KENYA: Ayah Ye! Moving Train - KG Omulo
Updated: 6 days ago
Soul and funk with a world music flavour, this debut album impresses musically but falls short lyrically
Soul is one of those genres that seems quintessentially American. Much like how reggae could only have come from the particular political and social climate and historical context present in Jamaica in the mid 20th century, so too does soul music, but for the United States. Country music also feels like it could only be American, but there is one difference between soul and country. Soul has achieved popularity outside of the USA in a way that country never has, and perhaps never could, perhaps due to it not being music that relies so heavily on American iconography, and instead of universal emotions and sentiments. My partner in crime for this project, Danny, is a huge soul fan, and for us both finding good quality soul music from around the world, to see if any countries or musicians outside of the USA could compare with the best of them, is part of our mission. Kenyan singer and songwriter KG Omulo's debut effort from 2012 mostly fits that bill, though Omulo’s album cannot be simply pigeon-holed as soul. Whatever genre it is, his music certainly sounds authentic, taking liberal inspiration from funk and soul in an album that charms and entertains, but for me, doesn’t quite hit the spot.
“The album feels like a culmination of all of Omulo’s musical interests, from Kenya to Florida, and that’s why I feel it is musically so vibrant.”
The somewhat awkwardly titled Ayah Ye! Moving Train certainly indicates Omulo’s cosmopolitan upbringing. Having been born in Nairobi, he has stated previously that he grew up listening to all sorts of music, and not just the vast range of excellent music that Kenya and Africa have to offer, but also Motown and soul records. It is this magpie-like musical curiosity that makes the album interesting to me. Now based in Florida, he recorded his debut album with the help of musicians who have worked in the past with such illustrious luminaries as Ray Charles, as well as with T-Pain. This authenticity really helps the album, and as such every song sounds great, with a real professional funky soul sound. There are also songs that pay tribute to his East African heritage, such as the tinkles of a kalimba that can be heard on the song Quality Women, as well as the lyrics in Swahili that pepper the album, most notably on Moving Train. The album feels like a culmination of all of Omulo’s musical interests, from Kenya to Florida, and that’s why I feel it is musically so vibrant. It is a struggle for me to identify a best song or any high points because it is an album that is consistent, yet rarely reached sublime highs. Nonetheless No Means No and Intervention are both very energetic funk songs that merit repeated listens.
However, to my mind there is a flaw. When it comes to the lyrics, however, Omulo takes inspiration not from any American, but from Jamaica’s biggest cultural icon, Bob Marley, whom Omulo pays tribute to on a pleasant reggae number called It’s a Relief. Marley was renowned for his socially conscious and politically active music, and Omulo has modelled himself in that regard, as a musician with a conscious whose songs are aiming to tell it like it is, to critique the world around us in a poetic and pithy way. This is, unfortunately where the album slips up for me. While I agree with a lot of his sentiments on unity and the forward momentum of change, and he occasionally stumbles upon a nice turn of phrase, and indeed on the aforementioned Moving Train the central metaphor works well, it often feels a bit… well, obvious. I don’t doubt that his beliefs are sincere. I admire him for wanting to sing about them. I just don’t feel they necessarily always helped the album. And so, while I do genuinely find myself tapping my feet along to the music, sometimes I find myself distracted by a glib lyric here and there. And yet, I would say the album is worth your time if you’re a soul or funk fan. The music is very engaging, Omulo has a good voice, and he knows how to construct a song, and while there is still work for him to do, that may not be a bad thing, in the long run. This is a debut album, after all. So, while not perfect, there is still much to enjoy among the less successful elements.