Kasiva Mutua is an internationally touring drummer and percussionist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her exuberant performances reflect a panoply of influences, including afrobeat, zouk, samba, reggae, and soul. Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo talks with Kasiva about her musical inspirations and touring with the Nile Project, which was described as “a committed, euphoric international coalition” by the The New York Times. The Nile Project brings together artists from the eleven countries sharing the world’s longest river to combine their instruments, languages, scales, and rhythms in one of the tightest cross-cultural collaborations in music.
How did you find your way to the Nile Project? How long have you been touring with them?
In 2013, I was chosen as one of the two Kenyan musicians representing our country in a collaborative program in the USA known as OneBeat. It runs for one month and features musical collaborations among more than twenty musicians from different countries around the world. I met a rapper from Egypt known as Ahmed Rock and we struck a great musical relationship. Upon finishing this program, Ahmed mailed me one day and told me that he came across a similar program online called The Nile Project. To Ahmed, we would both apply and hopefully get chosen and have another opportunity to make music together again. I went online and quickly applied and we both waited. After two weeks, I got a call from them, did some interviews, and voila. I got in. Ahmed didn’t, but I ended up seeing him in Egypt on tour.
I have been in The Nile Project since 2014 and have been on four tours: Africa in 2014, USA in 2015, Africa again in 2016, and Europe happening now.
When and how did you discover you had a talent for music?
I think my actual realization was in high school, but I remember hitting any surface I could find from when I was six years old. My grandmother would sit with me and tell me stories and incorporate into these sessions listening games which would later help me develop a keen ear for sounds. I would listen to crickets, the wind, birds, footsteps, my heartbeat, and any other person’s heartbeat (for anyone who was willing to volunteer at the time), cockling of chicken…anything really. I would also sing with with my grandmother. Now, when I look back, I find a strong foundation to my musicianship today. I strengthened this foundation at school, where I joined the drama club and played musical festivals. I would even play my school desk as a drum. I later had to buy a new one to replace it, as it was really damaged.
This is where I realized that drumming was just not an extra-curricular activity. It did something to me. It made me happy. It made me not worry. It made me to be me. And I decided that I would pursue it to the end.
Although I have encountered some hurdles as a female percussionist because it’s taboo for women to play drums in my community and African society in general, I am still here pushing. I am drunk with happiness! Every time I am on stage, I get to share a piece of the real actual person that I am. To me, this connection is one of the most important things in true living and coexistence.
What instruments do you play? How did you master them? Any tips for young musicians struggling to hone their craft?
I play a range of percussion instruments. I recently got an Egyptian Tabla and I love it! I sing, too. Anywhere. And I recently started learning the Western drum set, guitar, and I have adapted a traditional instrument from Rwanda called the “Inanga.”
To young musicians struggling to hone their craft:
- First, identify it. Once you identify it, you will be able to focus, and then interest will naturally be born from there. It may come to you naturally as of talent. It may be adapted. But first, identify.
- Then do research. You want to know what has been done. What is being done.
- Constant practice is like eating your vegetables everyday…You will see the results.
- Lastly, be ready to learn. You never stop learning music. Never.
What do you love most about music?
First, music is a job. A serious job. I say serious because many people perceive music to be a pastime. This mentality should really stop. See, a musician and a surgeon should be treated with the same respect, be remunerated the same way because we both save lives. Only that musicians don’t use scalpels.
As much as I play to teach and entertain others (and entertain myself), audiences are inspired. There are a million sentiments that audiences express to musicians after shows. They end up feeling different things. Different emotions. They just end up feeling feelings. That’s a beautiful thing!
What is it like touring and playing with such a diverse mélange of musicians? What is your favorite part of working with the Nile Project musicians? And, how do you bring your culture into the group?
It’s oh so much fun! It gets pretty intense in its own way sometimes, but I have to say it is one of the best experiences in my life. Playing with all these musicians is a unique experience. It is like being in a never ending “life” school. Each of them is unique in their own way. Each comes with an extensive knowledge of their musical traditions and they download all this knowledge and information to you. You not only get to learn from them musically, but you share cultures, traditions, food, and personal experiences. You get to know what is happening in their home countries politically. They give you a piece of themselves for you to keep. Through this experience, you sharpen your musical skills and learn virtues that transcend into good existence. You become a better human being from this experience.
I bring my culture by being truly me. That way, I truly reflect where I’m from. Other than that, I come with traditional drums from home. Sometimes, we cook each other food from home and bring each other gifts from our home countries. We teach each other our languages. Now, I speak a fair share of Arabic words and sing in it sometimes. I have acquired an Arabic nickname, too.
Tell us about the craziest/most interesting show you’ve ever played.
In 2014, we literally played on a raft floating on the Nile in Jinja. There was a chain of events that evening, from fighting with millions of mosquitoes to our instruments falling into the Nile.
Where do you think your musical journey will take you next? What else are you working on?
My musical journey probably just got started. I would like to collaborate more. I would like to learn more. I teach percussion in my spare time. I would like to teach a whole lot more.
My two friends from Nairobi and I started an all female percussion group called Motra. It is a fusion of modern and traditional rhythms with occasional chants, singing, and dancing. I wanted to get a group of girls together and have us tell our stories using percussion and drums as a tool for our expression. It has turned out so well. I love those girls to the core. They work so hard. And they brave the pain of blisters and callouses like soldiers. I’m so proud of them. Watch that Motra space.
I also play in an all-female band in Nairobi…it’s the only all female band in the city, maybe in the country. I’m so inspired to play with such strong women. They make me determined and give me so much hope when the going gets tough. Yes, it’s not all rosy every day.
What is your dream gig?
My dream gig is to play in a percussion festival that lasts for days! To have all sorts of sounds in the air. To have children play saltshakers, pans, and drums. To have the sound of footsteps…anything…everything be music. Like I used to hear in the listening games I played with my grandmother.
I have to get this one out there! I have dreamt of playing with Dobet Gnahore from Cote d’Ivoire for years! Maybe this is my chance to reach out to her! She has been one of my biggest inspirations and I totally respect her artistry. I’m hooked!
Listen to Kasiva’s SoundCloud!