MUSIC | “I don’t like square boxes”: Kenn Wanaku drops a new disc


One of the Twin Cities’ brighter guitar stars, Kenn Wanaku, has a new EP: Bei Samoh (SunPlugd). His second disc follows the striking, full-length debut Afrikan Guitarstrophy (SunPlugd), an imaginatively adventurous outing that enhanced an already strong reputation in Twin Cities music. Joining him are backup vocalists Rachel Holder and Katie Gearty, keyboardists Peter Schimke, Bruce Jackson, and Jeff Bailey who doubles on strings and drums, David Budimir on trombone and trumpet, and Brian Gallagher on sax. Serge Akou, a legend in the Twin Cities, plays bass, guitar, drums and is co-producer with Wanaku.

It’s an interesting experience to have someone with such chops in your home, sitting there, playing right in front of you. Sure doesn’t happen everyday. Using my acoustic, he warmed up, noodling a little here and there, just getting loose. And, in short order, was more fluid than a lot of cats get at full stride. I had the tape rolling for an interview and, between questions and answers, got, as a bonus, to capture a spontaneous session of Kenn Wanaku on guitar.

How was it producing in partnership with Serge Akou?
It was fun. A lot of fun. I would also add Jeff Bailey, because he was studio engineer. It was quite interesting. Because, first of all, what I do, when I write the song, [is] try to play the song by myself from top to bottom. If somebody’s arranging for me, I give them a copy of that. Listen to it and do whatever. So, I did that with Serge and he come up with some interesting parts. Especially horn parts and bridges and all those kinds of things. But, then, during the actual recording, Jeff was very helpful. With string arrangements. He’s quite good with that. Each of us kind of found a comfort zone was allowed be as creative as they wanted. So, it was exciting.

Serge is an amazing bass player.
Serge’s playing is kind of subtle. Very, very subtle, but present. Very, very present. Doesn’t play too much, he just plays what is enough for the song. That’s rare. Is this interview about me or about Serge?

Don’t be such a grouch, we almost lost the guy to immigration problems. Everybody’s glad he’s still here. Including you, right? How did you go about choosing the musicians for Bei Samoh?
Most of the musicians were chosen by Serge, because I gave him the license to arrange. But, a lot of them I already knew before. There’s quite a handful of very good musicians in [the Twin Cities]. And sometimes, you know, production, creativity is in choosing the right people.

How do you come by your songwriting ideas?
It’s not very easy. For instance, the title song is taken from “Fly Me to the Moon” and everybody knows that [song]. What I wanted to do with that one is…

Forget “Fly Me to the Moon.” Let’s talk your originals.
My originals, yeah. It’s kind of difficult to explain where a song comes from.

That’s why I asked the question.
Sometimes I hear a melody in my head. Sometimes I record it, put it down on the tape or any recording device, sometimes I don’t. But, then, there are some ideas you cannot remember again. There are some that are kind of stubborn. And they keep coming back. You here them in very unlikely places. Like maybe you’re driving down the road. Or you’re at a ballgame. Or something. It’s seems those ideas are kind of like songs that insist on being written. It could be the melody, a rhythm. It could just be some words. Over time you just keep working on it. Keeping poking that idea. Maybe it’s like watering a plant. Over time it grows. Sometimes lyrics, it comes like a downpour. You just put down your pen and write it down. But sometimes it kind of trickles. It could be one day, a week and sometimes I can write two lines and then nothing else comes for three months. No even think about it.

What’s next for you?
I like to play live. I really enjoy it. Recording for me is just like a snapshot in time. Live is always something new. People who work with know I usually don’t start the same song the same way. We do unexpected things. I don’t like square boxes.