Pretty Kickass Lawyer, Cook, Pianist, Singer…Is There Anything Maureen Kunga Can’t Do?
Maureen Kunga is a member of Elani , one of the most popular Afropop bands in Kenya. Talented, beautiful, intelligent, gracious and blessed with a sweet personality, Maureen truly defies lazy comparisons. In this exclusive interview with Africa Interviews, she speaks candidly about her inspirations,career, relationship, piracy, the embarrassing songs you might find on her playlist and much more.
Here, the full interview:
When did you first start singing?
I’ve been singing all my life! (or so my mother tells me!) She says I started singing in the womb, haha! But to be honest I have been singing all my life. I was in musicals and plays when I was in kindergarten – the most memorable musical I did was the Nativity Play in which I was one of the three wise men. I was about 5 years old. And I’ve been at it ever since!
What did your family do to encourage you?
My family has been very supportive throughout my musical journey. My whole family – being my parents, one brother and one sister – attended every play I was in and every choir performance in high school, every concert when I decided to do music professionally. When we started to pick up and they knew they no longer had to come to fill the seats they started to skip a few but they are always checking up, always sharing my new music, always calling when they see an interview in the papers. They are fantastic. I have to specifically say, my mother has been my rock throughout this journey. When we were young and starting out she would drive us to and from every gig, speak to organizers who refused to pay us on our behalf…she was a manager without even knowing it! She is really a wonderful woman and Elani owes her a lot.
Who are your musical inspirations?
Where do I start?! I don’t fully know how to answer that question. Musicians, inspire me by sounds, by speeches, by stories…I can’t fully answer that without making a list longer than you’d appreciate! But I will say this – when it comes to vocal technique and voice quality, I look up to Celine Dion. She has a mastery of technique that few people possess and I use tips and tricks from Celine Dion during my own vocal training.
What kind of music do you listen to today?
I listen to a little bit of everything. I listened to a lot of country music growing up, courtesy of my parents, and I moved into the alternative rock music phase and swiftly into the NeoSoul and R&B phase, and now I’m settled happily into a lot of African sound. Afrobeat is making its way into my heart pretty quick!
What embarrassing songs might I find on your playlist ?
If you were to get hold of any of my devices, my phone, iPod, laptop…anything, you will find a very large number of very embarrassing Elani voice recordings. Being three members in one group, we see each other all the time, but sometimes inspiration for a song comes to you when you’re by yourself. We made a pact, never to try to remember melodies or lyrics that have come to us by luck or surprise so we always record them and send them to each other. We use those to write our songs. So there are hundreds of recordings of us mumbling melodies, trying to beatbox to explain to the others what we want the beat to sound like. Ridiculous recordings. I have hundreds.
Where would you most like to perform?
I’ve always wanted to perform at the O2 arena. I’m not particularly sure why that’s been on my mind for years and years. There are also some places that have always intrigued me – Carnegie Hall, I think The Dorchester in Victoria Island is gorgeous even if I’ve never actually been there – I’d love to have a gig there, Glastonbury Festival, Coachella, Rock in Rio, a thousand African festivals! The list is much too long! I’m so excited to get started!
If you weren’t singing, what would you be doing?
I guess I’d be a pretty kickass lawyer! I studied law at the University of Nairobi and then did a post graduate diploma in the Advocacy Training Program at the Kenya School of Law. So I’m officially an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya. I’d probably be an associate at a law firm right now. Or using my law degree to fight for musician’s rights with regards to payment and royalties. Though I do that now! So I guess in some way I’m both living my dream and doing what I would have been doing if I wasn’t a singer! Isn’t that awesome? I’m very grateful and blessed to be able to do both.
Do you play any instruments?
I do. I play the piano and the guitar. As a graduation present when I finished my undergraduate degree my family got me a classical guitar which I absolutely love. And I’ve always loved the piano. It’s actually my favourite instrument in the world – so emotive and versatile.
If you could be involved in another genre of music, what would it be?
It’s a bit of a secret of mine that I’ve always wanted to rap. In fact when I was about 17 I recorded a song and I both rapped and sang in English, Kiswahili and another Kenyan language known as Kikuyu. It was pretty bad to be honest, and I’m not proud of it. Luckily (or hopefully) it’s hidden far far away, never to be heard by another human being! But that’s what I’d be in another life – a rapper.
What genre of music can’t you stand to listen to?
I don’t know to be honest! I think every type of music has a story and an audience. I appreciate that. So I love some types of music much more than others but I can’t say there’s any genre I can’t stand.
What hidden talents do you have?
I can do a handstand! Is that a hidden talent? I can do that. For a relatively long time actually! I think it’s pretty cool.
Do you enjoy writing music / lyrics?
I love it. I think that music is such an ideal way for me to express emotion and the fact that what I’m going through can be put into song to inspire or encourage someone else is a wonderful thing and something that I genuinely love about my job. Mixing and matching and rhyme and melody and sounds…I love every part of the songwriting process. Elani has taught me how to best express my wants and desires, my joys and triumphs and my failures and sadness.
How can we fight piracy and poor accountability in royalties payment to artists?
Piracy can be dealt with or at the very least reduced when a proper distribution channel for music is implemented. We have been working hard to make our music easily and affordably accessible to all our fans. This will reduce the need for the middlemen and music pirates to come in – because music pirates thrive on demand for content. If the content is easily accessible to the fan straight from the artist, then the impact of the music pirate reduces.
Elani has been at the forefront of the fight for accountability and transparency with regard to royalties in Kenya. We spoke very publicly about the Music Copyright Society of Kenya and the challenges that Kenyan artists face across the board, where royalties are collected but never remitted to the artist. We continue to speak out and fight for accountability within the institutions mandated to collect and distribute our hard earned money. I believe that if artists came together and spoke in one voice the battle would be half-won. We are somewhat lacking in a culture of building each other up and growing together. It is getting much better with time, and I strongly believe that a united network of artists will help solve the royalties crisis in the country because one artist or group can only do so much.
Do you have any celebrity crush ?
Haha!!! Pass! (but not really – not a real crush. There are a few handsome celebrities I wouldn’t mind meeting in person though!)
Are you in a relationship ?
Can I pass on this one too? I find that sometimes discussing my personal life distracts one from the message of love and responsibility we try to pass along through our music. Or maybe there just isn’t much to report! Haha!
Apart from reading , How do you unwind?
I have recently started to rekindle my love for cooking. I cook all the time now. I love to watch recipe videos and recreate things I see online or in books. I’ve become quite the cook actually! And I’m learning to bake now! I’ve got the chocolate chip cookie down, now I’ll move on to cakes and other pastries. It’s a wonderful pastime.
Elani is out with a new song :Love You.