Beneath the rumbling electronic drones, glittery distortion and melodic hums of ‘Solace’, a track on KMRU’s album ‘Peel’ for Editions Mego, there’s something moving. As the piece unravels, rustling, organic sounds emerge from its undergrowth, and trickles of birdsong ease in and out of earshot. Like all of the Kenyan sound artist’s music, it’s subtle, and rewards close, attentive listening. The more you pay attention, the more these sounds reveal themselves, and for almost 13 minutes, the world outside dissolves into a fog of glowing textures. The noisy dread of the news cycle disappears and, for just a moment, its title makes total sense.
KMRU’s music is full of these moments. Across three albums released in 2020 – ‘Peel’, ‘Jar’ on Seil Records, and ‘Opaquer’ on Dagoretti Records – and a generous scattering of tracks and EPs available on his own Bandcamp, the 24-year-old has cultivated a rich, transportive sound; a living, breathing tapestry of electronic ambience and field recordings which, in a year of instability and uncertainty, attracted listeners in search of brief release and respite. Messages from new fans have emphasised this: his music is a salve for frayed nerves, for minds “shredded by endless scrolling”, a tonic to guide them through difficult times. “Getting these messages from people always makes me smile,” he says. “They’re always inspiring, and it excites me that people find some peace in my sounds.”
When we speak to KMRU – real name Joseph Kamaru – in November, he’s settling into his new life in Berlin, where he has begun an MA in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts at Universität der Künste. He last visited the city in 2019 to play at CTM festival, and was inspired by the adventurous, experimental scene he discovered there. It kicked off a busy year for the introverted, warm-mannered artist, who went on to play at GAMMA Festival in Saint Petersburg, MUTEK in Montréal and Nyege Nyege Festival in Jinja, Uganda. Everywhere he went, he brought his Zoom H6 recorder with him, and captured the unique sounds of each city. He compiled some of these, along with recordings from his hometown of Nairobi, into an installation piece called ‘Variations’, which premiered as part of Abuja Art Week in Nigeria.
KMRU is an artist for whom the act of listening is a crucial, evolutionary process, and whose meditative compositions are built on bedrocks of found sound and field recordings. “I feel like the things around us have something to say,” he explains. “I’m training and un-training my ear every day. Exploring the audio beyond what I hear and starting to listen more. In connection with my art practice, deep listening has impacted much of my awareness and presence, and [taught me to be] mindful, both in my immediate environment and in my interactions with human beings.”
KMRU’s first experience with field recording was in 2017, when he took part in an artistic residency on a train, travelling from Nairobi to the coastal city of Mombasa. Over 24 hours, artists collaborated on new works to be showcased upon their arrival. Drawn to the sounds of the train itself, he recorded them by hanging his iPod headphones out the window, and weaved them into three tracks with fellow Nairobi artist Manch!ld. “It was an intense and inspiring experience for me,” he says, which led him to discovering the work of renowned field recordist Chris Watson, whose album ‘El Tren Fantasma’ (The Ghost Train) catalysed his passion for environmental audio.
It was, however, after moving outside of Nairobi with his family that he became fully enchanted by the potential to be found in listening to, and recording, his surroundings. “I discovered that I had been missing so much around me,” he says. “I started taking field trips, and doing more listening sessions around my home and in different locations: always being present with sounds and objects around me and embracing them. This became my grounds for composition, and has been an evolving learning process ever since.”
There is free-flowing experimentation at the heart of KMRU’s process, which often involves long one-take recordings, improvised live sessions, and the use of “endless, unpredictable and open” systems and electronic instruments. This organic technique speaks to his artistic curiosity and authenticity, and an unwillingness to stick to any linear creative path. It’s a trait he inherited from his grandfather, also named Joseph Kamaru, who was himself an influential and radical Kikuyu Benga musician in Kenya throughout the 20th century. After his death in 2018, KMRU began compiling his grandfather’s vast catalogue of music and releasing it on Bandcamp. The hope is to use the profits to reissue the works on vinyl, and to perhaps one day establish a physical space where people can visit, listen and learn the history of his music and influence.
“My grandfather was a close friend,” says KMRU. “It was always inspiring to learn from him, mostly about life and music practices from my community (Kikuyu). Being named directly after him was important for me as an artist, and my grandpa too. He was so happy that I took on the same path as he did, although doing totally different styles of music.”
“His music was so honest and connected with so many people in Kenya and beyond,” he adds, and it’s hard not to see how, in some ways, KMRU is carrying that same torch with his own resonant, impactful sound. Looking ahead, KMRU has a lot going on, from longform radio works and installation projects to collaborations, remixes and “a lot of schoolwork”. Most importantly though, he’ll be listening, and we’d all be wise to follow suit.
Listen to KMRU's Fresh Kicks mix below.
r beny ‘Golden Larch Emerging in Spring’
Malibu ‘Lost At Sea (Kelly Moran Remix)’
Jake Muir ‘like sweet thoughts in a dream’
TIBSLC ‘Like Object’
the blessed kitty ‘metal jacket’
Emily A. Sprague ‘Star Gazing’
The Juniper Tree (excerpt)
Etapp kyle ‘10k’
perila ‘crash sedative’
Simon Scott ‘Apart E’
Florian T M Zeisig ‘Ambient Middle Part’
Feature photo credit: Thukia.
Soundcloud photo credit: Claudia