Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We end this hour with music from Kenya, where the most popular band among young people is Sauti Sol. Yet the musicians have a grown-up message: Get an education, respect your parents, lead this nation - and don't trust the police. NPR's John Burnett has their story.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The members of Sauti Sol are rehearsing in a cramped recording studio above a chapati restaurant, off a noisy highway in Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND REHEARSAL)

UNIDENTIFIED SAUTI SOL MEMBER #1: (Singing) I wanna be with you, to love and to hold. But you know I say no...

UNIDENTIFIED SAUTI SOL MEMBER #2: Yeah, I like that.

BURNETT: Baraza, Delvin and Chimano, the founding members - all 25 years old - have been friends since they sang together in a gospel ensemble in high school. When they graduated in 2005, they didn't want to stop singing. So they formed Sauti Sol - sauti, Swahili for voice; and sol, Spanish for sun. They were voices of light.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND REHEARSAL)

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) I wanna be with you, you, my love. Baby, you're sweeter than honey....

BURNETT: They wrote songs, and rehearsed for three years before releasing their first CD, "Mwanzo," in 2008, which sold well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUTI SOL SONG, "WAZIZI")

BURNETT: When the band made its debut, the music scene in Nairobi was dominated by DJs playing party music. Sauti took a different approach, and formed a new sound. It was rare to find a young band that crafted live music onstage with rich, three-part harmonies, says Buddha Blaze, a well-known Kenyan music promoter.

BUDDHA BLAZE: They were the first that actually sang; the first from that generation of young Kenyans who were actually singing and telling stories. So obviously, they were different because wow, here are some young people who don't want to be rappers. (LAUGHTER)

BURNETT: Every member of the band is a college graduate. In the song "Soma Kijana," they urge young people to pursue an education. In "Asante Baba," they thank fathers who raise their families instead of abandoning them. And there is "Awinja," written by Bien Aime Baraza.

BIEN AIME BARAZA: And it's a tribute to all the African women who go to work abroad. And they do all sorts of odd jobs, and they send money home. And their kids are able to go to school; their families are able to have better lives. Awinja is my mother's name. She sacrificed - she went abroad when I was really young; when I was in high school. I was 15. And she left Kenya, and she's never come back since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUTI SOL SONG, "AWINJA")

BURNETT: Another of the band's hits is "Blue Uniform," about police misconduct. It's popular, says guitarist Polycarp Otieno, because so many of their fans have had run-ins with the cops.

POLYCARP OTIENO: They're really tough. Like, when they get you in the streets, they really harass you. And they take bribes - a lot - in Kenya.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE UNIFORM")

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) Hey, you, in the blue uniform. If I have wronged you, I will reform. (Foreign language)

BURNETT: There's an opening in Kenyan society today to sing about sensitive topics, that there didn't used to be. Under the strongman Daniel arap Moi - who retired from politics in 2002 - such subjects were forbidden, says saxophonist and baritone Willis Chimano.

WILLIS CHIMANO: Now, you can stand and criticize the president really harshly, and you can get away with it. The media freedom nowadays would be unthinkable just 10 years ago.

BURNETT: There are still limits, and Sauti occasionally learns just how far it can push social criticism. A few years ago, the musicians had their first live radio interview. And they began singing this song:

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) Police are shooting, police are shooting innocent people, and the women crying 'cause their sons are dying, and we just don't care anymore.

CHIMANO: And after we sang that song - the owner of the station is a billionaire - and he just called 'cause his friends are the police. And he said, why are you singing those stupid things on my radio? I'll kill you! Never come back to my station again. Get out!

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

BURNETT: On a lazy Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Nairobi, Sauti Sol is playing an outdoor concert. People are sprawled on blankets, sipping wine, puffing water pipes, and swaying to the beat. The musicians have done small tours in Africa and Europe, and appeared twice at South by Southwest in Austin. But this is their favorite crowd. For all the political themes in the band's music, it's the love songs that seem to touch many fans - like Beldina Gikundi, a 27-year-old doctor who works in refugee camps.

BELDINA GIKUNDI: They're Kenyan, authentic Kenyan; and the fact that they sing in Swahili most of their songs, and the romance that comes out in their music - it's about love and relationships and women, and all that. I think it's what makes them so good. And of course, they can sing really, really well.

BURNETT: Kenya is a very young nation. The median age is between 18 and 19, for both male and female. The moldering political class is decidedly middle-aged and older. Sauti Sol, with its tremendous following, feels a certain responsibility to address its generation.

BARAZA: We speak to a critical mass in this country.

BURNETT: Again, songwriter and tenor Bien Aime Baraza.

BARAZA: A lot of the people we speak to are young. And injecting some moral obligation into them, is one of our biggest goals. And in every album we do, there is a song that is just about a new generation.

BURNETT: A new generation that thinks differently about this turbulent country, and about how to be citizens and parents. As the song says, it's the Sauti Sol generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOL GENERATION")

SAUTI SOL: (Singing) We are the leaders of tomorrow. We will lead, and they will follow. So don't you listen when they tell you, 'cause you're bigger than you think you are.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOL GENERATION")

BURNETT: So don't you put down your brother 'cause together you are stronger...

SIMON: And you can watch a performance by Sauti Sol, on nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.