A few years ago, three friends from Kenyatta University in Nairobi decided to make music together. Bill Sellanga, Dan Muli and Jim Chuchu adopted the unassuming name ‘Just a Band’ and released their first album Scratch to Reveal in 2008. The Huffington Post called their 2009 album, 82, ’the sign of a generational shift’ but it was their 2010 single Ha-He that brought CNN to their door and established the status of ‘Kenya’s First Viral Internet Meme’.

Photography: Gregory Chris

Photography: Gregory Chris

The track’s video features Makmende, a faux Kenyan ‘superhero’ who takes his name from a mispronunciation of Dirty Harry’s famous invitation to ‘Make my Day’. More anti-hero than caped crusader, Makmende slunk the streets of ‘90s Nairobi as a Shaft-esque avatar of funky defiance and criminal independence… snarling the Swahili equivalent of ‘I’m Batman’.

The legend faded into obscurity in the new century until Just a Band’s video declared: ‘Makmende is Back.’ Tamara Arden braced herself for some Kung Fu and asked the questions.


How has 2011 been? Ready for the end of the world?

2011’s been good to us! We’ve been busy and we’re really looking forward to next year…. unless a zombie apocalypse puts a bit of a dampener on things.

What senses drive your music?

We don’t have too much of a synesthetic relationship to our music, but pictures and stories accompany the sound. ‘Save My Soul’, for example, evokes a dystopian kind of story.

What sound were you working towards when the band first came together?

We were just experimenting and it was as much a discovery for us as it was for the audience. Come to think of it, that hasn’t changed much… We try to keep things interesting by trying out new things and seeing where they lead.

What elements make up a good track?

The actual tunes! A friend of ours was ranting about how this isn’t about sound design. If someone’s listening on cheap speakers and can’t appreciate some delicate frequency-tweaks and that’s all the track has, then it’s a bit of a fail. You want everything to be as good as it can be and all the pieces of the song to harmonize and flow together and bring out whatever vibe it is you were going for. But the tunes have to grab you.

Where do the themes of your videos come from?

Sometimes it’s based on the words of the song, sometimes it’s a feeling the music evokes or just a technique that we wanted to try out. We throw suggestions around until we get an idea that works and then we get down to business.

The consumption and distribution of music has changed radically since the massive growth of online music -sharing platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify. Your website is updated regularly. Have you found the Internet useful?

This band owes its very existence to the Internet.

It allowed us to put our music and visuals out there when we didn’t have any local support, and that allowed us to build up enough interest that we actually started to become relevant to a local audience. But by then we’d found people around the world who were interested in what we were doing so our thinking had broadened a lot. Physical CD distribution is such a headache but it’s so easy online. What great times we live in! 

On that note, what’s the music industry like these days?

The industry is crazy right now! All genres seem to exist in one nebulous space. It’s not weird anymore for rock music to show a hip-hop influence or vice versa. Not to mention what David Guetta is doing to everyone. As goofy as the results of that cross-pollination can sometimes be, it’s creatively liberating. New distribution channels and upheavals on the business side of things make this a unique moment for the industry. We’re overwhelmed… but in a good way.

What have you found in your travels?

Perspective. We’ve been able to get a different point of view not only on our own work, but also on how the art and music industry, and creative people’s methods and lifestyles, work in different places. It’s a bit depressing when we come back home and our own industries are so underdeveloped.

You recently went to New York to do an exhibition and perform. How was it?

We were really happy with how it went. The audience was very receptive to what we had put together, which was especially gratifying as we were bringing a bucket load of references from an ocean away and were worried about how the narratives in our exhibition would translate. But it worked out pretty well. And we had lovely crowds: they were open to what we were doing and had such a good vibe!

In the myth of how the band met, nomads look for their own truth and bring it forward through music. What is your truth?

The group is all about good vibes. As cheesy as that sounds, that seems to be the thread running through most of our work: making something that makes someone else’s day a bit more cheery or funky or transcendent.

Where were all your music videos filmed and have you been involved in production?

Yup, we’re DIY about everything. We’ve grown to enjoy the sense of control. We just happened to be interested in all this stuff beyond making music and we thought it would make for a more interesting experience for everyone if we could fold all our varied interests into this project. That’s what led to our working on video art installations and such. We think it makes the band a more layered kind of project, both for us and the audience.

What role do visuals play in your music?

We don’t necessarily think about the visuals while composing, although sometimes they do evolve together. But it all felt a bit more like the product of one mind once we started making the visuals ourselves.

There is quite an eclectic mix of album covers. Who designs them?

Jim was our main design guy up until Mbithi joined in. They’re both pretty good at it.

What have you guys got lined up for 2012?

We would love to come to South Africa. We’ve grown up digging and being influenced by South African music, from older acts like TKZee to newer dudes like Goldfish and DJ Cleo. We’re playing at SXSW in Texas in March, and keep your eyes peeled for our Fela Kuti covers on the Red Hot + Riot 2 compilation.

If you could colour your favourite sound, what colour and sound would it be?
The burbling of porridge on the boil would be a light purple.

Read the rest of issue 24

Click here to view our #FlashBack selection for October.

Click here to view all our #Flashbacks.