Tacos. Tequila. Telenovelas. Nairobi Embraces Its Mexican Soul.
In the Kenyan capital, Mexican culture is everywhere, from television to music to restaurants. A primer on the latest global mash-up.
By Jillian Keenan
On New Year’s Eve, as people around the world celebrated with a kiss or a glass of champagne, some partygoers in Nairobi celebrated a different way: with 12 grapes, one for each month of the year, as the clock ticked down to midnight.
This Mexican tradition, which dates back to the Spanish colonial period and is said to bring good luck, arrived in Nairobi on the crest of a cultural wave that is taking over Kenya’s trendiest corners. Mexican culture is everywhere: on restaurant menus, in dance clubs, on television.
Although the number of actual Mexicans in Nairobi is small — about 200 people, according to embassy estimates — and they don’t have a defined neighborhood, their influence on the city’s cultural life is hard to miss (and that’s not even including Lupita Nyong’o, the daughter of Kenyans who was born in Mexico City). Nairobians can drink tequila and dance to Mexican-Kenyan fusion music at Blend Lounge on a Saturday night, then worship with Mexican Catholic priests at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish the next morning. Decent Mexican food is notoriously hard to find throughout Africa, but in Nairobi, hungry travelers don’t even have to leave the airport: at Java House, East Africa’s answer to Starbucks, they can feast on quesadillas, guacamole, and even huevos rancheros.
The first Mexicans came to Kenya in the late 40s, as Catholic missionaries. Here’s how their influence spread.
The fusion of Mexican and Kenyan cultures began in the 1980s, as Latin American telenovelas, mostly from Mexico, took over Kenyan airwaves. The rights for these soap operas were cheaper to buy than those for United States shows, so networks snatched them up. Today, business is still booming: Caroline Mbindyo-Koroso, a CEO and executive producer of African Voices Dubbing Company, says the company started out in early 2015 with two employees dubbing soap operas. Now it’s the biggest dubbing company in East Africa, with 15 recording booths and four dedicated mixing stations.
Ms. Mbindyo-Koroso says soap operas are so popular because they’re aspirational: a pretty, downtrodden hero or heroine overcomes daunting odds — an evil stepmother, a bespectacled business tycoon — to achieve greatness. Most Mexican telenovelas in Kenya currently air in English, but Ms. Mbindyo-Koroso thinks there would be even more potential if they were dubbed into local languages. There are more than 120 million Swahili speakers in Africa, she notes.
To the radio
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Edgar Manuel Vargas Gallegos, 28, had always idolized the Mexicans who had worked in Kenya as missionaries. After seminary school, but before his ordination, Mr. Gallegos followed their footsteps, intending to spread the Gospel.
Instead Mr. Gallegos fell in love with genge, Nairobi’s home-grown genre that combines traditional hip-hop beats with rap lyrics in Kiswahili and Sheng. With telenovelas popular, he reasoned: why couldn’t Mexican-Kenyan fusion be the next big thing in music, too? Mr. Gallegos ditched the priesthood and adopted the stage name “Romantico” to pursue a life in rap.
His collaborations with Kenyan artists, including Samaki Mkuu (the Kenyan Olympic swimmer Jason Dunford), and the so-called father of genge, Jua Cali, are addictive mash-ups: in the video for his 2018 single, Mkora (which means “scoundrel”), Romantico raps in Spanish and Swahili while wearing a bright-blue Mexican wrestler mask. In a forthcoming song, he reimagines the Veracruz classic “La Bamba” with genge soul.
“We are starting a new movement here in East Africa: a fusion of Spanish and Swahili music,” said Romantico, sitting outside a Nairobi taqueria where Kenyan employees clamored to take selfies with him. “The people can feel that it belongs to us. When we are singing, we are not singing for ourselves. We are singing for the people.” And the people love it: already, Romantico has performed on two of Kenya’s most popular TV shows, Ten Over Ten and The Churchill Show.
The hype has spilled over into classical music genres, too. The Kenyan classical guitarist Kevin Munyi, who specializes in private performances and corporate events, said there is suddenly more demand for mariachi music than ever before.