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Meet Oneko Arika

Today we’d like to introduce you to Oneko Arika.

Oneko, before we jump into specific questions about your work, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up in a neighborhood in Nairobi Kenya with a lot of sports and cultural activity. Early on (like age eight), I started boxing. There were cultural dance troupe rehearsals in the same space as boxing, which is how I became interested in drumming. The neighborhood also had a host of older youths who were into DJing and reggae sound system culture. It gave me a love and affinity for reggae and world music from the time I can remember.

After pursuing boxing into my young adult life, a twist-of-fate had me get into the performing arts and I made my way to the Kenya National Theatre where I successfully auditioned to perform live music for a play. At that time, I also started doing volunteer work with some children’s homes in Nairobi with a partner, Michel Ongaro. He is “visually challenged” and is an amazing musician who taught me a lot about approaching music in different ways. While working with him we landed a tour in the UK and things kind of took off for me. I decided I wanted to travel and see the world while sharing my ability for traditional drumming.

When I came back from the UK, I started working as a full-time artist, mainly in Kenya but had several short stints around Europe. In this time, I was hired to teach for a documentary about music being filmed in Laikipia in the Rift Valley of Kenya. This documentary (“The Music Lesson”) brought students from the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra to Kenya to see what happens when young people from very different parts of the world are brought together with only music as the common link. During my work therein I met the lady who would later become my wife, who was from Los Angeles.

The invitation to visit America was a huge turning point for me and experiencing the vibrancy of Los Angeles with music and the arts, I felt compelled to experiment and expand what I had already been doing on percussion for years in Africa. I quickly became part of the music scene which gave me the opportunity to meet some great performers, several who had a big influence in my life over the years with their music. After several meetups with artists, sharing musical ideas and feeling the vibes, I started getting offers and opportunities to perform on different stages and drum workshops.

Since coming to LA for the first time over a decade ago, I have had the fortune of touring the US and sharing stages with Pato Banton, Rocky Dawuni, Toots Hibbert, Huun Huur Tu, the late great Geoffrey Oryema, Tippa Irie, Everton Blender, and several other artists. It’s been a great honor to work with such incredible artists. It has also lead to quite a bit of writing, recording and teaching.

I love making music with other musicians and performing is a highlight. But one of the things that give me the most satisfaction is teaching young people and getting youth to express themselves with music. My wife was also very involved in the arts and shared this same passion, so around when I came to America for the first time, we co-founded a nonprofit organization and we are now officially in our 12th year. It’s called March Forth Kenya Kids and is based in California, and primarily benefitting kids in Kenya.

We teach music and different forms of art and movement (including yoga), to help give young people a positive path to focus in life. We do our work mainly in the neighborhood where I grew up, but also occasionally hold workshops for young people in America. In Kenya, we have drumming and dancing classes every Saturday and have organized some large scale events in Nairobi. We do all of this for free to uplift the community as the people we work with live in a very economically challenging environment. We have some amazing success stories of young people growing up and now earning a living through what they started with us.

We also held an annual event for several years called “The Songambele Project” where we invited artists to Kenya to perform for the people and experience what I call “the real Kenya.” There are many things we have done with March Forth, and one of the things we are focused on now is the environment. This year, we created a small tree nursery on the grounds where we hold our classes and have already transplanted several of those seedlings.

Has it been a smooth road?
The challenges have been really plenty and wide. Where to even begin. For starters, there was a lack of belief from even members of my own family in my vision. When I started drumming, for example, nobody wanted to hear my drum coz they thought it was just noisy. Others in the neighborhood had the vibration of being out to discourage me from achieving my vision (as I came to find out later) particularly when I started the drum sessions with the young boys and girls. The area where I grew up is very culturally vibrant, but it’s economically not doing very well. Some people have never even left the confines of the neighborhood. So there are a myriad of challenges from that aspect that were a very prevalent part of my life growing up.

I love living in Los Angeles, but of course, there were challenges coming here being a new musician on the scene and building my career from the ground up. Although challenging, it has also been a very fulfilling part of my life to have to hustle hard and be in a place where I have the opportunity to learn from so many different artists, both from an artistic and business perspective. Also having to go back and forth between here and Kenya to handle my responsibilities has had an impact on my career in that sometimes the contacts I made and worked within Kenya from television commercial adverts to musicians and vice versa in the US… it takes a lot of effort to keep in contact while away. Traveling between Kenya and Los Angeles isn’t easy, it’s very far. But the cultural richness and artistic growth that I continue to experience as a result makes all of the back and forth very worth it.

Can you give our readers some background on your music?
I am primarily a percussionist… hand drums and toys that make noise. I specialize in bringing an African and World vibe to the music I play. I love performing and making music with other artists. Experiencing the big magic that happens behind the scenes in rehearsals, hang time and just jam sessions. I am also a teacher. When I’m teaching, I often become the student learning new beats when the person I’m “teaching” plays something different than what I showed them. I love the learning aspect of teaching.

I didn’t get much into it, but I’m also a DJ… they call me DJ Jahneko and although I have done a lot of reggae, I can rock any type of music at any party… LOL. I have gigged around LA and have my own weekly radio show called “the Africa Reggae Rd” which has become one of the most popular shows on the station. This show is primarily African reggae music fused with other artists who play the reggae beat from Jamaica and other parts of the world. It’s rare to hear African reggae music on the airwaves, and I love challenging listeners to hear something that they can’t shazam… LOL. Sometimes I also interview reggae artists on my show.

I love giving back. I feel that I’m in my element when I’m teaching, and doing my work for March Forth Kenya Kids. What I’m most proud of is that our little nonprofit has been going strong consistently teaching young people music and getting them out from behind their screens every week for 12 years. Being conscious of the environment is also one of our core values. We have planted hundreds of trees with our students and guests starting exactly where we hold our classes and around the neighborhood.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
My kind of business really is good for anywhere b/c who doesn’t love music?? But with Hollywood show business headquarters right here, I feel really at home in the company of other creatives. For someone like me who loves to experiment, LA gives you the opportunity to be anything, do anything, and meet all kinds of people with any interest you can think of. For me, that is richness of life.

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Image Credit:
Lynn Rossetto
Farah Sosa
Parker Bartlett

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