Writing letters to girls was a common ritual in my school. Unless you were a loser, everybody had those writing pads with pink flowers running around the margin, and perfume specifically picked for spritzing your letters before sending them out. The logic here was simple: if the girls will not like you then at least they will like the flowers and how they smell. The letters had to include the initials S.W.A.L.K at the end because they, as every letter should, were sealed with a loving kiss.These rituals crafted around letter writing were the undoing of masculinity, and yet, still the most masculine thing. And so not to be thought of as a loser, I asked my friend for a few pages of the writing pads with pink flowers running around the margin and wrote a love letter to Juliet. This was the first letter I ever wrote.
I don’t remember the contents of the letter, and quite frankly I’d rather not, but it was everything you would expect from a lovestruck teenager (and especially one that was pretending). I made up this elaborate story about how I met Juliet, and I must have believed the lie because the letter I wrote was definitely not to a girl I had grown up with, a girl who I saw almost every weekend, a girl who was practically my cousin. I told my friends that I had met her on a family outing in Kisamis over the second term holidays and that we had fallen madly in love with each other. This lie afforded me camaraderie. To my friends I was one of them, one of the boys, not a loser; but it had also afforded me a deep shame and I decided not to think of Juliet, and much less what she would think once she read the letter. For this reason it would be about 15 years between that letter and the next one I ever wrote.
In 2017, I moved to Colombia to finish writing my novel. This is what I told anyone who asked. And it’s true, I did go to Colombia intent on finishing this novel I had been writing. But it’s also true (maybe even truer) that I was just tired of teaching in Nairobi because as exciting and fulfilling as it was when I started, my job had slowly turned Sisyphean with each institutional frustration I encountered. (Permit the vagueness. I do not wish to burn any bridges). It wasn’t hard to convince myself that moving to a new country would solve all my problems. I applied for a volunteering role as an English teacher and by March I was in Cali ready to write the next great Kenyan novel.
This is a story about Just A Band, I promise. It is also a story about possibility.
The first time I thought of possibility as a tangible concept was when I first listened to Just A Band’s Kudish! (The Sound of Soup). This wasn’t the first time I had heard their music. I was already a fan by then. I had listened to all their songs, bought their CDs, attended their gigs, talked about them to anyone who cared, and even dressed as the Ha-He inspired Makmende for Culture Week at school. This project was what came after the Kudishnyao! video art installation.
The installation involved six screens placed around the Goethe-Institut gallery telling six parallel views of a single story. Of course my mind was blown. How was this possible? I thought, How does one think of this? How does one think like this? But this was Just A Band, and by now I was accustomed to having my mind blown by their genius. After the exhibition, what remained was the aftershock of their work, the ephemerality of it all, the memory of the many times I visited the gallery, always with someone different in that “you have to see this cool thing” sort of way, and the memory of the street party that deserves its own essay. Later, as I dealt with withdrawal, scouring the internet to find anything I could about the band’s new projects, I found the mixtape.
Kudish! (The Sound of Soup) is an 11-track collection of remixes. I imagine Jim Chuchu, Blinky Bill, Dan Muli, and Mbithi Masya in an underground bunker-turned kitchen cutting and chopping and stirring, yelling, “a little bit of this…” “pass me the chopping board…” “that’s enough of that, add this instead…” “it’s too hot, reduce the flames…” making (the sound of) soup.
And soupy it is (in all the best ways).
The first track is a remix of Daft Punk’s Around the World and Just A Band’s Oh Ndio, from their first album Scratch to Reveal, which is itself a remix of Oh Ndio by Five Alive. This song comes as a warning saying: Caution, listener, this is what is to be expected. Gather your friends, gather all those who love Kenyan music, gather those who thought our music was not capable of sounding like this, gather everyone and everything, your lovers and enemies; gather yourself. At the end of the song comes the sound of static creating an illusion of one searching through radio frequencies: no, not this, ah yes, maybe that… not really… until the static ends, the imaginary listener having found the right frequency, and we are ushered into the rest of the mixtape.
Any writer will tell you of the complexity, impossibility even, of writing.
You set out on a journey across continents to write and then you find yourself, two years later, having written nothing more than the words you left home with. I spent most of my time prepping for class, drinking at Parque del Perro, dancing salsa at Malamaña, hanging out in San Antonio, living my best life; and then wallowing from a breakup that left me heartbroken, depressed, and homesick.
Before I knew it, writing was no longer on my list of priorities, and it would be another two years before I thought of writing again. My friend sent me an excerpt from Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from my Life I Write to You in Yours. It wasn’t the excerpt that stuck with me rather the title. It seemed to say: Look, I know you are struggling. So am I. Let’s talk about it. It seemed to say: Look, this life, this thing that feels impossible can be possible.
Soon after, I decided to write a series of letters titled Dear Friend, from my life I write to you in yours. If I wasn’t writing my novel then I would, at least, write something else. Letters seemed apt. Letters were short and noncommittal. Letters ended soon after they began. Letters were the opposite of what I had made this cross-continental flight for. Letters felt possible. And so I started writing letters, but this time I would not embarrass myself by writing to people who knew me. I would not repeat the mistake I made all those many years ago. This time I would write to strangers. And there were enough of them in my social media.
What does this kind of writing attempt? What does it achieve? What does it make possible?
In 2020, just before the pandemic, I wrote my first letter. This was for B, an internet friend, and stranger, with whom I had had several interactions on social media. I did not know them, I had never met them, the only perception I had of them was based on the words they wrote, often short captions, the music they listened to, the things they enjoyed and took pictures of, and the few (old) photos they had on their page. I had no business writing to this person, and yet it felt right, easy.
The letter was a patchwork of poems, thoughts, diary entries, and, in some ways, soliloquy. It was a collection of snippets of my life, and I wanted my life to work as a bridge, an invitation, a hand held into space hoping to catch something, or be caught. And then came the second, and then the third, each of them saying the same thing: Dear friend, from my life I write to you in yours. I’m alone in this big chaotic place, and I do not want to be alone. Would you mind taking a walk with me for four pages? I promise I will not linger for more than I am wanted. In all these letters I followed only two rules: 1) That I would not write to people I already knew, and 2) I would never tell someone that I was going to write them a letter or else the spell would lose its power and the letter would never come.
The second, third, and fourth tracks are remixes of songs from their second album 82, an album I thought could not be improved. And yet, here I was listening to these remixes I thought were inconceivable. It’s in the fifth, sixth, and seventh tracks where things start to come together. Nakuroga (Koroga Mix) is a remix of Jua Cali’s Nakuroga laid on a bed of Juliet’s Avalon, DJ Pepsi’s Come Fetch Your Wife, and Koop’s Summer Sun. Track 6, Keroro (Safisha Mix), reimagines Nonini’s Keroro as something between Genge and Rhythm and Sound’s Free For All. In Fly (Amani vs Just A Band), my favourite of the remixes, Just A Band offers a glimpse into what it would look like if they collaborated with Amani in a remix of the band’s Fly and Amani’s Move On, a track that is featured in Ogopa Deejays’ first mixtape when the studio was much more adventurous.
By the eighth track, Mpishi Bora Megamix, the plane (allow the weak metaphor) has taken off and your body is losing itself to this remix of Kenrazy’s Tichi and DNA’s Banjuka. DNA takes a breather and TrackHeadz comes in talking about their belief in freedom. In the next track, Mke Nyumbani Mashup, the band uses their magic to bring together Madonna’s Music, Kentophonik’s Masingita, and a sample from Fergie’s Glamorous. The mixtape starts to wind down in Where Do You Come From? (Smoothgroove Mix) where Just A Band’s hidden track Where Do You Come From? from the album 82 is mashed with C+C Music Factory’s Do You Wanna Get Funky and Share That Beat Of Love. By the last track, Poa Sana (Just A Band Remix), a remix of Sema’s Ni Poa, it is clear that we are now in the realm of possibility.
In their official Bandcamp page, the project is described as: “A collection of remixes we’ve made since 2009 when we started doing live performances and DJ sets. Released on the occasion of “Kudishnyao!” – our second video art exhibition hosted by the Goethe-Institut Nairobi. These remixes extend back to 2009, so there’s some old music in here, hopefully it’s still enjoyable. Recommended dosage: Gather 2 or more friends, pop this in and play it loudly in their direction. Observe.”
It’s the last part that holds me, refuses to let go until I have reckoned with what is being said. “Recommended dosage: Gather 2 or more friends, pop this in and play it loudly in their direction. Observe.”
Just A Band’s Kudish (The Sound of Soup), like the letters I wrote, makes what seems impossible possible. By sampling, chopping, and melding different parts of life, it invites strangers to imagine, build, work, and play together. Kudish! (The Sound of Soup) is a letter from strangers to strangers, and a reminder of possibility as a tangible thing.