Censorship—the blasphemous term in music. Usually it’s applied to a bleeped out four-letter word, a phrase here and there. A whole song, even. Censoring an entire language? Unthinkable. But that’s a reality Sharon Wangari, the vocal soul and core behind the trio known simply as Wangari, is battling. Singing in her Kenyan mother tongue of Kikuyu is an act of preservation, not just an exercise in world music poetics. Because of tribal warfare the use of the Kikuyu language has been banned in Nairobi, and, needless to say, it’s gotten the singer “worked up.” Wangari explains, “I come from a family of freedom fighters, and our grandfather fought for independence so that we could be free and use our language.” She says the language is disappearing (“My friends don’t speak it because they think it’s primitive, and it’s being wiped off the face of the earth”), so the 24-year-old is now bringing it to listeners through modern acoustic music.
Wangari arrived in America in 2005 and settled in Santa Cruz’s Tannery Arts Center last April. Now performing with Paul Thibeault on classical guitar and Gabriel Harris on percussion, her hearty blend of Afro-jazz and world music crooning shines in concert with her humanitarian efforts. With a classy, vintage Nina Simone style and a raw, contemporary feel recalling the likes of India Arie, Wangari’s songs on the just-released Acoustic Vol. 1 are bold in sound and subject. “Mtoto” speaks of the tragedy of child soldiers in Sudan (where Wangari volunteered at 16), while “Mama Afrika” aims to raise awareness about the people and plights of her home continent. Truly an internationally minded act, Wangari also sings in Swahili, English, French and Bambara as a shower of clean plucking on the nylon strings rains down in pristine accompaniment. While she’s firmly planted in Santa Cruz these days, where she says her music “just blossomed when we came here,” she hopes to take her trio to tour Africa later this year. “Oh my God, I can’t wait!” she lights up at the thought. “For me, touring Africa is the ultimate. That’s where people need the knowledge, the consciousness and the spirituality of our lyrics. To speak the language with music through Paul and Gabriel—it’s the ultimate fusion for me.”