Category Archives: Event
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Master of ceremony was the delightful Kavutha-Mwanzia Asiyo who incidentally is also an alumni of Berklee.
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.
Quite a lovely evening spent with music that moved me.
GOD BLESS KENYA!
PS: Images via @SafaricomLtd, Google.
I am more of a books than film, movies or series kinda person. However, every year for well over a decade now I attend the European Film Festival (EFF) at the Alliance Française every May.
My plan was to watch seven films and to attend a musical performance on the week between 16th May and 20th May.
Juggling work and life managed to watch 5 films and half-attend the musical gig which I reckon is a pretty good return.
The first movie I watched was the Tiger Theory by Czech film-maker Radek Bajgar. It was a totally awesome watch that hilariously dealt with serious life issues. Premise is a man who gets himself admitted into a mental hospital to achieve freedom.
The musical performance was spoken word artist Checkmate Mido who’s gig I have never attended. It was set up at the cafe at Alliance and 10 minutes in, I had to leave as the acoustics did not quite sound right. Hope I get to watch a Mido performance soon.
The second film I watched was Notes on Blindness a British documentary based on the life of John Hull. It was an intimate and touching insight into blindness. I wear spectacles and so the documenatry touched quite close home. What if? Then what? There is a lot we take for granted as sighted folk. Quite thought provoking.
As a prelude to the screening the country director for the British Council in Kenya did the introduction with lovely British wit and humour. Joked about UK being United Kisumu while noting that perhaps that was not the best idea with Kenyan elections upcoming. Then talked of Brexit and stated that Britain has left EU but it has not left Europe.
The country director while showing off his Kiswahili fluency also hyped up the East Africa Arts program.
Under this program and in partnership with Judy Kibinge’s Docubox two Kenyan films have been made and whose trailers were shown:
The Letter – by Chris and Maia von Lekow which is about killing of ‘witches’ at the coast which is essentially about disposing old folk of their land.
Thank you for the rain – which tackles climate change from farmer’s eyes.
Looking forward to seeing their premiers.
On Saturday I indulged in an afternoon of film watching three films at a go.
Labyrinthus – when gaming and real life overlap, Diamantes Negros – football & human trafficking and These Daughters of Mine – family ties, how they are fragile and how easily they are stretched due to ill-health or death.
What strikes me every year is how European film makers have mastered the art of telling stories that are raw and real.
Methinks Kenyan film makers and content creators can learn a lot from EFF.
When you watch a Nigerian film or listen to Tanzanian music there is no doubt as to where the content is from, but when you watch Kenyan film or listen to there is nothing that stands out as Kenyan.
Kenyan film makers and content creators need to figure out what is Kenyan content. Do you know what that is? Me neither.
So maybe that is why we start…
GOD BLESS KENYA!
When you think the railway you think of something old. A relic that belongs to a museum and whose time is past in this age of smartphones and driverless cars.
Tayiana Chao is a stunning contrast to that thought.
Tall, slim, with long dreadlocks, afro jewellery and an infectious laugh she would pass for a uni student who moonlights as an model.
I met her in in a gallery but rather than her being the subject it is her photographs that are under the limelight.
Still in her early 20s, this retired computer scientist has a story to tell and she has already written her first chapter – Save the Railway.
Save the Railway is an exhibition that is ongoing at the ShiftEye gallery.
It is the fruit of Chao’s 3 years labour of love.
Chao was picked to go to JKUAT and study Computer Science but instead of Juja she was sent to the Voi campus. Her first instinct was to say no but as a history buff and introvert, Voi won her over.
Being away from the city was heavenly and in her weekend exploring she stumbled on the Voi Railway station.
The picture of the Voi Railway station is stunning. A house built with red bricks, with a tree on the side and with the horizon endless. It stands bang in the middle of the exhibition taking pride of place as her first love in this project.
Chao puts it brilliantly “…it takes you to a different time…the station exactly as it was..not in the present time..grand… antique..
With that a dream was born. To tell the story of the railway. Not as an item in the history books but rather as a living being.
Everyone knows about the railway start in Mombasa and end in Kisumu but what of its impact? Basically, what did the railway do for Kenya and Kenyans?
Through her journey across Kenya searching for and photographing railway stations Chao learnt just how much the railway was part and parcel of people’s lives.
It was not history for the people who lived next to the railway but rather a living breathing thing.
She felt the emotional aspect of the Railway. The lives touched, the grievances, the poverty, the lingering hope. And she learnt that the Railway mattered. Life for many Kenyans revolved around the railway and you can not put a value on the Railway’s importance.
Chao’s journey is curated in the Save the Railway exhibition that runs from the 19th of August to the 2nd of September at the ShiftEye Gallery at the Priory building on Arwings Kodhek Road.
What started as a hobby has taken a life of its own.
“..someone come all the way from India to see this! I felt so honoured…” gushes Chao.
She graduated as a computer scientist but she has taken time off being a programmer to think of the way forward.
She wishes to write a book on her experience chasing down Kenya’s forgotten train stations. She also wishes to complete taking photographs of the off-road train stations.
But that is just the second chapter of her book.
Computing for heritage is where her book will anchor next. As a techie Chao wishes to do culture tech and believes that restoration of history through tech is the way to go. Chao envisions a day when Gedi ruins will be mapped and one will be able to relive the 13th century.
With Kenya in the middle of the SGR hype, I had to ask if she has plans to photograph the current history being made.
“..why did the old railway fail? Even as we do SGR let us ask ourselves that. Development is great but we need to learn from our past..” was the deep response.
Chatting with Chao feels like taking a walk down memory lane as well as how the history looks at the present.
What made her achievement even more amazing that is that this was mostly a solo-project with Kenya Railways chipping by providing permission and transport for the first phase of the project.
The bodies you would expect to be involved the National Museum, Brand Kenya and even the government ministries were not.
Now to the twist to this tale of Kenya’s railway.
Hilary Ng’weno is Kenya’s best known historian. A nuclear physicist turned journalist turned historian Ng’weno has curated much of Kenya’s history. Makers of a nation anyone?
The movie which is in the funding stage will look at life in African railway quarters in the early 1920s-60s.
How the railway as one of the biggest employers in the colonial time impacted in the urbanisation, the arts, the politics, the music of Kenya.
Chao is also involved in the movie and when I asked her if she will be an actress, she laughed her infectious laugh and said maybe as an extra.
My gut says that when Kenya’s history in the next 5o years is written, Tayiana Chao will be a name worth noting not least because she will have photographed, written and technologically curated it.
Be sport. Go check out the Save The Railway exhibition.
GOD BLESS KENYA!