Arts, Culture & Media

If it's country music and it's Kenya, it must be Elvis

Elvis4.jpg

Credit: Ryan Delaney
Elvis, the Kenyan King

Country is the most popular music genre in the US. In Africa, not so much. But here's an exception to that rule.

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The band's just getting started at the Reminisce nightclub. Everyone's in checked shirts and cowboy hats, drinking beer out of long-neck bottles.

We could be at any honky-tonk in Tennessee. But the thatched roof overhead and the elephants on the beer labels give it away. We're in Nairobi, Kenya, and on stage is Kenya's king of country music.

Sir Elvis is his stage name, but his real name is Elvis Otieno, and he may be the most successful country musician in Kenya. That's partly because Kenya doesn't have many country musicians.

“Every time we hit the stage, it's always like a shock,” Otiengo says.

You see, Kenya loves American country music. Old-school country, from the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Recorded in Nashville — not Nairobi.

“Most of the people here listen to country music. It really has a huge fan base,” Otiengo says. “People love Charley Pride and Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Skeeter Davis. But I think they couldn't imagine that a Kenyan could do country music.”

Elvis was born in 1977, the same year The King died.

“My dad named me after Elvis Presley,” he says. “My mom was a great fan of Elvis Presley. So when he died, I think it was a great blow [and] I guess they decided to name me Elvis."

That name may just have sealed his destiny.

Elvis may be African, but his early life is straight out of an American country song. He was born in a whistle-stop town on Western Kenya's railroad line. He's the son of a Pentecostal preacher who played gospel music on the guitar.  

“When I look back at my life, I'm like, 'okay, I think that's really country,'” Otiengo jokes.

The family left Kenya for Norway when Elvis was seven, which explains the Scandinavian lilt as he croons Presley's songs. 

Norway is where he got serious about country music. He played in a country band. He started listening to new country, and as a student, he visited the US and took in his first country concert: Shania Twain.

When he moved back home to Kenya, 10 years ago, he decided to take his music to the next level. There was just one problem: Kenya doesn't have a next level — especially for country music.

“I had to start from really, really, nearly nothing,” he says. “The music industry in Kenya is still really very young. People love to listen to it, but there has never been a serious country star.”

Elvis is trying to change that, building a following in Kenya, gig by gig.

And it should come as no surprise that there's something the Kenyan musician has in common with every other aspiring country star in the world.  He wants to play Nashville.

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