Review: Nyokabi Kariũki – peace places: kenyan memories

SA RECORDINGS.

The push and pull of disparate distances. These tracks are gathered from elements of emotional significance to Nyokabi Kariũki, all within her home of Kenya – the ocean at dawn, a stroll through a farm, voices of family, contributions from close friends, the interwoven languages of home and heritage – with the “peace places” of the title pointing to a unifying theme of providing inner centring. Yet when these recordings are assembled and overlain like this, they convey the sort of experiential collapse that occurs through memory, or daydreams in yearning: the close-at-heart placed at a distance. Kept apart from Kenya during the first part of the pandemic, Kariũki could only approximate the sense of “being there” from her other base in the United States. Distortion and echo enact slippages in memory fidelity, thumb pianos and improvised vocal harmonies are strung through the recollective absences, timelines are twisted together, while fadeouts keep all interactions fleeting. Where a collection of extended, unembellished field recordings might have read like an attempt to invoke a simulated inhabiting of these spaces, these mindfully assembled collages generate something more complicated: a dialogue between documented environments and a poetic interpreter, with the sounds of peace places: kenyan memories rising up, smoke-like, through the gap in between.

Kariũki’s voice is a fascinating element; she drifts between four languages (Kiswahili, Kikuyu, Maa, English), occasionally spilling out into choral vowels that might be the groans of longing, shot like hopeful flares into the sky between here and there. On “A Walk Through My Cũcũ’s Farm”, a recording of a visit to her grandmother on Christmas Day 2020 is cradled in hums and gentle mutterings, the memory swaddled like a baby, triggering all manner of poetic extrapolations regarding childhood, old age and fragility at the extremities of palindromic human time. On “Galu”, percussionist Chris O’Leary skims the swill of the ocean as Kariũki improvises a vocal that grows in force, subdividing into harmonies as though the image is sharpening, inhales laced with seawater, drum rhythms solidifying as the memory gains momentum. Within minutes the piece collapses, only capable of feigning reality for so long. Perhaps the most conceptually striking piece is the last one, in which Kariũki’s friend Naila Aroni (who also painted the record’s artwork) records herself walking through Lamu on the Kenyan coast with a close friend. “It doesn’t feel real this place, it just doesn’t…” says one of the voices, fading under the refraction of vibraphone and peripheral howls, with Kariũki’s exquisite arrangement substantiating the spoken sentiment by building a vibrant, rippling, hyperreal landscape all around it.

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