Suzzana Owiyo,
Mama Africa
(ARC, 2004)

Not many of us speak Luo or are fluent in Swahili. The addition of English in a few lyrics may help, but language is not a bar to enjoying the original and evocative dozen tracks on this album.

Suzzana Owiyo is fast becoming one of Africa's best-known musicians, with some comparing her style to Tracy Chapman. Some also may find her style reminiscent of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But Owiyo has a lovely and powerful voice that, combined with her skillful orchestration, makes her an individual force to be reckoned with. Her music fuses traditional and contemporary beats.

The Luo are Kenya's largest non-Bantu ethnic group. Owiyo grew up in a family of 14 in Kisumu near Lake Victoria. Inspired by her grandfather, a popular nyatiti (lyre) player, she gravitated early to music. Later she replaced the nyatiti with acoustic guitar and honed her singing and playing skills in national music festivals.

This album includes a song she was asked to compose to mark her hometown's elevation to city status during its centennial celebration in 2001. That song, "Kisumu 100," became an instant hit and launched her professional career. There are actually two versions of the song on the album. The second is in the so-called benga style, in which an electric bass guitar simulates the traditional Luo nyatiti.

There's something for every mood on this album -- from nostalgic reflection to delightful dance beats. The lyrics are socially conscious, focusing on issues such as child labor, womanhood and peace. Owiyo is know for her strong social conscience and does many charity concerts to support street children and hospitals.

by John R. Lindermuth
16 June 2007

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