When you hear the word “indie,” you probably think of New York. Or Toronto. Maybe Seattle. Even Reykjavik. But what about Nairobi, Kenya? There’s a burgeoning indie music scene there, so it deserves attention. Yellow Light Machine is an excellent representative, because of both the level of their musicianship and the open-heartedness of their philosophy.
That philosophy cherishes peace, love, and diversity, and a commitment to “uniting to create something that is felt as well as heard,” as they put it in their promo materials. And they seem to have struck a chord. One Kenyan critic recently called them “one of the most Viby sounds in Nairobi today.” As of this writing they were in the running for Best New Age or Contemporary Artist in the Café Ngoma Awards (which celebrates alternative African artists and businesses). And, more important than critical acclaim, they seem to gig frequently and put out new songs all the time.
You can get a glimpse at the band’s embryonic stage in the 2006 video “Our Fists are Lifted.” Lead singer Mo Pearson reads a poem while guitarist Ricky Matthews Githinii accompanies her. The caption under the YouTube video includes a plea for viewers to donate used musical instruments to help their artistic collective grow:
Once Yellow Light Machine got on its feet, the six-member group proved themselves to be solid musicians. Pearson shows off her smooth vocal style in the mellow number “11:17.” It’s tinged with (I love this term) sophisti-pop. The lyrics contain the band’s usual positive messaging: “Be kind, be warm, be you / be happy, be warm, be you.” They advocate “getting high on conversation,” even if their audience is enjoying beer as well (and talking during the song; this band comes from a tradition where music is social glue, so “background music” is not an insult).
It’s no accident that most of Yellow Light Machine’s YouTube videos are live performances. As is generally true of the music scene outside America and Europe (and true of the indie scene in particular), bands create songs primarily to sing them live. Recordings exist for promotion only, to get the band new live gigs. If you do want to check out Yellow Light Machine’s studio sound, there’s always SoundCloud, but frankly that’s not the best demonstration of what they are: https://soundcloud.com/yellow-light-machine
Despite its name, the song “Mellow Road” opens with a funky beat and vocal dissonance. The band has explained that some of its up-tempo songs like this one are influenced by Lingala music, also known as Congolese rumba. Githinii picks his electric guitar as if its main function is to provide percussion, with a boost from the high-hat cymbal. Later in the song, Githinii opens up into a more lyrical jazzy style. It’s a love-obsession song, and the grins on the singers’ faces suggest that the words have a lot of personal meaning for them.
“Truth” shows a different, blues-edged color for the band. This song has a Led Zeppelin-like longing, especially with the melodic lines on guitar, flute, and trumpet and Pearson’s tightly-packed rhythmic poetry against those long tones. The music’s emotional intensity reflects the lyrics about how essential and difficult truth is to “keep us all together.”
The slick arrangement of “Holographic Swimsuit Part 1” sets it into a sweet groove, helped along by Pearson’s potpourri of vocal styles to emphasize certain lines. As the band has said of itself, “We make music through our experiences by coming together and vibing, growing and taking it all in.” If you’ve ever wondered if “vibing” can be a verb, just listen to this song:
With a sound like that, and clearly an impressive work ethic, this band should hit it big, right? Don’t hold your breath – you can bet the musicians aren’t. They’re indie and define themselves as a “collective,” indicating that Yellow Light Machine has a wider purpose than lining their own pockets or the coffers of record companies. This self-described “group of old souls” use their modest fame to speak out about issues that concern them, including politics, the environment, and social equality. Their videos aren’t only music:
Not surprisingly, one of the band’s themes is self-awareness and pride of identity. The lyrics of “Open Mind” explore this, starting “I am not your expectations of me.” Maybe it’s about a romantic relationship, but it could just as easily be addressed to a person with a different political view from your own. The band sounds especially tight on this Afro-fusion track, with some heart-felt guitar solos and a rare vocal solo by Kijo Gacheru, who usually sings backup harmonies.
Yellow Light Machine exists for their fans. They want to move them to action, but also entertain in a society not quite as addicted to digital devices (yet) as we are in the West. So they don’t just play songs — they jam, both live and on camera. Periodically, the band puts out a video that shows them improvising together, winding through musical ideas together, sensing what’s coming, never quite knowing, listening to each other, staying mellow. It’s a metaphor for how they want us all to get through life: