As a child growing up in Kenya, Sila Mutungi discovered Western music through his deeply-religious grandmother’s radio. He honed his musical craft by singing original songs in church. In 1986, he moved to Washington, DC, ostensibly to attend college (a move partially financed by tribespeople who sold cows to raise tuition money), but instead used the funds to pay for a demo tape to pursue his dreams of a music career. Yet the music industry at that time wasn’t interested in an R&B singer with a heavy Kenyan accent.
Ten years later, having relocated to San Francisco, Sila experienced an epiphany during a Baaba Maal concert at the Fillmore Auditorium. Instead of trying to hide his African-ness to fit into an American paradigm, he decided to embrace it.
He once again started to write music, combining Western influences ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Beatles to Sly Stone to James Brown to Marvin Gaye to Bob Marley with African influences, among them Maal, Fela Kuti, and Thomas Mapfumo. Calling his new sound “AfroFunk,” he formed Sila and the AfroFunk Experience in 2002.
The band immediately carved out a niche in the Bay Area’s world music scene, spearheading a polyrhythmic renaissance and establishing a reputation for dynamic live performances. In 2004, Sila co-founded the AfroFunk Festival, a showcase for Afro-inspired bands (whose proceeds benefited humanitarian causes) which evolved into an annual event and tour.
More sweaty, ecstatic shows followed, and in 2006, Sila and the A.F.E. released their first album, The Funkiest Man in Africa – a reference to Fela Kuti. Afropop.org called the album “a terrific work of contemporary funk” and noted, “Sila’s message… is as strong as the musicianship.”
Three years and many more gigs later—including well-received appearances at the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival and the Stern Grove Festival—Sila and the A.F.E. released their second album, Black President. Inspired by the historic election of Barack Obama, the album was acclaimed as a masterpiece of infectious grooves and poignant social commentary. As SF Weekly noted, “Sila's concern with the mission of his lyrics is matched by the power of his grooves, an addictive mix of heavy funk, lively Afrobeat, and sun-soaked island rhythms.” Hailed as one of the Top 5 Afropop albums of the year by NPR, Black President won the 2009 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding World Music Album (over better-known artists like Zap Mama and Omou Sangare).
In January 2010, Sila announced the next step in his musical journey: a solo album which explores even more of his diverse musical tastes, from Ethiopiques-esque jazz-funk to Afro-rock, Afro-reggae and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Working the new songs into shape during an open rehearsal residency at SF club Coda, he also found time to headline the “SF Hearts Haiti” benefit at the Independent, which raised over $10,000 for earthquake relief. The as-yet-untitled album is scheduled for summer 2010 release.