The Sound Of: Gondwana KE
Founded by Suraj Mandavia and Eugene Onyango, Kenya’s foremost Afro-house label, Gondwana KE, aims to take African electronic music where few have gone before. Alongside a mix of tracks from the label’s catalogue, the pair share its story so far with Shiba Melissa Mazaza
What started out as a passion project for producer/DJ Suraj Mandavia soon evolved into the much larger wellspring known today as Gondwana KE. Initially created as an event with a pop-up partner, before becoming a permanent fixture in Kenya’s electronic music scene in 2016, the addition of Eugene Onyango — also known as Euggy — saw the outfit grow exponentially as both an event and then record label.
“When we started out, we did it understanding that there was not a lot of African representation for electronic music that was being played in Nairobi,” says Suraj. “That was the essential necessity for Gondwana. We wanted to create a space where it was possible to play African- inspired electronic music only. Eugene had a very distinct eye and ear for electronic music, which made it a natural collaboration.”
Some might remember the ‘Gondwana’ term from childhood geography classes, referring to a prehistoric supercontinent made up of South America, Africa, India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica. Some 600 million years later, the Gondwana name has been used by various projects, but the Kenyan label is the only one to push Afro-house with a similarly far-reaching and all-encompassing scope.
“I think the most important fact of the name was that Gondwana means ‘no man’s land’, and we felt like that was exactly where we were going with this — where no man had ever gone before,” explains Suraj. “It fits so perfectly; we love the name and are really proud of having done this.”
When asked what separates their music from other stables creating Afro-house, Euggy answers with a measured pride. “We try to make it as authentic as possible, because that’s a space we feel we can fill. At least for the past two years that’s been our goal — to make music that people in Kenya can relate to first, then take that to the world.”
Integral to a lot of Afro-house and Afro-tech is a sound many in the West have described as ‘tribal’ music. The use of the ‘Afro-’prefix itself is a story for another occasion — however, it’s not a far cry from ‘tribal’ in its inability to describe or define the exact region, culture or context from which the sounds have been drawn. A popular move for producers aiming to get closer to their ‘spiritual’ side, tribal chants have been appropriated to stand as the embodiment of that spirituality or connection to the ancestors — although exactly whose ancestors is never clear.
A year ago, Suraj co-founded a project called Midi Minds Kenya, exploring the sounds of the northern Kenya-dwelling Samburu people, which resulted in a collaborative compilation, sample pack and documentary under the title ‘Sounds Of Sasaab’. Music, dancing and singing are integral to Samburu culture, and Suraj and his team made sure that they handled this collaboration with the utmost care.
Using field recordings of Samburu chants and infusing them with slick electronic sounds from around the world, the project provides detailed context, ripe with appreciation and veneration. To truly bring this project home, all proceeds were sent back to the Samburu people, in a display of respect rarely seen from the majority of producers who acquire ‘tribal’ vocals and slap them onto a beat, their meanings and origins falling away and forgotten.
“Finding the ‘Kenyan sound’ is a quest that very many people have been on for years now,” Suraj continues, “and I think everybody here brings something unique and special to the table — that’s the Kenyan sound. But for us at Gondwana KE, we try to infuse everything from local instruments to working with local tribes, the musicians, lingo — all of it.”
“We try to be considerate, and we have the platform, so if we can do good with it, why not?” says Euggy. “We try to see how we can accommodate people, to make sure we can use the platform in a positive way. It makes me really proud to know that we can bring other countries and worlds closer to understanding the music.”
Further south, Gondwana KE have managed to bring their offerings to like-minded enthusiasts in South Africa, where Afro-house originally found its feet. Continuing to build the pipeline between Kenya and South Africa, Gondwana released a strong piece of work in SA duo Frigid Armadillo’s 2021 single ‘Tukaina’, featuring one of Kenya’s own breakout superstars, Ayrosh.
Back home, Frigid Armadillo had burst onto the scene almost entirely out of the blue with the enigmatic ‘Adam’s Calendar’ EP for Aluku Records the season before, bringing a ferocious creativity and fervour to Afro-house that had thus far been missing from the genre. Demand for the pair was high, but the chemistry between them and Gondwana proved to be undeniable. With such groundbreaking records as ‘Tukaina’, Chronicle Deep’s ‘Ike’ EP, and the ‘Benin Compilation’ featuring Kususa, Malkia Band and Sun El Musicianon, Gondwana has seen great synergy with trailblazers keen to bring new energy to Afro genres.
“We came off the back of a really successful remix with Kato Change and Winyo in ‘Abiro’, and it opened the doors for us in promising ways,” says Suraj. “We fostered a connection with South Africa and we got some of our strongest inspiration from there to work on this song and help release and promote it. Artists like Da Capo — who made three remixes of ‘Abiro’ — along with FKA Mash and Black Coffee played it every set for two years, which helped a lot. After that we decided to get back into the studio to see what else we could do, but by then, that was the time Covid hit.”
Covid-19’s grip on Kenya was such that Suraj and Euggy were forced to rethink the sort of music that would be fitting for folks now unable to fully enjoy it in the usual outdoor settings — something that is so beautifully illustrated in Gondwana’s visual identity, spearheaded by the imaginative Sajan and Akash Chotai. (Akash has supplied Gondwana KE with vivid imagery in the form of photography during their events, capturing the essence of Kenya’s landscapes and club scenes, while graphic designer Sajan provided the cover art while trading as BizBoxKenya.)
Putting their heads together, Suraj and Euggy decided to change course and work on something quite literally closer to home, in the five-track ‘Sazile’ EP by local artists Kato Change, Winyo and SURAJ. “That was the first time we, as Gondwana KE the label, decided not to focus on Traxsource and Beatport, which are our primary platforms to release music on. It kinda worked out for us, and we realised that we could really bring people together with our music, both locally and internationally,” says Suraj.
The bright energy of ‘Sazile’ resonated well with Gondwana KE’s fans. Esteemed guitarist and vocalist Kato Change was able to stretch out and meld his emotive, acoustic sentiments with delicately arranged electronic elements, resulting in an EP that provided comfort during a time when uncertainty lingered. Gondwana KE’s next release saw Euggy, Punk Mbedzi and Akoth Jumadi collaborating on ‘Weche’.
“We went into lockdown and it felt odd to promote dancefloor music, which is 70% of our catalogue,” says Euggy. “We slowed it down, and started to make music people could listen to. I thought of trying to continue this, and ‘Weche’ became the sophomore [part] of that move. We found Akoth Jumadi and loved her style, so we tried to fuse her DhoLuo — which is my home language — sound with ours. There’s a lot of meaning and message here, and that’s the backbone we want to continue with.”
Whether or not Covid-19 is around for much longer, Gondwana KE aims to stay flexible, creating music for all occasions with the best intention and execution. While it seems unlikely that communities in the rural areas of any African country will be vaccinated anytime soon, Kenya’s nightlife seems set to thrive from the city to the countryside and well beyond: a modern, Pan-African electronic experience, with a forward-facing appreciation of everything that African music is and can be.
Listen to Gondwana KE's The Sound Of mix below.
Sun El Musician ‘Random’
Punk Mbedzi, Euggy & Akoth Jumadi ‘Weche’
Team Distant ft XeliMpilo ‘Tribal Movement (Instrumental Mix)’
Kato Change, Winyo & SURAJ ‘Neuru’
Frigid Armadillo ft Ayrosh ‘Tukaina’
SURAJ ‘Wawere (Da Capo’s Touch)’
Citizen Deep ‘Zwakala’
SURAJ, El Mukuka & Olith Ratego ‘Nyako’
Chronincal Deep ‘Ike’
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