Wanja Wohoro just oozes soul; there, I said it. Lol. As one of my favourite performers at Africa Nouveau, I thought I would be a bit biased when I wrote this piece, but she really does capture you, especially when you least expect it!
Wanja Wohoro began songwriting from the age of 13, teaching herself the guitar and the piano and practicing accompaniment and composition. She is currently releasing her debut album ‘Matriarch’, which will be a concept album exploring womanhood, blackness, Kenyan heritage, love and self actualisation. The aim of the album is to not only tell her personal story, but to empower women of every age and generation to take control of their futures.
Here’s a look into the sultry songstress that is Wanja:
I began playing guitar properly at the age of 17 when my dad bought me a Cort for my 17th birthday. I have been singing more or less my whole life but began composing my own songs around 15 or 16. I also play a bit of piano although in recent years I have focused almost exclusively on guitar, as it’s more portable! However, I have started to pick it up again and even play keys on one song on my upcoming album ‘MATRIARCH’”
Any formal musical education?
Yes, I have a degree in Music Arts which focused more on performance and musicology rather than theory or composition.
Any musical memories while growing up?
‘Growing up my first memories of music was the music of my parents and siblings. My mum had a Stevie Wonder album and a Van Morrison album that we played fairly often at home for as long as I can remember. I can’t think of a singular song, but I’d say those two records are the albums that most encapsulate my first loving interactions with music as a child’.
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"Don't touch, don't stare, my body's my own. A tower, a fortress, my skin, my home." – MATRIARCH I wrote the title song to my album while sitting at my piano staring out my window and thinking "what do I wish men and society would understand about being a woman in the 21st century?" And "What do I wish women could tell themselves more often when they feel defeated and crushed by said society?" The words and melody to this song came effortlessly. Half an hour max. Sometimes songwriting is like breathing, exhaling. When all the oxygen and power you need is already inside you… Its as simple as letting it out. This song is for every woman who walks the earth. Come with all your fire and lighting, don't let anyone dictate your story for you. #MATRIARCHRISING #MATRIARCHseason Image by: @jebet.n_i <3
What about musical influences as a child?
Ummm, I’d say that most of the artists I grew up listening to were mostly built up of what my parents and siblings liked considering that I’m the last born. (I’m sure almost all last borns can relate).
This meant I listened to everything, from the carpenters to the likes of Lionel Richie, to Usher to Blink 182.
To this day, I could probably sing word for word of the ABBA GOLD album. In my teen years, I developed a soft spot for jazz music and became obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
How is the music different from what you listen to now?
I have a wide range of tastes in music, largely due to my upbringing. Through my high school and university years I lived in Sydney, meaning a lot of my music tastes existed within the indie/acoustic/alternative scene. It was only in the last 5 years that I began to listen to neo soul, contemporary jazz and hip hop.
What made you first realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I don’t know if I ever ‘realised’ that I wanted to do it. I did decide about a year ago that if I didn’t take a shot at it now I would regret it for the rest of my life. There’s no time like the present, and there’s no time like your early twenties to take a really big shot at your dreams and go in guns blazing. I feel as though at this age I have enough naivety and support around me right now that my dreams seem attainable.
How do you handle mistakes during a performance?
In the recent years, through my degree and beginning to perform in public spaces more frequently, I have paid quite a bit of attention to the idea of stage presence and nerves on stage. My philosophy about it now revolves entirely around the idea of staying present. Stage PRESENCE means you are present on stage. It sounds so obvious, but I realised the times I was dead nervous or very concious of my mistakes was because I wasn’t staying present in the moment of the music.
I was worrying about the next difficult bit, or dwelling on the mistake I made in the last line. When you stay present you take yourself less seriously and are able to just live in that specific sonic moment with your audience. And those moments where everything clicks on stage are some of the best a performer can have.
How often and for how long do you practice?
I am terrible at diligent practice. TERRIBLE! Haha.. I often only practise regularly when I have a gig coming up. Other than that, I find myself easily distracted or tempted to work on other things. However recently I have tried to regiment myself a little more. My goal is to do at least 2 hours a day.
Do you teach music?
No I don’t. I have given a few songwriting workshops though and I really enjoyed those as songwriting is my favourite part of the music process. I love discussing those ideas around creativity and art and the process of creation, so I would definitely like to teach or lecture more.
What can people expect to see at your live performance?
Live performance is still something I am relatively new to. I’ve played in a lot of bars where no one is really listening, and you’re simply there to create ambience, so it has been an interesting evolution for me to now play to audiences who care. I hope people get a sense of sincerity, and authenticity. I hope they walk away feeling as though they have learnt about themselves and felt a connection with my spirit.
Out of the songs you have performed which is your favourite song?
Definitley a song from my upcoming album called HOME (254). It was one of those songs that I wrote but never imagined it would be a song people would dance to and get stuck in their heads. It has a few catchy melodic phrases and breakdowns which people really seem to enjoy, which in turn makes it a joy to play.
What do you think your biggest break or greatest opportunity has been so far in your musical career?
At this point in time probably being invited to play at Africa Nouveau. But in all honestly, I would have to say that having the opportunity to record my album has been the most significant thing to happen in my career. My album was partially crowdfunded, so the involvement of my community in bringing this project together has generated a lot of support and interest in my career from complete strangers, which has been amazing.
Tell us a bit more about your performance at Africa Nouveau Festival
It was so much fun! It was actually only my second time playing a whole set with a full band as usually I perform solo or with minimal supporting instruments. The energy was beautiful and it was amazing to play songs that I have never performed before to people who really seemed to want to hear them. Looking forward to more shows like that in the future!
If you had a chance to change something in the music industry what would it be?
Payment of artists. People seem to think that being a musician is just a hobby and takes no money to achieve, when in reality it is a constant hustle just to get very basic gigs for very minimal pay. I want there to be a greater respect for the amount of effort musicians put in to their craft and their hustle, and how many different hats they have to wear just to make a living. As a freelance musician you are often your own manager, booker, accountant, social media marketer, content creator and legal aid. I feel the industry would shift significantly if musicians were given adequate resources to do their job, it would make it easier for us to focus on creating more incredible music and changing the perception and understanding of music in East Africa and Kenya on an international scale.
What are your other interests outside of music? What do you do to relax outside of music?
My two other creative passions are writing and visual arts. When I finished high school and took a year off to decide what to study, I knew it would either be something in the social sciences, music or visual arts and I even almost applied to art school. Painting is something I find complete solace and therapy in. In my dream world I would like to be all these things (musician, writer and artist) in a professional sense, but for right now I love that I have this private thing that is purely there for my enjoyment and comfort.
What keeps you going as a musician?
I think almost every artistic professional asks themselves this regularly. What I feel keeps me going, in a weird and maybe sad way, is just that I genuinely don’t know what else I would do with my life. I think about my life if I were to abandon music entirely and honestly I can’t even visualise what that would look like. I can’t live without it so therefore that makes the decision quite straight forward. Maybe I’ll feel different in 10 years, but as of right now this is the world I want to live in, broke and anxious as I am.
Where would you like to see yourself within the next five years as an artist? What are your long term career goals?
My dream is sort of multi-tiered. I am a feminist and a big part of what I do revolves around the idea of promoting and telling women’s stories, specifically the stories of women of colour. In the long term I would like my music to consistently be a platform for telling my own personal story as a woman, but also shedding light on others. I would love to tour and travel the world with my music with this agenda in mind. Additionally I would love to begin my own platform for different WOC creatives to be a part of the larger female narrative and be given recognition and compensation for it.
If you were to perform with anybody/group in the world, either dead, alive who would it be?
Stevie Wonder! Without a doubt! It’s been a dream of mine since I was very young to perform on the same stage as him.
Another big dream of mine is to be in a musical. The ULTIMATE dream, in this regard, is to write my own musical with an original book, to star in it, and get the opportunity to perform it worldwide.
What are your up to date performance plans? New releases? Tours?
Right now my entire focus and resources are going towards releasing my album. There is still a lot to do in terms of logistics and planning that are going into MATRIARCH the album which should be released during Summer 2018 sometime in June or July. It is a 10 track album exploring the contemporary journey of womanhood.
Follow me online for regular updates and for all the behind the scenes footage that we will be releasing in a series called The Matriarch Episodes as a lead up to the release!