When you listen to Papillon singing soulful African melodies it’s hard to imagine that he once lived on the streets and mended shoes for a living.
But hard experiences are precisely what gave rise to this budding star of contemporary African music who sings in multiple languages, is a gifted percussionist and makes his own musical instruments.
Whereas many of his peers are focused on composing catchy tunes and attention-grabbing dance videos for the mass market, Papillion dared to buck the trend by resurrecting East African folk music in a novel way.
He takes traditional instruments and cultural music, and reconfigures them to create fresh, new rhythms. “I wanted to be unique to my listeners,” he says quite simply.
His latest unique creation is a fascinating string instrument called the Anywal Abel that combines three musical devices. Styled on the eight-string Egyptian lyre, it has a curved wooden neck that is fixed vertically to a half-calabash resonator that has a kalimba (metal finger piano) attached to it and trimmings of Ugandan bark cloth.
Anywal Abel means ‘caring parent’ in Acholi, a Nilotic people from Uganda.
The combined sounds of the lyre strings, metal piano keys and calabash resonance create evocative music that perfectly blends with the singer’s ethereal tenor. “Music is unlimited,” says 27-year old Papillon. “Making different sounds gives me that satisfaction.”
Papillon means ‘butterfly’ in French and this intriguing stage name is rooted in his childhood. Born Martin Murimi, he was raised on a farm in Embu. “When I was young I loved caterpillars,” says Papillon with an ever-present smile. “I was around two years and every time we went to the garden my mama used to collect caterpillars for me. I grew up knowing these are my cows. I used to protect them.”
He built a shelter for the caterpillars and took care of them just like any other farm animal until one day, the caterpillars turned into butterflies and flew away. The incident marked his earliest understanding of life as a journey of transition. His own life was to undergo several difficult transitions before he discovered his musical talent and calling in life.
In 2012, after completing primary school, he took on a casual job. “What I did was go to the rice irrigation scheme. I worked for two weeks cutting grass.” Having made enough money, he convinced his mother to let him travel to Nairobi to see his father.
For the first time, the smile fades from Papillon’s as he talks about his arrival in the city. He discovered that his father had another family and before long, young Murimi could not live in their house. That’s how he ended up on the streets of Kawangware at 13 years old.
“Street life is another story. I hated being called chokora because I knew they are hated,” reflects Papillion.
“That’s the stage I saw myself as a caterpillar. No one likes the caterpillar, no one likes the street kids.”
What kept him going were words of advice from his mother who often said, “You can only live happily when you sweat, when you work with your own hands.”
Murimi scoured Kawangware and got a job selling tea and mandazi, earning Sh40 a day. The business owner allowed him to sleep in the tea shop at night. “She was kind enough to trust me. And that’s how I started now to survive,” said Papillon.
Sadly, the shop owner died leaving his situation precarious once again.
“I had a friend in church, an elder and I went to him. He was a cobbler and he used to have groceries and a wheelbarrow. I started working with him, I learned everything and I ended up being a cobbler.” Although he was out of school he managed to stay optimistic. “I was always smiling; I was always thanking my customers.”
As fate would have it, one of his customers took an interest and enquired why he was shining shoes instead of going to school. One thing led to another and the customer linked him up to the Dagoretti Child in Need Project, a rehabilitation and reintegration centre for street children and vulnerable youth, operated by Amref.
The centre became Papillon’s new home and where he finally resumed school.
Dagoretti was also the place where music first stirred his soul which happened during an encounter with Giovanni Lo Cascio, an Italian percussionist. Lo Cascio was manager of the Juakali Drummers, a musical project that aimed to reintegrate slum children through music and dance, teaching them how to make their own musical instruments from scrap metal and discarded junk. It was a skill that would prove very useful to Papillion many years later.
In 2005 Lo Cascio was auditioning children to sing with Juakali Drummers. He brought along some performers including Ayub Ogada, a veteran musician and co-founder of the African Heritage Band. Papillion was utterly fascinated by the musicians and fortunately he was accepted into Juakali Drummers. Thus began a life in music which culminated, after secondary school, with a scholarship to study music in Rome.
Returning to Kenya, Papillion re-joined the group, now reconstituted as the Slum Drummers, and was even their assistant manager for a time. They delighted audiences around the world, performing in Italy, Brazil and even England, for the diamond jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II.
Eventually Papillon took the bold step of quitting the band, partly due to group discordance but also, as he puts it, “because I had a certain journey of mine.” He went on to train under Ogada, building up his skills in the African music, percussions and the nyatiti, a Luo traditional lyre that is also affiliated with many communities along the Nile River.
However, the butterfly in Papillion yearned to create his own style of music. “I am a percussionist and a singer and [with] the knowledge of what we did as a group, I had to find a way to do it,” he says.
One day he took an old lampshade and inserted a kalimba to create his very first musical instrument in 2012. “It was nice and I loved it and that’s when I started composing.”
Not surprisingly his first composition was about butterflies. “It’s called ‘kiivurutia’ in my language which means butterfly, and that is the first song that broke the yoke of my music,” he explains.
Papillon enjoys listening to global music including R&B, Eritrean contemporary music and roots reggae but he is particularly keen on East African music traditions, saying, “The Horn of Africa is my inspiration.”
Today, he often ensembles with other musicians, including a quirky pairing-up with an Indian tabla drummer, resulting in unexpectedly haunting Afro-Asian melodies. Currently, Papillon is putting together his debut album while at the same time fashioning a new lyre, a much bigger instrument with 16 strings.
Such is the unlimited style of Papillon who takes pride in his Bantu roots but aims for the kind of universal music that, he says, “satisfies my way of doing art because I wanted to find a language of bringing all people together.”