Today, Eriko Mukoyama is better known by her stage name – Anyango.
It means “girl born in the morning” in Dhuluo – the language of the Luo tribe, who live beside Lake Victoria in Kenya. Back in 2005, Mukoyama won their hearts, when she became the first female player of the nyatiti.
Six albums later – Anyango has helped this unique African instrument find a global audience. But she has also reinvigorated the cultural heritage from which it belongs, something that many Kenyans are forever thankful for.
So how did this plucky Japanese musician find herself in East Africa?
The story, as you can imagine, is quite something…
Mukoyama says she always loved music.
From an early age, she found herself listening to jazz, blues and gospel. And by her third year of university, she was intent on heading to America.
She left for the US on September 11th 2001 but, due to the attack on the World Trade Centre that day, was turned back. In 2003 she made the same trip, just as America invaded Iraq. And so soon after, her government advised her to return home – again.
Many of us might dwell on our bad luck at this point.
But not Mukoyama.
A chance invite to see traditional Kenyan music in Tokyo sparked a new flame in her creative spirit. And she asked to join the band that very day. A year later and the troupe were headed for East Africa; to seek further knowledge on the sound they were intent on replicating.
A second trip led to a third, followed by an extended stay for several months. By this point, Mukoyama was keen to learn the nyatiti – a bowl-shaped lyre, about half the size of an acoustic guitar.
Found in various forms, from Egypt to the Rift Valley, nyatiti means “daughter of the clan” and is thus considered feminine. Yet due to the meaning imbued in its strings, it was traditionally only played by men.
Mukoyama’s reasoning was that, as a vocalist, it allowed her to both play and sing. And so despite the concerns of her fellow band members, she managed to persuade a local to teach her. He even gave her the Luo name Anyango.
But after two weeks of learning in Nairobi, Anyango was fed up – comparing her routine to the life she led back home. Seeking a more authentic experience she twisted her instructor’s arm once more.
They journeyed to Karapul village, a Luo community near Lake Victoria, where she was introduced to his teacher – nyatiti master, Okumu Orengo.
Initially, Orengo could not understand why a foreigner wanted to play this specific instrument. But Anyango had fallen deeply in love with the nyatiti. So she begged and begged, returning to Orengo’s village each day for a week.
Eventually, he relented – on one condition. She had to agree to live with him and his wife until he was sure she was serious about learning to play such an important cultural artefact.
This was a no brainer.
Anyango happily adopted Orengo’s sparse lifestyle: waking up at daybreak, fetching water and firewood, harvesting corn – even helping his wife to cook. Not to mention learning Luo – the language in which she would be singing.
Three months passed before Orengo agreed to teach her to play the nyatiti. And that was only the beginning of the challenge. For her master never played slowly – forcing her to concentrate immensely on each song.
But her perseverance paid off. And five months later Anyango sat down to play in front of over 200 villagers – including the master himself – so that she could be certified as a genuine nyatiti player. After six songs she finally saw the crowd erupt into dance – she had passed Orengo’s final test.
Upon leaving the village he instructed her to go forth and play in every corner of the world.
And Anyango did just that.
In 2006 she played her first concert in Japan. And whilst she says the initial reaction was one of surprise, her fellow countrymen soon “opened their hearts” and enjoyed it.
She has now played in dozens of countries, including much of Europe, America, China – even Myanmar. And in 2015 she was chosen to play at the UN’s Peace Memorial Ceremony for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Her dedication to popularising traditional African music has also won her numerous awards – including the prestigious Higashi-kuninomiya Cultural Memorial Award.
But perhaps Anyango’s greatest achievement is her lasting legacy in Kenya.
Numerous performances over the years have cemented her place in the nation’s hearts. Yet they have also piqued the interest of everyday Kenyans in the nyatiti – an iconic instrument that older generations feared might be lost from their culture.
Thanks to this spirited Japanese artist, this traditional African music endures.