All Things Kenyan

John Gathu – One Man, One Guitar

ATK: What is your full name? What tribe are you from?
John: My full name is John Kariuki Gathu. I was born in Kiambu, just north of Nairobi, on January 11th, 1961. My parents were teachers/farmers who later evolved into business people/farmers. I am of the Kikuyu tribe.

John GathuATK: You currently live in The Netherlands. How did you happen to move there?
John: I came here in 1991, to join my then girlfriend and now wife. We met in 1983 in the US. She was attending a year at Warren Wilson College, a special little college in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. We had a multi-continent romance (Europe, USA, Kenya) until we decided to put an end to the excruciating visits to the post office, and got married in 1993 in Nairobi. We have two kids: Phillip Njiraini and Hannah Nyambura

ATK: Do you have any brothers or sisters? Do they live in Kenya?
John: I have three sisters and three brothers, and am the middle person. We are quite a scattered family. My eldest brother and youngest sister live in the US. The others are in Kenya, and all but one have either lived, studied or worked outside the country.

ATK: I noticed on your website, 3 Chord Poker, you are basically a “one man band”. How many instruments do you play? Which one did you learn to play first?
John: I am a one man band because of the daunting dynamics of running or being part of a band. Since my music began as a hobby, I was never 100% ready to wrestle with drunken-drummers, broken tour-buses, tight schedules etc. The arrival of MIDI and electronic compositional tools came as a blessing, allowing me to simulate arrangements as though the whole band/orchestra were there!

My main instrument is the guitar, which is arguably the most popular Western instrument in Africa today. I first picked one up in Nairobi school, played for the Christian Union and a little “pretend” school band, and I could never leave it behind after that.

In 1978, following a bountiful coffee season during which I had helped well, my father walked with me to Assanand’s, a music store on Moi Avenue and told me to pick out one from the many hanging on the wall. I picked up the biggest Yamaha 12-string I could find, even though I did not know what the difference between that and a 6-string was!

3 Chord Poker CD coverATK: Who are your musical influences?
John: As I state on my MP3 website, they are so numerous that I try to avoid naming them. But if I had to declare who I think about when I write, then it would have to be the heroes of Kenyan pop in the 70’s: Mbaraka Mwinshehe Mwaruka, Orchestre Mangelepa, Baba Gaston, Franco, Rochereau, Simba Wa Nyika, The Maroon Commandos, Kamaru, D.O. Misiani, Tanzanian Christian choirs, and more. These were the voices that dominated my formative period via the Kiswahili radio. Through all this, Western soul (Motown, Philly, Memphis), pop and country blared from the General Service of the Voice of Kenya (VOK). Of course, disposable disco with Donna Summer, Boney M, etc., has also entered these years. Later, the world got Bob Marley and the reggae revolution, and South African pop began to make headway into East Africa, bringing us Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, and others.

ATK: How did you become exposed to “western” music?
John: Firstly, through the radio in Kenya, and my older uncle’s who owned record players and played the Beatles, Cliff Richard, Charley Pride and the whole range of Western popular music on them. Once outside Kenya, my world burst wide open: I found James Taylor and all the singer-songwriters, attending Warren Wilson College with David Wilcox, who is a disciple of Taylor. But I also listened to a lot of jazz, blues and post Motown soul. George Benson, Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, Eric Gale, Grover Washington JR. these names come to mind.

Having said that, I find that my music has its own voice without blatantly, consciously taking from any particular influence. For that reason, I left the “similar artists” area of my site blank, leaving the listener to make the call.

ATK: Kenya has a high (Asian) Indian population. Do you feel this has influenced your music?
John: When we moved to Nairobi in 1971, we landed in Eastleigh, where the Indian community was very strong (they built that part of the city!). My father taught at a primary school which I still consider to have been the ultimate melting pot of cultures: Kenyans drawn from all the corners of the country were finally being assimilated into a formerly all-Asian school. It goes without saying that the musical variety was astonishing, and I still have memories of my sisters dancing the Punjabi “Bhangra” in borrowed saris. However, the essence of Indian music has not been an influence in my own music. It is a unique music, both tonally and rhythmically, with ancient rules and established forms. Being a non-student musically, I draw more from what I can easily interpret on my guitar.

John GathuATK: Which language, English, Swahili, or your mother tongue, do you prefer to sing in?
John: I sing most easily in English, but strive daily to keep my Kiswahili alive. This is easier said than done in a country where very few speakers of the language with whom I could practice live. In my mother tongue, Kikuyu (Gikuyu), I am ashamed to say that I have only dabbled with the idea, but never brought it into practice. I am most proud of the Swahili efforts, since if I were to reach listeners, they would range from the East African coast to the other side, in Zaire!

ATK: Of the songs on your new CD “3 Chord Poker” which is your favorite? Why?
John: “Mama Moja” would have to take that honor, but closely followed by “Bwana Nipe Ushujaa”. I was in such an exhilarated state of mind when I wrote it, just after my daughter Hannah was born. I had witnessed the birth (at home, in true Dutch fashion), and she was so beautiful and strong, just in time to make my mother happy at a time when she’d had many setbacks in her life. In Kikuyu culture, birth and naming follow certain patterns, and her coming was the re-birth of my mother, miles away. The bridge on the song came true, we made the long journey and my mother almost smothered my little gift in an affectionate, appreciative embrace.

ATK: How do you feel about the ability to publish your music over the internet?
John: The Internet is a godsend and is a long-overdue dream come true. By removing the layers of A&R persons, video-clip producers and middlemen who’s interest in music is questionable, the internet allows the artist to create music, project an image, and get instant feedback from fans. It is not for nothing that the established industry has a battalion of lawyers sharpening their daggers for a lawsuit! My neighbors in Huizen see me sometimes hard at work in the attic. I surprised them the other day when I let them hear something I’d just uploaded on their new PC, streaming straight off the web! This instant access applies for somebody in rural Thailand or in the Brazilian rain forest, too. They no longer have to go and rummage in the cut-out bins of record shops.

ATK: If you could teach your children one thing that you’ve learned by being a musician, what would that be? And why?
John: My son keeps asking when he will get his first guitar, and has started feeling the keyboard out. I find this a good sign, as I’m an old-time pacifist who believes that, cliches notwithstanding, music is a vessel of peace and positive communication. When I look at Africa’s war-torn regions, and also the “Nairobbery” menace, I think of what a different world it would be if we wielded guitars, drums and lutes instead of AK-47’s. My motto is “One man-one guitar”. With music, even my anger and frustration quickly fade. If I don’t succeed in teaching my kids perfect English, Swahili, Dutch or Kikuyu, I will be content if they learn the language of song.


One thought on “John Gathu – One Man, One Guitar

  1. Jeanne Post author

    Previous Comments From Old ATK Site:

    James Kamau said: Your Number 1 Fan. If only there was more. May your inspirations come often and effortlessly.

    Alice Aram said: Gathu you make me proud to be a Kenyan. Your sentiments are so honorable, wish all could think likewise. Add Jesus to that, you’ll be amazed. Blessings to you and family.