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Album Review: BLNRB, Welcome to the Madhouse

A coming together of Nairobi and Berlin's urban music scenes.
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The fall of the Berlin Wall and the introduction of multi-party politics in Kenya came at a time of increased globalisation. Both events played significant parts in the emergence of new music genres and forms. In Berlin, the cheap rental rates of the old communist industrial zones were magnets to swarms of musicians and artists. It was in this environment that producers started to create electro beats that grew in notoriety with the reputation of being the best this side of the Atlantic. In Kenya, the newly felt liberalisation, after the repressive Moi era, was central in providing young people access to rap. Kenya’s urban population related to the roots of hip-hop as a means of escaping poverty whilst commentating on it. In a short time Kenyan rappers developed their own unique and localised style.

In 2009, musicians from Berlin and Nairobi came together, each bringing with them their urban sounds. The project, BLNRB (Berlin-BL, Nairobi-NRB), was organised by the German cultural centre, the Goethe Institute. The project explored new musical possibilities, bringing together heavy German electro sounds from the Berlin club scene and urban hip-hop vocals from Kenya’s finest MCs.

The project bridges musical genres through cross-cultural exchange creating a truly unique sound. No talent was spared when it came to those involved. From Germany came break-beat duo Gebrüder Teichmann, electronic music band Modeselektor and bass-heavy trio Jahcoozi. Kenya was represented by East Africa’s most famous female rapper Nazizi, Mombasa hip-hop collective Ukoo Flani, MC Abbas Kubaff, hip-hop group Necessary Noize and 12-year-old rappers Little King and Robbo from Kibera.

The setting for this project was a townhouse in Nairobi. It was there that two studios were set up and all the artists worked, performed and lived. As word spread, the townhouse soon became a magnet for all artists in Nairobi. This environment, throwing all the artists together, produced a truly creative vibe. The artists later referred to the building as a ‘Madhouse’.

An 18-track album was soon laid down after long days and nights of continuous recording, featuring over twenty artists. The result is the distinct and appropriately named album Welcome to the Madhouse. The tracks produced dig deep into the urban sound of Berlin and Nairobi’s music scenes. What one might not expect though is the ease with which these two genres and range of contributing artists fused to create a fresh unforced musical blend.

One of the best tracks on the album is Msoto Millions written by Jahcoozi with MCs from Ukoo Flani laying down deep English and Kiswahili lyrics. The track has a dancehall vibe with dark undertones. The song is accompanied with a visually stunning video, which was shot in Ukoo Flani’s hometown Mombasa, by the talented guys from DYMK Films.

Another notable track, "Kibera Benga", was collaborated on by Modeselektor, Just a Band (an African boy band) and Nairobian art group, Maasai Mbili. The song is one of the most melodic on the album with an Afro-ambient feeling and a track which you will find yourself listening to over and over. Again this track is accompanied by a video, produced by STUDIO ANG. The video is a truly creative and questioning artwork, which delves into the idea of a shared global anxiety of the all-seeing camera.

Goldbreaks sees Teichmans producing a beat of fractured skips and glitches, which is matched with the lyrical class and elegant flows of Kenyan rappers Mister Abbas, Lon’ Jon and Kimya. The film was directed by Hawa Essuman, who is also the director of the Kibera based movie Soulboy.

Ma Bhoom Bhoom Bhoom is a track laden with African percussion by Radi and blended with electronic sounds by Jahcoozi, which results in an afro-tech tribal sound. Ukoo Flani’s reverberating vocals fit appropriately over African drums in a chant-like manner. The video, produced by Cultural Video Foundation, also proves mesmerising, set in a dream of spiritual connectedness and perceived tradition.

Monkeyflip is a track by Modeselktor, who sets down a punchy beat, full of effects and a throbbing baseline for Kenyan rappers Nazizi and Abbas to tear up and go hard. It was no surprise that when these artists collaborated the recording only needed one take, creating a track full of rhythmic inflection. Monkeyflip, like many other tracks on the album has not yet got a video. However, the Goethe-Institute Nairobi recently commissioned music videos to be produced for 11 of the tracks from 11 different film and music video directors.

Welcome to the Madhouse was a gutsy project and one of open mindedness. It would have been easy for the album to have fallen prey to a generic commercial sound of the globalised world. Instead, Welcome to the Madhouse's 18 tracks propagate themselves across borders, adapting and developing musical genres and themes in a highly original and inspiring way.

Welcome to the Madhouse is available for purchase and download with Outhere.

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