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How Sauti Sol won Africa’s biggest music award

Interviewing Sauti Sol in one room is a bit like being in a zoo; there’s a flurry of activity; people want to take selfies or just say hello (which they gladly oblige), or one of them is hungry and wants to order something to eat, and suddenly all of them are hungry.

The members are still glowing from their big win at MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) where they bagged the best group award. In the same week, they scooped the Afrikan Muzik Magazine Awards (Afrimma).

Since 2011, they have won over 15 awards, including the MTV Europe Music Awards. This confirms their place as music bigwigs not only in Kenya, but in Africa as well.

“It’s an amazing award, but it means working even harder and tightening our laces. We have to put in more work and get repeat business. There are many groups across the continent that are doing amazing things,” says Bien. “Winning a MAMA doesn’t mean we are the best group on the ground. It’s good on paper but Sauti Sol has to do more to become the best group in Africa.”

It has been about eight years since the group, made up of Bien-Aime Baraza, Willis Chimano, Delvin Mudigi and Polycarp Otieno, released their first hit song ‘Lazizi‘.

Since then they have been on a consistent path, creating a unique Kenyan sound in their own way and remaining relevant in a cutthroat industry.

“We attribute it to being focused. We’ve been humble enough to accept the grace that comes with success and we believe in God, in our fans and staying true to the craft. Success and fame come, but the main package is the music that we highly applaud. Through it all, we have remained friends,” says Mudigi.

CHARMING GROUP

Having been together for close to 10 years, they must have learnt something valuable from each other. Baraza lists patience, sharing, perseverance and, most importantly, friendship as the biggest values they have picked from each other.

Mudigi says that over time they have learnt to live together, and to deal with different pressures, situations and challenges. But the fun is in learning together.

“We have learnt how to listen to each other, being in a group means compromise, you will never have it your way every time. Many solo artistes don’t hit the ceiling, or make it, because they lack compromise,” says Baraza.

PHOTO | COURTESY
PHOTO | COURTESY

After years of being together, the group has an easy camaraderie, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences with ease. Bien and Mudigi are more vocal than Chimano and Otieno, but together they exude an image of resolute confidence. Their playful nature mid interview makes them come off as a charming group.

It’s clear that besides music, their friendship is something they deeply value. When asked what has been their best decision ever, Baraza, without missing a beat says: “Staying together.”

“Re-investing in our craft,” Mudigi chimes in.

Aside from music and traipsing the world, Sauti Sol are regular men who do regular stuff. They have a WhatsApp group, just the four of them, and admit that they all post inappropriate stuff from time to time.

Occasionally, every member arrives to meetings late, but lately Bien has been holding that “title”.

So who is the party animal? They all turn and point towards Chimano, teasing that he has not slept for two straight days.

From time to time, they have had bloopers during live performances that the audience did not catch on. “Do you guys remember when I almost fell on stage,” Mudigi asks them. “Savara almost fell on stage while walking backwards, I saw it,” Otieno chuckles.

Sauti Sol have a long list of accomplishments, but they are nowhere near being done.

“You can never say you have achieved what you wanted, we hope our hard work keeps us on a good wave,” says Baraza.

Mudigi adds, “our prayers keep getting answered. God says ‘yes’ in stages.”

Marek Fuchs has been the group’s manager since 2012 and whatever goals he had in mind when he took them on, he has already achieved them.

“The initial goal when I became their manager was for them to be recognised as the best musicians in Africa. Through many nominations and awards, they have been. Now it’s time to focus on international awards. A Grammy would be good. When you achieve one goal, 10 more come to mind.”

Fuchs adds that it’s time to focus more on West Africa, South Africa and the Francophone and Lusophone speaking countries.

BROTHERS’ KEEPERS

The MAMAs win has brought the group a lot of recognition. And with recognition comes demand. Sauti Sol already charges top dollar (rumoured to be over one million shillings for a performance in Kenya), so does that mean fans will have to dig deeper into their pockets for tickets to their shows?

“MAMA was a big win and it does affect the fees because it means more achievements and goals have been realised. But we are not planning to raise performance fees locally, this is home where we first built our career and fanbase. We, however, do review the fees every quarter and we might increase them when performing outside Kenya and internationally,” says Fuchs.

The group begins their Sauti Sol USA Tour today that will see them perform in six different states, and ends on November 12. Beginning next year, Fuchs says they will be focusing on European and Asian markets.

As their only manager, Fuchs believes they will uphold their longevity because they have maintained their consistency, skills and uniqueness. “It shows we are doing something right,” he says.

As a group, they have also learnt to keep each other in check when egos threaten to rear their ugly heads. “We are brothers, we have spent more time together in the past four years than with any other person. They are guys with good heads on their shoulders. We have made mistakes along the way but… It’s not been an overnight success,” he says.

Fuchs also applauds their work ethic, saying they have no rule on studio time because they are there almost every day anyway.

“There are times they focus on rehearsals, the studio or the styling. They have an understanding of what it takes. For example, with working out, they know they have to be fit for the usual reasons and they have to keep up with their hectic schedules for the visual performances, both in the videos and live performances”.