Nyokabi Kariũki - FEELING BODY Music Album Reviews

Nyokabi Kariũki - FEELING BODY Music Album Reviews
On her debut album, the Kenyan composer folds field recordings, ambient textures, and layered vocalizations into a gripping meditation on illness and healing.

In “feeling body,” the twelve-minute title track of Nyokabi Kariũki’s debut album, the composer’s voice wavers as she asks a vulnerable question: “If you’re not hopeful for your body, then who is?” Amid a wash of violin pricks, whispers, and everyday ambience, the young Kenyan composer thinks aloud about illness and the strain of unfulfilled recovery. Like the millions of others who have felt haunted by the same specter of corporeal disquiet, she has no answer.

Kariũki developed FEELING BODY from her experiences with the extended, amorphous symptoms of long COVID, along with the compounding ills of the virus and a society that badly wants to disappear the sick. With last year’s peace places: kenyan memories EP, she built compositions around field recordings she’d taken in her home country, searching for her own sense of place and self as she spent time living in New York and Maryland. On FEELING BODY, Kariũki plucks more hyper-localized sounds from domestic life. She shares a visceral tour through the psychological journey of recovery without reaching any definitive solutions, mapping the aches of illness and isolation with careful intensity. 

Especially in its title track, FEELING BODY can be an uncomfortable listen, in part due to Kariũki’s precise attention to the mix. Between tense, quiet passages, vocalizations sneak up like distant calls for aid, and oozing electronic sounds evoke the squeezing pressure of headaches and stuffed sinuses. A faucet’s drip is a steady, rhythmless presence, like a cold reminder of a hospital sink. Tangled with background noises of household puttering, instrumental knots snake around Kariũki’s vulnerable musings about reconciling her mind and body, wrestling with hopelessness, and grieving. “feeling body” pierces so deeply that Kariũki said that she was unable to return to some of its elements after she first recorded them, a way of shielding herself “from having to relive saying these things.”

Kariũki surveys other aspects of healing as the album progresses. She grapples with the strictures of the body and memory with the micro-opera “folds,” exploring how her moods changed throughout seasonal cycles and virus-imposed stagnation. In “fire head,” a mechanical voice repeats, “They stopped asking, ‘Are you okay?’” Its tone is flat, not unfriendly. But as Kariũki crests an ominous instrumental tide, she erupts in a piercing high; electronic thuds land wet, crunching blows, and the voice continues: “...when they knew the answer wouldn’t change.” It is a crushing realization: Not only may there not be a “better,” but cherished personal connections are more fragile than we’d like them to be.

From the anguish of “fire head,” Kariũki shifts to “quiet face,” where a bittersweet melody dominates. “Hope is for the weekend/Scrollin’ Reddit ’til I’m sleepin’,” she sings. It’s the ghost of a sweet pop hook blown away by a listless sigh, with the chasm of evaporated potential emphasized in the homophone of “weekend”/“weakened.” “Subira” has a similar gossamer eeriness, with Kariũki singing in a near-whisper over flitting violin and airy vocalizations.

“Nazama,” however, resolves the album’s tension with an exhale at the end of the record. It feels like a baptism, and in the record’s liner notes, Kariũki connects FEELING BODY’s watery flow to both the Biblical River Jordan and homeopathic traditions of Kenya’s Kikuyu people. “I’m getting better at facing the ocean,” Kariũki sings over a heavenly, wordless chorus. Instead of a sharp prickle, sounds of water murmur alongside her long, quivering notes; a baleful air returns, but Kariũki’s sense of calm triumphs over the swells. A solution to Kariũki’s ailments may still be intangible, but “Nazama” suggests an answer in surrendering to a flow state.

As COVID-19 has kept shapeshifting, so too has the concept of the “pandemic album.” There are those made in immediate reaction to its circumstances, like the solo efforts written in newly liberated swaths of time and the work assembled over sturdy WiFi connections. But fewer projects have reckoned with the pandemic’s elliptical tail: the rippling effects of its years-long destabilization, the lingering cloud of long-term illness, and the gaps between those still living in the pandemic and those who’ve left it behind them. FEELING BODY occupies this uncharted terrain, probing at visceral feelings of physical and psychological discomfort. Operating without meaningful answers about what may lie ahead, Kariũki nonetheless extends a reassuring hand into the void.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Nyokabi Kariũki - FEELING BODY Music Album Reviews Nyokabi Kariũki - FEELING BODY Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on March 13, 2023 Rating: 5


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