Nyokabi Kariuki “peace places: kenyan memories”

It may seem obvious to say that place is integral to Nyokabi Kariuki’s newest EP, peace places: kenyan memories, but across these six pieces, the Kenyan composer brings listeners into her innermost world. Each song is based on a place of personal significance to her and the emotional depth laced through every sound and every passage is captivating and heightened by Kariuki’s use of field recordings. There is so much to hear on peace places that each listen opens up another secret passage to another special realm.

Central to the success of peace places is the enticing combination of Kariuki’s vocals and various percussive instruments. Gentle waves bring us to the shore of “Galu,” accentuated by percussive flourishes from drummer Chris O’Leary that a reminiscent of soft summer rain. Wordless vocals swirl like sea birds, circling pricks of kalimba and the growing rhythm. Kariuki’s voice morphs into an entire storm choir, repeating the words, “to swim,” with swelling force. “I go down at 6 A.M. to swim,” peeps out just above a murmur as the quixotic drums rise and fall like a thousand empires merging with the empty, open air. Eyes closed, I can smell the ocean in the barely-audible whispers and kalimba scrapes.

Kariuki has incredible range and peace places becomes a showcase of ideas. Opener “Equator song” seamlessly blends throwback vocal pop melodies with East African structures and underpinnings. Cackling birds become the unlikeliest of background singers, but their kaleidoscopic chirps buoy the vibrant sunset colors that channel her voice. The ability to combine all of these disparate elements into something unheard and so exciting is wonderful. Again, it gives such a sense of place and the timbre of her vocals exude the ingrained connection she has with the spaces that inspire this music.

Beyond the incredible array of field recordings that help fill in the details of peace places, the album features four languages (English, Kiswahili (Kenya’s national language), Kikuyu, and Maa). Histories on top of histories are interwoven and recounted in this music. “home piano” is ageless, like a transmission from another time intermixing with glistening electronics from a forgotten future. Kalimba, gyil, and piano move in choreographed steps coming together like intersecting lives and moving apart as oceans push those lives apart, all of it soaked in rain.

Moving through peace places, pages get earmarked and turned but not forgotten. Vivid memories hold the power of time travel and Kariuki wields those memories with a visceral potency. Whether it’s the guttural bass trying to drown out sounds of the farm and Kariuki’s lilting vocal incantations on “Ngurumo, or Feeding Goats Mangoes” or the sparking resonance of O’Leary’s vibraphone on “Naila’s Peace Place,” peace places: kenyan memories is transportive and illuminating. I can’t wait to see and hear what Nyokabi Kariuki does next.

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