Makadem is one of Kenya’s most talented Afro fusion artist. He is popularly known as the Nyatiti man, but some still remember him from the good ol’ days when he was popularly known as the Ohangla man.
Right after high school, he started performing music and since then he’s produced multiple albums full of contemporary compositions that celebrate the energy and lively spirit of Kenya.
His music also speaks on socio and economic struggles in modern society. One of his earliest singles touching on politics, was titled Obama Be Thy Name, released during USA’s former president Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign.
He’s seen controversy, rejection but also greater appreciation from the many who enjoy the deep roots of African music.
Below is the full story of this Kenyan artist, whose profile lists numerous achievements and yet he remains your neighbour next door who plays the Nyatiti instrument.
Introduce us to the Nyatiti man, who is he?
My name is Mak Adem. I am a Nyatiti musician.
Most Kenyans know me for my Nyatiti and the Benga beat found in my music; Benga is simply a more modern way of expressing the Luo pop culture through music, while others know me for my acoustic music, Nyatiti jazz or Nyatiti Tronik which I also play.
So the type of music I do, is Nyatiti music which falls under the Afro-fusion genre. It is not pure traditional Luo Nyatiti music, but my original compositions crowned by the melodies of the Nyatiti lyre.
Where did the journey of Makadem the artiste begin?
It began with me as a cover artist. I had just finished high school and in my habit of asking my brother for money, one day instead of giving me money, he decided to employ me.
From then on, he continued paying me for my singing and that’s how I ended up doing music as an artist.
But no sooner had I begun performing as a cover artist, than I developed an interest to rap.
I began rapping, writing my own songs and then I learnt the guitar. Back then, we used to do both foreign and African covers including, Benga and Rhumba.
This birthed a desire to compose Luo music. I did a few compositions which were predominantly in the Luo language, polished with the English of a village kid and called them Anglo-Benga/Anglo-Ohangla.
But my desire to rap overtook my interest in composing the Afro Bengas. At the time, I was a fan of shaggy and by his influence, I ended up releasing a reggae song (1999) which bore me the nickname Mr. Lololova.
I would later move from Mombasa to Nairobi in search for a studio, and that’s when I met recording artist and producer, Tabu Osusa of Ketebul music. At the time no studio wanted to work with me.
Meanwhile, Tabu was interested in recording me as a rapper. I told him that aside from rapping, I could also do Anglo Ohangla, Anglo-benga, and because he was new to this type of music, I played him one song which he liked.
Here’s when I deviated from the rap/ragga music and took on the Afro fusion music once again.
I recorded a whole album at Tabu’s studio (which he was still building at the Godown) and because the name Mr Lololova couldn’t suit the African music we had just created, I shifted to Makadem and it became my stage name.
That’s how the story of Makadem the artist began.
Which audience do you find mostly listening to your music?
I believe that as long as a person is exposed to a type of music they can listen to it.
In my experience, a more mature audience loves my music. In Kenya, the mature elite enjoys my music but also the young people love it.
For example, university students, especially in Alliance Francaise or the audience at Kuona Arts studios who share a common interest in Africanism appreciate my music.
Hence, I find a range of people in my audience. Whether it’s in Kenya or in Europe, they’re drawn because of an interest in music that is deeply African.
And this makes me believe that when it comes to Afro-fusion, it’s really not about the age but matters of exposure and personal preference.
Would you say afro fusion is richer than any other type of music?
Yes. And this is because it’s undiluted, unlike any other genre. For instance, pop is mainly composed of what has already been made. You will hear a bit of every genre of music or some catchy part of original music.
Like what Amapiano or house Dj producers do. They will queue in the catchiest seconds and the rest is a loop. And part of the reason is because they’ve discovered what the crowd reacts to.
No one wants to listen to seven minutes of an introduction to a song. It may be composed by the best instrumentalists, but some people find it tiring to the mind. People want easy and simple and that’s why you find although jazz is well celebrated, it is not the most popular genre of music out there.
I would say pop has beaten us in popularity, but again we look at Burna Boy who’s combined both Afrofusion and pop and we see its possible to get this music to the masses. We just need a change of mindset and strategy and people will get exposed to African music at its richest.
How does the success of Afro fusion music here in Kenya compare to other countries?
Other countries have Afrofusion music, but they call it differently using traditional names. Like Malaks in Senegal. However, they are more successful and more serious than us. For instance, the more successful music in Kenya is the tribal pop.
But tribal pop is not easy to sell even in its own tribe, leave alone Kenya and outside.
The Ohangla is listened to by the Luos only. You go to Taita they are listening to something else unless its Tony Odundo, whose music hit countrywide. Media uptake of such music is also low. Yet I believe if we concentrated on such music, made it Afro fusion and focused on marketing it right, it would sell.
On the flip side, if we continue focusing on the music that is too much RnB, too much dancehall, too much reggae, it won’t go miles. Why, because it is not unique nor is it tied to our identity.
Once someone sees me with a Nyatiti even if I’m going to rap they relax. They might even assume that I will be playing traditional music yet that is not the case.
We need to focus on delivering originality and authentic art that is tied to our roots, if we want to be as successful as the other African countries who are already doing it.
What strategies can get more people exposed to Afro fusion music?
It took me a long time to realise that what really hinders exposure towards any type of music is the artist themselves.
If you look at pop artists, they go an extra mile when it comes to the media and their personal branding.
On the other hand, most afro-fusion artists do not do as much. We are so entitled that we are doing original music we end up assuming people will come to us.
So we do not bother much. But here is where the problem lies.
Every artist needs to understand business and management. But even with the business side taken care of, unfortunately, most music managers lean towards managing the popular genre artists like pop.
And who wouldn’t? In pop, there’s endorsements, hype and an already laid out platform.
Therefore, as an artist, you need to disrupt and give people something that makes them run towards you.
Otherwise, people won’t care as much even if you do take pride in your kind of music. Whether you do Afro-fusion or pop, emulate what’s working in different genres and use that to brand yourself to the public.
Wow the crowd, because as an artist you are a product. Your image, stage presence, how you look, your voice, all these are products. And what sells you is the video. This is why again, most pop stars invest in video.
So once you recognise which products make you, determine how you will expose them so you can attract the masses. With that figured out, you will have known the business of music.
You have shared the stage with great names like Mahotella Queens, Glen Washington, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita just to mention a few. What advice can you give artists in the Afro fusion context here in Kenya?
While touring and through my interactions with different artists, I came to learn that one cause of success for these artists is they market right and they have management who get their products out to the public.
An artist needs to have ready-made products for the media. When they are not constantly on air, they need to do live performances consistently. Most Afro fusion artists, do not do this.
Nonetheless, contrary to how pop music works, live music is a bit different. You just don’t come from nowhere, put up billboards and everybody accepts you.
In Afro fusion music, it takes time, effort and patience. You build slowly through the live performances (and this is where you build the hype, then the booking agent notices you and books you to wherever) which could be in your country or abroad.
Once you’re booked, appear not as the main act, because sometimes the booking agent is not relying on you to pull the crowd, but as a supporting act.
Knowing the role you play as an Afro-fusion artist once you’re abroad is very important.
An Afro-fusion artist needs to tour. But first, they need to understand how to use the stage. When I’m touring internationally, sometimes I am booked as the main act.
However, that doesn’t stop me from performing in small bars, theatres and small festivals which in some occasions I would’ve booked on my own.
Few will tell you, but in truth these things take time. I didn’t begin my journey by touring to Europe.
In fact remember going to Godown and sitting outside the studio for over ten years, because I didn’t even know what to do. My hope was that someone would book me.
Once in a while, it would happen because the studio recommended me or someone heard me perform.
But compared to then, right now my schedule is more consistent because I have served the time, learnt the ropes and learnt the music business.
What about the culture and receivership abroad?
African music gets a high receivership abroad than within the country. But I believe if how we think of ourselves doesn’t match what the world identifies as African, there’s always going to be a disconnect occurs.
For instance, there’s what Europeans identify as African music or art and there’s what they see as an imitation of the west – even though it might have the African sound. We cannot say they are wrong.
We are the ones steering the narrative. Once something is out there, it is left to interpretation. So if you want to be defined right, deliver the right message.
I believe it is not wrong to fuse cultures. But let the foreign one not overtake the African because that type of music they already have.
On the other hand, East African music is yet to attain full exposure both in Africa and abroad. We might know Bongo, West African and South African music, but Kenyan music and its roots remain untapped.
In the west, they also accept the simplicity of a musician who is good in their art as opposed to the status of a pop star.
You are an act, not a celebrity. You can be both, for instance, Koffi Olomide, Salif Keita, or Baaba Maal. These are live acts and icons, but they’ve earned their status because of their consistency and good performances.
Europe will humble you regardless of status or wealth. Artists use public means which doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
This kind of simplicity has taught me not to get lost in wanting to be a celebrity because often this rabbit hole leads to depression when expectations exceed reality.
Again, it is not bad to be a show stopper or a celebrity if you are, but let it not get into your head because that stops the music.
You have been quite successful as an artist. Share with us some of the highlights in your music journey
I consider highlights as part of the journey.
I have been to many festivals, but this is because of the studio I was working with, and the booking agencies who booked me once they interacted with my music.
The earliest place I went to was in Fest’HornDjibouti back in 2007 when I was just starting out.
Then I went to Sauti za Busara (Zanzibar) around the same year, just after I had done my first album – The Ohangla man. This was also when I adopted the stage name Makadem.
In 2009 I went to Morocco to perform for millions of people and this exposed me to the music business. I got a manager in Europe between 2010 and 2014 and things shifted.
Around this time I was seeing myself as a star, but once I began touring Europe, (I would go there every year), the focus shifted to understanding my sound.
I realized that I didn’t know my sound when I watched my videos and all I could hear is noise.
Yet when I watched content from other African top stars I would like the sound, the flow, the arrangement… this made me want to do better.
Nowadays I can listen to a set I’ve done on repeat because I’ve finally understood my music.
As a musician, I believe you are supposed to be your worst critic. It shouldn’t be that you do not know your mistakes.
Before people come to criticize, you should be aware of what is failing.
Live music is like football. Both internal and external forces are involved in your performance and how it impacts the audience.
Your moods, preparedness, the crowd e.t.c all these have a role to play in your delivery.
Knowing my sound built me up, and from then I performed in Canada – Sunfest, In Montreal Nuit Afrique, and at the Smithsonian festival held at Washington DC.
I believe this was one of the biggest places I ever performed because this annual festival features one country at a time. It was a Kenyan affair but I was one of those selected to perform there.
Since then, I have performed in several other places; intimate settings yet with a strong impact. In May 2022 I performed alone during the African week, at the UNESCO hall in Paris.
I had been touring in Paris when the Kenyan Embassy invited me to perform during the event.
This was quite an honour because it was unexpected and one of the persons in the audience happened to be none other than Koffi Olomide.
I have also performed during the biggest festival in Dubai called the global village and in New York University in Abu Dhabi.
Not too long, I was also booked for a residence in Burundi and I enjoyed playing there because Alliance Francais granted me the country’s best band making the experience, nothing short of epic.
You participated in the opening of the Cannes film festival in 2012? Was it something you anticipated
I didn’t even know much let alone realise that it was a big thing. I just happened to be on residency, courtesy of Institute Francaise in Paris and we received information that we had to compete to qualify.
I was competing against Nabi from Mali and Alif Naba from Burkina Faso. All these were huge names in their country and then there was me.
That’s how I ended up performing in Cannes. But as much as I was there taking pictures and enjoying the moment as the show stopper, it was when I started posting that I realized this was actually a big deal. You know, when people started commenting and celebrating that I was Cannes film festivals.
What advice can you share with young artistes in Kenya
- Do live performances to learn the stage and build your audience. You also need to be prepared because you never know when the opportunity meets you. And if it happens yet you haven’t prepared you will lose it all over again.
- Learn to play an instrument, like the Nyatiti or juke box guitar. It is easy to show someone what you do and you will not need amplification.
- Once you are given an opportunity, do your best regardless of who you are playing to. Do not tune your performance to your audience because you never know who is in your audience.
- Read biographies of other artists to learn how they were baked and made. It will humble you and teach you a lot.
- In the West most artists do waiting, and other odd jobs, to get money as they wait for their music to start paying. It works. Do not chase to be Diamond now when you don’t know how he rose or the resilience and effort it took.
- Move with the times. Koffi Olomide has done well on this. Despite his age in the industry, he can make music and compete with the young Congolese artists. Remold and reinvent yourself according to the changing times. That is how you will become timeless.
- Seek what I call the pillars of a musician. These include; tours, endorsements, produce a video album, go on live performances. Otherwise, you will have a hard time growing your career as a musician.
- Stop complaining and blaming other people. Do your part. Stop saying you don’t have a manager when you have no product. Managers manage brands. Brands have products. Know your art and have a clear explanation on why you are better than your competition.
- Attend entrepreneurial classes. I learnt this when Godown partnered with the British council to offer entrepreneurial classes. I have never been so quick in signing up for a workshop. Being an artiste goes beyond recording.
- You are a leader. People listen to what you say. Research. Look for artist mentors, network, strategize and be on the lookout for summits and events like Ongea summit. Then attend. Which is better learning how to make 20k or being paid 20k?
- Stop the celebrity mentality. To be a celebrity means you are celebrated. Until you are celebrated concentrate on your art and craft. Otherwise, depression will knock on your door once you can’t keep up.
- Stay simple, stay a musician, an artist, a creative and avoid the trap of being a celebrity. Once you are relevant and it is rewarding you financially, you won’t care to be a star. If you are running to be an MCA how does being the president bother you?
Your music speaks on socio economic struggles of modern-day Kenya. What are your views on the coming election as far as leadership & transformation is concerned?
We have transformative leaders. The problem is we tend to brush over real issues instead of confronting them and providing real solutions. And this happens every year.
People will complain on the leadership and its way of doing things but once the elections come, people take side based on tribe, or incentives forgetting they were looking for transformation and leadership.
You can identify with a party but if some of the elects don’t qualify it is of no use electing them – just because they are on your favourite party. Who composes the team is very important in the fulfilment of a government’s promises.
We also tend to sexualize female leaders and ageism is also a factor in this. Sometimes someone will receive support or lack thereof because they have or don’t have certain body features or because they are young/old which shouldn’t be the case.
This also happens in the music industry, but I believe it is so here in Kenya because there are no gatekeepers in music.
How does it resonate to people when you speak on politics?
I am very vocal on my socials, when it comes to politics. But most people dislike this, especially when political views comes from an artist.
History defines artists as integral parts of steering the wheels of change. But often you will always hear comments like, concentrate on your music, or what would an artist know about politics.
This is sad because, artists are not just musicians. And such comments coming from people in leadership communicates how they view Kenyan art and artists in general.
Ironically, sometimes the same people who dance to your music till they lose control will be the ones making such remarks.
Who are you looking to work with next?
Sage. I really like her art. Also Collo.
Where can people find your music?
Little known facts about Charles Odero Ademson
I speak French. Haha.
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