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SXSW regional preview: Africa

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Africa

Just a Band

Self-described as "Africa's Super-Nerdy Electronic Music/Art Collective," Just A Band is a four-piece from Nairobi, Kenya, made up of "Blinky Bill" Sellanga, Dan Muli, Mbithi Masya and Jim Chuchu. With cohesive production blending elements of electrofunk, neosoul, house and pop, they draw a surprising spectrum of emotional hues from an electronic pallet. Their sound runs the gamut, shifting smoothly from irresistible disco to haunting tales of love and longing. Add to that a series of well-produced online videos, including a rough-cut tongue-in-cheek homage to Blaxploitation flicks — "Makmende Returns" resurrected a Kenyan folk hero and garnered so much online attention it landed the band on CNN and Wired.com — and you have the makings of an international phenom.

The band's online bio reads as a superhero origin story, a fantastic tale that includes pygmy tribes, a Volkswagen van, a giant she-lizard and a freak accident involving carnivorous pigs. The "humdrum" story is that Jim and Bill met in high school and formed the band when they ended up in University with Dan. Mbithi, who takes co-director credits on many of the band's videos including "Makemende," stormed the camp just a year ago.

"No one really received schooling for what they do in the band," Muli explained via email. "Everyone was just a rabid fan of music and film and art and such, and wanted to participate in contributing to these art forms."

Citing a wide range of audio influences from Daft Punk to the Neptunes, the band always saw the value of approaching their craft as multimedia artists.

"We don't necessarily work on the visuals and the sound in tandem, but sometimes they do influence each other," Muli said. "When we formed the band we thought it might be more interesting for us, as well as a stronger project, if we pulled together all the things and media that we were interested in under the banner of this band."

With a sound that's refined and refreshingly unique and an approach that is so consistently compelling, it leads one to wonder: Is this just the tip of the iceberg? Is Just A Band part of some big, wildly creative Kenyan electronic music movement that we Westerners have yet to discover?

"We'd say that the band is part of a big wildly creative movement in the country, but not so much in electronic music," Muli said. "The scene is growing but right now it's mostly about DJs. There are a few people who are making new stuff, though. Most mainstream music is different kinds of local pop, a lot of which have a strong base in hip hop, but hopefully with time, electronic music will become more of a thing."

Official showcases: 11:30 p.m. Thursday at Copa and 9:15 p.m. Friday at Barbarella Patio.

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