Last week London was alive with the sounds of the Kenyan Boys Choir, the supremely talented singers who had performed at Obama’s inauguration in January, and who signed their record deal with the largest record company in the world, Universal Music, based on a YouTube clip.
Executives at the record label managed to track the Choir down in an airport lounge. There had been a lot of work done with the Choir and management beforehand, but the contract was signed there on the spot before they travelled back to Nairobi. Since then they haven’t stopped working on their debut album The Spirit of Africa due for release on the 29th June.
The story behind the Choir is even more impressive, with their founder Joseph Muyale giving up his own job in order to give the boys a better start in life. Not an easy feat in a country without social welfare and when you have a wife and two daughters to support.
The Choir represent not only Obama’s historic election as US President, but also an emerging optimism about the future of Africa, representing a new generation of African children with hope. The Choir perform a wide-ranging repertoire – from traditional Masaai and Samburu chants to contemporary pieces from around Africa.
Jon Cohen, who produced the album, describes the unique and ‘unorthadox’ approach he took to recording the Choir out in Kenya.
‘Working with the Kenyan Boys Choir was an extraordinary and moving experience. I was touched by their musicality and talent and also by their warmth, openness and spirit.
The choir are self governing, having elected “ministers” within the Choir who are responsible for overseeing various areas such as food, props, choreography and even PR. All members of the Choir are in a ministry and so help out with duties in that area.
The choir takes in members between the ages of 13 and 15 and the older members mentor younger boys, helping them with school work.
Money raised by the Choir (through shows and corporate sponsorship) goes directly towards paying for the education of its members. There are a number of boys in the group who would not have been able to afford schooling at all but for the choir. Some of these are now studying at university, subjects ranging from music to IT to meteorology.
I wanted to record the choir in a way that would provide maximum flexibility and options when it came to producing and mixing the music. The best way to do this is to record different sections of the Choir separately on each song. However, I was concerned about how this approach might affect the feel of performances. It’s very easy to achieve a musically correct performance which is lacking in “vibe”; all the right notes at the right times but without the passion of a live performance.
For this reason we evolved an interesting method of recording. First we would go outside into the open air and perform the song a couple of times (choreography and all!) until everyone was in the zone. Then immediately we’d all run into the (very small) live room of the studio and put down a take of the whole song with everyone singing.
This take would then form a kind of musical scaffolding on which subsequent recordings (this time of small groups within the choir) would be done. This provided the best of both worlds-the vibe of a live performance but with the flexibility of recording choir parts separately. Sometimes the first recording (with everyone in it) would be left in on the final mix and sometimes it would be removed once all the parts had been added into the mix.
This is a rather unorthodox method of recording a choir. Most people would simply put up a couple of mics in a room and get everyone to sing together. But what if you decide to cut the low basses out of the first chorus when it comes to mixing? What if you want all the voices singing a particular counter melody panned over to the left? What if you want to brighten the second tenors but leave the first tenors as they are? None of this is possible with the “all in one room” approach. With our method, I found that when it came to mixing the record, I had a huge number of options and total flexibility and was able to shape the tracks exactly as I wanted.
When I got back to the UK from Kenya, I had to decide which tracks to add music to and which to leave as just vocals. In the end, approx a third of the tracks had instruments added. I played all the instruments myself apart from the nyatiti (or East African lyre) which features on the track Kothbiro. For this, I tracked down a man called Dirk Campbell who is a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths College and who happens to have been taught to play the instrument by Ayub Ogada who originally wrote the piece.’
Check back to t5m Insider for more news on the Choir. We’ll be filming their next performances, and posting more articles so stay tuned.