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Atisanna: The Trailblazing Nyatiti Player With A Cause
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Atisanna: The Trailblazing Nyatiti Player With A Cause

Picture of Vincent Liboso
Updated: 9 December 2016
Singer-songwriter and nyatiti player Atisanna is on a musical mission to spread positive messages one string at a time. She has a voice that calms and a charisma that bubbles, and while her warmness and heart may get her mistaken for a push-over, Atisanna is a fearless challenger of the Kenyan music scene.

Her dreadlocks dance every time she laughs or sits down to play a note from her nyatiti instrument—an instrument at one point seen as a reserve for the males of the ‘Luo’ tribe, from western Kenya. Women were banned from playing the instrument back in the day.

The nyatiti is a five to eight-stringed plucked lyre from Kenya. It is a classical instrument played by the Luo people of Western Kenya, typically in Benga music. It is about two to three feet long. The player holds it to his chest while seated on a low stool. Usually it is played together with the oporo, a curved horn.

Image Courtesy of Atisanna
Image Courtesy of Atisanna

The nyatiti played by the Luos is mostly 8-stringed. The stool that the player usually sits on is traditionally known as an ‘Orindi’. The orindi is a three-legged stool as low as to the shin of the player. The player sits down and puts the instrument in front of him or her. On the toe of the player is a round-iron ring, called the oduong, that produces the constant beat as he/she hits the lower bar of the instrument with it. On the same leg is ‘gara‘, a bell that shakes all throughout the playing period. Most players wear a headgear called ‘kondo‘ mostly made from some animal skin. The dancers tie ‘owalo‘ around their waists as they dance to the beautiful tune of the nyatiti.

We caught up with Atieno Sanna, or Atisanna as many know her, at her brother’s studio in Lavington, Nairobi. Her brother, David Sanna (Dynamix Studio) is currently helping her put a, ‘ten plus-one’ (11 track) album due for release later on this year.

Image Courtesy of Atisanna
Image Courtesy of Atisanna

The album that will feature various collaborations (including her children) is set to be the making of not just a local star, but an international superstar.

‘I want to take this music all over the world,’ she explains as she humbly sits on the floor to play her nyatiti.

Music is in her blood and marrow: she is the eleventh child out of fifteen of a veteran jazz musician. Her siblings now scattered in the scenes of sports, arts and music, her loving family has always been behind her fully.

‘Working with my brother on this album is a dream come true. I wanted him to be the producer for quite a while but each time he felt I was not ready. But now I’m ready.’

But that readiness came with a heavy price of learning under the feet of nyatiti maestros, internationally acclaimed Ayub Ogada and Joseph Nyamungu of Owiny Sigoma Band, maestros who are revered in the nyatiti playing worldwide.

Learning to play under such iconic figures was no mean feat for Atisanna. ‘There was never really room to make a mistake. Each string or chord I made a mistake, I had to start all over again.’ To make sure she is up to the task, Nyamungu would take her deep in to the Nyanza (in the west of Kenya) villages to play against the best males of the best in nyatiti from the villages.

Image Courtesy of Atisanna
Image Courtesy of Atisanna

‘Deep in the night I would go and play against these men in the festivals back in the village,’ Atisanna remembers earnestly.

Her early childhood was rough, she tells us. From playing in dingy clubs to sleeping with her nyatiti on the streets; yet music and nyatiti were ever-present as the symphony of hope.

Atisanna is one lady with the message of positivity and desire to succeed. The album’s drive and determination is just the beginning of her journey.

Her choice of instrument, the nyatiti has strings that are ballads to the soul, and her music offers a story of society that needs to be heard, if not retold. The chords inspire and her recipe is well-being cooked by her brother whom she has full trust in for an album that will woo the world.

Drawing inspiration from Miriam Makeba, Suzanna Owiyo, Eric Wainaina, just to name a few of her local inspirations, Atisanna is destined for greatness.

As her music continues reaching a growing audience, she will be performing in her native Luo mother tongue, Swahili and English.

Without a doubt, when the history of this great music will be written, Atisanna will be one not to miss in the annals of history.

Find her on Facebook and Twitter.