Comprised of members of the Luhya Tribe, The West Bridge Band is a quartet of musicians led by Wamalwa Lusweti, who is the inventor and builder of the Litungu, a nine-stringed instrument. Each of the members of the band hail from Kibera, one of the world’s largest slums, located about 3 miles or so from Downtown Nairobi, Kenya. As it’s been described, some 2 million people — and the population of the area is growing almost daily — live in grimly squalid conditions: raw sewage has been known to run along the streets. At night, one must be careful not to be struck by what the locals have dubbed “flying toilets” — plastic bags filled with waste that are tossed out as a means of disposal. Boda Boda (motorcycle-taxi boys) often high from chewing Mira weed, have been known to string rope across intersections, which are designed to knock competing riders off their bikes. The fallen riders usually get robbed but on occasion, they have been killed for sport.
The West Bridge Band’s full-length debut, Kibera Esbera (Kenya) was produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Ian Brennan and recorded in Lusweti’s tiny, one-room home, where he lives with his entire family. Reportedly, the home is smaller than the interior of most American cars and doesn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom. And in order to practice and to record material, the members of the band resorted to illegally jerryrigging electricity through a ramshackle collection of wires cut into Nairobi’s electrical grid.
The members of the band subsist by playing traditional Kenyan music from other tribes to entertain tourists. During these ad hoc performances, the band changes costumes for different numbers with few in the audience ever realizing that they’ve just seen the same performers repeatedly rather than a rotating cast of members from Kenya’s various ethnic groups. Adding to their grim existence, they’ve often had to resort to hawking their self-built instruments to survive. Naturally, their material is deeply inspired and informed by their lives and their surroundings. And despite living lives of desperate and crushing poverty, the sort of poverty that most Westerners will never know, the material on Kibera Esbera (Kenya) possesses an unwavering dignity and hope.
Kibera Esbera (Kenya) was originally released by Electric Cowbell Records on vinyl this year for Record Store Day and Friday will mark the digital, worldwide release of the album — and the digital version of the album, features a bonus remix of album single “Papa,” by French-Chilean multi-instrumentalist, DJ and producer, Aillacara 2743, also known as Medline and Electroom Acoostap.
“Mai Wanje (My Mother),” the album’s latest single is a gorgeous and mournful composition that manages to be sparse as Lutwesi seems to accompany himself on vocals and yet deceptively simple as his Litungu creates a sound that’s simultaneously chiming and angular, and absolutely timeless as it sounds as though it ties into the ancient griot traditions of Eastern Africa. The surreptitiously shot and very shaky footage for the accompanying video shows the grim and squalid conditions the members of the band, their neighbors and countrymen live in — but it also shows the residents of Kibera struggling to get by but living their lives with a quiet dignity.