of local artists in this genre, it is a surprise there still isn’t a hub for Rockers to call their own.
In the mid-2000s, one of the biggest rock events was born. Rocktoberfest took place at the Carnivore grounds and featured both established and breakout Kenyan Rock artists. Years down the line, the event became less popular. Getting sponsorship and venues was a problem.
However, be that as it may, the Kenyan Rock scene has refused to surrender. Online platforms such as Heavy and the Beast has continued to highlight events in the local Rock scene for about a decade now, going as far as putting out its own version of the Grammys.
Then there are the bands. Rish the Rocker alias Nairobi’s Queen of Rock stuns many with her vocals and flow, performing to audiences as far as Germany and Angola. 20 More Days, an alternative pop/rock band keeps being vocal about social issues. Boy band Rash has kept growing their dominance in the scene since inception in 2013, while Kanyeki Band has broken barriers with Kikuyu Christian Rock. Ndingihota Ngutararia, you’ll hear them sing.
What’s there to do or say but take our hats off to the die hard Rock fans who keep organizing gigs to keep the masses going. During the pandemic, Kivulini studios in Ngong has been providing a performance platform for acts. The Tav at The Mirage continues giving rockers room to enjoy their music every Wednesday, served by DJ Edygrim, my pal from back at The Blues. This could be the start of something great. To all my fellow rockers, in the words of the famous David Bowie, ‘I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring’.