Arts + Culture

Aboard the East African Soul Train, a Traveling Artist Residency on the Kenyan Railways

East African Soul Train (E.A.S.T) is an annual traveling residency that brings together artists while traveling the historic Kenya-Uganda railway tracks.

Last month, I boarded a train with a group of eclectic individuals from all over East Africa.

We were on a unique project to encourage artists to explore identity, time and space through their art and collaborations. The East African Soul Train (E.A.S.T) is an annual traveling residency that brings together artists and passengers on a journey of self discovery while traveling on the historic Kenya-Uganda railway tracks.

In this second edition of the project, a class of forty creatives including visual artists, singers, dancers, painters, music producers, writers and fashion designers were selected to attend the five day residency. E.A.S.T.'s artistic director this year was Ghanaian songwriter Jojo Abot, who's also a curator of AFRI-NA-LADI, a multimedia residency program with up-and-coming artists from Nairobi.

The train rumbled out of the Nairobi Railway Station on a Friday in February on its way to the coastal city of Mombasa with 99 artists and passengers who had jumped on-board for the journey. Soon after our departure, Kenyan beat boxer and poet Checkmate Mido engaged me in a conversation elaborating how he came up with the theme for this year’s residency, which was “Kovu Safarini” or “Scars along the way.”

In the middle of our conversation, the adjacent cabin burst into life with a live drum-set and cypher and before I knew it Checkmate had left me to join the fun. The engines roared as they powered this incredible vehicle and all that was left, was the long journey ahead.

A post shared by East African Soul Train (@eastsoultrain) on

Despite having interacted briefly in the E.A.S.T boot camp the previous day, more socializing occurred on the train. “Dancers normally hang out with dancers, visual artists with visual artists and the like, but this brings us all together,” Jackie Manyaapelo, my South African cabin-mate told me. The residency was opening up room for interdisciplinary collaborations which normally don’t occur so readily between artists.

The ride on the train track, dubbed the Lunatic Express, was rather wobbly, noisy and confining for those with mild claustrophobia. Regardless of that, it was full of activity and enthusiasm at all times. There was constant movement up and down the carriages as we peeped into different cabins trying not to miss out on any of action.

When you put highly-talented people around each other you shouldn’t really be surprised when delightful things happen. A beat making session with Blinky Bill (Just A Band) was underway in the dining carriage, artist Michel Ong’aro and his band broke into song in their cabin and the film crew was sprawling in every direction trying to capture as much as possible.

Interestingly enough, some of the passengers on the train weren’t creatives but had taken advantage of the passenger ticket available to also participate in the one of a kind event. A Tunisian born passenger, Ahmed, told me he found out about the East African Soul Train online, thought it was a cool idea and therefore booked his flight to Kenya.

Another couple, Tine and Henning from Germany, used the train as a means to kick off their vacation, and told me of their plans to explore Kenya and subsequently attend the Sauti Za Busara festival in Zanzibar.

In some cabins there was music playing in the background as people engaged in deep conversations. Not only was the train bringing together different kinds of artists, but there was also a fusion of different cultures, ages and races. The train provided a massive opportunity for passengers to exchange ideas and perspectives, build cross-border relationships and generally make new friends.

“An artist could make only one significant connection on this train but that connection could lead to a collaboration that sees them through the next five years of their career,” says Poppy Spowage , the co-founder of E.A.S.T who adds that the project’s true aim is to act as a catalyst for creative pursuits.

Needless to say, getting some sleep on the train wasn’t easy: drum beats, guitar riffs and laughter could still be heard across the carriages as the sun rose over the scenic landscape of Kenya's Tsavo National Park. The arrival in Mombasa was long-awaited but the journey wasn’t over. From there we travelled 51 Km by bus to Distant Relatives Eco-lodge in Kilifi where the rest of the residency would take place.

In Kilifi, the artists continued to work together in their groups allocated according to specific disciplines. Each group had an assigned 'artivator': an established artist who guides and encourages the artists to create and collaborate freely. This year’s 'artivators' included reputable individuals such as visual artist Michael Soi, who's taken the world by storm with his commentary of contemporary life in Nairobi, Gloria Wavamunno, founder of Kampala Fashion Week and musician Mzungu Kichaa of Tanzania.

One of the highlights for me was witnessing veteran Kenyan producer Blinky Bill team up with Congolese rapper Lebon to create a song likely to rock this part of the continent, if released. Collaborations like this continued to prove why E.A.S.T was a necessity during this intriguing time in the East African music scene.

The transition from a day-long train ride to a relaxing, tropical location is a key factor in the psychology behind the programme. Imeldah Kondo, a young visual artist based in Nairobi says that she’s always longed for intense artistic workshops that challenge creatives to create fascinating works within a limited time period and E.A.S.T gave her a crack at it. Creativity levels seemed to peak in this environment and this was observed when each group showcased their work at the final event of the residency.

You know what happens when artists create without the pressures of being perfect or other high-demand situations? When they create just for the love of it? Magical things happen.

The writers and poets chanted an empowering feminist-inspired piece; the musicians enthralled us when they performed the chart-worthy songs they had effortlessly composed together. My personal crowning moment though, was when the dancers and painters collaborated to produce a powerful performance-art installation coupled with vocals and a poignant tone that engrossed everyone who was watching. I couldn't help but feel a full range of emotions as the residency finally came to a close.

Regarding the future of E.A.S.T, co-founder Geraldine Hepp mentions plans to build more partnerships to expand the project and accommodate artists from the wider African region and beyond. She also admits that, although the residency and final event were successful, the true impact of the experience will be felt and seen weeks, months and perhaps even years from now.


Stop What You're Doing Right Now and Watch Falz's New Video 'This Is Nigeria'

The Nigerian rapper tackles his country's social ills in his very own answer to Childish Gambino's "This Is America."

Nigerian rapper, Falz has been known to use his sharp brand of humor to address social ills in his country. Today he's taken it a step further with the release of a new song and video entitled "This is Nigeria" and the outcome is an audacious, decidedly necessary critique of Nigerian society inspired by Childish Gambino's viral video "This is America."

Falz opens the song with a voice over of his father the lawyer and human rights activist, Femi Falana, discussing the consequences of rampant corruption and exploitation, before adding his own cutting criticism: "This is Nigeria, look how I'm living now, look how I'm living now. Everybody be criminal," he rhymes as chaos ensues all around him.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo courtesy of Nike

The Secret Behind Nike's New Naija Football Kits are Nigerians Themselves

The story behind the bold new uniforms the Super Eagles will be wearing at this year's World Cup.

Partner content from Nike

The new Nigeria football kits are not even out yet, but they're already causing pandemonium with Nigerian press reporting that there have been already 3 million worldwide orders. And it's easy to see why—the designs are daring with a bold nod to Nigerian culture that is very in vogue right now. In addition, UK Grime MCs with Nigerian roots, Skepta and Tinie Tempah have already been photographed in the new jerseys causing a surge of social media chatter about the new look.

But while rock star endorsements and an edgy new design will certainly bring attention, there's no doubt that the real bulk of the demand is due to what is ramping up to be a significant moment in the history of Nigerian football—the 2018 World Cup.

If you don't already know, Nigeria is entering this year's World Cup in Russia with some of the most exciting young players we've seen in years. With youthful talent like Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho—all 21—and veteran Olympic captain Jon Obi Mikel ready to take the field in Moscow all eyes are on Nigeria to advance out of Group D and challenge the world for a chance at the cup.

The plan here is to outdo the teams previous international achievement, the 1996 Olympic Gold Medal in men's football which is commemorated on the home kit with a badge recolored in the colors of the '96 gold medal-winning "Dream Team."

The home kit also pays subtle homage to Nigeria's '94 shirt— the first Nigerian team to qualify for the tournament—with its eagle wing-inspired black-and-white sleeve and green torso. But if the allusion to the pasty is subtle, the new supercharged patterns are anything but.

The look of the kit feels particularly in touch with what's going on in youth fashion both in Nigeria and the world and that's no accident. Much of the collection comes in bold print, both floral and Ankara-inspired chevrons, ideas that we've seen entering street wear collections and on the runway in recent years. That's because African and Nigerian style has become a big deal internationally of late. And not just in style, the country's huge cultural industries from Nollywood to Afrobeats have announced themselves on the world stage. This cultural ascendance is reflected in the design.

Courtesy of Nike

"With Nigeria, we wanted to tap into the attitude of the nation," notes Dan Farron, Nike Football Design Director. "We built this kit and collection based on the players' full identities." Along with other members of the Nike Football design group, Farron dug into learning more about Nigeria's players, "We started to see trends in attitude and energy connecting the athletes to music, fashion and more. They are part of a resoundingly cool culture."

In fact OkayAfrica has covered the team's love for music before—even dedicating an edition of the African in Your Earbuds mixtape to John Obi Mikel, Alex Iwobi & Kelechi Iheanacho's favorite songs to get hyped up before a game. When we asked the charismatic trio, they gave us list that included many of the huge Nigerian artists that we love, like Tekno, Wizkid, Yemi Alade and Nigerian-American rapper Wale and also, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, Celine Dion.

Nigerian culture has gone global partly through its infectious energy but also because of its vibrant diaspora populations that bring it with them wherever they land. Lagos-born Alex Iwobi whose goal in the 73rd minute to qualified Nigeria for this summer's tournament spent most of his life in London but still reps Naija to the fullest.

"I grew up in England, but Nigeria is my homeland," he says. "When I scored that goal, the players were dancing, the fans were playing trumpets and bringing drums…there was just so much passion and energy. It is always an honor to wear the white and green. To compete this summer is not just our dream, it is also the dream of our fans. Together, we all represent Naija."

This similar energy can be felt in Nigerian communities from Brooklyn to Peckham and even in China. Naija culture is truly global and no doubt the fans will embody the Naija spirit wherever they will be watching the games this summer.

If you're wondering, Nike isn't simply hopping on the Nigeria bandwagon. The apparel company has been sponsoring the Nigerian football since 2015, supplying kits to all nine of the Nigeria Football Federation teams at every level, including the men's and women's senior teams, men's and women's under-20 teams, men's and women's under-17 teams, men's and women's Olympic teams, and the men's beach football team.

So while the kit is available for purchase worldwide June 1, just know that you'll be competing with millions to get your own official shirts for the World Cup. If you are in New York, find the kit for sale exclusively at Nike's 21 Mercer store.

And please join OkayAfrica and Nike on June 2nd for Naija Worldwide as we celebrate Team Nigeria's journey to Russia in style.


Listen to Adekunle Gold's New Album 'About 30'

Adekunle Gold's highly-anticipated sophomore album is here.

Adekunle Gold's much-anticipated sophomore album, About 30, has arrived.

The 14-track album boasts features from Seun Kuti, Flavor and British-Nigerian soul singer Jacob Banks, who appears on a remix to the popular lead single "Ire." The album sees the artist flexing immense versatility and range as he delivers emotional ballads, folk-Inspired cuts sung in Yoruba, and a few highlife-tinged summer jams.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox