Nasambu Wamalwa, vocalist, producer and founder of the band the Mystic Nomads, has been singing for as long as she can remember. Born in California into a Kenyan immigrant family, she grew up singing along to African and Western songs, making up new songs with her father and her sister, and having friends over for epic dance sessions. In that environment, with lots of music and lots of different sounds, she couldn’t help but sing.
The Mystic Nomads came to life a few years ago when Nasambu was working together with a number of young African women in a group known as the Phoenix Rising Collective, to raise awareness about African culture, music and the arts in Los Angeles, California. They were getting ready for a festival and thinking about different names and ideas that would express who they are and their lifestyle. The Mystic Nomads concept developed and became the name of the band.
Nasambu explains that mysticism is the idea that we can instantaneously and directly connect to our divine essence. Nomads reflect the idea that these band members are people of travel. Nasambu herself has been on many journeys, having lived in Kenya and now in Los Angeles. She has travelled around the world, enjoying the beauty of diversity; understanding and appreciating cultural differences and similarities.
Similarly, Nasambu’s career as a musician has been a journey. She started off working with several musicians in reggae, jazz, a cappella and African music and touring with them in Europe, North America, and Africa. Her first album project, The Soul of Kingston (2006), was produced by Shaolin of Barbados, the other member of their then duo Streets to the Hill. The album is a feminine expression of reggae standards.
Working with other artists gave Nasambu a better understanding of who she was and how she wanted to express herself, as well as how to produce an independent album. She then founded the Mystic Nomads, releasing their album Activate Afrika in summer 2012 (iTunes, CD Baby). The album is a recorded live studio performance with layers later added to the music as the musicians were inspired.
Developing the sound of the Mystic Nomads took time: the musicians had to learn to understand each other, work together and listen to each other. “It’s not about reading notes off the page, but feeling each other and creating together,” Nasambu says. “We are the instrument. Each musician creates his or her own unique fingerprint in the music to form this magical sound.”
In college, Nasambu sang in a group that focused on South African music and freedom songs from around the world. She has been influenced by Miriam Makeba, Bi Kidude, Erykah Badu, Tabu Ley, Suzanne Owiyo and Salif Keita. She also admires and is inspired by Oprah Winfrey and Wangari Maathai, whom she says are wonderful people that have done a lot of good in this world.
I interviewed her after Nelson Mandela’s death and she says of him, “I am so humbled and thankful for the legacy that Nelson Mandela has left behind of unity, supporting one another regardless of differences, listening, creating dialogue and raising awareness about issues that are being ignored. May we all find inspiration at this time, as many leaders have passed on this year. May we work together to bring about a more beautiful world.”
Nasambu sings because it makes her feel close to the divine. “It brings me into that sense of union and connectedness that is out of this world. I especially love singing with other people, harmonizing. It magnifies the vibrations. When I’m singing, I feel joy and peace. It makes me wanna dance and makes me feel good.”
She just got back from a European tour with Rocky Dawuni— Reggae star and UN Ambassador from Ghana. She describes her band’s style of music as Afro-Soul, an emerging genre which is a fusion of soul, African sounds and diasporic African music, like reggae and jazz. A number of prevalent artists expressing themselves in this way include Les Nubians, Native Sun, Zap Mama, Simphiwe Dana, Laura Mvula, Mohammed Alidu, Rocky Dawuni (Afro Roots) and Zahara.
In addition to being a musician, Nasambu is a peace activist and a natural healer. She has studied herbal medicine, acupuncture and Eastern medicine. She has worked in natural healing and she practices therapeutic massage. She also believes that plant-based diets are healing, and that the earth gives us everything we need to thrive and survive.
“We’re all connected, and humans, animals and plants have their place. We need to have mutual respect for each other and work to create situations in which we’re all thriving. The more we find ourselves in balance and create that harmony, the more we thrive.”
This idea of balance and harmony infuses her music as well because she believes the different sounds and vibrations created in music affect everything around us.
Artistically, Nasambu also paints, writes poetry and short stories. She tries to stretch herself and find different forms of expression. Being surrounded by friends with a variety of artistic expressions has inspired her to explore new things.
“We don’t have to limit ourselves to one thing. We can do so many different things. Every person has his or her own gift and beauty to add to the world. Each individual should be working to be true to his or her divine nature. If we do, we’ll all be a part of transforming our world.”
I ask how she balances these different things she’s pursuing. “I space them out and understand my limits. I focus on something for a season and see it to completion, and then in another season I’ll put more energy in another direction. Each of them is a different aspect of me. When you’re doing things you love, it doesn’t feel like work, it just feels like life.”
Nasambu takes time to listen to what her body is saying in order to maintain balance. She’s not scared to ask for help because “life is a community effort. We’re all working together and we should support one another.”
She is thankful for the support of her family, including her father, who died this year. She is also thankful for the support of her fans. She believes in the concept of Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are.’
She is praying to leave behind a positive legacy for the generations that are yet to come. Be on the lookout for the release this December of Nasambu’s latest new single and music video, Nuru, which means Light in Kiswahili. Check out their YouTube music video, Monopoly, and find the band on Facebook, Soundcloud and Reverbnation to enjoy more of their music.