Shyam Shah

‘I’ve come to learn that if you want to change the world, you must change people, and in this music has great power’ – Shyam Shah

         Awaaz: Stepping aside from the communal setting, you found yourself in, makes for an interesting narrative. Please tell us about your upbringing in Kenya and the choices you made in life about this period, and how it shaped your consciousness as a Kenyan.

So I was actually born in London and lived there with my mum until I was five, then later relocated to Nairobi. I had a very fortunate upbringing, scattered with challenges like many others, but the biggest influence on my upbringing was my Mum. She was ahead of her time, being a professional rather than homemaker, when it was not common for a woman in our culture. She was also very creative and intelligent and encouraged me to pursue activities like painting and reading when I was young. Along with this, I also had the good fortune of never really being told what to do, so I learnt to be organised and disciplined from a very young age, and I think this made a huge difference in my personal growth. I had to learn from my own mistakes.

         AwaaZ: In your press release, you mention ‘Despite being well educated, he grew disillusioned with the modern world and education system and chose to drop out of high school to pursue a career in music’. What in the modern world and the Education system, did you see as obstacles to your development as a person?

I got a very well rounded primary education. And I mean education in the true sense of the word, rather than just schooling. However, in secondary school, as I was growing into a young adult, I starting observing the world more and thinking a lot about what is considered normal in our society. I was an avid reader and philosophy student, so I would always question everything. I realised that the purpose of our schooling was not to turn us into intelligent and well-rounded human beings, but rather to simply gear us towards studying at university, getting a job, earning money and dying. I understood that everything in our capitalistic world is valued only if it has economic potential, and we are chasing after endless financial growth at the expense of many other more valuable things. This didn’t sit well with me, and still doesn’t. I’ve always been a high-achieving student, however, when the weight of this realisation bore down on me I found it difficult to continue with school. I see learning as an end in itself and not a means to achieve money or other goals; so at age 17 I left school without finishing, deciding rather to educate myself and also pursue a career in music.

         AwaaZ: What is your take on Integration between races and ethnic groups in Kenya? Your press release mentions ‘he was exposed to several different cultures, religions and languages that shaped him and his music. This also helped him realise the importance of tolerance, and the beauty that diversity adds to the world’ Could you expand on this? And be more specific if possible.

The first time I realised that someone was a different colour or race from me was when I was 13. That’s quite old I think. I had the good fortune of growing up surrounded by people from all over the world, each with their own languages, religions, cultures, food and music. Personally, I found myself at an intersection of being raised in Kenya in an Indian household and going to an international school. So every day I would converse in at least three different languages, eat ugali for lunch and dal for dinner, sing hymns in school, hear Indian music on the radio and Benga on the street. It was a serious cultural mix that became normal to me. So in my opinion, the question of integrating or not is redundant. We are all integrated whether we realise it or not, and this diversity is what makes life so interesting. I find racism and tribalism very sad and quite odd, though I am optimistic that it is just a matter of a generation or two before they will be gone. The real issue left in Kenya is classism.

         AwaaZ: What drove you to move from Classical and Jazz music to African Rumba Music? Was it Rumba in particular or African music in general?

I began learning music 20 years ago when I moved to Kenya, and it was classically oriented. At the time, I didn’t really have a choice as I was so young, but I still enjoyed it and it helped me understand many subtleties that are easy to miss in contemporary music. I had a fantastic music teacher named Francis Oludhe who really moulded all of our brains and ears towards music, especially at an age where it made a huge difference. When I entered secondary school, I chose guitar as my main instrument and studied under another great teacher, Manaseh Uzele. This was a more contemporary and holistic music education, where I gained knowledge of several genres, and was oriented around Jazz Theory and Ear Training. Following this, I played lots of Reggae and Jazz, and although I appreciated it, it didn’t fulfill me. Manaseh introduced me to Rumba music and this sparked my interest, so I went on to research, listen and learn it on my own. Rumba music specifically appeals to me because it was really the first modern, post-colonial, pan-African popular music. It is distinct from traditional African music, but still retains the influence, also being blended with Latin American music, and modern instrumentation. It was a way of reuniting a continent carved up by colonialism. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what country you’re from, when Rumba plays, everyone dances!

         AwaaZ: How did you join Orchestra Masika Afrika? Were you both a founder and leader of the band? Were you accepted as an ‘African’ both by non-Africans and by Africans?  How and where did your band perform, what were the reactions of the different audiences?  How did you transform       from a Kenyan to a Pan-African identity?

In 2015, I made a trip to London, and out of curiosity, I would ask people if they knew African music. The answer was always the same: ‘Yes, I know Fela Kuti’ (and possibly other West African high life/Afro beat stars). This really surprised me, because on the African content, the most popular music by far is African (especially Congolese) Rumba. So I realised Rumba had had very little international success so far. Furthermore, back home most of the original generation of musicians was gone and few of the younger generation really picked up this style of music (mainly because of the skill and discipline involved). As the sound of Africa continued to get more Western, I decided to put together a Big Band in order to keep Rumba music alive and growing. This is where Orchestra Masika Afrika came from. Being the Band Leader and Founder was tough, not least because of my age and skin colour, but in a very short time I proved myself and earned the loyalty of my musicians and fans. We went on to release two studio albums and would perform several times a week in clubs, bars and festivals around Nairobi. We were loved by old audiences who would be swept up by nostalgia, young audiences who wanted to dance and even expats and tourists who wanted to experience a true African sound. But of course, all good things must come to an end. In my time with Masika, I grew a lot as a person and as a musician, and it was an interesting place to be because it was not just a Kenyan band, but an African band with musicians from all over East and Central Africa. In this, it was very pan-African. We learnt a lot from each other, especially how similar our music, language and cuisines are, and although issues would arise, we learnt to live and   thrive together.

          AwaaZ: When and why did you go to London and what kind of musical scene did you find when you landed?

In 2019, I was in Havana, Cuba on a music trip with musicians from London. By this time, we had spent the past two years with Masika at our peak, performing non-stop. We had our routines and were making good money, but at the same time I felt like we had hit a glass ceiling in what we could achieve in Nairobi. Personally, because of my age, I was looking to grow and develop my skills, and I felt like I had stagnated in the environment I was in. The trip to London and Havana awoke the urge in me to be in a more challenging environment where I could further myself. So I returned to Nairobi and within three months we wrote, rehearsed, recorded and launched our final album, as a legacy to what we had achieved in our four years together. I moved to London in the middle of 2019, and was very lucky to have contacts in the African and Latin music scenes. It was initially very challenging because London draws some of the best musicians from all around the world, but that competition forced me to improve and diversify. Despite the many challenges I encountered, it was a great decision.

          AwaaZ: How did you break into the scene and what challenges did you encounter?

When I look back, it is easy to say everything happens for a reason. One of my friends and contacts in London from when I was promoting Masika, Sara McGuinness, one day casually said to me, ‘you should come play rhythm guitar with us if you’re ever in London’. I took this as a job offer and joined Grupo Lokito, the best Congolese-Cuban band in UK. Through Sara I met many great musicians and friends, expanded my network, and got more work. I also decided to re-enter academia at a university level to open more opportunities for myself in the music industry. Despite all this good luck, I faced the same challenges as many other musicians do, of a declining global music industry paired with the devaluation of music, meaning that it is increasingly harder and more competitive to sustain a career in music.

          AwaaZ: Did your racial background prove an asset or liability and how did you overcome and mitigate the challenges?

One of the things I love about London is that no one really cares what you look like or where you are from. In Kenya, the fact that I was Indian and played Rumba was what gave me a name, and I will never know if people liked me because I was good at what I did or simply because I was Indian and it was a spectacle. In London, people are used to such oddities and so race has never been an issue for me.

          AwaaZ: Have you interacted with any social justice movement over the years like ‘Stop the War Movement’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and Anti-racist organizations?

I’m quite pessimistic in the sense that I have lost faith in such organisations to bring real change, not because of any fault of their own but rather because of the way the system is organised. Recent movements like ‘Black Lives Matter’ did wonders to bring awareness to the issue, however this issue has been evident for centuries and little has changed. I feel like such movements surge up, especially on social media, and become the ‘in thing’ to identify yourself with, then disappear as quickly as they came, leaving little in the way of real results. I’ve come to learn that if you want to change the world, you must change people, and in this music has great power. For this reason, I take the power I hold as a musician very seriously. I try to create socially and politically conscious music that I hope can transform a few people, who will then go on to transform others. This is how I think we can improve situations in the world that such movements such as BLM and Stop the war are also trying to address.

         AwaaZ: Do you now consider yourself British or Kenyan or a little bit of both?

I consider myself a human above all. I identify with so many cultures and speak so many languages that I’ve given up trying to identify with just one. I acknowledge that I will never be fully accepted as either Kenyan, British or Indian, so I’ve given up trying. The concept of nations is a figment of our collective imagination. Above all we are simply human.

         AwaaZ: How did you and your music transform over the years?

As I grow as a person, so too does my music transform. As musicians, if we are practicing, we get better and seek new challenges and musicians, and hence we grow again. It is a cycle. I think that I have found my niche in music with African Rumba so I stick to it, but within that there are countless things to learn, so my music will keep evolving. Musicians never know enough, and the only day you do is the day you die.

         AwaaZ: Have you ever mixed African music with Indian Bollywood music?

Interestingly, no, but this is something many people, including my former band members, pushed for many times. Honestly, despite growing up surrounded by Bollywood music, I was never interested in it. Recently, I’ve learnt to appreciate some of the older music, as well as traditional Indian music, but I have no plans of trying to play it. I think the issue for me is that I’m not a fan of modern commercial music, Bollywood included. I take the view that music is art or a communal cultural product rather than a capitalistic commodity, and this mindset affects the music I listen to and create.

          AwaaZ: Which interesting musicians have you met over the years and how have they shaped and influenced you?

It’s impossible to count all the interesting musicians I’ve met in my life or even the incredible experiences I’ve had because of music. Of course, there are countless teachers including the ones mentioned above who taught me a lot growing up. The musicians in Masika who became like family to me were also very influential. Most recently in London, my boss/friend Sara McGuinness, Legendary Congolese Guitarist Mboka Liya Burkina Faso, and maestro Mulele Matondo, have taught me much about music and life.

          AwaaZ: At what stage of your musical career are you in now and what do you see in the future?

I still see myself at the beginning of my career, if it has even started yet. Music is an art and a skill that takes a lifetime to master and decades to learn. I’m still curating my skills as a performer and songwriter, learning and experimenting to find my style and place in the world. The best is yet to come!

          AwaaZ: Have you been able to mentor the youth and build the next generation of musicians both here in Kenya and the UK?

One of my passions is teaching and mentoring be it musically or just in life. Over the years I’ve managed to pass on what little I know to my students, and hopefully inspire countless others to follow their dreams. In Kenya, I ran a music program for a short while at Shangilia School and Orphanage, and along with Masika did a bunch of music therapy sessions organised by Wanny Angerer. I believe that we learn from, and teach, everyone we encounter in life. Indeed, musically I’m always happy to share what I know with anyone who is curious, just as my teachers have shared with me over the years.


  • An ex-resident of Mombasa now based in London. This Kenyan-Indian-British guitarist and singer broke all societal expectations and cultural stereotypes when he decided to dedicate his life to creating and performing African Rumba Music - a novelty in the South Asian community as well as the general music scene in Kenya. AwaaZ reached out to him to find out more about his life journey; this is his story.