This week CNN’s ‘Inside Africa’ reports from Kenya to discover Kenya’s country music stars and see how Nairobi’s youth perfect their classical music training. From the Safaricom International Jazz Festival to classical music training for Nairobi’s youth to country music ballads in Swahili, ‘Inside Africa’ discover how musical genres are evolving in Kenya and influencing a new generation of musicians.
At the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in Nairobi, ‘Inside Africa’ meets American saxophonist Kirk Whalum performing in Kenya for the first time. The Grammy-winning musician shared the stage with Afrosync, a Nairobi five piece who specialise in Afrojazz. He tells the programme: “Jazz will always continue to evolve, representing black street culture. It opens the door and invites anybody in and invites them into this space called jazz. To do it in Africa, the birthplace, not only civilisation, but culture and music, is very special.”
Tim Riungu, who leads Afrosync, formed in 2014, tells ‘Inside Africa’: “The Safaricom International Jazz Festival is a big deal when it comes to jazz circles and the jazz scene in Kenya because it’s the first of its kind and for sure the largest jazz festival Kenya has ever seen.”
Whalum, tells the programme what it means to play in Africa: “The first time I played in Africa was in a very important year in 1994. In South Africa, I was working for Whitney Houston. What an experience to play for my diva, to play in South Africa the year that apartheid fell. It was transformative. I was able to play a song called Amazing Grace. She sang it and I played it. The idea that Mandela’s life personifies Amazing Grace, not just grace, to forgive the enemy and bring the enemy on your side… that grace is truly amazing. … Africa is absolutely where everything is going to come back to, music, art, business, medicine, everything, all those answers are right here in Africa.”
For Tim Riungu, playing at the jazz festival was an opportunity to serve as an ambassador of jazz for his fellow Kenyans while also getting the chance to play on the same stage as Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright – an American musician who has sold more than a million albums in the U.S. alone.
Albright tells ‘Inside Africa’: “The first time I played over here, I brought my band and we hired some additional Kenyan musicians to perform with us. Their element brought a real festive and a real different cultural aspect to the music to the point to where it was taken to another level.”
On the experience of playing with Whalum and Albright, Riungu says: “These guys have been our role models from afar. We have studied them through the University of YouTube, if you can call it that. And sharing a billing with them is a dream come true. It’s beyond our wildest expectations.”
It’s not just jazz that has made roots in Kenya: country music is also played and enjoyed in the country. ‘Inside Africa’ meets Esther Konkara, a country musician from Kenya who has a love for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. She tells the programme: “I started listening when I was a small girl. My dad had a lot of country music. Back then, we didn’t know what they were saying, but we could hear it was beautiful music.”
Using her own money, Konkara bough het first guitar at 17. Part of the appeal of country music in Kenya, Konkara says, is its striking similarity to Mugithi, a musical form originating with the Kikuyu people of Central Kenya. She tells ‘Inside Africa’: “Mugithi is played using the guitar. The melody in a country song and a Mugithi song is not that different.”
No exploration of country music in Kenya would be complete without meeting Sir Elvis Otieno, one of Kenya’s best known performers. From the Reminisce Bar in Nairobi, Otieno tells the programme: “I was named after Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, because I was born the year that Elvis Presley died, 1977… Country music in Kenya is growing really fast, like wildfire.”
‘Inside Africa’ next travels to Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s largest slums, to hear classical music. The programme meets the musicians of Ghetto Classics, an organisation set up in 2009 which teaches music to more than 300 children every week. There’s no cost to participate, and the instruments are also provided.
Elizabeth Njoroge, Executive Director of The Art of Music Foundation (which runs Ghetto Classics), tells ‘Inside Africa’: “We believe the experience of learning music will change them, change who they are, and give them important life skills.”
A clarinet player tells the programme: “My dream is to become a better clarinetist that I can be. Apart from education it has really helped me realise myself, what kind of goals I want to achieve and the right path I should follow.”
On Kenyan Independence Day (12 December), the orchestra performed for a garden party at the State House after being invited by President Kenyatta. Njoroge tells the programme: “When we started, the community thought we were crazy, they laughed at us, now the community is very proud of Ghetto Classics.”
‘Inside Africa’ reports that classical music first came to Kenya during British colonialism. Moses Watatua, Music Director at Nairobi School, tells the programme: “It was for a small group of people who understood that music, mainly the colonial settlers who wanted to carry that music. But as time went on, some schools that had a tradition, like Nairobi School, kept a tradition of classical music.”
‘Inside Africa’, Friday 15 January at 2030 EAT on CNN International
The show also airs at the following times:
Saturday 16 January at 1430 and at 2130
Sunday 17 January at 0730
Tuesday 19 January at 1230
Thursday 21 January at 0730