“I made this choice because I never want music to become a job in the sense that I am always chasing a paycheck instead of enjoying the process. So far it’s working.” Ondi Madete
She is a mother, a musician, a lawyer, a full-time teacher and a curious explorer who loves sharing stories.
At 26 years, songwriter and musician Ondi Madete, assures you that you don’t need a label or huge sum of money, to share stories, reach the world or even release a music album.
In this interview, she talks about her new album, her career, being a mother, suffering through loss, and her journey to self-discovery.
- You are a woman who wears many hats give us an overview of your life journey and what led to the creation of this album.
I come from a big family and we lived around the world until we settled back in Kenya when I was about twelve. My dad who also contributed to this moment is someone who loves nature, great music, books and he used to tell us stories before we went to sleep. I like to think that gave me perspective and the hunger to share good stories from a young age.
Years later, I joined the university to pursue law and that is where I met my first band. We called it the Yellow Light Machine. Sometimes when I look back it feels as if we spent the full three years it took to get the degree, playing and jamming and jamming and playing. However, aside from the knowledge, I received from my law degree, overall the experience gave me an appreciation of being steeped inside the music I am making.
For instance, to date, when I’m preparing for a show, we meet up at any of the member’s houses and make a day of it. This is convenient because it’s comfortable, easy and you can take a break without feeling like you’re wasting money (Laughs out loud)
As a full-time teacher, I teach children music and art and it’s taken me back to a certain simplicity, a certain purity where I’m just sharing. The EP album came from this space where I was creating music for the sake of it. Not for a show, not to prove a point, just because…
- How would you describe your music?
I find it hard to describe my music. I’ve played the guitar for a long time, and recently I picked up the Uke. I’ve sung in English, Swahili, French and Italian, and I have a wide range of music I enjoy. From Reggae to Benga, to Mali, Blues, Jazz, Rhumba, and alternative music. I believe all these genres and ranges are reflected in my music. The best description I’ve found is Nairobi Folk music.
- What is the story behind Tangawizi the name you’ve chosen for your album?
Tangawizi means ginger. It’s also a type of soda and here in Kenya we call it ‘Stoney, Tangawizi.’ The name comes from a time when I was travelling in the middle of Italy busking (playing on the side of a street for hours and hours) – and by the way, many of the songs on the album came to be this way – where I met this person who I nicknamed Tangawizi. He made me re-discover a part of me I hadn’t even known I was missing. The part that loves adventure, new things, and long meandering conversations. So that is how the name came to be. A three-fold story reflecting Tangawizi as my favourite soda, a flavour of life, and a nickname for a person who helped me re-discover myself.
- You realized this album through crowdfunding, tell us about that
I have created a lot of songs in my life with many bands and by myself and they always seem to have an expiry date. This made me sad and helped me realise the value of recording beyond the paltry income and infamous recognition. The purpose is to cement music in time and place. To make it so that it would be remembered if not by everyone, by you. To work hard and put effort into creating a body of work that encapsulates a certain moment in time and feed that period with so much energy and purpose and feeling. But I didn’t have the money to do it. It’s really expensive I reminded myself. That’s why people sign up to labels because it’s impossible to afford the band, the recording, the studio time, the mixing, the mastering, the publishing, the distribution, as well as the marketing that goes into making a successful album.
Then I watched The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer. She believes that ‘Asking for help with gratitude says we have the power to help each other.’ I felt this busking on the streets of Italy and I felt it jamming in my dorms in the University. Sharing is a beautiful thing. Whatever it is. So I went on social media and put it out that I would love to find a place to record my music, but I have no money. I started a Gofundme and put my number on social media asking for help. I went to gigs and asked, I made videos telling my story and asked, I wrote posts sharing my idea and asked. People reacted and the result is Tangawizi.
From this, I believed you don’t need a label or huge sum of money, to share stories, reach the world or even release a music album. Rather, all you need is love, the passion and the courage to ask.
- Each song bears a very interesting title: covering different aspects of your personal life. Kindly indulge us on the experiences/messages behind each song
Song 1: Indifference – I am lost, I don’t feel seen, or heard, I feel alone, and indifferent.
song 2: Go get lost – I can find myself, I just need to lose myself a little bit, maybe take a walk, someplace new, and maybe, just maybe I will remember who I am.
Song 3: Wanting you – I accept that some situations in the past were horrible but they made me who I am and that moment when they were beautiful and right can’t be taken away and shouldn’t be regretted.
Song 4: Kazi – loving yourself and the world takes work.
Song 5: Vulnerability – to love yourself and the world you must make yourself vulnerable.
Song 6: Would you mind – making new friends, new loves, is a terrifying and beautiful thing.
- What challenges did you encounter in the making of this album?
Collaboration between artists when there is no money involved is a delicate and interesting dance. Who decides on the final product, how much time can we spend on it, what quality is expected, can be expected. So where do you draw the line?
- What advice can you give someone who wants to achieve such a milestone but have no funds and do not know where to begin?
Ask and be mentally prepared that it might take a long time and extra effort. I received enough money to get to Uganda to record the EP but I had to teach extra lessons (voice and ukulele) to mix and master it.
I recorded the EP with East Africa Records and in exchange, they have exclusive distribution rights and receive a percentage of that revenue. I have friends who recorded videos for the album for free but in one situation, for instance, I had to pay for the lights and some of the space.
I feel eternal gratitude to the love and care I have received in this process but at the same time, I would caution anyone who thinks you get it for free. I have had to work, and research, and work more, and invest time, sweat, and energy into the process. It’s the best feeling in the world. More because of the people I get to share this journey with. It is not ‘my journey only’ and neither is it ‘my story only.’
- You are also an artist tell us about that and how has it contributed to this moment? (In relation to the music you’ve made)
Art has always been a way for me to express myself freely. There is no filter with art, not really. Any joy, hurt, pain, the laughter I’m feeling will be evident in the piece I create. It’s a form of therapy and form of truth that is always useful always necessary, always beautiful.
- How do you juggle between being a mother, a creative, a lawyer and a full-time teacher? Where do you get the time to make music and art?
I am not a practising lawyer. I am a teacher by profession, but a degree in law has been super useful as an independent artist. Being able to navigate and understand as well as create a contract I feel are necessary skills every artist should have in their arsenal if only to avoid getting conned. Teaching is a creative profession, facing students every day and imparting some kind of knowledge requires a special set of balls. It is exhausting but more fulfilling. I teach art and music which feeds my creativity and fills my heart with that special joy and curiosity children have. I made this choice because I never want music to become a job in the sense that I am always chasing a paycheck instead of enjoying the process. So far it’s working.
As to finding the time to make music and art… who was it that said ‘I create because I must.’ It’s not a choice really, it’s like walking or breathing.
- Art is expressive and so are you. Kindly tell us who do you hope to inspire/reach with your music and any other content you create?
I share for the sake of sharing. I’m not thinking about a specific audience or anything like that. I’m just thinking ‘oh man I feel sad, let me make some music,’ or that’s an interesting image let me make some art, or that’s an interesting idea let me share it. And then I share it.
- What other opportunities have opened up since you started singing and how has that impacted your life?
Motherhood. Sharing my love for music with my son. That’s the most beautiful thing music has given me.
- How do you define your success?
Success to me is when my actions, my feels, my thoughts and my heart are completely aligned with each other. No, I do not think I have achieved it but I really enjoy trying.
- What do you think you did differently from the other people in the creative industry who are yet to achieve what you have so far.
I don’t think I have achieved much so far. But I guess I would say that the industry can stand to be a bit more vulnerable. I’d like to think I make myself vulnerable, in my songs, and maybe my actions.
- For how long have you been in the creative industry, and what can you say about the future of artistry in Kenya?
I’m not sure, I wouldn’t say I’m properly in the industry. Not really. Maybe on the periphery. The future of Kenyan artistry like any artistry depends on the artists and their curiosity and their courage. But the creatives in Kenya would absolutely thrive with a bit more money, and influence invested by both our public and private sectors into mentoring, building, teaching and nurturing the creative spirit in Kenya.
- A little bird told me you’re also a reader. Give us a list, your favourite book (s), and what you are currently reading if at all.
My favourite question EVER, no favourites but these come to mind so they count:
Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death
Frank Herbert – Dune Series (all of them)
Toni Morrison – Beloved
I am currently reading Kurt Vonnegut Cat’s Cradle.
- What should we expect from Ondi in future?
I’m very excited to be launching my debut EP Tangawizi on July 5th at Lava Latte on State House Road, from 6 pm. Tangawizi is a story. I want to tell as many as I can, in as many different ways I can think of.
Speaking of musicians, check out this interview with Tetu Shani