When I met Paul Munene, we were both on assignment. I was interviewing the Swazi soul singer, Bholoja and he had come to take pictures of the Bholoja. After that, our paths crossed many times and it was mostly at music concerts and he’d always take pictures of me. Over time as we got to know one another I realised that he is a really cool guy, who is passionate not only about his work, but the socio-political issues here in Kenya. He is a great thinker, candid, humble and isn’t afraid to display his humanity nor his fragility.
Paul is currently documenting live music in Kenya and is also working on a book. If you happen to be at gig or see him on the streets of Nairobi, let him take a picture of you and don’t stop at that. Have a chat with this self-taught photographer, whom I think is cool people.
Sanaart: Since 2007 when you started photographing live music, how has it changed?
Paul: My focus is on live band music and the first change that I can think of is the regularity of the gigs. My first pictures came from a gig called Tusker Night of Champions. Tony Nyandundo was the star attraction, then there was Jua Cali and Valerie Kimani was being supported by Eddie Grey. This was my first job and it was for The Nairobi Star. I remember the equipment wasn’t great and nor was the sound, but that was my first gig. Sound was the biggest challenge then. It was not great. The attendance figures of events was also very low. By 2009, the audience started changing, it was becoming more middle-class and social media was also helping getting the word out.
There weren’t many journalist at concerts in Nairobi. They were dismissive of the concerts at places like Alliance Francaise or Blankets and Wine. They often described them as middle-class events. Most times I was the only press photographer at these events. I just got on with it. I was getting paid per photograph published. This gave me the motivation to do, more work. Money was the motivation (laughs). My editors asked me to go as many concerts as possible and I was given the additional incentive to write short articles on the gigs that I attended.
The music has also changed and so has the quality of production. From around 2010, if you look at the albums that have been released, the really good ones are the ones produced by musicians who perform live. For instance, Dan Aceda, Mia von Lekow, Chris Adwar, Sauti Sol, Just A Band and Eric Wainanaina. These artistes are also actively pushing their music, which never used to happen before! The music is now exportable music and is of a quality that can be played anywhere in the world.
Another change, there is more money to be made now from live gigs. We’re also seeing a lot more music from local artistes getting airplay on local radio stations, so that has been helpful in improving the quality of music we are seeing being performed. This has helped change the music landscape. This change has also built a critical mass of music consumers here in Kenya.
I remember one time, a lady at a gig came up to me and said that I and the musicians that I photograph have brought back dignity into the arts.
S: I can’t help but notice you are passionate about music?
Paul: I have a huge collection of albums from live music. My dad sang in a men’s choir, he used to listen to Lingala and I love Lingala! We had neighbours who had LPs who of Congolese artistes. We’d listen to them. There was another friend’s dad who had a huge collection of albums, this was during the time of Boney M and it was great music that had a live sound too it. There was nothing electronic about. It was good sound. Music on our national broadcaster, KBC brings back good memories for me.
S: Are there times during gigs and when you are working that you stop taking pictures and just listen to the music?
Paul: Do you ever work with music in the background?
Paul: It’s the same thing for me. You’ll notice if I go for a Mia concert, I’ll shoot less because the music is more listenable and you find yourself wanting to just chill and listen, so in such an atmosphere I’ll photo less. If it’s a Sauti Sol concert, they’ll be a lot more rukarukaring (jumping/dancing), I’ll take more pictures then. I’m taking in everything as I working. I am reading the crowd and responding to the energy and the mood of the music. I am constantly looking at the crowd.
There was one time Ochieng Nelly, Winyo and Eddy Grey were performing I had to stop taking pictures. I was almost in tears during one song and I remember telling someone, that if I died there and then it was fine. If I was meant to have lived until that point, it was fine with me. I didn’t care. At that point the dots connected. There are some performances and some songs that I just have to stop and listen. I respond to the mood of the music and performance. You’ll notice my shots become a lot more dynamic when I get into the mood of the performance.
S: I discovered that you were have a thing for black and white photography. Where did that come from?
Paul: My parents wedding photos. Black and white was simple. In 2004, I was jobless, business had not worked out and I was not in a good place. Mentally, I was not doing well. Throw in social pressure from my contemporaries who seemed to be doing really well in life. I tried getting a job at mobile provider Safaricom in the customer service department. I didn’t get the job. When I told my mum, I could tell she was very disappointed. She couldn’t even look at her mobile phone because it had the Safaricom logo on its screen! It was that bad. But she said something, which I feel was prophetic, she said, ‘One day you will get a job that you will like and you will not feel that it is work.’ I feel she pronounced a blessing on me. Look at me know, I got into photography and I was from Starehe Boys School. I came from school where we weren’t expected to get into the arts. Out of over 210 candidates in my high school year, only Tony Mochama and I got into proper arts. We were being taught how to become employees!
So, that December I emptied my bank account, borrowed a point and shoot camera and went out to Lamu. My friend Kate bought me three rolls of film, though one got lost. People were really impressed by the images that I had taken when I got back. Because I really loved my parents’ wedding pictures, I was doing lots of black and white pictures and portrait shots. I started offering my services for free to my friends who were getting married. There was one guy who apparently refused to pay his official wedding photographer because he preferred my pictures. Then, there was one wedding where I only got twelve images out of four rolls of film. That’s how I started my wedding photography. I also started making albums to display the pictures that I had taken. I sound like I really work hard, but trust me, this has been pure luck (laughs). Had I gotten into Safaricom, I’d have been a yuppie!
S: Are you happy?
Paul: Yes, I am and I don’t mean the cliché happy. I can get up when I want and work from home. I get time to think which for me is a valuable thing. I am not rich, I live a comfortable life, but I get paid to take photographs which is something I enjoy. People look at my work! Some of my images are in peoples’ houses or institutions. I am now that guy. I believe I am making a made a difference in my field of work. That ethic I got from my time while at Starehe – making a difference through what you do and I believe I am doing something. Something good.
Some of Paul’s future work will feature the second hand market, Toi Market and a series on what he has titled, Parallel Lives, which will look at the separate but intertwined lives of Nairobi residents. http://quaint.co/