Meet Labdi Ommes, an upcoming artist from Kenya who has gone against the tradition that bars women from playing a string instrument called the Orutu in one of Kenya’s ethnic communities- Luo.
I met Labdi sometimes late last year, at a local joint located in Nairobi’s Westlands area, where she was set to perform. Like a good journalist, especially one who wants to make a first good impression, I arrived early, sat at a strategic place which allowed me to see everything happening within the location.
Tall, short, dark, brown, lean and plumb, women, men, and children some dressed in African attires, others in the usual casual wear strolled in several minutes after the said start time. African timers- I tell you. I had the chance to judge now that I was earlier today.
My friends and I made our orders as we waited for Labdi. Finally, my phone rang, and this time round she announced her presence just as we finished our snacks. Tall, strikingly dark, and beautiful, with an athletic body, Labdi came at our table. After exchanging pleasantries, she disappeared to the backstage to get her make-up done. She is the first performer, I am told, as I brief her on the interview.
After a quick make-up retouch, we agree to hold the interview before her performance.
“I play the Orutu- a traditional instrument from Luo-Nyanza in western Kenya,” Labdi says adding that she is inspired to play the string instrument particularly because “it is a taboo for women to play it” in her community.
Moreover, the thrill of being able to play a taboo instrument and the fact that there are very few women instrumentalists nudges her on.
While Orutu is the name given to the instrument by the Luos of Kenya and those in eastern Uganda, different communities in the country and across East Africa play a similar instrument under a clannish name. According to Labdi, a number of countries in Africa have their own versions of the instrument. In Ethiopia for example “it’s called Masenqo, in other parts of Uganda, it is called Endingire, and locally, Kikuyus have baptized it Wandindi.”
Labdi, who principally is a painter, infuses the two artistic genres which in her words give the best “aesthetic value” and a competitive edge in the career world.
Taking advantage of opportunities
The upcoming artist has been playing the instrument for the past three years. Though brought up in a musical family, Labdi stumbled upon music again while doing her studies at Kenyatta University. She said it was part of a unit in her programme, but after the introduction to music, she fell in love with instruments and later took up the Orutu.
“Since I wasn’t majoring in Music, I had to pay a little more to acquire the needed skills.” Due to a tight schedule- juggling music with her other classes- she was only able to attend two lessons. Later, she resulted to teaching herself whenever she found time.
And this is paying off now. Earlier before the Nairobi event, Labdi was attending the Global Music Academy event in Ethiopia, where she took up keyboard and guitar lessons. Being a self-taught musician, she also learned how to write and read music classically. She admitted that she now writes music with a more conscious outlook. She is also looking forward to teaching more artists about the Orutu and other African instruments and how to incorporate them in today’s music.
Her goal is to “popularize cultural music”; Labdi said adding that she wants people to think and learn about traditional instruments that could add timbre to music if well understood and used.
“I want to make traditional music known such that when people think about music, they don’t just think about western instruments. We have so much more as Africans,” she said. “What we need, however, is to standardize our instruments for better music output,” Labdi added saying that humidity affects Orutu’s sound output. By standardizing African musical instruments, she noted that such challenges could be eliminated.
"How do painting and music complement each other?" I asked her. The upcoming artist noted that on the basic level, they don’t go together as they are two different skills. Aesthetically, though, she remarked that being a painter helps her to present her music however she wants.
“Even the design of my Orutu is influenced by my painting. How I present myself visually and aesthetically is also mainly affected by how I am as a painter- in that sense they kind of complement each other.”
Talent without interest and practice is worthless
Labdi does not believe in talent, she told me during the interview.
“Everybody has this certain skill that they are really good at, and it is not particularly out of talent, but it’s mainly because of interest, and practice.” By looking at things the way she does, Labdi thinks it will close off the idea of some people being labeled special than others.
According to her, some people don’t know they are talented or skilled in a particular area because they have not developed an interest or even practiced it.
“My advice: just keep doing what you can and remember there are no mistakes in art or music. You have to take risks all the time and enjoy it to the fullest,” she said pointing to her face which is now painted. She informed me it is her first time to don such make-up and while she is concerned by how people will take it, Labdi said it is interesting and worth the risk.
Images credit: Kajuju Murori