Mama Africa (ARC Music EUCD 1875, 2004)
My first taste of Suzzana Owiyo came via the song “Kisumu 100” on World Music Network’s The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya. Such a delightful piece of music it remains- a song in celebration of a town’s centennial, full of quirky rhythms, wheezy Brazilian-like effects and vocals at once authoritative and frisky.
I was resolute in my desire to track down more of Suzzana Owiyo’s music, and subsequently blessed by the arrival of this CD (eponymous when first released in Kenya and retitled Mama Africa for wider release by ARC Music in the U.K.).
Owiyo is of Luo descent, sharing her people’s passion for social activism and artistic expression despite their minority status. Her singing may put you in mind of Tracy Chapman (a comparison that’s been made in the press already), or perhaps a more sedate Angelique Kidjo or Sally Nyolo in a pensive frame of mind.
In any case, her singing fits the generally sparse, direct nature of the arrangements, which run refreshingly contrary to the slickness of some modern Afro-pop. Two versions of “Kisumu 100,” one a more bottom-heavy dance mix, open and close the album and the rest of the songs do not suffer in contrast. Some center around non-flashy guitars, just enough percussion to establish a groove and recurrent violin and flute sounds.
Even when funk or dub reggae textures are applied (as on “Suna Ka Ngeya” and “Lek Ne Wounda” respectively) there’s nothing obtrusive to clash with Owiyo’s husky and oddly sensual singing. Highlights include “Ngoma,” with propulsive drumming that suggests gazelles on the run, an English-language tribute to a loving grandmother on “Masela” and the steadfast title song. Actually, the whole thing’s quite good, showing a rising star of African music in fine singing and songwriting form.