The Kenyan musician has just released her newest album, Maia & the Big Sky, a fusion of coastal rhythms, funk, reggae, jazz and folk. She talks to Nomad about rediscovering her Mijikenda roots, and how these have played a big role in her music today.
Tell us about the new album.
Firstly, I am also a filmmaker so my husband and I have spent the past four years filming a documentary in Kilifi county, where my father is from. The Mijikenda coastal music is extremely rich so it has been fascinating reconnecting with my Mijikenda roots, hearing the music, and seeing how it infiltrates my current sound. This album is an exploration of those coastal roots while still retaining all the elements of my personal sound. Some tracks delve into the different aspects of what it is to be Kenyan within the context of this political climate. Other tracks communicate the emotions of being in love and the strength of womankind.
How did your mixed ethnicity impact your sense of identity growing up?
My Mum is German and Italian and my Dad is Kenyan, so initially it was problematic in Kenya because you never really felt like you fitted in. People would constantly undermine my Kenyan background. However, as a young adult I was able to really embrace the fact that I was able to morph and flow into different cultural groups. Kenya is definitely where I feel most comfortable performing. It’s my home, and it’s where I feel most in my element.
Where in the world was your most memorable gig?
One of my most memorable gigs was at the Harare International Festival in Zimbabwe. All the performers were staying in the same hotel, so while we were staying there, we had continuous jam sessions 24/7 in the hotel lobby. It was a lot of fun. Usually, artists reside separately from each other, so getting that opportunity to meet so many musicians from all over and getting to collaborate and play together off stage was great.
Where is your dream destination to play?
I think that would have to be Europe. As we’ve played in so many locations already, I think that Europe would have to be one of the places that we haven’t played yet at all. I would also like to play in wider Africa. We have performed a great deal in East Africa and South Africa, but I’m curious to go to West Africa and find out what’s happening on the music scene there. It would be a great opportunity to see how the East and West can collaborate more, and trade musical ideas.
What is your experience of performing to audiences outside of Kenya?
Being mixed-race and having a European name as a Kenyan musician puts me in an undefined category within the music scene. Internationally, when I am announced as a Kenyan artist, those who have not been exposed to East African music come into my set expecting West African sounds which proves to be a bit of a barrier. On the flip side though, when people come to my shows they get to have a taste of not only a different East African sound, but also get to just enjoy my set and my story. I am not one thing or another in terms of where my genre of music sits, so I am glad when people get to know all the different sides to me and my music for the first time.
How did you get these opportunities to play overseas?
Playing to different cultural audiences is something I have always known is important for my career but because of my mixed ethnic identity and music identity it can be difficult to infiltrate certain spaces. I have spent days, probably weeks, researching labels, festivals and conferences that I feel would be interested in my music and participation. For festivals within Africa, I often get told that my music is not quite ‘African enough,’ while jazz and blues festivals say it isn’t quite ‘jazz enough.’ Being in that in-between space can be quite tough, which is why applying to anything and everything all over the world has become a regular practice for me as a way to tap into different parts of the music industry. Opportunities beget opportunities, so I have had the privilege of meeting and partnering with different people from these festivals who have enjoyed and believed in my music.
What do you want people to take away from “Maia and The Big Sky”?
The first thing I would want people to take from it is just the diversity of Kenyan music. There are so many styles and ways of making music within this country. I would like people to hear and explore all the different threads that make me. I also don’t want people to get too caught up in categories of genre or influence and be able to just immerse themselves in the music itself and let it resonate with them in a personal way.
As told to Wanja Wohoro