Like so many great singers before her, Maureen started singing in the choir back in high school. “I always loved to sing,” she said over the phone from Nairobi. “And I led church songs in primary school and was in the choir in my high school,” she added. Now a professional singer, songwriter and lawyer, she exemplifies what it can look like to be a passionate hardworking African woman in 2017. One part of the music group Elani, Maureen gives us an exclusive into her music journey.

ZEN: When did you truly become interested in music?
MK: I think I’ve always been interested in music if I’m being honest. I was that kid in the plays, and in the kindergarten concerts, and in the primary school musicals. I continued singing even into high school and law school. I’ve always been a singer. So when I decided that I wanted to join Elani and make music my career, even though I was still in school at the time, working towards my law degree, it really came as no surprise to my friends and family.

ZEN: Did you have any formal music background before starting?
MK: Not at all! I always loved to sing, and I led church songs in primary school and was in the choir in my high school, and even entered a few competitions here and there. I had no actual formal training to begin with though I have started to teach myself a few things, and once in a while I’ll go to a friend who is a trainer when I can’t do something or I need help with my technique. Does that count as formal training? I don’t know! Maybe to some extent.

ZEN: You are part of a group called Elani. How long have you all known each other? How did you meet?
MK: Yes I am! I love them to death! Elani is a 3 member group consisting of myself, a beautiful lady called Wambui Ngugi and a gentleman who is actually quite the stunner, now that I think about it – Bryan Chweya. We’ve known each other for 9 years now! We met in 2008 at a French school in the central business district of Nairobi in Kenya. The school, Alliance Française, had a garden, where singers, instrumentalists, dancers, actors and all types of artists went to practise their craft. We would hang out there (individually) just to watch them from time to time, because we were teenagers with a lot of free time on our hands. We met there and quickly became friends and started coming to the garden for our own little jam sessions. Over the next couple of weeks we fell in love with music and continued to do it as a hobby until 2013 when we decided to go in head first.

ZEN: Who is like the lead singer in the group?
MK: There actually isn’t a lead singer in the group. I don’t know how we managed to pull that off but everyone has such a strong and vibrant presence in the group that nobody really leads us vocally. There can be an entire song led by me, and in our next single I’ll just harmonise one line in the chorus. It’s really a wonderful thing because we don’t even consider that when we are writing. We just start to sing and jam to a new track or arrangement and almost by magic, everyone’s part seems to fall into place!

ZEN: What inspired you to make music together?
MK: I’d call it a common passion and a common purpose. We are very driven to better the society we live in. As young people ourselves, we look at the youth in Kenya and indeed across the continent and feel the need to shed some light on some of the issues that are affecting us all, or speak out when we feel our people are not doing something right. Music is a vessel for change. And we discovered a gift and a connection amongst ourselves that fuelled our mission to better our surroundings using the talents that God has blessed us with.

“Fashion in Nairobi is eclectic.” she tells us. “So many different
styles and ideas and trends. It’s beautiful.”

ZEN: Which famous musicians have you learned from?
MK: Top of that list will definitely be Celine Dion for sure. Ask any one of the members of Elani and they will tell you that I am obsessed. Her technical abilities when it comes to her singing are something I’ve always been in awe of, even when I was younger and I didn’t understand exactly what she was doing. There is a way she sings, so powerful and emotive yet so poised and effortless and with such technical skills. I use her as a benchmark during a lot of my vocal training sessions. There are quite a few artists I pick up certain skill sets from – the performance quality Beyoncé has mustered, the emotion that singers like Adeleand Sam Smith manage to convey, the runs and melodies of Chidinma and Fally Ipupa, the coordination and choreography of so many groups based in the UK and in the US. I pick up many little things from many little places.

ZEN: The biggest challenges artists face…..
MK: I think I can only speak on what I’ve seen in Kenya and the entertainment scene here. I think we are a budding industry, with so much potential for growth and so much untapped talent and so many underutilised opportunities. I believe that this causes the industry to be viewed as a bit of a non-starter. There is a mindset in a lot of people in the country that music and entertainment will not allow one to thrive and it’s a poor career choice, which also affects the way that artists in the business are viewed. It takes quite a bit to destroy that notion in the minds of the public and prove to them (and self) that you are worth this or that amount of money at a concert, or worth this or that endorsement. We are working on it though! The future looks really bright and music and the arts in general are picking up quite a bit.

ZEN: Which single was that big bang for you guys?
MK: Definitely Kookoo. Kookoo, which means crazy (cuckoo – but we chose to spell it Kookoo) is a fun, shout-it-from-the-rooftops love song. It was actually our 3rd release, and it made quite the name for us. We were nominated for a Channel O Music Video Award for Kookoo, and more than that, we won the All Africa Music Award for Best African Pop Song for Kookoo. It was wild! I love that song so much to this day. It still remains one of my absolute favourites and I think it will for a long while.

Photo of the group Elani, from left Maureen, Bryan and Wambui

ZEN: Let’s talk fashion. Who is your celebrity fashion icon? Why?
MK: I honestly admire any celebrity who is comfortable in their own skin, knows what and how to flaunt it and isn’t afraid to experiment with new things. Colour and print and texture do it for me! So I love to see celebrities (and just people in general), in bold and exciting clothes.

ZEN: If you could shop anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
MK: Maybe Milan! Or Vienna! Paris? Because I’ve always wanted to go to Italy, Austria and France so that after a long and tiring day of shopping I can take in the sights and the culture (Laughs). And the food! It really has nothing to do with the actual shopping to be honest! It’s all the stuff after that! (Laughs).

ZEN: What are your favourite trends right now?
MK: I love that sneakers are coming back in a big way because I’m all about comfort. I’m also really happy that big, bold items and flashy colours and African print are being embraced again. I’m not really one to follow trends, but comfort and colour are things I really, really love.

ZEN: Describe your style in 3 words.
MK: Comfortable, colourful, chic? Hahahaha ….I’m not even certain! But now that I’ve listed 3 C’s let’s pretend I knew that was going to happen.

ZEN: Do you have any favourite African designers?
MK: Well, there are several designers, especially Kenyan ones, whose work I absolutely love! One in particular is a lady called Liz who runs a fashion house known as Kidosho. They are an authentically Kenyan brand and fuse modern trends with the best prints! They actually did the outfits for the video for our newest single, Love You, which was set in a traditional Kenyan homestead. Another artist and designer I absolutely love is not Kenyan by birth, but she has lived here for years and her heart (and husband) are Kenyan. Her name is Galina Tatarinova. Her details and skill is amazing. I’m pretty sure she’ll design and create my wedding dress when I finally reach that point in my life!

Maureen rocking a fresh new look from Kidosho

ZEN: How would you describe fashion in the city where you live?
MK: I think that fashion in Nairobi is eclectic. So many different styles and ideas and trends. It’s beautiful. Over the past few years there has been a focus on looking and feeling good and regardless of the style or trend, people always put their best foot forward and I love to see that!

ZEN: Which fashion weeks do you follow across the continent?
MK: I follow the African Fashion Weeks in London and in the United States. It is always so exciting! I’ve always wanted to attend a few in Africa, I know there are several that take place in Nigeria and I would love to attend someday. Of course I would attend the Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks, but as I had mentioned before, that has a lot more to do with the sights and sounds and food after! (Laughs).

ZEN: What songs are on your playlist right now?
MK: Quite a number of Elani songs at the moment! We are working on a lot of new content and are in the listening and editing phase. I’m constantly listening to our music to see what can be tweaked and to better the content. Other than that I’ve been listening to very many ballads recently. The emotion in a well-sung song inspires me quite a bit. One song that has made it to my list and keeps being repeated is Alessia CaraRiver of Tears. Amazing song and so emotional! But you know I have my Afrobeat and my AfroPop in there too. I need to dance every once in a while!

ZEN: Who would you love to work with musically?
MK: I don’t know! I thought I knew. At some point in my life I was so sure of who I wanted to do collaborations with. But the list just kept growing and growing until it was just too long! I draw inspiration from so many people and so many types of music that I’m really open to collaboration! Let’s allow the readers know that! Hahahaha.

ZEN: Your most memorable moment of 2016.
MK: My most memorable moment this year would have to be the day I was admitted into the bar of advocates and became an advocate of the High Court of Kenya. It was a wonderful feeling. I’ll cherish that moment for years to come


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