Arusha, Tanzania — Kasiva Mutua carefully unpacks her drums, placing them on the paving stones of a courtyard, shaded by a tree from Tanzania’s harsh midday sun she settles, cross-legged behind them, as she starts to play her eyes close as she loses herself in the rhythm. This is a defiant act in Mutua’s native Kenya, where it’s taboo for women to drum, but for the renowned percussionist, drumming has never been about sex or gender — even if it was for the people who tried to stop her.
“There’s been a ton of problems I’ve faced as a female percussionist,” she tells CNN. “But hey, I’m here, I’m super happy, you have no idea. I feel so good when I play the drums, it elevates me.” Today, Mutua’s uplifting rhythms are in demand at music festivals and in recording studios around the world. While her ability seems effortless, growing up in part of the world where it’s often forbidden for women to play such a symbolically potent musical instrument, the 29-year-old has had to work hard for recognition.
Now unstoppable, she and her blend of Afrobeat, reggae, jazz and Kenyan beats are at the heart of the Nile Project — an initiative uniting communities along Africa’s longest river. She’s also been named a TED Fellow, giving talks alongside other global “inspiring visionaries.”
And she’s using her energy and profile in Kenya and beyond to encourage other young women into music, with the aim of inspiring all-female bands.
“Women can do whatever they want,” Mutua says.
But, she insists, audiences should look beyond her identity and focus on her musical skills.
“It’s not about genders anymore, it’s about delivery,” she says, adding that while some view her as a trailblazer or simply a percussionist, others still don’t know what to make of her.
“So it’s pretty mixed up, but I could say it’s more comfortable now because I feel like once you’ve proved to the world that you are just a human being doing an amazing job, people tend to accept you better.”
One major milestone for Mutua came in 2014 when she was chosen among other artists to represent her country at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. That, she says, marked a shift in attitudes among Kenyans. “I think we’re getting better at dropping the taboo subject and just dealing with music and entertainment.”
While she says her expressive performances mean she leaves a part of herself with the audience each time she goes on stage, they also give her the willpower to achieve other things in life.
And, of course, the drumming keeps her happy.
“When I play I’m in a very, very good place,” she says. “I don’t feel any trouble, it’s like I’m floating in the air somewhere, and it’s just very peaceful up there…”