Tetu Shani: A Light in the Nairobi Sky
Top 100 Artist Tetu Shani to Release New Album
By Katelyn Skye Bennett
As I entered Muse Club in Westlands, Nairobi, Tetu Shani rose to greet me. Six foot four and beaming, he wrapped me in a hug. I had traveled from the US to Kenya in part to see this musician, and that Sunday evening I had the opportunity to perform with him in my favorite song, “Chemistry.”
Tetu Shani describes his music as indie-folk-pop. Known for his acoustic performances, the indie-folk description fits. “Jacaranda Tree” is an example of his fingerpicking prowess combined with his unique vocal style. The pop comes through in some of his recordings, since “Kenyan producers tend to be beat-makers,” he said.
Tetu is a storyteller, one who is himself part of the story Nairobi and the “music revolution” he sees happening there. He chose to put down his roots in that city even after receiving a scholarship to Berklee School of Music. Inspired by vibes and emotion, the “colors” of music, he writes down-to-earth music on a variety of topics. It feels real.
The Kenyans who attend his Living Room Sessions can relate. These mini concerts put on in fans’ homes are Tetu’s favorite way of performing, but he tries to keep the number of guests low — usually about 20 — in order to connect with the audience. He has always valued those connections as a musician.
Although he was born in Kenya, Tetu Shani moved around quite a bit. Zambia, Mauritania, and Senegal were all homes for him, and part of his percussion background included playing a Senegalese drum, the djembe. He studied communications in Canada, and was a 2009 graduate from Azuza Pacific in California, before returning to live in Kenya, where he began his music career in 2013.
His diverse upbringing impacted the eclectic nature of his music, which actually fits quite nicely into the burgeoning industry. Because the Kenyan music industry is so young, Tetu said there are less boxes to be placed in or “sold out” from. Freedom to express oneself in different ways and through different styles of music is something he appreciates. He’s got a few danceable beats, such as “Drinks on Me,” as well as sweet love songs and a tune dedicated to his toddler.
“One of the strengths of Nairobi sound is that it doesn’t have a distinct sound,” he shared. “The distinction of Nairobi is maybe the common thread that it’s been created by Nairobians, but having traveled all over Africa, I have yet to be in a country that has as diverse a range of music as Kenya, as Nairobi.”
Tetu Shani’s live, 9-track album, Heartbreak Amnesia, is on its way to the public, likely for September. Different from his other recorded tracks where the songs take on a pop beat, this one captures the acoustic vibe for which he is known. In an interview, he said he locked himself in a living room with the producer for three days in order to capture that feel.
Tetu calls the album a “journey from heartbreak to healing” and cited an indie-rock influence and some folk like Jack Johnson as well as Coldplay. The album is his “heart and soul.”
Wanting to give his fans something until the album releases, Tetu recorded “Africasun,” a song based off the Greek myth where Icarus flies too close to the sun, is burned, and falls into the sea. However, in Tetu’s version, he tells how “Africans have been flying fast and high for a very long time, and they’re not destroyed.” It’s apt praise for the people of his continent.
The title, “Africasun,” was created specifically to be gender inclusive, defy limitations, and introduce a new word that captures “a new identity of Africa.” The music video, to be released in May with the single, will flesh that inspirational concept out further. It is funded by the emPawa Grant, given to the top 100 emerging acts in Africa.
While this Kenyan musician is not pumping out club bangers, he is meeting Kenyans in their desire for authenticity and connection. His acoustic vibe and friendly demeanor both leave a mark on his audience, and his upcoming album, Heartbreak Amnesia, is sure to lift us up a little closer to the sun.