News that Chris Cornell had passed on hit hard. Music lovers worldwide felt this loss. As a Kenyan music lover, I was not affected any less. It got me reflecting on how music traverses borders and how artists have fans in countries they might not even know about.
In my late teens, Wednesdays at one of Kenya's most popular clubs - Carnivore - was the place to be. Wednesday was rock night. If the following day was a public holiday, then that Wednesday was "super-rock." Thousands of Kenyans would flock to Carnivore to dance the night away to the likes of Nirvana, Linkin Park, Puddle of Mudd, Hoobastank, Evanescence etc.
These past weekend, as I played my Chris Cornell favourites on repeat, Like a stone, I am the highway, Black hole sun etc, I wonder if anyone (outside of Kenya) knows what a following rock had in Kenya in the late 90s and early 2000s. Saturdays we woke up early to listen to Rick Dees and the weekly top 40s. I was not impressed when I did move to the US and could not find people who knew this show. I felt slight judgement for my love of Shania Twain. In Kenya, Shania Twain was counted as rock. I recall dancing on stage in Carnivore to Shania Twain's I'm gonna getcha good, and feeling as if like would be complete only when I got to meet Shania and party with her.
Those days, my musical tastes were simpler than when I moved to the US. Music was music to me – I listened to whatever pleased my ears. We never had to reflect on whether our tastes were black enough - I was born and raised in a country of majority black people where people sang along to Kenny Rogers songs with as much passion as if it was our national anthem. Sometimes a Kenny Rogers, Charlie Pride, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves or even Skeeter Davis song plays and I get nostalgic. I am back as a child sitting in our living room - a record on the LP, my father strumming along his guitar, my mother singing with as much passion as if she is auditioning for a church choir position.
I recall the day almost 10 years back when my sister called me laughing, “NPR did a show on country music in Kenya.” We laughed about it. NPR was surprised to find out that Kenyans are crazy about country music, while I was surprised to find out that they did not know Kenny Rogers is from my village – or at least we act as if he is. Did they know that Kenyans used to talk with excitement about the day they get to the US and will go to Dallas? My first time in Texas, I remember feeling as if I had been cheated my whole life – where were all the cowboys with cowboy hats and spurs on their riding boots? Did they know that older Kenyan men wear cowboy hats almost religiously during important functions? Have they ever seen the glazed over looks of the folks in Nairobi meat-eating joints when the “one-man-guitar” guy belts out Kenny Rogers, “Coward of the county” or Dolly Parton’s “Coat of many colours.” I am from the country where a “traditional” song that was recorded in the 1950s in Kenya and was about a supposed mythical creature that was half-man, half-antelope and was called Chemirocha, has actually turned out to really have been an ode to the American country musician Jimmie Rodgers. My people have been Kenyanizing other musical genres for a long time.
Music does traverse borders – right next to all the country music LPs that my parents had, were Boney M, Michael Jackson, Abba, Orchestra Baobab (Senegalese), Mbilia Bel (Congolese), Nana Mouskori (Greek) Miriam Makeba…but country music reigned supreme for my parents and their generation, in the same way that rock reigned supreme for a certain part of my generation.
And that’s the beauty of art – and music in particular – it’s ability to evoke emotions in listeners even when it’s language, context or setting might not be understood. When we listen to music, it’s more than just a sensory experience – we recall the first time we heard a certain song, we feel the emotions we felt at that moment, we are transported back in time, we are nostalgic for everything that is connected to that particular song – the age we were at, the frame of mind, the people we were with, the stories around that moment.
And so this is a Kenyan’s heartfelt farewell to Chris Cornell....My own rendition of I am the highway.