Muthoni Ndonga is a giant of the Kenyan music scene. Whether delivering an unbeatable flow as Muthoni Drummer Queen or in her role as founder and CEO of one of East Africa’s finest music events, Blankets & Wine, Ndonga has clearly earned her titular crown. Her artistic and entrepreneurial supremacy is such that it’s no surprise to learn she’s also known as ‘the boss lady’.
Or perhaps that should that be boss ladies? For on the forthcoming concept album SHE, Ndonga channels the experiences of eleven different women across eleven different tracks, telling their stories across sleek, powerful beats provided by Swiss production duo GR & HOOK!. “These women are mainly urban dwellers”, Ndonga explains, “and all of them are layered, complex individuals. The topics I chose to cover include love, failing marriage, difficult relationships with mothers, entrepreneurship, betrayal, among others. Expect a roller coaster of emotions delivered on some amazing instrumentals.”
The singles released so far suggest SHE is going to be Muthoni Drummer Queen’s strongest work to date, from the anthemic, reggae-tinged ‘Million Voice’ (which we premiered last month) to the incendiary ‘Kenyan Message’, a strident Swahili tribute to Grandmaster Flash that shames everyone from the country’s politicians to disgraced former FIFA president/crook Sepp Blatter.
We recently sent Muthoni Drummer Queen some questions on music, politics and past lives; read on to find out her early music loves, her hopes for the rescheduled Kenyan election, and how she overcame family pressure in order to break into music…
Hi Muthoni. We love the way ‘Million Voice’ encourages strength through collective solidarity. Have you always had a powerful voice and ability to speak up for people, or is it something that has developed over time?
Muthoni Drummer Queen: That’s a great question. I never really thought of myself as a voice for the people, more like a voice with the people. From my first single ‘Cool Waters’ I have always presented my thoughts on what is happening in the Kenyan society and I suppose over time I have become more comfortable in that role. I do shudder at the use of the word “activist”, I think we are all powerful, that’s what governments/politicians all over the world know, that people are literally the power, and that’s what they hope we never learn.
Your flow on the track reminded us a bit of M.I.A., is she an influence on your music? What other artists past or present do you find inspirational?
Why thank you. I love M.I.A. though I didn’t have her in active consciousness while writing/recording ‘Million Voice’. Lauryn Hill, Anderson Paak, Bryson Tiller and Missy Elliot are my present and previous yet still current loves.
Your previous single ‘Kenyan Message’ addressed some of the failings of the Kenyan government. It seems things have grown more chaotic even since then. What are your hopes for the re-run of the election?
That the election is credibly run, that the electorate aren’t too apathetic to the cause and turn out to vote and that we find a new normal that is less maddening than where we are now. One can hope.
Fingers crossed. Tell us what sort of music you listened to when you were growing up?
I listened to a whole lot of rhumba from Congo, some pop music from South Africa and pop-house music from the States.
When did you start making your own music and what was it like?
I think I wrote my first song when I was 11, I think it was even pretty cool, but it was not till 2004 that I decided to be a musician, write music and put on performances. On one hand it was super exciting in that I was coming into a dream I had always wanted to pursue but didn’t think I could (parental/societal pressure). On the other hand it was the hardest/most challenging thing. My mum was completely against it so I had no real family support and no resources so everything was good will + beg/borrow/steal. It was super tough.
When did you adopt the title Muthoni Drummer Queen and where did the name come from?
I played a show in 2008 and the picture I found was of me playing the drums, so I captioned it “Drummer Queen” and my fiends thought it was cool so I adopted the moniker in 2009. Ive been playing traditional percussions since I was 14 years old so I guess it had to evolve into something 🙂
Your forthcoming album sees you adopting the characters of eleven different women. Which woman’s story did you particularly enjoy telling, and which was the most challenging?
That’s interesting – I have no favorite as yet. Each song is so dear to me and so complete in its intention, I am struggling to see how I could possibly make any my fave. ‘Caged Bird’ was probably the hardest because it felt too close to home. That and the 2nd Verse of ‘Criminal’…
Speaking of multiple characters, your press release talks about past life experiences – which one stands out as the most unusual, and why?
Shaka Zulu’s harem. Nothing can explain that lifetime. The things experienced…
GR & HOOK! produced the album – how would you describe your music-making process with them?
This is the third studio album for me, and the second one with Hook & GR! It’s clear that each time is different. The first album The Human Condition is quite like SHE in the sense that they are both concept albums, but SHE has come out of a three year relationship making music, playing gigs and growing a friendship with GROOK! This time we really did make things together from scratch and we were able to bounce off each other’s energy more naturally.
Can you send us a photo of the view from your window?
How would you describe Nairobi’s music scene right now. Any artists we should be checking out?
Blossoming! Finally! So excited that we’re done trying to chase the “sound like Nigerian pop” dream and more space is emerging for a spectrum of sounds. Best part is that the audience is demanding for more and rewarding the growth with streams on spaces like SoundCloud, attendance at events and sharing the music with new/potential fans. Artists across multiple genres are collaborating with one another and it’s really an exciting movement.
What are the top things you’d suggest visitors to Nairobi should go and see/do?
Must do: Drive out to Olepolos and have an awesome day eating roast meat in an unmatched scenery, do the morning game drive at the Nairobi national park, attend Blankets & Wine music festival (quarterly day into early evening live music party).
What’s the biggest challenge facing musicians in Kenya at the moment?
Monetization of influence.
Finally, where in the world would you most like to perform?
Tokyo, Japan at a massive festival. I think we would kill it!
No doubt. Muthoni Drummer Queen, thank you!