Boaz Otieno, the orutu magician

Boaz Otieno Akech’s fingers dance across the orutu’s taut single string. With a simple sisal bow moving deftly along the length of the traditional Kenyan fiddle, he produces a perfectly controlled sound—now lilting, now wailing—that stirs deep into your soul. The orutu is a Luo traditional instrument, used in the fast-paced Ohangla genre of Luo music.

Boaz Otieno Akech, Orutu maestro. Photo by Daisy Ouya
Boaz Otieno Akech, Orutu maestro. Photo by Daisy Ouya

This Ohangla master has been playing since he was 7. It drove his mother to distraction—she would have preferred that her son focus his energies on his studies. To teach him a lesson, one day she took his orutu and smashed it to pieces.

But fate had other plans for the young Boaz.

He tells me—without a hint of irony— that from that day on whenever he went to school, his eyesight would get blurry until after some time he could no longer see what was on the blackboard.

“My eyes would be open but I couldn’t see. I was taken to doctor after doctor to no avail. The family cow was sold to pay for my treatment but my eyes didn’t get any better.

“Then a religious man came with some special water and washed my eyes with it, and prayed for me. After 4 days I could see again. I was sent back to school and the mysterious disease came back. That’s when I decided I was not going back to school—it was my eyesight or an education.”

Liberated from school, Boaz got a new orutu, and mastered the craft. “There was about 10 of us young boys interested in music and we spent all our time playing. Three of us became really good.”

His father died when Boaz was barely a teenager, leaving his mother to care for Boaz and his 5 siblings. The family’s mud hut was leaky, and they struggled to eat, depending on the goodwill of neighbors and relatives.

Boaz moved to Nairobi aged just 16. Without any educational certificates to find a job with, he stayed with relatives in the city, and started picking up work playing his oruto at small nightclubs in rough parts of Nairobi. Before long, he was getting bookings every weekend, and soon after, the hugely popular Ohangla band “Kenge Kenge Orutu System” came calling.

Fast forward to the present.

Today, Boaz is making a name for himself in Kenya’s traditional music scene. With the band and on his own, Boaz plays at weddings, funerals, private parties and poetry performances, adapting his style to the occasion. He has accompanied music stars like Susana Owiyo and the poet Sitawa Namwalie.

“Nowadays we even play gospel orutu…but in the evening, we switch to traditional ohangla music,” he says with a small smile.

His look is clean and sharp, almost flamboyant. Like most Luos [think Obama] Boaz speaks clearly and with confidence. His Kiswahili has a slight tribal accent and is peppered with Sheng, the mark of a Nairobian.

Despite his work in nightclubs and social gatherings, Boaz stays sober and focused on his music.

“The last thing I would do is drink my money. What I have been through…and my responsibilities, cannot allow it. My family is looking up to me.”

Orutu, a one-stringed fiddle from the Luo community in Kenya. Photo: Daisy Ouya
Orutu, a one-stringed fiddle from the Luo community in Kenya. Photo: Daisy Ouya

“What this orutu has done for me, I cannot tell you. I have achieved even more than people who went to school. I am educating my three younger brothers from this music. My family has enough to eat and are living comfortably, all because of my orutu.”

And the orutu has taken him places, literally. To Malaysia, Tanzania, Uganda, and to the USA in 2014.

“The first big money I made was in Malaysia. As soon as I came back to Kenya, I changed the money into shillings and travelled ‘home’ (the village). Before I saw my mother I bought building materials: iron roofing sheets—30 of them— stones, cement, and building sand. They filled up a pickup truck. I then put 10,000 shillings (about 100 USD) in an envelope.

“I arrived at my mother’s house preceded by the pickup. I had already booked a fundi (artisan), and he immediately set about rehabilitating our mud hut. Within three days, the house was ready: My mother would no longer be rained on as she slept.”

“I then gave her the envelope with the money and said, ‘That’s for the orutu you broke.’”

In recent years traditional Kenyan music has grown in popularity (Eric Wainana even has a song, ‘Orutu Special’). Boaz’s band, Kenge Kenge Orutu System, has a steady stream of bookings throughout the year. During festive seasons they can hardly keep up.

This busy schedule makes it tricky for Boaz to find time to fulfill his other recent, burning ambition—to master the English language.

“I need to learn English. I find that when I travel abroad, I cannot communicate with people. I can generally understand what the say but I’m not able to respond.

There’s a friend of mine, a teacher, who is giving me English lessons in his spare time… I cannot continue relying on interpreters.”

Boaz carries two phones that go off throughout our conversation.

On one of them, he shows me a photo that was taken as part of Kenya’s 50th Independence celebrations, in 2014.

In it, Boaz is dressed in a red plaid shirt playing his orutu, his almond-shaped eyes partly shielded, with a wonderful, serene look on his face.

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Check out Boaz at the Smithsonian Festival, 2014: https://youtu.be/LGAmk6GtoJA

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