Beats and Business at Ongea Summit

The Ongea Summit is in its third year and as someone who has the feel of the Nairobi art scene it was embarrassing that I was yet to attend the annual festival in the past three years.

Script would have been the same in 2018 had I not stumbled on a tweet by Tim Rimbui who was the moderator of a session dubbed ‘Beats and Business that piqued my curiosity.

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The thrust of the conversation was on to get content into the hands of industry shapers that matter and eventually to the audience.

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Writing this a week after the chat my take-homes are:

  1. You have to know your audience, you have to know your market, you have to know the gatekeepers of your industry. Intimately. And be aware that change happens constantly.
  2. The internet and social media is great as a content maker but you have to build actual real life relationships and grow interpersonal skills to push your content as every cog in the production line of content is important.
  3. The content is not for you. Once you create you have to get folk to like it and buy it. Therefore best you be adaptable to the market in as much as you strive for purity of the art. If it cannot be bought, what is it for?
  4. Passion and grit is the difference between average and above average. And you would be surprised how common talent is.
  5. Yes, you can and you should be proficient in multiple skills but find a niche and really work on it.

All the panelists brought their A-game even DJ Space who was picked from the audience after DJ Creme was a no-show. Special mention to Adelle Anyango who wowed me with her eloquence and understanding of the Kenyan music scene vis-a-vis radio. It was awesome to finally understand the rationale behind Kiss FM overplay of hits.

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Troy White, the founder of Temple Management also had awesome gems from the American hip hop scene that resonated with me. In addition stumbled on Martin Keino who is also part of Temple and he intimated that Temple would also be unveiling several partnerships with Kenyan sporting icons soon.

The audience was also great with thought provoking questions asked. There is clearly as huge a hunger for knowledge on the arts as there are artsy folk in Nairobi. Got me thinking that perhaps there is need to have the Ongea Summit talks more often as there is a hunger that needs satisfying.

This was best shown by how folk crowded Sauti Sol’s Polycarp Otieno after talk seeking to get more information.

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Once was done with the engaging conversation walked around the Sarit Centre Expo hall checking out the exhibitors in the 56 stands to get a feel of the range of the Kenyan art scene currently.

It was lovely to see Musyoka of Decimal Records holding court on the white couch at his stall and giving eager artistes 5 minutes of his time to pitch him. There was even a queue.

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In my walk about learnt about the Presidential Music Commission of Kenya that was gazetted in 1988. Gotta say they have not done a great job at shouting about their existence. From the website the commission should be of huge help to Kenyan musicians.

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The organ was a huge part of my formative years and seeing a mini-version at a stall made me stop and gawk.

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This lead to a chat with the old man who sold the pianos. My protestation that I was too old to learn how to play was countered by a 15 minute monologue on how it is never late. So maybe I shall choose an instrument and enrol for classes.

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Leaving the venue and walking around Sarit stumbled on an activation by Nairobi’s newest radio station NRG. The activation brought to the fore the new way to hook crowds in a mall in the age of social media. It has to be eye-popping, catchy, picture-worthy so as to be shared on social. Even I stopped to take a picture.

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Change really is the only constant. You have to adapt constantly so to keep on being with it.

All in all a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon with numerous tidbits picked.

GOD BLESS KENYA!

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Blown away at Safaricom Jazz at 5 dinner

Blown away. That was my feeling after four hours of a phenomenal Safaricom Jazz gala dinner experience that was headlined by BWB, Joja Wendt and The Limericks.

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The do began with speeches as is the norm for suits events. Normally I zone out or people watch but the speech by Ghetto Classics founder Elizabeth Njoroge caught my attention.

She spoke of a student who had to drop out from the Ghetto Classics classes in spite of his brilliance due to challenges at home. This got me thinking about how the Ghetto classic story can be improved.

For five years focus has been on music but there is more to life. What mentoring, financing and real-life opportunities can be availed to improve the ecosystem for the kids?

The money that caused the student to drop out is basically lunch/drink money for your average middle class Kenyan. What if I purposed to give up lunch five times a month and donated? What if I mentored a child away from the music? What if the kids would gig for pay for established musicians? What if their parents got a bit of money to start a business? The kids do not operate in a vacuum and while it is novel and great to have jazz, classical music in Korogocho it is even more necessary to try uplift entire community.

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Unto the music and first on stage was Kenyan band, The Limericks. First time experiencing them and I loved the bass, the keys and the sax. The person playing with the background lighting and screens was clearly having a ball with the savanah-centric backdrops. There was a song in Luganda and also one in Malagasy which were lovely. Only drawback was the lady vocalist trying to compete with the instruments. Sounded so off. There was also a feeling of the band not have worked together on their sets. They are a work in progress I guess.

Next up was extraordinary pianist Joja Wendt who was backed by Stephie on the drums and Thomas on the bass. Wendt is also a hilarious comedian who knows how to engage and work a crowd. Loved the boogie woggie piano set derived from the spiritual to jazz which is basically three pianists in one with a dancy feel to it. His piano playing was fast and perfect with awesome skills on display to go with the dope personality.  Little wonder he got a standing ovation.

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The night’s main act was BWB a jazz band comprising guitarist Norman Brown, saxophonist Kirk Whalum and trumpeter Rick Braun.

Given how Joja had done his business they had to step up their game and they certainly did. Starting off with a Billie Jean rendition that was so energy-full. The three are individually gifted musicians whose machine-like precision in performing together was a marvel to behold. Guitar, sax and trumpet flowing in conversation blew my mind away. Their stage work and crowd mood management spoke of years of professionalism and experience.

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Brown then did a guitar set that showcased his range before capping it with brilliant vocals which the crowd showed love for by giving a standing ovation.

Whalum who is a magician on the sax and who toured with Whitney Houston for close to a decade performed a heartfelt ‘I will always love you.’ He walked into the crowd and made folk so happy and moved with the personal touch. Cue a standing ovation.

Braun did a song that he wrote for his wife of 21 years and as a Hollywood resident he joked that was akin to four marriages. Song had a dancy bluesy feel to it and it got the crowd dancing.

The trio motivated by what they termed as the ‘most fun’ VIP crowd they had ever performed for then upped a gear with a Memphis Tennessee themed set and a Detroit one too. Aside from their ability on the instruments, the three also boast of amazing vocals. ‘Just call my name’ rendition took folk to church and brought curtains down on four hours of a magical experience.

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Safaricom Jazz is themed as ‘music that moves you’ and I certainly was totally wholly moved.

Earlier in the week had attended British Council’s night at the Alchemist and loved the Femme Fusion celebrating women in jazz. Hat tip to the amazing Atemi, Kasiva, and new-discovery Kendi.

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Before the main Safaricom Jazz event, there are usually theme nights for every nationality that is represented. So Italian, Israeli, British, Belgian etc. It is great that Safaricom imports a lot of jazz music but it would be great if Kenyan music was also exported. Imagine if Kenyan acts got to perform abroad and get exposed to international level performing as well as market Kenya. Food for thought.

GOD BLESS KENYA!


Caroling at The Hub

A random post on the Safaricom twitter handle resulted in a pleasant afternoon of Caroling at the Hub in Karen.
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First up were the musical power couple Kavutha and Jacob Asiyo. Kavutha has a beautiful voice and amazing stage presence that makes you just smile. While Asiyo is a magician on the piano. We carolled! Singing along to all the Christmas carols we grew up singing. It was lovely. Comic relief was trying to sing along to the Feliz navidad carol. Everyone knew the first lines but the prospero año y felicidad were only known to Kavutha and Spanish (?) lady who pronounced it perfectly.
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Next up was the Safaricom choir. Famous for the Kenya ad some years back. Made up of Safaricom employees who meet once a week to practice. Director is Kennedy Wakia. He was not available so a number of guys debut conducted. Of note was Grace who can sing! Grew up Anglican. Choir music makes me happy. The Safaricom choir sounds even more lovely in real life. Warmed my heart. And they seemed to be having so much fun. Belted out a medley of songs. Climax was Hallelujah.
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A group of kids then went on stage to sing for a prize after being prompted by the MC Elizabeth Njoroge. Four children all sang Jingle bells. In different versions and we all laughed. That was fun.
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The showstopper was the Safaricom youth orchestra. Special mention goes to EIGHT year old Miguel who played the double bass. Despite the instrument being almost his height he pulled his weight for the entire concert.
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The youth orchestra draws membership from music lovers from across the country aged 10-18 years. Now in its fourth year, 150 people have been part of the initiative to-date. Auditions are normally held in May with practice every Saturday for a couple of hours.
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The Christmas concert was the culmination of the two terms of 2017. Conducted by Levi Wataka the orchestra showed off their learning for the term. Among other acts they notably did two overtures. One was the barber of Seville where they started slow then build up the tempo to a great climax. It was lovely to see music being made, the many instruments coming together, beautiful.
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The choir and orchestra then performed together. Highlight was a song off the Italian Nabucco opera that was based on a biblical story.
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The climax of the afternoon was Caroling by the crowd led by the Safaricom choir and the Safaricom Youth Orchestra. The carols were The First Noel, Deck the Halls and Jingle Bells.
All in all a lovely way to usher in the 2017 Christmas season.
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GOD BLESS KENYA.

Gigging at the GoDown

I certainly picked a great time to attend my first GoDown gig because the GoDown gig for November was all kinds of awesome.
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Hosted by the delightful Cindy Ogana and held at the GoDown Arts Centre it featured three artistes: Chiluba, Maia and the Big Sky band and Dan Aceda.
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First act was Chiluba who is a dancer turned singer. He had energy for days and definitely he can dance. Obviously :-). Plus his story is intriguing.
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Next up was Maia and the Big Sky band. Maia’s vocals are amazing, she has grown in confidence on stage plus her band is the business. Her No Woman No Cry & Mambo Bado renditions rocked. Her band’s guitar, bass and drums face-off, wow!
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Arguably one of Kenya’s best musicians and live-performers Dan Aceda then brought the house down. Folk danced all through his performance which was a lovely musical safari about Kenyan music. Aside from playing his own songs Aceda also did covers of popular Kenyan music from the 60s to-date.  When he played music from the different regions in Kenya his versatility was so evident as was the joy of folk being ‘taken home.’
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The GoDown gig is a monthly gig held at the GoDown. It is a celebration of live music performance by Kenyan artistes. Quite a ‘down-to-earth’ artsy gig worth checking out.
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GOD BLESS KENYA!

Simiyu’s quest to change the soul of Kenya Sevens

The national sevens rugby team head coach Innocent Simiyu gets a second bite of the cherry and a chance to right the ship after a torrid first year as the head coach.

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Speaking at the team’s pre-season training session at the RFUEA grounds, Simiyu cut the image of a man at ease with his challenge and one who has the respect of his charges ahead of what will be a tough and long season.

“It was not all doom and gloom last season. We exposed several young players. I was happy with our expansive game. Into the new season it is time for the foundation we laid last season to now flourish.”

Pundits have questioned whether he is his own man or a merely lackey of the Union. Simiyu may not have the large-than-life personalities of Benjamin Ayimba or Mike Friday but in his unassuming, professorial nature there is steel that shines through.

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“Biggest thing I want to do is to improve the Kenyan rugby player. When a player is dropped from Shujaa, he drops in life. If we can improve the player such that they can improve their life for good and also when they stop playing they still contribute to the Kenya sevens eco-system then I shall have achieved something. Player is key. Changing the culture and creating purpose is the way.”

Having covered the team for close to half a decade at close range I was intrigued as to what change in culture meant for the former Impala RFC captain and coach.

“Culture is how Kenya Sevens team behaves, operates and interacts with society. We have to change that. Purpose is who we are and why are we here. If cam get clarity on that then there is sustainability in what we are doing.”

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The national sevens rugby team last season struggled in the World Rugby series blowing hot and cold before finishing 12th with a mere 63 points. Many questioned the ability of Simiyu who despite being a top rugby player in his day had little experience as a coach.

“There will always be doubting Thomases. It is life. For us key is to improve the player, play better, develop the game and off course win. Yes, we understand the expectations of Kenyans who want us to win everything.”

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In his first season coach Simuyu despite a target of 10 points a leg, only led Shujaa to 2 main cup quarterfinals in the 10 legs of the series. He cited a poor pre-season for the team’s dismal run. This season he has had the luxury of starting early and not spend most of the season firefighting. With 12 players in camp ‘Namcos’ asserts that training has been good and that he has had 100 percent attendance.

“Quite excited. Wish we keep the momentum and energy that we have started with. I have a feeling that things will be very good this season.”

Simiyu only had Team Manager Eric Ong’weno in his technical bench for most of the season after Strength and Conditioning coach Ian Gibbons resigned early on. Ahead of the 2017/2018 season Kenya Rugby Union has promoted performance analyst William Webster to assistant coach and rehired Geoffrey Kimani as the strength and conditioning coach.

“It is reliving. I was quite lonely. It is lovely that we have a full set of management. Kim has hit the ground running. He is in familiar grounds and we are happy to have him back. As for Will, he is good in analysis and this relives the pressure on me to focus on tactics.”

Shujaa have a busy season ahead with the World Sevens Series starting in December in Dubai, the Commonwealth Games in Perth Australia in April 2018 and the Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Fransisco USA in July 2018. This means a happy, committed and settled squad is key and areas like contracts, health insurance have to be sorted out early.

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“Contracts have been given. The players are to read then sign. The contracts are better and all the benefits are there. It is one of the best packages given. We have improved what we are offering because it is going to be a tough season. The players will tackle 16 tournaments and we require 100 percent commitment so we must compensate them.”

Last season Simiyu fell short of his 10 points per leg goal and this season he has a different outlook in as far as goal-setting.

“As management we shall be player-centric. It is not about us but about the players. Process of goal-setting is bottom up. Players set individual targets, then we set team targets. So they have the developmental forms to fill then we take it from there.”

The national sevens circuit kicked off with the Driftwood leg in Mombasa and will conclude with the Dala Sevens in Kisumu five legs later. The circuit curtain rises for the Safari Sevens which is scheduled to be held in early November while also on paper being a chance for the technical bench to pick new players.

“There is a selection committee of 5 checking out the players in the circuit. We want all the players to show what they have got. We have the core 12 in training then we pick 28 from circuit to make 40 then we whittle down to around 30. Even the 12 have to play a minimum of 2 legs. It is not a surety that they will be in the team, they have to prove themselves. They are on probation.”

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For many coaches it is winning that is the bottom-line but for Simiyu there is seemingly a desire to build a legacy that can withstand the test of time at Kenya Sevens. Given that the team has had five coaches in five years ‘Namcos’ will have to deliver results on the pitch to be given time to build the culture that he envisions.

GOD BLESS KENYA!

(transcribed from an interview with Innocent Simiyu on 5th August at RFUEA grounds)

PS: All images courtesy of Google.


Papa Wemba and the importance of being elegant

“There is too much materialism in the world…everyone is focused on big house, big car, beautiful expensive clothes.”

Most musicians live flashy lifestyles but Congolese musicians really live it up and thus this statement that Papa Wemba makes on his way to church holding two young boys and looking quite the deeply religious man half way into a film where he is the star made everyone watching the film at the Alliance auditorium spontaneously burst into laughter.

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The film ‘The Importance of being elegant, focus on Papa Wemba’ is intense.

It captures a variety of issues and makes one pause to think. There is laughter but like the film which is shot in a grainy style there are issues which tug at the heart and not in a pleasant way.

Papa Wemba was a legendary Congolese musician. He started off with the influential Congolese band Zaiko Langa Langa in the 1960s, had a stint with Afrisa International before founding his own band Viva La Musica in the early 1980s. One of his songwriters was Antoine Agbepa now internationally known as Koffi Olomide, a star in his own right.

The film was not about Papa Wemba the musician but rather Papa Wemba as the Patron of the Sapeurs and the effect, the ‘religion’ of Le Sape has had on a generation.

Congolese men have cut a niche for themselves across Africa and Europe as men who put in the effort in dressing up and looking good. Sapeurs under the stewardship of Papa Wemba have taken this to a different level and the effort and expense put in dressing well and expensively is stunning. By the way Le Sape loosely translates to “Society of Atmosphere-setters and Elegant People”.

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One of the characters in the film is Archbishop who is sapeur living in Paris. Archbishop travelled to Paris in 2001 leaving behind a well-paying sales job in Kinshasa after being inspired by Papa Wemba. After 16 years in Europe Archbishop still has no papers and has to keep renewing his temporary refuge status as he tries to get political asylum. As he eats a meal of bread and soup the Archbishop gives a damming indictment on the influence of Papa Wemba.

“We live in France but Papa Wemba is the president of an invisible country, Le Sape. How?  How is a musician more important than the president of a country? Politicians are manipulators. That is how they get what they want. Papa Wemba is the biggest manipulator.”

Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the resource richest countries in the world but colonialism under Belgium, dictatorship under Mobutu and uncertainty after his toppling has left DRC divided and many Congolese living in abject poverty.

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Thus being a sapeur is as much a quest to be a dandy as a quest for identity, a sense of belonging and a brotherhood. One would go as far as to say being a sapeur is a religion and Papa Wemba was the god.

Papa Wemba was accused of being involved with a network that allegedly smuggled hundreds of illegal immigrants from DRC to Europe. He was arrested, spent a couple of months in jail in Paris before being released on bail.

After his release, Papa Wemba became deeply religious. To those watching the film his religious views were in sharp contrast to his lifestyle.

At one moment he is clubbing in Paris where he was based and in the middle of drinks he preaches to his crew telling them about Jesus and how they do not need to change from the drinks, drugs, women and the good life but just take five minutes to commune with God daily.

Sapeurs in Africa and abroad are men (and women) who do menial jobs to make ends meet. Lack of education and papers makes them to operate below the radar living on the fringes of society. This however does not stop them from living it up fashion-wise. A coat for 8,000 euros (Ksh. 990,000) is a normal purchase for a sapeur. This means that forays into the illegal side happens to sustain this lifestyle.

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Another character in the film is Anti-gigolo a sapeur in Brussels. He was given the name by Papa Wemba due to his monogamous lifestyle in Kinshasa. Interestingly he now lives in Brussels but on a visit to Paris he and his boys drive into the red light district checking out the Congolese ladies on display in the shop windows. Anti-gigolo delves into a monologue of how these ladies from Kinshasa have being cheated to come abroad and now sell themselves to sustain a fancy lifestyle.

Songs for pay is another theme addressed in the film. Called dedication and done by musicians across many genres dedication becomes sinister when people around Papa Wemba sell the dedications informing interested parties of their ability to have access to Papa Wemba.

With too many dedications and too little time in the songs, the hangers-on end up not delivering on their deals. This leads to Papa Wemba’s personal bodyguard nicknamed Poison to chasing hangers-on from the studio. Then he asks Papa Wemba to give him a mention but not as Poison but as ‘KGB Protector Number One.’ Cue more laughter at the irony.

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Not that Papa Wemba minds the trade, he is also making money of it with a sound man stating how even cars are given for dedications. In a conversation with a woman who wants to be mentioned in one of Papa Wemba’s songs, the woman tells Papa Wemba that she can steal clothes, shoes and perfume and that can be payment.

Papa Wemba asks her to also steal underwear because he hates it when he undresses a beautiful girl and she has torn underwear. This as his wife who cuts a matronly figure prepares dinner for her husband.

Religion and a decadent lifestyle. Migration and immigration. Running away from poverty in DRC to wallow in poverty abroad. Guys working in menial jobs yet spending money like kings. A quest for identity turning into a cult following. Music as art and also a cheap base commodity. Inspiring and manipulating.

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Contradictions.

Elegant contradictions that live together side by side until they become the norm and one is totally thrown off when light is shone on the contradictions.


Music that moves you

When a retired high school head teacher stood on the stage in the middle of a performance by five time Grammy Award winner Victor Wooten and declared “I am the reason why this is happening” my curiosity was piqued.

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The retired head teacher was a high school teacher in Western Kenya in 1978 when an American showed up at the school and asked for a teaching job. The American had made a trip to Africa to find himself and the teacher helped get him a chance to teach Math and Physics.

After a stint teaching in rural Kenya, the American went back home to do his Masters and 40 years later is now the third president of the world famous Berklee College of Music.

Francis Lutomia was the teacher 40 years ago while Roger Brown was the American looking to find himself.

Four decades later this unlikely relationship has birthed an even more unlikely relationship between Kenya and the Berklee College of Music through Francis Lutomia’s son, Sam.

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According to Francis, Roger gave his son a job at Berklee and Sam in 2011 went on to found the Global Youth Groove (GYG) whose mission is to transform the lives of youth in Kenya through music primarily by a cultural exchange program involving Berklee students and alumni and Kenyans.

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For six years Global Youth Groove has been doing the exchange programs and after three years of planning Sam had finally managed to get the hugely in-demand Wooten and Berklee Bass Department chair, Steve Bailey to come to Kenya together with several of Berklee students and alumni.

At first glance, Wooten dressed in a bright African print shirt – that he was gifted by Kenyan jazz artiste Ricky of Ricky na Marafiki – and spotting dreadlocks covered by a black woolen cap can easily pass for a Jamaican roots reggae musician.

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That is until he strums his bass guitar and magic happens. His hand motion is at times fast, at times slow and at times barely noticeable but what is constant is the brilliance of a man at the peak of his skill.

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For 50 of his 52 years Wooten has been playing the bass guitar and seated at the front side row of the Michael Joseph Centre I was blown away by the melodies he coaxes out of his bass guitar. It was easy to see why Wooten who also teaches at Berklee has been named at number 10 in the Top 10 Bassists of All Time by the influential Rolling Stones magazine.

On his part, Bailey a blonde haired, wiry man who would not be out of place in a country music band run to the stage high fiving all the VIPs sat in the front row and cracked jokes with ease. He then went on to strum a six string guitar that is the hugest guitar I have ever seen.

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Bailey who is 57 started playing the guitar when he was 12 and the unwieldy instrument was like jelly in his hands.  Watching him manipulate it to produce delightful sound was like watching a painter produce a masterpiece from scratch.

Wooten and Bailey mastery on the guitars resulted in a sensory experience that was amazing. Imagine two guitars having different animated standpoints on a conversation that covered a variety of issues and you begin to picture the amazing chemistry.

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Backing up the two musical geniuses was Martin, a second year Berklee student on the drums who played with the confidence of a professional and the abandon of a teenager.

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The intimate invite-only evening of jazz was hosted under the auspices of the Safaricom Jazz Festival with several Berklee associated musicians taking to the stage.

A gentleman named Ricky who was dressed like a Southern pastor engaged the crowd in singing a catchy song which had an American south churchy-feel to it. “People make the world go round” was the audience refrain as Ricky crooned and Wooten, Bailey and Marten jammed.

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Then come Leonna dressed to kill and looking so young and sweet until she began singing and her sensationally beautiful voice made a lady sat near me shudder in bliss and almost get into a trance.

And finally from the Berklee crowd was Sky Bridge band with Japanese vocalist and composer Utako Toyama backed by two other ladies of colour. Their song ‘We declare peace’ was about global unity and they also got the audience quite engaged.

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Singled out for possible Sainthood by an enthralled Bailey was Elizabeth Njoroge, the brains and heart behind Ghetto Classics. The visiting Berklee musicians had visited Korogocho a day earlier and were wowed by the taking of classical and jazz music to the youth of a highly disadvantaged neighborhood.

Quest for sainthood aside, heartfelt pledges of support were made by Bailey on behalf of Berklee for the betterment of Ghetto Classics to which all the proceeds of the Safaricom Jazz Festival go to.

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A special mention goes to The Don Ouko, a brilliant Kenyan saxophonist who was backed by a vocalist, drummer and a guy on keys and who was the curtain-raiser to Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey and the other Berklee musicians.

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I was also quite wowed by Jacob Asiyo who was a guest at the concert and who totally delivered when he was ambushed with a request to play the keys for Wooten and Bailey.

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The Master of ceremony was the delightful Kavutha-Mwanzia Asiyo who incidentally is also an alumni of Berklee.

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At the end of the two-hour jam session all the artistes who had graced the stage through the night went back on stage to jam in a lovely improvisation.

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Quite a lovely evening spent with music that moved me.

GOD BLESS KENYA!

PS: Images via @SafaricomLtd, Google.


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