Within the Afrobeats universe, West Africa may be the face, even habitually dictate tempo, but East Africans are the real sonic stylists, Sauti Sol, Harmonize, and Diamond Platnumz providing ready references.
Today, however, let’s dwell on Sauti Sol, Kenya’s foremost band who, because their sound is propped on ethereal melody and diaristic writing, have perfected their panache with conjuring fervent soundtracks that attend emotion. Live and Die in Africa, the group’s spotless third studio album is a great beginner’s guide and, to my mind, their best work.
My verdict of Live and Die in Africa, in light of what Midnight Train (Universal Music Africa, 2020), their new collection instantly listens like, may yet be greatly challenged. Take “Brighter Days,” one of four singles that heralded the album’s release, for instance. So dense is the emotional exchange between song and listener that said listener embraces the record with his ears as well as a meditative nod of his head. And when auxiliary harmonies are supplied by the eminent Soweto Gospel, well…
Like the inspirational single, and across the rest of Midnight Train, something innovative and remarkable is going on: the 13–tracker, set in affective themes whose arc end with redemption and jollity, is alive with nostalgic soul and groove, and yet also brims with singular sonic updates, such as unfold on “Rhumba Japani,” a delightful example of how to enmesh the Afro-Cuban rhythm and the contemporary hip-hop iteration of trap, and “Disco Matanga,” which is what happens when sounds of Kenya interact with the highly percussive South African electronic sub-genre, Gqom.
Meanwhile, cuts like “Insecure,” “Feel My Love,” the India Arie-assisted “My Everything” and “Sober” are particularly swoon-worthy, pulling strongly at one emotions in their navigation of love, self-confidence, wistfulness, and remorse, and yet doing so via sublime subtlety.
Midnight Train is luxuriantly authentic, rich with homely string, percussion, and brass sections. It is heavily self-assured, and glorious in its progressiveness (but again, these are adjectives that have perpetually accompanied their craft). As the group explains to Music in Africa in a recent interview, of the album’s concept, theirs is a journey of continual evolution: “In the past, it would take one about 10 hours to travel by train from Kenya’s capital Nairobi to its second-biggest city Mombasa. The symbolism here and on the cover art is that our work and we are always steadily moving as we gain more territory and fans. This album is a representation of our hard work for the last 11 years, and we are grateful for this achievement and looking forward to the next stage of our career.”
Here’s a conclusion that will continually ring true of Sauti Sol, then: their best work will always lay ahead.
With Midnight Train, like their previous collections, Sauti Sol provides a vitally usable artistic product; one free of the preoccupations of many a pop album (which is usually ensconced in dance rhythm and hollow messaging). By the time it runs fully, the album takes its primary target, the African listener through, among a number of things, thorough navel-gazing that sees her emerge on the other side purged of brittle confidence, and equipped with enough amulets with to take on a wild, wild world.
Obviously carefully curated, Midnight Train abides with you, offering favourites for every time of the day. Few LPs today merit the aforementioned description. As musicians based in East Africa, it is not inaccurate to imagine that the pop band has had to work twice as hard as their West African colleagues to gain Afrobeats prominence. Indeed, 2019’s Afrikan Sauce, to many, was a deliberate attempt to court validation from West Africa. You cannot blame them: the sub-region is the gateway to Afropop success. And they did great, their experimentation winning them new admirers from that demography. On their new album, however, the group returns home, re-embracing their acoustic roots: Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi occupying vocal roles, with Polycarp Otieno “Polycarping” away on his guitar. The hook of “Suzanna,” which occupies the centre spot of the LP, sings: “Senje halo, halo, halo/ If you get to hear this song Somebody loves you/ Senje halo, halo, halo/ Change your mind and come back home/ Somebody loves you.” The lines are tailored for Suzanna, but it also holds metaphorical value for its composers.
Clearly, they heeded to their own advice.
For most of their career, Sauti Sol have represented the road less travelled …mastered it. That choice — one rooted in their gallant Africanness, and which emerging voices and peers alike can learn from — has won them 26 awards out of 41 nominations (including a “Best African Act” trophy at the 2014 MTV Europe Music Awards, and a 2015 BET nomination for Best International Act: Africa). Consequently, they have also effectively become a global brand.
For the foreseeable future, West Africa will continue to hold a major place in Afrobeats’ identity. Still, the likes of Sauti Sol will continue to shine through all that agglomeration with bold brilliance.
Stream Midnight Train here.