Kenya Kondo recalls the first time he plucked an out-of-tune string on his mom’s handmade acoustic guitar back home in Nairobi. “My mom wanted to learn how to make music, so she went to a carpenter and asked him to make her a guitar,” says the 31-year-old folk-pop artist. “At first, she was like, ‘Don’t touch that. It is something precious. It’s going to break!'”
But, one day, Kondo, then 15, gave into the forbidden guitar as it tempted him from the corner of a room. He picked it up and tried a few chords. “I didn’t know anything about guitars except that, somehow, six strings make music.”
His mom caught him strumming the black, red and yellow cutaway but didn’t stop him. While the guitar was still technically his mom’s, he played it all the time.
He entered a star search contest in Nairobi and made it to the finals, though the local newspaper gave his band an unflattering review. “They said I was trying to be Carlos Santana because of how I was dressed,” he recalls.
But when he left Kenya in 2001 to study math and physics at the University of Alberta, he left the guitar behind because he worried it wouldn’t survive the trip.
Thankfully, his floor mates at Lister Hall residences let him jam on their guitars until, a few months later, Kondo won a small Baby Taylor guitar in a draw at a local concert. “For me, this was a sign. I’m meant to continue with this,” he says. “Winning that guitar kept me going.”
Ten years later, Kondo’s debut album, Wait, is winning him fans for his straight-from-the-gut lyrics and melody that, at times, verges on alternative. The album records his emotional transition from Nairobi to Edmonton.
Kondo wrote “Moses,” a resonant song about an alcoholic relative sung with a raw intensity, on a Thursday after a physics class.
“Songs like ‘Moses’ talk about dealing with pain and trying to make sense of it.”
In March, Kondo, who also works for the Alberta Ministry of Advanced Education, and his three-member band were invited to perform during Canadian Music Week in Toronto and played at the inaugural Utopia Music Festival in Hawrelak Park last June.
Though Kondo now plays three different guitars, he’s still wistful about his first one.
“When I look back, it’s a very cheap-looking, bad-sounding guitar. But, from that, I was able to make, for my part, really good music.”