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Achieving woman: Gifted Nyatiti player who dared to dream big despite hurdles

by kenya-tribune
Jennifer Atieno aka Ati Sanna is one of the most sought after entertainers (Photo: Irene Ngolo/Standard)

When she first played the eight-stringed instrument in public, male chauvinists sought to know her mental status.

They complained that she had gone against Luo culture barring women from playing the Nyatiti. It is rare, almost an abomination to find a woman playing the Nyatiti.

But nothing could cow Jennifer Atieno Sanna. Sitting on a low traditional stool and dressed in cultural regalia, she belted one melody after another, attracting a huge crowd at a Kisumu hotel. Slowly, she won the hearts of those viewing her as a cultural rebel.

That was weeks ago. Today, Atieno – known to her fans as Ati Sanna, is one of the most sought after entertainers because of her unique performances. We caught up with her at the hotel where she was performing as part of her campaign to preserve dying Luo music traditions.

“Our culture is our identity and our identity makes us because that is who we are, so we should not be ignorant and shy away from it,” she said. The 40-year-old Nyatiti player stands out among many other legendary songstresses like Suzanna Owiyo in embracing Luo culture through Nyatiti music.

Today’s society

“I am a cultural ambassador and my music embraces our Luo tradition; my songs entail indigenous information that has been ignored by today’s society,” said the mother of four.

“I started by doing jazz music and I can confidently say that I am able to do any genre of instrumental music and Afro fusion at large,” she said.

In 2010, Ati Sanna ventured into playing Nyatiti after learning from her father, her mentor.

“My father was a jazz musician, he was a saxophone singer, and my grandmother was a dodo singer. My grandfather was a horn blower. All of them motivated me to venture into traditional music,” she said. The folk singer mostly does live performances, and one of her outstanding songs is Bidii, meaning hard work in Swahili. Ati Sanna, who will launch her first music album next year, said she recorded the song in 2015 at Dynamic Studio in Nairobi then later on performed at Alliance Francaise.

“In 2017, I was called to perform at Alliance Francaise, where I collaborated with various international jazz artists,” she said.

The growing Kisumu film industry has also embraced Luo culture through writing and producing comedy dramas.

Robbie Odongo, a film writer and producer, has won the hearts of many by his latest Dholuo comedy drama, Jonarobi.

“I write and produce vernacular films because it is the only way of telling our stories. Besides, some information may be distorted while passed through different languages like English,” he said.

Willis Otondi, Chairman of the Luo Council of Elders, said he is impressed by efforts made by youth to embrace culture.

“The only way of keeping culture alive is by telling traditional stories to the young generation through practice and action, where they can easily learn and copy,” he said.

Ken Otieno from the Ministry of Tourism, Sports and Culture, said an annual cultural festival will be held at the end of October.

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“The event will include exhibition of traditional food, art, medicine, dancers and singers,” he said.

He said in November, Kisumu will host the Cinemadamare, an annual international film festival comprising 200 film makers from all over the world.

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