Athieno is your quintessential African fusion artist. Numerous musical genres and influences ooze out of her songs, softly kneaded and layered together to leave just enough room for one final fundamental ingredient – a unique signature sound which combines her arresting vocals and her deceptively simple songwriting. The results of this two-pronged creative process are usually easily digestible songs that slowly seep into the brain and gently tug the heartstrings.
While going by the stage moniker of annieSoul, the first major project released for public consumption by the Berklee College of Music alumnus was a series of acapella cover versions of mostly classic Kenyan tunes. The 2013 acapella covers series showcased Athieno’s ability to adapt and reimagine a diverse range of sounds. The only traces of that series currently available on the internet are this cover of the Kenyan national anthem and this one of Zamjobe Sithole’s Ndawo Yami.
Her latest project is a nine-track album entitled IaM, released in April 2016. As the title suggests, this project is a creative opposite of her covers series. Instead of exploring the thoughts and sounds of others, this album is a journey back to herself. A three year journey that saw Athieno take on the multiple roles of singer, songwriter, producer and engineer; and eventually self-releasing the album. She blogged: “What I didn’t realize is that this project would birth something deeper – a kind of rebirth of myself. Through the roller coaster ride of emotions I experienced while writing and recording I came to discover the significance of self-love, self-acceptance, and self-validation.”
IaM begins with Sukuma Wiki, a self-assessing tale about poverty using the very familiar narrative of a months’ long diet of ugali and sukuma wiki without any signs of meat on the menu. Taken on their own, the lyrics paint a grim and desperate picture; but the ironically upbeat and danceable beats that accompany them suggests that there is more to this song than an endless cycle of terrible meals or (if you choose to think symbolically) a perpetual state of creative deficiency and writer’s block. Underneath it all, there is every reason to believe that something good awaits around the next bend.
Around the bend, we discover Malaria and Fire, two hot tracks steeped in sounds of Latin jazz, soul, funk and nods to Ella Fitzgerald; gradually drowning us in the delirious energy of re-discovering the deepest pleasures of love and life. After Sukuma Wiki, they are the nyama choma and cold beers we were yearning for. The artist has finally found her muse.
The album then proceeds to Ripped, Dhahabu, Way Back and Gona Simu. These tracks explore vulnerable spaces full of crises of confidence, trust issues, broken hearts, pressures from friends, expectations of society, mistakes, and long nights of waiting for the phone to ring – the consequences of exposing parts of yourself privately and publically.
The final segment of the album processes the thrills and ills we have experienced thus far and emerges with a maturer worldview on what actually matters. Speechless is an exercise in self-acceptance and self-love while Muamuzi is a demonstration of some form of spiritual growth that has been gained in the process.
For an album lasting only 35 minutes and 55 seconds, IaM is surprisingly complete. It contains none of those unnecessary filler tracks that often betray many an artist’s insecurities about the quality of their albums. Athieno is not wasteful with her lyrical content either. In fact, and admirably so, some of her songs provide fertile ground for other songs. Sukuma Wiki somehow gives birth to Muamuzi; and Fire leads seamlessly into Ripped. The production is lush and adventurous where it needs to be, but is never distractingly loud or jarring. This album is meant to be consumed in one satisfying sitting.
THE BOTTOM LINE
IaM instantly positions itself as a strong contender for the best Kenyan album of 2016. It is a compact offering packed with awesomeness from beginning to end. It manages to explore complex, personal themes and convey a range of emotions through simple, accommodating lyrics. Buy the album via iTunes, Bandcamp or Amazon, (complete with lyrics and translations embedded in the files).