From the mean streets of Nairobi to the equally mean but somewhat more glamorous stages of New York’s Broadway, Kenyan superstar Eric Wainaina’s career in music and theatre has come an incredibly long way. In this month’s Kahawa Allstars, we sit down with the multi talented artist, for an exclusive chat about his musical journey, his transition to theatrical musicals and his new album “Dreams in Stereo” which is set to be released this 27th of July.
If you were to sing about coffee, what would you say about it?
I have a song off my new album, “Dreams in Stereo” launching on 27th July that comes to mind. The title is “Found Me A Lover” and one of the verses reminds me of someone I know, but it also reminds me of coffee—full of crazy, fun, energy. So, coffee must also be a woman!
She falls asleep to television
She lives her dreams in stereo
She swears up a storm in traffic
Singing loud to the radio
Has coffee ever come to your rescue?
Oh, many times! Every day in fact. My studio always has a fresh pot on the go. Many projects of mine are fueled by late nights and a good cup of Joe. Besides, how else am I supposed to wake up in the morning?
Tinga Tinga tales at Broadway! How did that happen?
Claudia Lloyd, the director, sent off a demo to The New Victory Theater in NYC. They loved it. That being said we’re still looking for a bunch of cash—so if you’ve got some zeros lying around add them to the end of a cheque and send them through.
Will you be relocating to New York?
Yes, we are moving there for the month of October. (*Sings “New York, New York”). In addition to performances, I will also have a short residency at Yale and NYU. This really will be a fantastic launch pad for everything I am doing right now. My musical DJ Lwanda is being workshopped at NYU. Can’t wait.
What inspired you to expand your artistic repertoire into theatre and musicals?
I am deeply fascinated by live theatrical performances. When I was at music school at St Mary’s we had an annual musical and I took part in all but two in my 12-year stint there. In Boston we caught a lot of theater, I took some musical theatre classes and I have been inspired ever since. It has taken some time to get this off the ground, but now this is definitely a fixed part of my career moving forward. The energy of producing, acting and singing on stage in a dramatic context is exhilarating. I feel most alive in that environment because it is a collaborative effort allowing myself to work with a lot of different artists and creatives, some of whom are often better at their craft than I am. And this forces me to evolve and grow and get better.
Any other theatrical productions in the pipeline? When do Kenyans get a chance to enjoy your next musical?
Well, we just had the NBO Music Theater Workshop at The Elephant in June. Two amazing professors from NYU facilitated a group of nearly 50 artists collaborating in groups poring over 15 individual productions at various stages of development. This space is going to explode big time in 2019. In November 2020 we’ll have the inaugural NBO Musical Theatre Festival. Watch this space.
Your new album, Dreams In Stereo, has a personal touch to it. Tell us about what inspired it.
Dreams is a first for me in many ways. For one it explores a lot of personal music influences: traditional Black Gospel; Blues; R&B; Funk, even Reggae. It is also a purely internationally produced album. We worked with an amazing producer in LA, Will Kennedy, and he brought in collaborations from all over the world. So technically I think it is one of my best efforts and musically it expands the repertoire in a big way.
On a personal level, it speaks to universal rites of passage like love, loss, betrayal and redemption. And it’s my first record since 2012, so long overdue. I’m back!
How would you describe your musical journey over the years?
External to personal. In the recent past through previous albums, I was really honing what it was to be a Kenyan and African artist and the sound of that period really reflected that. Today I am exploring a more international musical palate. And this current album reflects more of that journey.
If it wasn’t music, what else do you be doing?
I would make animated movies or teach, or maybe grow flowers!
Any pearls of wisdom you would like to share with aspiring musicians?
Everyone is creative by nature and can produce great art, but many suppress this side of themselves for various reasons. So polish your talents and don’t be afraid to put it out there. Criticism is often the fuel to greatness. Learn more and collaborate widely and freely.