On SuperAfrican, his first album in three years, singer-songwriter-producer Sila Mutungi delivers his most impassioned and eclectic work to date. The Kenyan-born artist, who’s lived in San Francisco for the last decade, harked back to his childhood growing up on a rural village 45 miles from Nairobi, for inspiration while making the new album.
“SuperAfrican is a playlist of the styles of music I grew up with,” Sila says. He recalls, “I used to listen to Voice of America, which played music from James Brown, Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. The local stations played Miriam Makeba, Angelique Kidjo and Fela.”
The result is a twelve-track effort which shimmers, pulses and throbs with earnest and heartfelt expressions of American pop, R&B, soul, and funk, filtered through an Afropop prism. Though all of the lyrics—with the exception of Sila’s trademark tribal shouts and wails—are sung in English, it’s a record with a global identity—much like Sila himself. SuperAfrican looks at American black music through the eyes and ears of an African expatriate, grasping for the American Dream while relating the immigrant experience in this country, adapting to encompass new forms of expression while still retaining a native cultural identity.
A rarity in these days of sampled loops and Auto-tuned vocals, the record features all live instrumentation—“recording live strings was a dream come true,” Sila says—and showcases the contributions of world-class caliber Bay Area musicians , including members of Santana, Stevie Wonder, Michael Franti & Spearhead, the Mickey Hart Band, the Jazz Mafia, and others. Working with such seasoned veterans, Sila says, “inspired me to work really hard on my craft as a singer, songwriter and producer. It's the kind of craftsmanship you see in LA or New York that I was aspiring for. I am a local artist but my aspirations were global ones.”
SuperAfrican represents a stunning achievement for Sila, who surpasses previous platitudes—he’s been called a “Kenyan funk master” and “Africa’s James Brown”—to incorporate a wildly diverse musical sensibility which thinks outside the genre-limited box of both funk and Afrobeat, the two styles Sila has fused throughout most of his career.
Prior to writing and recording SuperAfrican, his first record as a solo artist, Sila spent seven years as frontman of the Afrofunk Experience, who rose to the top of the Bay Area’s storied world music scene with their funkified take on Afrobeat. Sila recorded two critically-acclaimed albums with the AFE, The Funkiest Man in Africa and Black President—the latter recording earned Sila a 2010 NAACP Image Award, for which he beat out better-known artists including Zap Mama and Omou Sangare.
“Winning a national award inspired me to work really hard on SuperAfrican,” Sila relates. “I felt that I had a lot to live up to. The last album was a collaboration with the Afrofunk Experience. This time I was stepping out on my own.”
On SuperAfrican Album, Sila was eager to experiment and work and learn from other musicians. He toured twice in Italy with his solo project auditioning new material from the album. "What ended up on the album was vetted by fans in the Bay Area and in Europe,” he adds.
Sila’s songwriting process involved recording his ideas on the iPhone voice memo app, and then relaying his ideas to the musicians. Over 50 songs were written—many of them fully recorded—for SuperAfrican, which were then chopped down to the 12 which made the album’s final track list. Many of the songs, he adds, were written during his commute to and from SF and Sunnyvale. “That’s why the album is great for traveling or road trips,” he jokes.
The album’s opener, “Walk Away,” sets a strong tone for the next stage of Sila’s artistic development. Musically, it touches on neo-soul and classic R&B, with a hint of reggae, punctuated by emphatic horns and layered, echoing vocal arrangements which find the singer declaring his devotion to his first love – music. The first video, “Emotions,” was written during the Haitian earthquake crisis. According to Sila, the song is about “people showing empathy toward others, especially the ones in need.” The album’s title track is an epic funk throwdown, complete with simmering B-3 accents, a jazzy trumpet solo, and a lilting female chorus, which finds Sila in Kenyan Soul Brother #1 mode, delivering jungle tales of braggadocio (“I can wrestle a hundred lions and never break a single sweat”). The song not only gives the album its title, but is the theme song for the upcoming “SuperAfrican” comic book, a project created by Sila and writer Eric K. Arnold, whose debut issue is slated to be released at the same time as the album.
“As as young boy growing up in Kenya, I loved reading comic books,” Sila relates. “Super heroes inspired me to be creative, strong and hopeful. But these superheroes didn’t look like me and the places where their adventures took place didn’t resemble the world I lived in at all. There’s a big difference between Gotham City and Nairobi, Soweto, or Dakar. So I thought, why not create an African superhero who addresses the issues that kids in Africa face? SuperAfrican is a hero who fights against corruption, greed and ecological injustice. My hope is that he can inspire young kids in Africa to learn how to be resilient and become better human beings.”
The rest of the album covers a fair amount of stylistic ground, with its polished horn, string, and vocal arrangements sure to impress longtime fans and win over new listeners. “I Want It All” mashes a modern funk arrangement with an Afrobeat-esque bassline, as Sila echoes sentiments not unfamiliar to James Brown or Sly Stone. “Running Out of Time” is a sweet love song which channels the emotion-and-melody-laden, worldly rock of U2 and the Police. The club-ready ode to nightlife action, “Dancefloor” crosses an uptempo pseudo-disco beat with a Latin-tinged guitar melody a la Santana, as Sila and guest vocalist Crystal Monee Hall trade flirty lines and declare, “let’s go crazy on the dancefloor.” Meanwhile, “Don’t Wanna Be Here,” is a classic, melancholy-dipped breakup song; “I wanna disappear/ don’t stop leaving,” Sila says, echoing a moment of self-reflection following the loss of a love. “Hurricane” swings to the other end of the romantic spectrum, telling a story of momentary passion and red-hot, feverish desire: “run away with me to Spain/take a ride on a pleasure train,” Sila seductively pleads. “The Way It Goes” is a slow ballad with roots in jazz and R&B, which again dips into the well of deeply-felt emotion for inspiration. “Sexy Grrls” is a self-explanatory yet utterly infectious tribute to pulchritudinous females who’ve got Sila “burning up with desire.” “I Love The Way You Dance” is an uplifting affirmation of ballroom vibes with an Afro-Carib vibe somewhere in-between soca and soukous. The album’s closer, “Raindrops,” inspired by Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, lays on a warm, fuzzy bed of reverberating guitars, percolating horns, and resonant strings. “My heart’s so easy to break,” Sila sings, meaning every word.
In addition to being an artist who’s been at the cutting edge of the West Coast’s progressive world music scene for years, Sila has also made a noticeable impact with his support for humanitarian causes. He is a co-founder (with DJ Jeremiah) of the Afrofunk Festival, an annual multi-day music festival which raised money for refugees and orphans in East Africa. And in 2010, Sila produced the I [Heart] Haiti benefit, which raised more than $10,000 for earthquake relief efforts.
“Artistry and activism go hand in hand,” Sila says.” Musicians have the pulpit to inspire social change. Part of my touring always includes events that raise money or awareness for those that are need whether it's here in the San Francisco area or Africa.” Sila notes he’s planning a Refugee Music Festival in Northern Kenya, a land of more than 4 million refugees. “Most of them have never heard live music before, so we will nourish their souls with music but also bring with us donations. A mobile recording studio will be set up to record music, whether it's African hip-hop or traditional songs, so we can share their stories with the world.”
With SuperAfrican, Sila has made an album suitable for making sweet love, wrestling lions, or enjoying a night out. It’s the latest step in a journey which has taken him from Africa to the United States to Europe, and back again, while allowing him to share his own story with the world.