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Portrait of the Sound Artist as a Young Man

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Most DJs will tell you that their turntables are in fact musical instruments, and they’d certainly have a point. But has any DJ ever taken the instrumental nature of turntables as far as “Sound Artist” Walter Kitundu?

A Rochester, Minnesota-born, Tanzania, Africa-raised artist and musician, Kitundu, 33, has become well known for his phonoharps and phonokoras. The instruments are his original inventions, which he constructs in his San Francisco studio, and are best described as a cross between a turntable and a guitar/harp.

He’s built 24 hybrid instruments so far, including a working fire-powered turntable, a balloon-powered turntable and even a device powered by the ocean’s waves. The unique sounds he draws from these instruments is hard to classify, combining elements of hip-hop, electronica, jazz and everything under the sun. Whatever you call it, he's made fans of some of the most accomplished musicians in the country, having performed with a disparate group of artists ranging from the Kronos Quartet to Meshell Ndegeocello. He visits Los Angeles on Friday to perform on a bill that includes the Austin electro-dance rockers Ghostland Observatory, Sun Ra Arkestra’s free-jazz maestro Marshall Allen and experimental electronica duo Matmos. Kitundu sat down to chat about making instruments, performing in LA and why birdwatching in our city kicks ass.

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So, exactly what kind of music do you play?
People used to ask me that and I’d say “music music”. Sometimes it comes out of hip-hop. Sometimes it comes out of electronica. Sometimes it comes out of West African music. I have eclectic tastes. Right now I’m listening to the new Damien Marley album. West African music. Everything from Rufus Wainwright to The Roots. I like Indian classical music a lot. And Bjork. Basically, whatever’s interesting and engaging.