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In Kenya, the indigenous music of Afro Simba promotes environmental stewardship and peace

Afro Simba's Kombo Chokwe Burns. Image by David Njagi for Mongabay.

  • Afro Simba is a 10-year old band that explores the music of 9 indigenous coastal communities of Kenya, collectively called the Mijikenda.
  • Now based in the capital Nairobi, the group’s Kombo Chokwe Burns spoke with Mongabay about their music that accentuates environmental stewardship and peace.
  • “When artists write original music that is cultural and rooted in Kenya, it is not played on air by the country’s broadcasters. It becomes very difficult to pass on messages about the environment and climate change,” he said.
  • The band’s debut album “Pandizo” was aimed at redefining & reintroducing Mijikenda music to Kenya and the rest of the world.

Kombo Chokwe Burns is a musician, producer, and writer of music who has walked the artistic path from the village of Rabai on the country’s coast to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. His band Afro Simba is a 10-year old unit that explores the music of 9 indigenous coastal communities, collectively called as Mijikenda. Their debut album “Pandizo” expresses a love for peace and the environment and was also aimed at redefining & reintroducing Mijikenda music to Kenya and the rest of the world.

Mongabay spoke with him at a recent expo at the Sarit Centre in Nairobi.

Mongabay: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Kombo Chokwe Burns: Before I started my band I used to play with local artists. I did the first album with them called “Mwanzo.” I have been to Ongala Festival in Tanzania, DOADOA East African Performing Arts Market in Uganda, and also the Mombasa International Cultural Festival. I have performed with local Kenyan stars like Eric Wainaina and Suzanna Owíyo and toured Europe with a band called Kikwetu (‘our lifestyle’ in English). When I formed Afro Simba I managed to play at the Dubai global cultural village and was part of the Kenyan team that went on to perform at the Smithsonian festival in Washington, D.C.

What are your challenges in this line of work?

In Kenya we have the challenge of marketing music that does not have a commercial edge. When artists write original music that is cultural and rooted in Kenya, it is not played on air by the country’s broadcasters. It becomes very difficult to pass on messages about the environment and climate change.

How does not taking care of the environment undermine peaceful coexistence?

Caring for the environment is a good thing because we were all brought into this world and so we need to care for all that we see. For instance, I was born in the village where everything was green and enjoyable. There was no pollution because people used khaki paper wrappers and carrier bags instead of plastics. The khaki paper would decompose away when disposed because it was made of plant materials. There were even communal litter collecting drives in partnership with the local municipality.

See related: Kenya, conservation and music: Q&A with singer Barbara Guantai

But today the environment is littered with garbage, especially plastics. This will not help us. When I was growing up in the coastal region, I used to go to the ocean. At that time there were a lot of fish harvests. But nowadays they are gone. Why?

In Kenya we have really been cutting trees for charcoal and other purposes. There is no control at all because people have been socialized to believe life is just about money. In a city like Nairobi, there is dust and dirt everywhere. Everyone is just dropping things. There is no social responsibility.

How has poor governance failed to promote environmental conservation in Africa?

I think that is an issue of corrupt governments. Politicians want to pocket all the money rather than using this money to help the community to grow. In Kenya, there are a lot of scandals. A lot of money meant to fund social programs is stolen.

This is a challenge because society expects leaders to govern and create positive change. Instead they become corrupt, steal money and live lavishly while others are suffering. This has washed away the goodwill of the youth, turning them into a problem.

This is because when people do not have anything to do in a poor nation they can really be bad. So over 80% of the youth grows up with the mindset that they need quick money. They will say if they have a way to steal they will steal because the people in government do that. This is a challenge to the government itself because if you do bad ‘up there,’ what do you expect of someone ‘down here?’

Quarries like this one in rural Kenya degrade water quality. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Why is it important to you to sing about the environment?

For me, singing about the environment is a very special thing. When I was young, the environment was really good, healthy, and even the air was fresh to breathe. But now if you go around cities like Nairobi you feel like you are in a factory. All the cars are polluting the air, everyone is littering everywhere, there is no control at all.

See related: “Music festival in Kenyan national park ruffles feathers

Coming with the environment message through music is easier for me to let people know that polluting the environment is not the way to go. The snow on our mountains and the Arctic is melting. In the oceans everywhere there is plastic. Garbage is piled everywhere. Even animals are foraging on garbage instead of grazing on grass.

When the turtle in the ocean sees plastic material they think it is a jellyfish and eat it. Bees are now vanishing yet we need them and they need us. We are suffering as humans, and every living thing, on earth.

It is so sad.

We need to change this, we need to take care of our universe, we need to take care of where we are. If we lose it, then all these things will go. If we do not respect where we are then the earth will not give back, everything will just perish, this is what I see.

“Maji” (i.e. ‘water’ in the video, above) celebrates this resource, here’s the second verse, as translated on its Youtube page:

“Look at your farms, There’s much to harvest and it gives you joy.
You live by my side. Whoever is not satisfied, may speak.
I take you to far places, around the world through oceans and lakes.
I help preserve surroundings and all living things.”

Any other comments?

I will say every human being has a responsibility. Everyone is born with a reason and so let us take care of our universe. This is where we live, and please if you were born on a farm, try to plant just one tree and take care of it.

We need to do this for the future generations. And there is no hardship with that. We just need to show the young ones what to do. Then everything will change to be really green because green is what we want.

We want to be in a peaceful environment. This is my request to all human beings on this earth.

Read more stories by David Njagi for Mongabay here

Banner image: Kombo Chokwe Burns (middle) joins colleagues for a photo at the Sarit Centre in Nairobi. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.