Kasiva Mutua may have learned drumming inspired by folktales told by her grandmother but has developed her own knack for powerful beats. One of Kenya’s leading percussionists and drummers, her expressive playing can tell a story on its own or keep a band perfectly in the pocket.
Today, Kasiva is an international touring percussionist, drummer and composer integrating African traditional music with modern styles. One of only a few African women playing the percussion continentally and internationally, Kasiva plays music to celebrate her community’s spirit, tell her people’s stories and elevate the place of the African woman in music. Kasiva is a TED Global Fellow 2017. She is the founder of MOTRAMUSIC. She is on the list of OKAYAFRICA100 WOMEN, 2018.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Kasiva Mutua. I am a percussionist, drummer, speaker, percussion teacher and now storyteller and recording artist! I’m passionate about everything women in music and inspiring and encouraging women to tell their stories using their most conversant tools of expression.
When did you start performing? Do you have a formal musical education?
I date back my playing drums to when I was about 6 years old. I learnt to listen keenly to sounds from the environment from stories told by my grandmother. Then I would replicate what I would hear on household objects, my body and later in life, I still use these same sounds as inspirations to my compositions.
I don’t have any formal musical education other than the music we learnt in primary school before it was pulled off the curriculum. I really wish the Ministry of Education didn’t do that.
Also, I cannot read music charts nor sheets to save my life!
Thinking back to early childhood what your first experience with music for the first time was like. What songs do you remember most from childhood?
I remember a lot of Rhumba and Lingala because Papa (RIP) used to listen to listen to this A LOT! The likes of Mbilia Bel, Kanda Bongo Man, Sam Fan Thomas, Prince Ndedi Eyango are artists that I’m very familiar with up to date!!! I also remember some ragga and reggae as I listened what my brothers listened to at the time, and some Gospel (St. Joseph choir, Kibwezi and Munishi) that my mum enjoyed, and still enjoys.
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
It was the joy that I would find in drumming. I felt and still feel so happy when I play. I also enjoy the freedom to be that it gives me, and the endless freedom to express myself in countless ways!
You have been a trailblazer as a percussionist. How did that happen?
I honestly cannot explain how this happened. I did not set out to be the best percussionist in the world, but I have always been intentional in fully living and living right. To me, living right is searching deep within and seeing what it is that your heart beats for, and for me, it’s music.
What advice would you give to beginners who are nervous?
Passion. I know everybody says this: and there’s a reason why it’s on everyone’s mouth. It’s been tested and it REALLY works! Passion is a deep love for something. When you truly love something, you give it time, you nurture it, you make it beautiful in every way, you take care of it, you’re honest with it and you truly love it. This is the reason why love is the greatest gift and the greatest commandment of all.
How would you describe your music to somebody who has never heard you perform before?
My music is many things. It’s a blend of different percussion elements from multiple cultures. I have been fortunate to take part in several collaborative projects and have been learning and taking away lessons and musical skills from these cultures. Therefore, my music is multicultural and takes you on a journey of discovery of sounds, textures, and feelings.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
Remember that thing I spoke about, passion?
That’s what people say they see. I now know that when you love something you cannot hide your emotions and feelings. It just leaks and shows! Expect to see passion (on steroids), and just somebody having extreme fun and truly indulged in music!
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
I think it has been raising a mini – community of female drummers that is MOTRAMUSIC. This is a project that I co-founded about 5 years ago with my 2 friends Mathewmatix and Mobutu. MOTRAMUSIC takes young women and girls on a 1 – year mentorship program where the ladies learn everything percussion, the history of drumming, different rhythms, composition, and performance. Over the years, this has naturally become a sisterhood where the girls form unique bonds and support systems, that see long lasting friendships and relationships bloom! I’m so proud of them!
Also, this Ep, NGEWA, is giving me a lot of feels! It’s my debut solo project and probably the first of its kind in the scene. Seldom do you find a studio-recorded percussion project. Most of the available ones are field recordings and are centred toward the tradition being highlighted, and hardly a multi-cultural dimension.
You have been in different bands doing all kinds of music. Tell us more about that.
It’s been exciting working in different bands playing all sorts of music. I take all of it as a learning space and experimental zone to see how percussion interacts with different genres of music.
I have been a part of NHP (Nairobi Horns Project) which is a Kenyan Jazz collective that has truly tested my understanding of jazz and how percussion interacts with a horn section.
I have played with Kidum and the Boda Boda Band, Fadhilee Itulya, Maia and the Big Sky, Tetu Shani, Nina Ogot, Eddie Grey, and lots more who have a band structure with a drummer, guitar, bass and sometimes keyboard, violin, or flute. All these unique placements have taught me so much about the role of percussion in a band setup, whether a full band or an acoustic setup.
I have also been part of projects like Coke Studio Africa which completely immersed me in the world of African Popstars. I saw and experienced first-hand what goes into big TV productions, but also how percussion interacts with pop music. This was such an experience, man!
1Beat and The Nile Project are multicultural collaborative projects that I’ve taken part in that truly influenced my playing style and immersed me in a multi-cultural space and enabled me to travel and see what the world has to offer.
I was a part of the Flower Project, an all-female band based in Nairobi, Kenya. Playing with these amazing and talented women gave me much needed support especially in an industry that has such few women in it. Ivy Alexander (guitar), Mutindi Muasa (Bass), Olive Karmen (Drumkit) are a powerful bunch and have paved way for more women to believe in teamwork and have spearheaded the all-female bands movement.
What are the lessons you have learnt being part of a band?
Empathy – It is extremely difficult to exist in a band without this. Your ability to understand and sense other people’s emotions really comes to play and especially because it’s a creative zone; and it’s a very vulnerable space.
Teamwork – For a band and any other workspace to function properly, a level of teamwork is much needed.
Be an extremely good listener – This is almost compulsory in a band setup. Once you learn to listen, then you know where, how and why to play.
During the pandemic, it seems you picked up other musical skills. Tell us more about that.
I had a lot of time (didn’t we all?) to sit with myself and self-analyse, and I realized that I had been travelling so much and never really took time to digest everything I had been learning. From this, came out my debut EP, NGEWA. I also managed to pick up a new instrument, the guitar, and in the process of learning how to play it, composed and wrote tunes for my first album!
My brain hard drive now has some space to take on more, and I’m very ready!
You have an EP coming out this week. What can you tell us about it?
My debut EP, NGEWA is aaaaah! All the feels!
“Ngewa” is the Kamba name for stories; and truly, the music takes you through the stories of my experiences as a percussionist and the stories of people I have met in my percussion journey.
NGEWA has multiple cultural influences that I have come across in my journey and is such a labour of love! Recording this music during the pandemic had its fair share of physical and mental challenges, but the result is this 15-minute experience that immerses you in a world of rhythm, colours, textures, and deep emotions. My producer, Hermann Ogulla truly understood the assignment! The tracks are also named with a lot of relatabilities with my favourites being Babu, Bam Chikicha and Conundrum (pun intended).
I love plants and farming! A lot! I’m a hardcore plant mom! And I love watching and observing plants grow! It’s an absolutely beautiful process.
Anything upcoming apart from your EP that you want people to know about?
I’m just about to resume my online series, Vibe na Queen, which is an IGLive series that hosts women in the music industry for a jam session and conversations aimed at uniting Kenyan women in music. It’s a forum I started during the pandemic and with the help of the Kekere Storytellers Fund, I’ll be able to renew it for Season 2! Yay Vibe na Queen!