Marching to the beat of her own drum: Kenyan breaks gender taboo


NAIROBI (Reuters) – Standing outside a cow pen in an east Kenyan village, six-year old Kasiva Mutua started to notice rhythms.

FILE PHOTO: Percussionist Kavisa Mutua and the founder of an all female percussionist group, Motra, attends a training session at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi, Kenya February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

The wind blowing, a goat bleating, distant laughter. And where they crisscrossed – more rhythm.

Mutua, now 31, felt she had a special relationship with sound and tempo – one that propelled her to become Kenya’s leading female percussionist in a country where drumming was long considered taboo for women.

She started playing percussion seriously in high school, after seeing the rare sight of a female drummer.

“What she was doing called me. Like when people say the lord has called them – it called me in that manner,” said Mutua, who has a gap-toothed smile under short black dreadlocks and a silver hoop nose ring.

She began performing gigs in Nairobi, but found it challenging – most of the men who dominated the industry offered little support.

“Once a man asked me – ‘How do you think you look like, holding that drum between your legs? You need to sit like a lady,’” Mutua told Reuters after a gig in the Kenyan capital.


She persisted, finding international success.

In 2016, she toured Europe with The Nile Project, a collective of musicians from countries that feed into or lie along the world’s longest river.

These days, she plays on instruments ranging from electric drums to traditional hide stretched over wood.

“From buckets to ‘sufurias’ (pots) to desks to car bonnets. Car bonnets!” she exclaimed in a recent interview in the Kenyan capital.

In 2017, she was asked to give a talk at the prestigious TedGlobal event in Tanzania about her mission to teach the importance of the drum to young boys and girls.

“Women can be custodians of culture, too,” she argued – and proved it by starting an all-female percussion group called Motra to combine the words modern and traditional.

For three years, the Nairobi-based collective has offered lessons and mentorship to women interested in drumming.

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“It became a sisterhood,” she said proudly.

Group member Evelyn Githina said she had been searching for something like Motra for a long time.

“It’s just fulfilling,” Githina said. “You’ve heard it all about guys doing it better, but we know for sure we can do it better.”

Reporting by Ayenat Mersie; Editing by Maggie Fick and Andrew Cawthorne


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