If there’s one fixture in Taipei’s ever-changing live music circuit, it’s Nbugu Kenyatta. Since arriving 16 years ago, the drummer and singer has been rocking Taipei with the groove-oriented music of his hometown, New Orleans.
Nowadays the 54-year-old plays with his band, the Kenyatta Trio, at the Tavern every Friday and Capone’s on Saturdays. The group covers many styles, ranging from R’n’B and soul to reggae and funk.
In the early 1990s Kenyatta made a splash as part of the house band at the now-defunct club TU, breathing fresh air into Taipei nightlife with the sounds of traditional New Orleans jazz. Later on, club owner Ted Su (蘇誠修) asked Kenyatta to bring his electric band, ARRK, which played classic funk and R’n’B in the spirit of acts like the Meters, Dr John and the Neville Brothers.
They played up to four hours a night, seven nights a week, and Kenyatta loved every minute of it. “They actually had to ask us to stop playing and take a vacation because … being from New Orleans we’re used to playing 24 hours, 24-7,” he said, sipping on a beer at Capone’s.
Kenyatta, also known by his original name Abe Thompson, developed a passion for music at the age of 10, when he would spend hours waiting for his brother to give him a turn on the drum kit. The first song he learned was James Brown’s Cold Sweat.
By high school he was practically eating and breathing music. He sang with his five brothers and two sisters in a Motown-style group called the Tempressions (inspired by the Temptations and the Impressions), played the snare drum with his high school marching band, and performed psychedelic rock and R’n’B with the Energy Funk Band, another group formed with his family.
Kenyatta continued to study music while earning his education degree at Southern University at New Orleans, which he says gave him the opportunity to share the stage with greats such as jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist Carl Le Blanc and avant-garde jazz composer Sun Ra.
One of his most valuable experiences was playing the clubs on New Orleans’ Bourbon Street starting from the age of 17, he said. He became proficient in many different styles, including reggae, R’n’B, funk, jazz and blues, all of which are an important part of playing music in New Orleans, he said. “You have to play more than one style. You have to be versatile … You have to play all of it.”
“Fulfilling” is how Ray Anthony, current guitarist for the Kenyatta Trio, describes playing with Kenyatta. “You’re playing with people that really enjoy playing the music,” he said.
Kenyatta met his wife of 10 years, Kim Wei (魏宣愉), in Taipei. He sees himself as a “liaison” between New Orleans music culture and Taiwan and likes the occasional times when he gets recognized on the street by past audience members. “It gives me such a great feeling that — hey, people know me.”
Lately the Trio’s set has included Jimi Hendrix tunes, reggae and several original songs by Kenyatta, which he wrote just after recovering from a stroke nearly two years ago.
The health scare hasn’t changed Kenyatta’s feelings about playing on stage, which he describes as “heaven.”
Besides, what would he do without music? “It’s a part of me. I can’t live without it.”
— DAVID CHEN
WHAT: The Kenyatta Trio
WHEN: Every Friday night from 9pm to 11pm at the Tavern, 415, Xinyi Rd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市信義路四段415號). Tel: (02) 8780-0892. Every Saturday from 9pm to 11pm at Capone’s Restaurant, 312, Zhongxiao E Rd, Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市忠孝東路四段312號). Tel: (02) 2773-3782
DETAILS: No cover charge
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