Eric’s music career first kicked off when he and some friends formed a cappella group straight after high school called Five Alive. The group was a runaway success and developed a cult-like following in Nairobi. When the group moved on to different things in 1997, Eric went on to join the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston-USA, where he completed a dual major in Songwriting and Music Production and Engineering.
During his years at Berklee Eric worked to produce a sound that would be distinctively Kenyan, both in the music and the lyrics. He however maintained a solid presence in Nairobi, travelling home every year and releasing tracks that kept his place in the local chart music and in the hearts of the Kenyan public.
He was awarded the John Mayer Scholarship for his distinction in Songwriting and the ‘Yo Team Award’ for excellence in music amongst other distinctions. He maintains a close relationship with Berklee where he serves as a member of the African Scholars Award Board.
Eric’s music is a blend of Kenyan Benga rhythm and East African guitar sounds, with modern Western harmony. But what makes him one of the most well-loved musicians in Kenya is the political consciousness within his music.
One of his earliest compositions “Kenya Only “, later renamed “Daima” became an unofficial anthem and critical call to unity during several crises in Kenya. Through-out the 2007 post-election violence every radio and television station adopted the song as a call for peace.
Eric again topped the charts with his release of ‘Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo‘ in 2001, a song that launched his crusade against corruption in the country and its success was a testament for his ability to have his presence firmly within the public sphere.
Transparency International invited him to be an ambassador and in 2001, AfricaAlmanac.com listed him amongst the top 100 Africans of the year 2000, which included high profile names such as Nelson Mandela, Joseph Kabila, Yash Pal Ghai, Baaba Maal and Ousmane Sembene.
So provocative in its day was the song that the Moi government quietly banned it from the government-run national broadcaster, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, but through the private media stations the song and its music video propelled Eric to countrywide fame. The song also earned him a prestigious KORA nomination for ‘Best East African Artist’, which he won.
His first record, ‘Sawa Sawa’, released in 2001 remains one of the highest selling solo albums in the country. In writing the record Eric was making a decided attempt to break away from the all too common American influence on new African music. The result was a record which won critical and popular acclaim. His adaptation of a Kikuyu folk tune ‘Ritwa Riaku’ was added to the playlist of every radio station in the nation, as was the title track ‘Sawa Sawa’, which 10 years down the line, still receives regular airplay.
Eric’s Second Album – ‘Twende Twende’ was released in 2006 and displayed the musical maturity that comes from a full-time career in the music industry. The title track featured a collaboration with the legendary Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi who had been a long-term musical influence of Eric’s. The popular tune was adopted by the telecom giant Orange to mark their entry into the Kenyan market.
Eric’s ‘Twende Twende’ album bagged 3 awards in Kenya’s Kisima Awards : Best Music Video, Best Afro-Fusion Artist and Best Song.
Current Record – “Love and Protest”:
Eric’s much anticipated 3rd album has been due for release since 2008 but he has pulled it back into the studio twice, determined to put out a record that completely reflects what it is he wants to say – musically and lyrically at that time. The album is now slated for release in April 2011.
Eric has often been credited with re-energizing an ailing live music scene in Nairobi when he started playing weekly gigs first at Club Sound and later the famous Thursday nights at Club Afrique. In a media that was rapidly becoming obsessed with “celebrity culture”, Eric broke away from tradition and made it normal as a musician to be accessible and readily available to audiences with no fear of becoming “played out”. The weekly gigs became prominent feature of the entertainment scene and an available stage for many musicians to introduce themselves to audiences.
Festivals and International Performances:
As an accomplished stage musician, Eric has appeared on African and Global stages putting East Africa on the map as a space to look to for dynamic performers
- Fifa World Cup – Closing Concerts Soweto FanPark (2010)
- Fifa World Cup –Pre-Opening Concert (2010)
- New York Musical Theatre Festival (2009)
- Berlin Tour (2008)
- Big Brother Africa Closing Concert – South Africa (2008)
- Tribeca Film Festival : Opening Concert Alongside Jon Bon Jovi– NY, USA (2008)
- Africa Day – South Africa (2008)
- North Sea Jazz Festival – The Netherlands (2006)
- Harare International Festival of the Arts (2003)
- Festival Mundial- The Netherlands (2003)
- The Kora Awards- South Africa (2001)
- Switzerland Tours (2001 – 2005)
In 2004 Eric Wainaina made another milestone on the Kenyan music scene when he premiered a 21- song musical theatre piece “Lwanda, Man of Stone”; 19 of which he wrote based on a local folk story. He successfully collaborated traditional instruments and styles of the Luo people of Western Kenya with contemporary urban Kenyan sound. The harmony is rich with modal colors, rhythmical enticement and ethnic groove. One of the first of its kind in Kenya, the show ran for a hugely successful theatre season and a concert version of the same show continues to be performed at major cultural events. The concert versions feature 10 of the songs from the work strung together with narration and world-class choreography.
Eric re-wrote the musical, resetting it as a modern story dubbed “Lwanda, a Ghetto Story”. Set in a modern day imaginary slum called Kwa Maji the musical revolved around the social and political struggles of a community radio DJ – Lwanda. It was staged at the GoDown Arts Centre in December 2006 before going on a national tour in 2007 and 2008 and playing a total of 52 shows.
Later in 2008, he was selected by The Sundance Theatre Institute to attend a three week theatre workshop on the strength of his musical. A series of re-writes ended in a final script for the musical which was renamed: “Mo Faya!”
“Mo Faya!” made its international debut following an invitation to present at the New York Musical Theatre Festival where it was enthusiastically received, garnering a distinction at the festival for ‘Best New Male Performance’ of the festival. The play then returned to the GoDown Arts Center where it played for an additional 36 shows and also received the highest level of corporate support for a theatre production from Kenya’s leading telecommunications company – Safaricom Ltd.
The musical is currently back in workshop with the Sundance Institute to prepare the production for a global release.
Music for Film and Television:
In 2006, Eric wrote the musical score for a documentary based on the New York Times best-selling children’s book, ‘Owen & Mzee’, which is based on the true story of an unusual friendship between a young hippo, Owen, who was swept away from his family during the 2003 Tsunami and marooned on the Kenyan Coast, and a centenarian tortoise, Mzee, who lives at Bamburi’s Haller Park. The book was written by Craig Hatkoff, his 5 year-old daughter Isabella, and Dr. Paula Kahumbu. Eric attended and performed at the premiere of ‘Owen & Mzee’ at the renowned Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April 2006.
He later wrote an award winning score for Kenyan film maker Wanuri Kahiu’s film “From A Whisper” and further collaborated with her on the soundtrack of her film on Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.
In 2009 Eric was commissioned to write the music for a ground-breaking children’s animated television series being produced by UK television production power house – Tiger Aspect. The show titled Tinga Tinga Tales, funded in part by the BBC and Disney, is currently on screens throughout Europe and the US as well as being a regular feature on local Kenyan television.
Peace Initiatives and Social Responsibility Work:
In light of the 2007 General Elections, Eric Wainaina spearheaded Umoja Pamoja : an initiative that aimed to get Kenyans, more specifically the youth foremostly to vote, and to do so peacefully and responsibly. The campaign culminated dramatically in an event where a human-chain was formed around parliament in a demonstration of unity and purpose.
Eric has held numerous social ambassadorships and has worked with dozens of development agencies as an advocate of their work. This year Eric is committed to the following ambassadorships:
- UN Messenger of Non-Violence
(An recipient of The Escopetarra : Instrument of Peace. A machine gun converted into a guitar.)
- UN MDG Africa Envoy
- The UUNET Earwalk Ambassador
- Chair of the Board – S.A.F.E.