KMRU: Ways of hearing
The sensory intimacy of ambient music found a renewed sense of relevance last year, as dancefloors cleared, social fulfilment evaporated and lockdown began.
For many, it was with the stunning breakout LP of sound artist KMRU that they found solace. Released via prestigious experimental label Editions Mego, Peel’s solemn drones and all-engulfing soundscapes elevated the Nairobi-raised, Berlin-based producer’s status as one of the most lauded new artists working within the genre. But for KMRU, real name Joseph Kamaru, it was simply the latest in a long line of musical endeavours unburdened by expectation. The fact that Peel heralded his arrival was, perhaps, incidental. “I could make another record that sounds like Peel, but I don’t want to do that again. But I could.”
Kamaru’s practice, at its heart, comes as a result of an innate desire to explore the possibilities of sound. Early on, this meant a mixed bag: he could be found playing classical guitar, DJing, singing in the choir, producing dance music or carrying out responsibilities as music captain at school. But it was at home, on his laptop, that musical curiosity became something akin to obsession. “I spent so many hours in my bedroom trying to learn DAWs, my mum used to complain I wasn’t having breakfast,” he deadpans. Now 24, the same curiosity has led him to incorporate improv, foley, machine learning and, most notably, field recording into his work. The latter is, arguably, Kamaru’s most important compositional tool and its discovery marked a change not only in his sound, but in the act of listening itself.
© Tereza Mundilová
“There was so much sound that I was missing out on or wasn’t paying much attention to, which drove me to explore what’s happening around me,” he explains, describing the moment he decided to tune into environmental sound. “The more I’ve been doing field recording, the more I’m intentionally trying to develop the skill of listening and being present.” Countryside walks are a frequent source of inspiration featured across his works, with Kamaru capturing everything from footsteps and rustling foliage to rocks, chickens and cattle using his Zoom H6 recorder. These isolated sounds are later processed and manipulated digitally, though they’re forever imbued with the spirit and surrounding sonics of the moment, including his own presence.
“I’m intentionally trying to develop the skill of listening and being present”
To drive home how important active listening is to Kamaru – and the role it has come to play in how he understands the world – consider the way sound heightened the challenge of acclimatising to new, unfamiliar settings. “Moving here was hard, sonically, because there wasn’t so much sound,” he says of his relocation to Berlin, where he has resided since last autumn. In comparison to Nairobi’s bustling city centre and, later, the engrossing natural sounds of its rural outskirts, the German capital was less stimulating. It prompted the artist to seek out the city’s susurrations, even if these were punctured only by its “annoying” sirens. According to Kamaru, “different cities have their own sonic soundscapes and signals, which are evident musically.” This attitude comes through in his projects, which are often inspired by location. Peel stems from a visit to Montreal, while three-channel spatial sound installation Variations is permeated with pieces of Berlin, Nairobi and St. Petersburg. The moment that’s stayed with him the most from his recent performance in Barcelona is the whir of a train that happened to pass by during the outdoor set.
© Tereza Mundilová
Field recording is seldom practised in Nairobi according to Kamaru, who found himself locally pioneering the discipline. While his family have been largely supportive of his musical pursuits, his forays into sound design have seemed inscrutable to them at times. But as his curiosity grows, so does theirs: “Just the other day I was explaining to my mum about how sonically, in different markets in Nairobi, you can know what’s happening rhythmically and socially.” Kamaru confesses that he considered dropping music altogether after facing difficulty acquiring funding to study abroad. But after securing finances through teaching music, he’s now studying a master’s degree in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts at Berlin’s University of the Arts – even his father, once sceptical of the prospect of a career in music, is on board. “An interesting thing that happened is that my dad sent me a field recording on his phone. It’s the best thing he’s ever done for me musically. I think he now relates to my practice.”
“Different cities have their own sonic soundscapes and signals, which are evident musically”
It’s curious to hear of his father’s initial apprehensiveness about how realistic his musical goals were, as there’s very much precedent in the family already: Kamaru shares his name with his late grandfather, revered Benga and gospel musician Joseph Kamaru. However, it wasn’t until university that Kamaru really began to understand his grandfather’s place in Kenyan culture. Since then, he’s felt compelled to honour his forebear’s work and has been steadily releasing his catalogue online. “When he passed, I thought it would be best to continue putting out his music because I’m still learning so much about him through it… Even in later stages of the project, I came across records I’d never heard before and others where I’m not so sure if he was intentionally using natural sounds in his music, which I’d had loved to ask him about,” he muses. “For example, there’s this project he did [called Safari Ya Japan PT1] in which he’s travelling to Japan and the [opening] aircraft sounds aren’t something I would have noticed if I wasn’t involved in field recording.”
© Tereza Mundilová
As if archiving his grandfather’s back catalogue wasn’t gargantuan enough a task already, Kamaru must also process his own vast library of recorded material. “I have a huge catalogue of field recordings which I wouldn’t be able to name. I go back to try and listen and remember dates, names and locations of where they were recorded. I think it’s interesting that there are so many archives of images, photographs or videos, but sound isn’t really archived where we can remember what happened in the past,” he considers. It’s true that photographs are often people’s go-to medium for capturing or revisiting memories, the potential for audio as a means of storing experiences has seemingly been underestimated. “I was involved in a project where we tried to record how Nairobi sounded in 2019 but we didn’t have a reference of how it sounded in the 60s or 70s. It would be interesting to hear how it sounded with less pollution or traffic.”
© Tereza Mundilová
While his tracks conjure an impression of different locations, Kamaru’s quickly expanding discography reflects a desire to portray the essence and breadth of his own developing craftsmanship. Where Peel established KMRU’s aptitude with drones and ambient, his slew of subsequent records suggests a yearning to create a kaleidoscopic collage for every stretched-out monochrome tone. His latest release, Logue, collects written material from 2017-2019 and addresses his fascination with earthly rhythms and textures more directly. Pensive melodies and propulsive, beat-driven tempos feature alongside the field recordings of sensuous nature, broken instruments and elements of life in east Africa. At times the source material he’s documented is left to unravel organically, others he takes a more deliberately compositional approach with synths and samples. It’s as if he’s in a dialogue with each track, each memory, each moment.
“Five years ago, I wrote on a piece of paper where I wanted to be in life and where I saw myself in ten years. Then I deleted the ‘ten’ and wrote ‘two’,” Kamaru reflects. “I still don’t want to be super known – I just want to make my art, share my music and be happy people have experienced it.” His ability to tune into the myriad stories told through everyday sound is remarkable, but ultimately, it’s the way that he invites the listener to share in these new worlds that feels truly special. In the words of Kamaru, “there’s so much to learn from silence.”
Logue is out now via Injazero Records