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Joseph Kamaru aka KMRU is a young artist from Nairobi, Kenya who has cultivated a unique sound utilizing field-recordings as compositional aids. While his bandcamp and soundcloud have been home to prolific self-released work over the last few years, 2020 is sure to raise his profile with three new full-length releases. Much of his self-released works have consisted of just one or two compositions of approximately 5 minutes in length each, often the length of the field-recording used as the formal base. On Peel, his debut for the venerable Edition Mego, KMRU has a 2xLP worth of time for his work to patiently unfold. And KMRU takes full advantage of the extended length, resulting in a fully formed artistic statement.

Quarantine has apparently been very productive for KMRU, as the already prolific artist has kicked it into overdrive. Another full-length, Opaquer, has just been released on Dagoretti Records, also based in Nairobi. That record features KMRU stretching out in a different direction, a poly-chromatic soundscape in contrast to the singularity of Peel. And if that weren’t enough, he’s got one more major work lined up for release this autumn, Jar, a tape for Seil Records (Hainbach, Jogging House), a lovely excursion further into drone territory.

Back at Unsound in 2018, I heard from some staff who had recently attended Nyege Nyege festival at Nile Discovery Beach in Jinja, Uganda, a utopian celebration at the source of the Nile River organized by Nyege Nyege Tapes. Their excitement was palpable, and several Nyege Nyege regulars appeared at Unsound that year, including several stunning sets from Slikback, another adventurous Kenyan producer making waves recently. It was around this time I first encountered KMRU’s work, as he was often mentioned as an example of the forward thinking artists pushing electronic music in East Africa. In addition to playing Nyege Nyege, KMRU has since performed at the CTM festival in Berlin and GAMMA Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As we discuss in the interview below, KMRU played classical guitar during his studies at university, but got his start DJing house and techno before embracing listening as the core of his practice. (He is still a prolific mix maker.) Making simple recordings on his phone lead to an interest in field-recording. KMRU invested in a Zoom H6 digital recorder, and began his experimentation with electronic music, cultivating a practice built upon field-recording and initiating a gradual evolution in his artistic style.

As KMRU’s field-recording practice developed he began to incorporate elements of his soundscapes into his DJ sets. Perplexed crowd reactions drove him to find new ways to integrate field-recordings into his work in ways that were more legible, developing techniques that can be heard on work such as EAST, a collaboration with Manch!ld which resulted from a 14-day artistic residency on a train. Early tracks from 2017, such as “dadar” or “Jinja Encounters,” were entirely beat-driven, but incorporate field-recordings and vocal samples in ways that grant those tracks a narrative, even cinematic quality. The three song Erased EP from early 2019 marks something of a transition, but is still dominated by programmed drums and synth lines. Ableton’s monthly video series One Thing featured KMRU around this time, discussing sampling broken instruments, the end results of which can be heard on “OT.” Rhythmic field-recordings and synth ensure a propulsive forward momentum, but the driving drum patterns have fallen away. Since then KMRU’s work has increasingly grown more spacious, and more patient. His field-recordings suggest unusual formal structures, and long loops allow for more deliberate and slower evolution, as can be heard on his recent full-length work.

KMRU and I first struck up a friendship discussing field-recording techniques on Twitter (and perhaps bonding over a shared first name). The article in question suggested that field-recordists tend to fall into one of these four categories: controlled, investigative, stealth, and guerrilla. We were each drawn to the unpredictability of stealth and guerrilla mode, and as I’ve gotten to know KMRU’s work better I’ve come to understand that this openness has been a key to his development as an artist with a unique voice.
It should be said that the name Joseph Kamaru is already well-known in Kenya: KMRU’s namesake, his grandfather, was a famous Benga singer, an iconic Kikuyu musician and political activist. KMRU is keeping this musical spirit alive, but doing so by forging his own path. Still, he has initiated an archival project collecting his grandfather’s music, raising funds for an eventual vinyl re-issue.
We carried on this interview piecemeal over the last year, as I often do with these Sound Propositions. But very happily Joseph and I were able to meet in person when he came here to Montreal in March for the Mutek AI Lab, literally just before the Corona-times began and forced us into this new socially-distanced world. In fact, he and I visited Eva & Franco Mattes’ exhibition at the Phi Foundation, which turned out to be my very last outing before the stay home order.
As I’ve said, KMRU has been keeping busy since then. Peel, his debut for Editions Mego, was recorded immediately after returning to Nairobi from Montreal, and takes its name from a metro station in downtown. Peel includes some field-recordings made during his visit, though the track titles seems to suggest more of his experience as a traveller than any particular recording. Consisting of six long tracks, all of a piece, Peel is a multi-part suite of monochromatic drone abstraction. This style has been emerging for sometime, and is consistent with other work from 2020 he’s shared recent, such as Odra, but is certainly a decisive shift from the beat-centric work of prior years. Long loops of sub-bass and chirping high frequencies patiently unfold across the double LP, much closer to William Basinski than the East African Soul Train of the not too distant past. Peel reaches a fever pitch on “Klang,” about midway through, but it is the eponymous closing epic, at 22:58 that nonetheless is the centerpiece of the album.
Jar, to be released later this year, has a similar style, though with more recognizable use of field-recordings. I’m tempted to even say that KRMU has a lowercase aesthetic, like so many of those I’ve profiled in this series. He is content to explore tiny sounds, never demanding too much attention, but confidently and carefully constructing his own sonic idiom. Opaquer is the most diverse of the three, and the busiest, though clearly the work of the same artist. That album was made first, which might explain the differences, but makes a lovely counterpoint to the deep calm of Peel. The loops are shorter, and more events are crammed into a composition, but the results are always engaging.
While here in Montreal for the Mutek AI Lab, KMRU began exploring machine learning, and since he will begin his Master’s in sound studies at Universität der Künste Berlin later this year, I suspect there will be many more surprising turns still to come. I’m honored to be able to share this conversation with KMRU profiling his work relatively early in his career. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Sound Propositions is an ongoing, semi-regular series of conversations with artists exploring their creative practices and individual aesthetics, conceived of as a counter-narrative to a dominant trend in music journalism which fetishizes equipment and new technologies. Rather than writing copy that can just as easily have come from a press release or a consumer electronics catalog, this series tries to take the emphasis away from the ‘what’ and shine light on the ‘how’ and ‘why.’ You can find the previous conversations, as well as additional articles and features, here.

INTERVIEW

One of our first interactions on Twitter was discussing this article about types of field-recordists. So, what kind of field-recordist are you?

I find my self being in the Stealth—the fact that my recording gear is pretty light (H6 Zoom)—I find my self in different locations unplanned and just find interesting sounds. For example in Nairobi, it’s a bit difficult to record in the streets as not so many…like close to none…will be recording sounds in the streets. So I try to do my recordings in the streets early in the morning or later in the evening, during the day always stealth mode.
The other day I drove off like 2hours away from home, with my recorder… I had no destination, was just hoping to find good sounds and reached this place with a herd of cows, and had bells on their necks and wasn’t sure who was watching me, as I was sneaking closer to the cows… It was an interesting field trip.
Other times I am a Guerrilla recordist … always searching for sounds in different cities. I travel too—its always on my to-do when I am playing at a different city—to capture the sounds of the place. And the majority of my time my field recorder is usually in my backpack. Always ready to capture sounds.
How did you become interested in field-recordings as part of your production process?
I found my self listening differently a couple of years ago, it wasn’t intentional or anything. I just found myself recording sounds on my iPhone, and later just listen back to them. This is way before I got into production. Then in 2017, I went for a residency, EAST, which was on a train for more than 14 hours and I was inspired by the clicks, horns, and the whole ambiance inside the train with all the residents super busy working. This time I didn’t own any piece of recording instrument…just an iPod…with my earphones, and I remember putting the earphones out on the window to record the train sounds with the earphone mic. this later came to collaboration to a 3track EP EAST, which was inspired by the sounds of the train. I still didn’t think that field recording was actually a thing, but I came to realize that even my first tracks were field influenced. I really loved natural sounds, conversations or just random daily sounds in my tracks, trying to document reality through sound…
Later I invested in a sound recorder, the Zoom H6, primarily because it was a recorder and also an audio interface. As soon I started listening to sounds through this, my music got more and more interesting and experimental and since then (2018) I have been experimenting and learning more about field recording, despite no community of Field recordists in Nairobi.

Once you’ve made a recording, do you have an archival process? Do you edit out just small samples of the interesting sound? How much does the sense of place/event weight on your creative decision, and how much is just the aesthetics of the sound itself?

I have days where I will be listening to the recordings I have done and name according to the specific sounds or location of the place. It’s amazing as a field recordist that you will always remember and have a visual picture of where the sound was recorded.

I use these environmental sources as compositional tools, therefore, I don’t edit much of the sounds, but this all depends on the project I am working on. Recently I have been using granular synthesis on-field sounds and its fascinating the sounds I get. Other times i will leave the recording as it is and write a sound piece inspired by the sounds.

Its important that each piece of music I write with a field recording reconstructs the location of where I captured the sounds, each field recording is a composition on its own, and its important for me personally that these sounds are given the attention in a piece.

Do you have any early memories or associations with sound, as apart from music? How did you get interested in music? What lead to working solo? You mention a collaboration on EAST. Is collaboration an important part of music for you?

Growing up in Nairobi, I was exposed to so much city sounds and noise which I didn’t know will impact me later in the future as an artist. Most of my routes when I was growing up was centered around the main CBD or close to it and I mainly walked almost all my commutes. This was a daily routine, to school, to the library, etc, but as soon as we moved to a new home, the sounds of this new place was so different and every sound was clearer. And has been a great influence on my music to date.

I played in ensembles at my University but was more interested working in solitude. As I had a whole year in Campus where I had to learn and experiment on Ableton. After learning much about music production I was always trying to find more producers I could work with. This was important to me, as it aided creativity. The same thing happened during EAST residency where I met one of the passengers, Manch!ld and worked on the EP with him inspired by the whole train journey.

For collaborations, I am always willing to work with people or projects one might not expect me to. I will risk the disaster as the creative rewards of successful collaborations are great.

Can you tell us more about your work in ensembles? What instrument, what kind of music? Do you prefer working in the solo electronic context or was that more out of necessity?

The ensemble was more of a necessity for my degree. Every year we had to be in an ensemble and showcase a performance based on the unit’s theme. This was exciting as I ended up playing guitar, bass, and Obokano (a lyre) in different ensembles. Other times. We even had to dance different traditional African dances. From various communities. My best showcase that I recall was my final year where I arranged one of my grandfather’s pieceNjohi Ndiri Mwarimu (“alcohol has no teacher”), and taught lyrics to my ensemble mates and performed a more hybrid Ableton live set which gained interest to my professors as not many students took this direction for their solo ensemble directing.

Now I’m focusing more on my solo project, but I also enjoy live improvisations and collaborations with other artists. You can have a listen to one of the live improvisations showcased at Gamma Festival in 2019.

Your name is pretty famous in Kenya isn’t it? Any relation to the famous Benga singer?

Yes, the name Joseph Kamaru is pretty well-known in Kenya. My grandfather the late [Joseph] Kamaru (1939-2018) was an icon in the Benga music scene. It’s amazing how I picked up both of his names and I’m the only one in the family doing this music thing. He always told me to take care of the ‘Kamaru’ name.

That’s amazing! I wasn’t sure how common the name was. I just read the feature on Bandcamp, it was nice to learn more about the social and political context of your grandfather’s music. It seems like he used his lyrics to great effect, knowing the power of his words. You’ve carved out your own unique aesthetic space mostly with instrumental music. But when voices to appear they seem to be significant. How do you relate to the power of words?

Kamaru is a unique name and not a common name in the Kikuyu community, which makes it memorable to a wider audience because of my grandfather’s music, its also how I came up with my artist name, I had to take down the A’s in the name as there would be a contradiction. My grandfather’s music was very vocal, political, and social which spoke mostly about the people and there was a huge connection with the people through his music. I respect musicians, artists who use lyrics, text, and vocals as their main ‘instruments’ as I tend to feel there is more connection with people using the voice. This is the same as word artists or poets who I really respect a lot too. There is power in the words ones speaks or sings. I have observed this in most of my grandfather’s works I am reissuing and a collaboration I did with Poetra [Asantewa], a Ghanaian poet. I’m also very conscious while I speak, as sometimes I tend to think a lot about what I am going to say.

Some of your compositions are very rhythmic and beat-driven, with melodic progressions and a kind of chill club vibe, while others are more abstract and textural. Is this a spectrum or do you have distinct processes for different modes of music making? Do you ever compose with the club and dancing in mind?

More recently, in the past year (since 2019), I have fully been composing more of experimental, ambient/ leftfield works, and this is what my’ ‘KMRU’ project will be. As for the beat-driven tracks, I don’t think about the club while composing these kinds of music. It’s more of a personal approach to writing rhythmic tracks. For this track, I will have a rhythmic idea I am exploring and develop melodies, textures and field sounds around it. I’m currently working on a side project for a more noise-industrial, club driven music.

Wow, looking forward to that. I’d like to hear you get noisier! Can I ask you about the track “Walking Dreams” specifically? When recording while walking we often capture the sound of our own footsteps, something that this track seems to explore. About ten years ago I became really interested in psychogeography, and would take meandering unplanned walks, through my new neighborhood or the underground city in Montreal, and I became really intrigued by the sound of the footsteps, how you can hear how a space changes, but also this really organic way of keeping time. In the case of this track, the footsteps seems to grant a narrative to the more surreal sounds occurring. Do you relate to footsteps in this way? Can you tell us more about what went into this track?

“Walking dreams” was purely written using field recordings collected on my phone. The footsteps are recordings of myself walking home after a night out, and my Uber driver decided to drop be a few meters away from my gate. It was at 3 am, and I usually take out my phone, or my recorder, and do random recordings in such hours. This piece was based on the 4″57’ walk and I layered with some sounds and textures. The voice is from one of my students I taught classical guitar. The train-like sound horn is a classical guitar strings on a leather jacket. My student was playing with the Jacket on the strings and asked him if I could record those sounds…that’s how the track came to be after decluttering my field recordings from my phone which I do every year.

It’s hard sometimes to omit footsteps in field recordings unless you are going for that in a recording but sometimes I find this fascinating as it brings me the sense of recall of where I was recording the sounds, and also the ground aspect of the location. This can be heard on the different ground surfaces of the track.

How do you approach a live situation in compared to how you work in the studio?

I try to create with my music a sensation of narrative, both in the studio and live performance.

After a year of struggling on how to approach live electronic music, I decided to force myself to have almost the same tools I use in the studio. With a limited set of tools live, there are more chances of experimenting and improvising and usually feels more natural. The live set is still developing and every show is always different.

It’s either you create your music as a captured performance or more of a producer and always creating and experimenting even in a live situation.

What are the tools you mention for live and studio production? What kind of parameters are you playing around with in both contexts? Any particular piece of gear that you’ve developed an important relationship with? Do you have a physical relationship to working with sound, or is it more about arranging and editing and processing?

Lately, I have been improvising a lot and trying to build structures and ideas on my Korg Minilogue, mood pedal, and just recently added the Lyra 8. In my productions, I tend to record long loops, melodies, and ambiances to create a starting palette to write a piece and develop the tracks with different layers and field recordings. I enjoy recording one-takes and move knobs around throughout my music. Tracks like ‘points’ were created this way, an improvised recording on the Minilogue, with varying delay effects.

In a live context, I sometimes structure my live set on Ableton and launch different clips which I control via Ableton Push. I also set a time within the performance where I will play freely with field recordings and synth textures too. Although I like to keep live sets simple to control what’s happening. In both contexts, I tend to have a more organic creation and performance. I am also excited to be including the Lyra 8 on my live sets for its unpredictability.

Yes, I have a more intimate (physical) connection with sound more than the arranging and editing process. This was triggered on a 14-hour journey on a train during a residency, and later when I fully got into field recording. This also led to a sound installation (Variations) I am working on which is a personal experience to the audience as movement affects how the audience interacts with the space of the installation.

I always like to ask about an artist’s favorite work outside of sound art or music. What books, visual art, plays, films, etc you are inspired by, or find common cause with? Are their artists working in other media (past or present) that you feel an aesthetic kinship with?

Been inspired by Austin Kleon books, and Steal Like an Artist has been one of my favorites, always in my backpack. I find myself reading a lot about cultures and histories of different places and study them. It’s exciting to learn about different practices, there’s always something exciting!

Kevin Karanja

Sun Ra –Space Is The Place- always an inspiration.

And artists like Kevin Karanja (KE), one visual artist/illustrator, we aesthetically connect and keen to share an AV performance soon.

And lastly my late grandfather, Joseph Kamaru who was more than a musician. Has been influential to me just as a person.

Can you talk about your experience at Mutek AI Lab in Montreal earlier this year working with machine learning? How does that fit into your broader artistic practice?

Mutek Montreal was amazing and super grateful to be part of that lab. I worked on a project with Sound artist, Moises Horta and media artist, Damian Dziwis which was exciting and still in progress. Whilst in the lab I was working more with different AI models to train my field recordings, which we used for the showcase at MILA in Montreal. I cannot say much about this project yet as it is still in the works and excited to showcase this evolving remote collaborated project in different Festivals.

Mutek AI lab was also a learning experience for me, meeting different multidisciplinary artists and learning more about machine learning and artificial intelligence was exciting and intriguing.

This was my second lab with a focus with AI and ML, after attending GAMMA Lab in 2019. Since then I have been introduced to works and tools using machine learning. This led to a collaborative AI Showcase at Gamma Festival (RU) and currently I have a work in progress music project that involves compositions of trained field recordings.

I am using this new technology as collaborative tools, although I am still inclined to my approach of composition and I think there is a huge potential in learning this new system and using them in artistic based practices.

You’ve been keeping busy since we saw each other in Montreal in March. What do you have going on these days?
On music side…I have a lot going on, haha.
I have a release with Editions Mego…in August- super happy and excited for this one…wrote the music as soon as I came back from Montreal. Peel (also named it after a metro station in MTL, which was my daily route,) I think you’ll enjoy this…
I also have a tape release with Seil Records, Jar, which has been in the works from last year. These are my main releases for the year, and hopefully a reissue of my digital works on vinyl…+ a rone remix too…

And Peel, can you tell me more about that? How did Montreal your time here impact the work?

Peel was effortlessly recorded in one single day. The process felt like working with analog gear and tape loops, although it was all done on Ableton using a limited number of tools. These works were recorded just after my trip from Montreal for the Mutek Lab, and I was lucky to be back in Nairobi before the borders were closed. A lot had been scheduled this year for me, but sadly…

For me, I got super productive finishing music and starting new projects and Peel was among the works I finished. The title of the project is named after a street in downtown MTL which was my everyday route.

Peel was written based on my experiences in Montreal and being back in Nairobi. I used some field recordings recorded during the trip, but most of it was improvisational.

Montreal is one of my favorite places visited so far, despite having travelled during its heavy winter. I connected with the place and there was some stillness of the place which I loved much about.

Hey, if you can love Montreal in the winter, then you’ll love it any time of the year. It’s been a pleasure. Hope to see you again soon!

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