Labdi Ommes: Before & After The Orutu

On a darkened stage, the melancholy wail of a bow pulling across a single string silences the audience.

Words by Terry-Jo Thorne (Researcher & Writer)

That was my first encounter with the eerie notes of the “orutu”. The delicate hands of Labdi Ommes – a defiantly audacious woman, were masterfully guiding it. We leaned closer. The orutu sang on with a sound that mimics a human voice. The single-stringed instrument is a piece of Kenyan history – traditionally played by men only – and rarely celebrated by young audiences. However, on that day it had found itself in the north of Europe, as Labdi joined its song and fragile pleas with her warm certainty, enveloping vocal range, and strength – she called it forth into the future.

Suddenly I left like saying, “Where the hell am I? Not enjoying a warm Kisumu evening, drifting into dream space as this elderly lullaby calls me in”. I was, instead, in a slightly run-down, overpriced bar in the centre of Oslo. Grumpy about the cold outside and firmly confused about the concert I was currently enjoying. I thought I was coming to listen to Electronica. I thought I was coming to dance. Then it flipped from out of nowhere, though he had been lurking in plain sight the entire time. Labdi’s musical partner, and the other half of “Unganisha” – Bernt Isak blasted his manic laser synth and electronic beats into the pause. And Labdi herself encouraged this tonal shift with the graceful animation of her body to the rhythm of what was now, without doubt, a song that is meant to get you up and dance.

Bold, surprising, gorgeous, and unexpectedly whimsical – this describes “Unganisha’s” musical style, as well as Labdi herself, That’s how I first experienced her, on a cold Oslo night, bringing colour, history, and energy to a dimly lit Oslo dive bar. I have since learnt that “Unganisha” is but one of Labdi’s successful creative works. While her collaboration with Bernt Isak is certainly a case of creative magic, she also regularly tours alone with her orutu – offering grateful audiences a taste of Kenyan musical heritage. “I don’t feel like I have one style to express myself in. With ‘Unganisha’, it is a different type of expression. It’s a great segue into exploring different styles because with Unganisha anything goes,” Labdi said, amused by my question about how she chooses her creative expressions. She hopes that she will inspire more Kenyans to see the value of the heritage that shaped them, and learn to enjoy their music in ways they had not considered before.

However, while I do not doubt her cavalier “anything goes” mindset, the level of quality or thematic consistency within her projects creative messaging, exudes purpose and direction. For example, in a recent “Unganisha” production, which I had the privilege of being involved with – Labdi co-created a stage production named “Mamarina“. Inspired by an “Unganisha’s” song of the same name, the work they produced was broad, and unexpected in its format. Labdi and her co-creators worked tirelessly to create something that displayed the delightful variety of expressions of the self: ugly or beautiful, subtle or loud. Like Labdi’s own outlook self-expression. As she put it, “Expression and vulnerability don’t exist in these too-polarising styles of living which are not very healthy. So when you are being raw and putting yourself in the world and there is no marking scheme, there is no scale to rate it on”.

“No marking scheme” – I have always thought that Art had to be engaged with in this manner. In that, way we can all find weird and wonderful ways to enjoy being in the midst of fully formed expressions. I wondered how Labdi developed such ‘rawness’ and ‘vulnerability’ in her Art and she quickly informed me that, “both of her grandparents were creatives”. She “inherited” her many creative inclinations from her grandfather, “who painted, and also wrote, and played guitar”. Spending her childhood in grandparents home awoke in her the “unshakeable desire to create things” – for herself. Besides music, the other things Labdi creates is Art, visual Art. She drew Unganisha’s cover art for their singles and albums; sketched the stage art for “Mamarina”; and created the images for the “Leko” music video, which were then animated by the similarly multi-talented Bernt Isak.

Labdi’s drawings lean toward otherworldly – dream like expressions (and she is not afraid of being whimsy with her work), as evidenced by her spontaneously producing a whacky “Unganisha” colouring book which they printed and sold for a nominal price at concerts. For me, selling a colouring book on tour is one of the coolest things I have ever heard of. One has to find ways to keep themselves busy when they are on tour, I guess. When I asked her about touring Labdi said, “Travelling is one of the things I enjoy the most about the creative lifestyle”. However, the constant need to “hustle” is one of the understandable negatives of that career path. But it is seasonal in nature, plus “you get to meet new people, and form networks with other creators”, she outlined. Nonetheless, she feels that artists are inadequately compensated for the work they put into their work, especially on tour, but noted, “She has been fortunate so far to have been able to live comfortably on her art”.

Although Labdi highlighted her good fortune, she was quick to point out that her situation is a bit “rare”. For many musicians, especially in Kenya, “local music is not valued enough,” she bemoaned. She feels that Kenyan “radio stations play only the expected international pop tunes,” so there is not enough “exposure”of Kenyan acts to the Kenyan and global market. While she plays several concerts at home (In Kenya), the reception, she maintained, “is different” from that in Europe (Norway). This might be partly because of her genre-bending style, and the introduction of Electronica to the traditional-orutu-folk sound. In Europe, audiences are more receptive and familiar with Electronica, even if they might be shy about dancing. And because of that, “Unganisha” has found a firmer footing in the Oslo electronic music scene. But that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing, there is “discrimination in various forms” when she works.

When I prompted her about what form of “discrimination,” that yesteryear burden of being “a black woman” found its way into the conversation. Her tongue-in-cheek comment that followed was “But I rebuke that!” She explained: “As women we are told to be graceful, men are told to be tough. It’s polarising … unhealthy … challenging”. In the end, she just decided that she‘d do precisely what “she wants”. Internal resilience is paramount. And sometimes she expresses that resistance outwardly. For example, when you see Labdi it is impossible not to notice her sense of style (both on-stage and off). The Kenyan fashion artist, Meloddi Mazola, designs “Eighty percent” of her stage wear. Their creative relationship has been a long one, and Meloddi’s signature otherworldly creations are present and at the core of Labdi’s stage personality.

Bright colours, bold shape and fabrics, that extend asymmetrically from her small frame in ways that appear both futuristic and traditional – these are the ways Meloddi accentuates Labdi physicality to reflect the music she plays. It is a whole experience – seeing the futuristic outfits whilst listening to the traditional sound of the orutu. Personally, something about the whole thing feels like an extension of time – kind of like before and after (at the same time). That is why I had to ask Labdi what her vision for her works is. Interestingly, she he had no specific path laid out in her mind, but she was clearly focused on making all this art “accessible” – in particular, the orutu.

Labdi has endured many frustrations in the form of sexist backlash and clear resistance to change. Therefore, she is passionate about the power of traditional instruments, specifically how the orutu can exhibit Kenya’s musical heritage and change the youth’s mindsets. Knowing the orutu’s history (as a traditionally male instrument), coupled with Labdi’s current battles (against sexist and discrimination) – I can understand how she has embraced the orutu as tool for liberation. People respond in a peculiar ways to her playing the orutu and there is a situation that Labdi told me about that illustrates the dynamics her situation quite potently. Labdi told me that, “I was in an airport” and a man asked her “Well, if you are going to play this, then what are we going to play?” The notion of both of them being able to play the same instrument was so alien as to cause contempt and moral panic in this stranger at the airport. For him, Labdi and her orutu came to represent an unwanted change. So much so, that he took it up with her verbally – unmasking all his fears of losing his power, as well as his moral disapproval of her so-called audacity, and non-conformity to traditions- all in one statement.

Labdi laughed incredulously as she recounted the story to me. She was unmoved. “The thing we need to focus on is how to move forward and how to give access to women and girls (and just give everyone access in general) to these instruments and express. People must themselves creatively,” she stated outright. Her statement about being creative reminded me that I had forgotten to ask her what her favourite song was. “Mpenzi,” she said, after some thought. “Because it is a song about love,” and she enjoys losing herself in it. She also praised Bernt’s production on this track, and delights in its 80s-inspired sound. Somehow, she admitted, she found herself drawn to 80s music style, despite being born in the decade that followed. “It gives me the space to be the queen I am!” she laughed. “Space” to be all you can be ultimately is what being creative all about.

Before I walked into that overpriced bar in Oslo, I had come for this music. Initially I was drawn to the orutu – with its beautiful, almost-forgotten human-like wail – but then I noticed the person playing it. After that, I ended up talking about the 80s, Kenyan history, love songs, airports, Labdi, colouring books, fashion and more. One instrument created so many potential spaces for discourse. I believe that is what music is really meant to do – it is a vehicle for getting people out of their seats (one way or another). I think it’s funny how I had come to dance the night away but ended up immersed a mini- multi-cultural revolution. Do not get me wrong, I am still going to dance to Labdi’s music despite the weight it carries because, as Emma Goldman put it – “a revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having”.

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