Achieng Abura – Afro-jazz songbird with a cause

The name Achieng’ Abura is synonymous with Afro-fusion and Afro-jazz music in Kenya. Although she started as a gospel artiste in 1991, she later found her niche in the Afro-fusion genre. Her first Afro-fusion album titled Maisha, released in 2002, earned her a nomination for the KORA All Africa Music Awards for Best Female Artiste – the first of similar honours. Having released seven successful albums, the late Abura made a name as an ardent peace advocate who held several posts, including being a designated UNDP Goodwill Ambassador.

In 2013 when Kenya was marking its Golden Jubilee, Achieng’ Abura was also celebrating her 50th birthday.

Born on 30 May 1963, she called herself “a child of independence”, patriotic to the core. She had aspirations to develop the music industry in Kenya to a level where artistes could live comfortably off their music.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Everybody should strive to make the world a better place than they found it. My goal as a musician has always been to lift the Kenyan music industry to international standards.”
  • “The values I live by are integrity, being principled, being understanding and considerate.”
  •  “Leadership is not only for men. Women can also be good leaders and I wish more women would be confident enough to venture into political leadership.”

An accomplished Afro-jazz and Afro-fusion artiste, Abura won the Kora Award in 2004 for Best East African Female Artist and was nominated in the social responsibility category at the 2008 Kisima Music Awards.

A consummate peace advocate, Abura wore many hats: as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) East Africa and Central Africa Goodwill Ambassador, Chairperson of Environment Friendly East Africa Foundation (EFA), and Rapporteur in the IGAD Sudan Peace process in 2000-2002, among others.

For a woman of such distinction Abura, surprisingly humble, radiates charm and a personality that blends well with her music. Her laughter is spontaneous and she shares personal experiences freely. She comes through as a hardworking, principled and outgoing personality who fights for the underdog.

Born and raised on a farm in Eldoret, she says, “I am still a farm girl. I know how to milk a cow, plant crops… everything to do with farming.”

Music came early and naturally into Abura’s life. “I always sang in the house. I just loved singing. When I was in Class Seven, at the age of 12, my mother bought me my first piano as a present for passing my exams. I was excited!” Her first piano lessons were self-taught before she joined Kenya High School, where a music teacher took over.

“When the teacher realised that I wasn’t very interested in formal music, he started teaching me how to play other notes, opening me up to the kind of music I wanted to make. I was also the school pianist.”

Unlike most artistes, Abura had a smooth entry into the music industry. While the fact that the Kenyan music industry was still undeveloped played in her favour, there is no denying that Abura’s natural talent would have made her a success anyway.

Also, she was bringing a new flavour to Kenyan ears. “When I started out in 1991, the Kenyan music industry was young. There were artistes such as Mary Atieno, Faustin Munishi and the Kassangas, people who had established themselves in the gospel music industry. When I came in with a more Western kind of gospel music, it was an instant hit. People like change.”

My position is that every artiste has to get an education. I have travelled to many places, and I have been the Goodwill Ambassador for WWF and UNDP and wherever I go, people respect me because of my education

Her debut album, I Believe, showcased not only her strong vocals, but also her great song writing skills. The title track was particularly popular and was even adopted as the signature tune for a gospel music show on KBC TV. Everyone watched KBC back then, “so that was quite a big deal.”

A sophomore album, Way Over Yonder, followed soon after in 1993. Abura dedicated the album to her mother who died the same year. Then she released her third gospel album, Sulwe.

In 1966, Abura decided it was time to reinvent herself by venturing into Afro-fusion – a type of music that blends contemporary music with traditional African rhythms to create a hybrid music style. It is a sub-genre of African popular music. She started exploring social themes with her music. She had grown up admiring African music greats of the time such as Miriam Makeba and wanted to shift her music to be more like Makeba’s.

“The other people I grew up listening to included Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Letta Mbulu, Salif Keita, and Angélique Kidjo. I got a lot of support because at the time, Afro-fusion music had been quiet for a while.”

She released her first Afro-fusion album, Maisha, in 2002. It was an instant success and went on to be nominated for the KORA All Africa Music Awards for Best Female Artiste, East Africa in 2002, and the Kisima Awards Best Female Artiste in Afro-Fusion.

In 2004, her second Afro-fusion album, Spirit of a Warrior, which was packed with strong peace themes, won her the same award.

She has since released two other Afro-fusion albums. Together with African artistes Youssou N’dour, Angélique Kidjo, Salif Keita, Ismail Lo, and Baba Maal, Abura released a continental album titled We are the Drums as part of an advocacy project of UNDP Millennium Development Goals Africa 2015.

Abura has performed in festivals and concerts in the USA, UK, France, Spain, Germany, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, among others.

A graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University in the United States, Abura holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry.  “I am fascinated by science and its logicality. For me, things must always add up,” she says.

Between 1990 and 1992, she studied for a Master of Philosophy in Environmental Studies at Moi University. She worked as a chemist in Muhoroni Sugar Company from 1988 to 1992 before joining the Africa Centre for Resources and Environment as a consultant from 1994 to 1999. Two years later, she served as a Rapporteur in the Sudan Peace Process.

While in the US, she developed her musical talent by singing with the Monroe Sisters. It is no wonder that she later decided to go full time into music – a decision she never regretted.

“My family was shocked by my decision. I am a single parent, so they were worried for me. But I really believed in my decision. I knew I could still incorporate my education in other projects.”

Abura firmly believes that a good educational background is useful even for artistes. “My position is that every artiste has to get an education. I have travelled to many places, and I have been the Goodwill Ambassador for WWF and UNDP and wherever I go, people respect me because of my education. I can speak authoritatively on issues and people listen. Also when you are an artiste in Africa, you probably won’t have a strong team to help you brand yourself and manage your career. You have to do most of it yourself. A good education will help you manage all that.”

And it does not have to stop with a first degree. “Continue developing yourself to the highest level possible.”

Abura has an issue with artistes who play dumb just so they can sell their music. “There are a lot of artistes who are intelligent but have been forced to brand themselves as dumb. That is not the way to go! Don’t dumb yourself down for music. Don’t belittle or degrade yourself.”

How does she go about making music? “I get an inspiration, then I record on my phone and when I get home, I play it out on my piano and record it on my phone again.”

But there is the danger of losing her phone – as has happened once. “It had a whole album recorded on it. That made me really sad.”

Sometimes she works on ideas in the studio and at other times works with a producer on developing the music. She is a good example of what she advocates for. With her music, she doesn’t shy away from addressing social issues and away from music, she uses her knowledge to bring positive change in the society.

Apart from her assignments as Goodwill Ambassador, Abura served as Executive Director at Iris International, a founding member of the Kenya Musicians’ Union, Spotlight on Kenya Music Committee and Alliance Française in Kenya. In 2007, President Mwai Kibaki awarded her the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW). Abura jumped at any opportunity to develop Kenyan artistes and the music industry. She was the Tusker Project Fame reality TV show principal from 2007 to 2009. “Those were three splendid years. I really like helping young artistes to discover who they are musically.”

However, Abura is worried about the status of the music sector in the country. “In the early 2000s, the Kenyan music industry was on an upward trend, but I fear that we have stagnated. The FM stations are largely to blame. They play only a certain type of music from certain artistes. They have formed some sort of cartel, which makes it hard for new artistes to break into the industry.

“There are many artistes making good music, but Kenyans never get to know them. For someone like me, it doesn’t really matter whether the radio stations play my music or not as I have an established clientele. My worry is for the upcoming artistes.”

The government can solve the problem by setting up institutions to create policies to govern the music industry. And while the government has made some efforts to combat piracy, it continues unabated, Abura says, offering some unorthodox solutions.

“I think we are going about it the wrong way. The music pirates have a very efficient system of distributing music and instead of fighting them, the government should work with them, legitimise them and bring them together with the artistes. That way, ‘pirates’ can pay artistes for their music. It will work for everybody in the end. The pirate will now be a legitimate business person and the artiste will earn money.” She wishes Kenyans would invest more in music.

So passionate is she about bringing about positive change that getting into politics is on her agenda. “I feel that women are not well represented in politics. Right now I am weighing if it would be a great idea to get into politics or to just continue fighting for change from outside. What I know for sure is that I will continue the battle until the music sector becomes an independent, structured industry. I believe that the people who come after me should have something better for my having been there.”

When she is not working, she enjoys swimming, writing and spending time with her son, Prince Abura, who is in his early 20s. “He is the greatest gift God has ever given me,” she says.

At the time of this interview, she was working on a new album which was to be released in April 2014.

Her biggest goal in music? To win a Grammy Award. “Yes, it can be done. Other African artistes have won it, so why not me?”

The celebrated musician passed away on 20 October 2016 at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

Kenya Yearbook Editorial Board is honoured to have interviewed Achieng’ Abura and to have captured her life’s journey.

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