Folk Tales: Sauti Sol
Sauti Sol on their
Lively, danceable tunes and visionary educational initiatives don’t ordinarily go together. But then Sauti Sol are no ordinary band.
The group’s journey began in 2005, when schoolmates Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano and Savara ‘Savage’ Mudigi formed an a capella trio. Sauti Sol in its present form took flight a few months later when guitarist Polycarp Otieno – aka ‘Fancy Fingers’ – joined up.
The band’s name rather says it all. ‘Sauti’ is the Swahili word for ‘sound’. ‘Sol’ is from the Spanish for ’sun’. And since debut LP Mwanzo (2008) the quartet have delivered four albums of summery vibrant guitar-driven pop, as well as scooping MTV awards, Grammy recognition and Africa-wide critical acclaim. It’s music to vibe to on a balmy evening, with lyrical themes – in Swahili, Luhya, Luo and English – running the gamut from romance to friendship, politics and natural splendour of their homeland.
Now, well into their second decade at the top of the Kenyan pop tree, the band are coming of age. And they’ve decided to give something back.
“I have a beautiful young son who is two years old,” beams guitarist Polycarp Otieno. “During the pandemic, when everything shut down, we all started to think differently. To see things in a different light.”
Abruptly removed from his usual routine of shows and recording sessions, Otieno focussed his energy on fatherhood.
“The band had decided to work on solo projects for awhile, as a way to express what we are going through in life. For me, the focus was on fatherhood. What that looks like. What’s expected of me.”
One of the ways this ultimately manifested for Otieno was his well-received solo album ‘Father Studies.’, including doting dad anthem ’Rhumba Toto’ (chorus: ‘I’m raising you to be the king’ ) and gorgeous romantic ballad ‘How I Met your Mama’.
Another way Otieno decided to channel fatherhood was more ambitious still.
“I was kind of looking into the future,” says Otieno. “To the time when inevitably my son will be exposed to the internet. He can already operate my phone. What kind of content will he see? Will it be content that he can relate to? I know friends with older children, who watch content made in America or the UK. They tell their father they want long hair like the guy on the screen It seemed like there wasn’t much out there for African kids. So I thought, rather than complain, we should do something about it.”
Teaming up with bestselling author Melissa Wakhu, the band have now launched Sol Kids, a kids content platform that aims to share stories, music, books and videos made by Africans, for Africans.
“Content is king,” says Otieno. “So that’s what we’re going to make. From African lullabies, with animations, to festivals, to real-world events. We can even go down the Disney route and sign our own kid superstars, like they did with Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. It’s important, because our kids – and teenagers – naturally look up to people in that position.”
Polycarp has already written two children’s books for the platform – LaLa Land and Written In The Stars.
“Written In The Stars is about a naming ceremony,” he tells us. “In many African tribes, including my own community, it’s traditional to name children after whatever is going on at the time. So if it starts raining, the name is based on that, or if the child is born at night, same idea. My starting point was the fact I just wasn’t seeing any content, any stories, that were based on that. It’s important we preserve our culture, by telling stories in this way.”
Polycarp Otieno has written a children's book
Sauti Sol member Delvin Mudigi
His bandmate Bien-Aimé Baraza has written a comic book called ‘The Bald Man’, a heavily-sanitised adaptation of his saucy solo EP ‘Bald Men Love Better’. Baraza also hosts the ‘Bald Box Sessions’, a podcast-style interview series where he tackles weighty topics like marriage counselling, LGBTQIA visibility in Africa and parenting.
Fellow Sauti Sol vocalist Savara Mudigi’s own solo project – Savage Level – focuses on mental wellbeing.
“I talk about anxiety from a man’s point of view. Because when you look at the statistics, men don’t talk. When I was going through my own issues, I looked introspectively and realised I didn’t even speak to my brothers in Sauti Sol. So I’m writing a book about being ‘savage’, in the sense of taking control and levelling up my life. That’s our philosophy.”
Mudigi says his day job – in one of Africa’s most exciting bands – is a big help, mental wellness-wise..
“Sometimes I’ll be just chilling, or at the gym, or handing out with friends,” he says.
“And I’ll suddenly bust into song. And everybody stops, like wow. It’s so nice to be able to give such a feeling. It’s good to be instruments of vibration, and be able to connect and help people in that way.”
Polycarp Otieno agrees.
“We’ve always challenged norms as a band, breaking boundaries, starting conversations,” he says.
“With Sol Kids we want to help show kids the privilege of being African. To be full-on, chest-out proud of where they are from. We can only do this by sharing our culture, and staying in touch with our roots. This will be our legacy.”