K.G. Omulo: Globally Minded Afropop The Kenyan-born singer discusses moving to the U.S. and adapting the music of his homeland into something more cosmopolitan.
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K.G. Omulo: Globally Minded Afropop

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K.G. Omulo: Globally Minded Afropop

K.G. Omulo: Globally Minded Afropop

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Time now for music and the sound of afropop all the way from Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "QUALITY WOMEN")

K.G. OMULO: We're gathered here today to celebrate your great achievements throughout the centuries. You are all so beautiful. Let's dance and groove our troubles away.

RAZ: This is an artist named K.G. Omulo. It's from his first album ever called "Ayah Ye! Moving Train." Omulo came to this country as a young man from Kenya. There, he was already making a name for himself as a singer, but once he arrived here, he was forced to reconsider the music of his homeland and come up with a fresh new hybrid. K.G. Omulo joins me from member station WMFE in Orlando. K.G., welcome to the program.

OMULO: Thank you, Guy, for having me.

RAZ: It's great to have you. This song, I love this song that we're hearing. It's called "Quality Women." And the first thing I thought when I heard it was Fela Kuti. But a lot of the music on this album has sort of elements of Bob Marley. At times, you've got full on rock and roll guitar, sort of Stevie Ray Vaughn style. How would you describe the music that you make?

OMULO: Two words: afro urban music. That's I guess three words, but it's because of my influences. Growing up in Nairobi, which is very metropolitan, and having parents who, like, let me listen to a little bit of everything - I'm talking Eastern, Western African music - and also, they mixed it in with some Motown records. There was Bob Marley, too, and a little bit of The Beatles. So it exposed me to a wide range of sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S A RELIEF")

OMULO: (Singing) It's a relief to be free to do my thing in a place where the sun shines so bright. It's a relief to be free to do my thing in a place where the sun shines so bright so bright now.

RAZ: You moved to the United States just nine years ago from Kenya. That must have been quite a big change, to say the least. What was it like? Where did you first move to, by the way, when you arrived?

OMULO: Yes, it was quite a cultural shift, to put it lightly. I first moved into Rhode Island, Providence, Rhode Island. And it was a mixed bag of adapting quickly and also moving in right before winter. So having to experience the blizzards, the snow, you know...

RAZ: You presumably never experienced that in Kenya.

OMULO: Yes. So it was a lot to handle at the time. And just when you thought it was going to get cold, it got colder.

RAZ: Did it take some time for you to get used to it? Did you experience loneliness?

OMULO: Yes, definitely. Being uprooted from everything you know and having to move from one country to another, it might sound all like a romantic fairytale, but it really isn't. It took time for all of us as a family, especially my siblings, to kind of integrate and find new friends, learn the ropes here and accept it for what it was. You know, it was the sacrifice we decided to make, and now we had to live it, which was another ballgame altogether.

RAZ: You eventually made your way down to Florida, which of course, has a climate that's closer to Kenya than Rhode Island's, and that's where you make your home today. How did you start out making music in Florida?

OMULO: My brother Phillip was also very instrumental in my music journey in Kenya with the a cappella group (unintelligible).

RAZ: That's the way you started your career, as an a cappella...

OMULO: Yes.

RAZ: ...in an a cappella group.

OMULO: Yes. And he managed the group at the time. So we sat down and said, OK, what is the way forward? We are recognizing that this is not Kenya, but we still want to bring in the elements that we grew up with and the music that I'm about to create. So that led into bringing a cross-cultural blend between the musicians who were local in the Orlando music scene and with the music I grew up with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERVENTION")

OMULO: (Singing) Seeking divine intervention, hoping for a miracle, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, when she slides and swipes my Visa there's enough to cover my dinner.

RAZ: I recognized that if I needed a guitar player to play something that was maybe authentically Kenyan, they really didn't play exactly how I had expected them to play, but necessarily, it wasn't something I couldn't use or bring in into the music. It actually created its own hybrid. Just by the sound, the first note that someone strung, got me going. And I thought, you know what? This could easily be it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTERVENTION")

RAZ: I'm speaking with singer-songwriter and band leader K.G. Omulo. His debut album is called "Ayah Ye! Moving Train." You use the word hybrid, and I was thinking of your music as kind of representing this melting pot idea and this afro beat sensibility, Latin , reggae, rock, different languages, something that you hear on the song "Cleary Boulevard."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'CLEARY BOULEVARD")

OMULO: (Singing) Let's go. (Foreign language spoken) Summer hot breeze blows across the streets in the land of milk and honey just like I imagined.

RAZ: This is such a great song. I want to go to Cleary Boulevard, man. Sounds very cool.

OMULO: Yes. That's like a life in Miami, downtown Miami, just living it up and celebrating life to the fullest. I met a lot of musicians who were from different nationalities, and a good friend of mine and also the producer to this record, Ramsees Mechan, has a Hispanic background. His mom is from Puerto Rico, his dad is from Peru. He kind of introduced me to the Spanish music more than I ever had heard in my entire life.

And that, like, brought me closer to, you know, making music that had that kind of feel, Latin flavor. I just wanted to see how well I would do with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLEARY BOULEVARD")

OMULO: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken) Cleary Boulevard, Boulevard. Cleary Boulevard, Boulevard...

RAZ: Have you taken your music back to Kenya?

OMULO: Not as of yet. But that is my intended goal. I, first of all, needed to work on this specific record, see where my vision was and my mission. And now that I quite understand where I'm headed and what I want to do with my music, then now is the time to say, you know what, Kenyan artists? As much as African artists in general really want to expose their arts around the world, Kenya also has a lot of untapped talent.

And it's an avenue to say, you know what? We can look at East Africa, we can look at Kenya, we can look at Uganda, Tanzania and pick out some of the talents in that region too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVING TRAIN")

OMULO: (Singing) Out of sight, out of mind. Revolving doors don't hold. It's best to travel light. Can't stand in the way of progress or in the way of a moving train.

RAZ: That's singer and songwriter K.G. Omulo. His debut album is called "Ayah Ye! Moving Train." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. K.G. Omulo, thank you so much. And congratulations on this record.

OMULO: Thank you, Guy, for having me. It was an honor to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOVING TRAIN")

OMULO: (Singing) I can read those lips just fine. You're killing me inside. What's on your mind is robbing you blind. (Singing in foreign language) I can read those lips just fine. You're killing me inside.

RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcasts. It's also called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or npr.org/weekendatc. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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