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‘Nothing but three chords and the truth’ as country music industry grows in Kenya

Kenyans have been listening to country for 50 years -- ever since Kenya gained independence from Britain. The songs were especially popular in the country’s farming areas. But the homegrown country music industry in Kenya still has a long way to go. One artist driving the movement forward is Elvis Otieno, known as "Sir Elvis." NewsHour special correspondent Nick Schifrin reports in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    On a Wednesday night in Kenya's capital, the music is flowing. We're six thousand miles from Tennessee. But tonight Nairobi looks — and sounds — a lot like Nashville.

    Elvis Otieno — that's his real name — was born in 1977, the same year Elvis Presley died. Otieno's parents named him after The King–sealing his fate.

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    I tried everything I could in my life to be an engineer – an aeronautical engineer. But it was never to be, because I think music was my calling.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    He's now known as "Sir Elvis." He thought about becoming a rock musician. But he identified more with country.

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    It's down home stories that I resonate with.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    When he started performing 10 years ago, he was the first Kenyan to sound like the original artists.

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    If you're playing Beethoven, you have to sound authentically Beethoven. If I sing Jim Reeves, it has to have a silky velvet way of it.

  • ANGELA GATU:

    He's original. His voice. It's out of this world.

  • TONY ASHOKA:

    He's as genuine as the music. Because you can't do this stuff if you don't believe in it.

  • DAVID KIMOTHO:

    Howdy, folks. Hi there and welcome to the Strings of Country interview.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    David Kimotho hosts a weekly show called Strings of Country. Sir Elvis is his best known guest.

  • DAVID KIMOTHO:

    There are a lot of guys who want to play like him. They want to sing like him. So he is actually, you know, growing the industry.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Kenyans have been listening to country for 50 years — ever since Kenya gained independence from Britain.

  • DAVID KIMOTHO:

    Even though we were colonized by the Brits, you know, what we were exposed to was American music. It resonates because of the message. We can identify with the stories.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Country was especially popular in Kenya's farming areas.

    Elvis says his life is a little bit country. He lived in a farming area near the end of a rail line.

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    In Kenya, people to work so hard to get the harvests. When they came to realize that there is a style of music that actually goes along with this kind of lifestyle, they embraced it.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Is there one song in particular that Kenyans always ask for?

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    Yes. "You're My Best Friend" by Don Williams.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The homegrown country music industry here has a long way to go. Even Elvis has not recorded any his own original songs…yet.

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    I'm so excited about it, because this is going to be my first single.

    Sir Elvis believes in a famous saying: country music is "nothing but three chords and the truth."

  • ELVIS OTIENO:

    Sometimes life is sad. Sometimes life is happy. But we always keep the joy of the music.

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