Music Seen! Just A Band - Scratch to Reveal

Out of the left-field in 2008 emerged an electronic, slash funk, slash “local” group on the Kenyan music scene. If you have not heard of them by now they are just a band. No really, their name is Just A Band. But a typical Kenyan music group they are not! At a time when kapuka is almost becoming a dirty word (to me at least) Just-A-Band come as a welcome relief to the same old drab commercial urban songs and lyrics that have hyper-saturated Kenyan radio. With song after song saying virtually the same things ( parteh, katika, wika, ruka) one is really left wondering, are there any Kenyans who think outside the box and try to be daring? It is quite sad when one sees young musicians with so much talent and freedom; all copying each other just to have their song get spins on the radio.
I first saw Just-A-Band’s music early last year as I was checking out another website. When I first saw the video for “
Maisha“ I wasn’t sure whether it was a Kenyan band. But when I checked out their other videos I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was Kenyans trying out new things musically. Let me just say from the outset that I enjoy electronic music. My favorites would have to be techno; dance, house and freestyle (remember that?). And with that stated you will realize I had no problem gravitating to and “getting” Just A Band’s music. Early on there were already quite a few nay-sayers declaring in typical Kenyan fashion that their music was “weird” or not Kenyan enough. “Where’s the Kenyan aspect?” was some of the criticism on Youtube and other sites. But if you’re like me you understand that music is universal and is all about expression. If I don’t feel like expressing myself through traditional styles (typically kapuka, genge or benga) why should I feel pressured to conform to make myself “more Kenyan?” It’s really attitudes like that, that suppress a lot of creativity. But thankfully people have started appreciating Just-A-Band’s creative independence and willingness not to conform (they already have lots of facebook fans, and have received rave reviews). Their star also seems to be quickly rising in music circles (within a year they have been in numerous articles, interviews and already got to play Goethe-Insitut.) All this attention is coming from the five videos they have released so far and their debut album. What sets their videos apart from so many other Kenyan videos is their creativity and originality. Watching their videos its clear they are truly an electronic band at heart. And that creativity is not limited to their videos only, but also to their album cover (it features a partially severed cyborg hand, now how many Kenyan album covers have you seen like that?), and of course their music. Released independently in 2008, their debut album “Scratch to Reveal” was a different direction altogether, and together with the aforementioned video made a silent but significant mark on the music scene. Scratch to Reveal is an album that is both just an opportunity to make good music, but also deals with the universal matters of love and relationships. Far from making the album cliché they put their own interesting take on that immortal subject.
It kicks of with “Fly” which takes the listeners on a musical space journey with its deep bass rhythm and kick drum, add some spacey sounds and echo’s and it makes for a simple but funky intergalactic journey. Right after that comes one of the more interesting songs on the album with “Oh Ndio” an ingenious remix of Five-Alive’s more than decade old song of the same name. I call it ingenuous because I feel a lot of Kenya’s early urban music period (around 1996-01) is being largely forgotten and I feel a lot of that music needs to be re-discovered and appreciated (see my side project), but more on that later. They use the songs chorus in interesting ways and turn out an enjoyable dance which though it won’t be filling the clubs, shows the creativity of the bands producers. It also does its job in peaking ones curiosity as to what’s in store for the rest of the album. J.A.B then goes a bit mellower with “Maro Pa More” a dholuo song which seems it would fit well on GidiMaji’s 1999 classic album Ismarwa. J.A.B also show the silly side of relationships with “Do You Mind?” where they seem to be saying that even the most sincere love relationships are not perfect with brutal lyrics like “I came to have fresh air but your breath is killing me” and “I need to read this book but you’re talking too much.”

The brightest moment on the disc has to be “Hey!” a declaration of love to a girl which features a lovely guitar and groove. It makes for a blissful mid-album song and reminds you of those moments you saw that exquisite creation of God, and you just felt like singing praises of their beauty. Getting a bit serious with love the beautifully composed and sparse song “If I Could” travels to the ends of the earth and back to prove itself to that special someone in your life, and a sincere track it is. Together with “Hey” my other favorite on the album is “Twende Kazi” a funky dance track with hints of kwaito in it that feels like a good weekend starter song after a long hard week at work, ironic I know, but maybe that was the intention. “Lights Music Stars” is a funky dance song which has a pounding bass track and all manner of effects flawlessly added to it. “Iwinyo Piny” is a song with one of those animation videos by Just-A-Band you should check out. The trance type song does not have a lot of thrills and tricks, but different it is. The album then closes with “Beba Na Finje” a track where you can see the bands influences include british group Jamiroquai (one of my all time favorite bands).
With Scratch to Reveal Just-A-Band took a daring step in exploring modern musical styles with a Kenyan twist, but it is evident they took their time in crafting it and made sure their finished product left little room for criticism on quality and creativity. While their debut album may not be a chart-topper I believe those who haven’t caught on will look back and see it as an important Kenyan album. Scratch to Reveal is a silent but heard point in Kenyan music. One where a group of musicians was willing to look outside the box and daring enough to explore the musical universe, with our without ”the Kenyan aspect.”

KC blog rating:

“While not a perfect album, a well crafted and important one.Classic”

(Album available here)


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