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.