Kenya’s Jazz scene is growing in leaps and bounds right before our eyes and when the history of the genre is written, there are several names that will certainly feature prominently. Some have been at it and in the limelight for years and some have come into the scene in the last few years. But the fact that they came in with good skills already means that they’ve always been at it, only they had not been brought to the attention of the people.
Many of the older generation parents and public looked at a career in music with scepticism, the misconception being that that was a path for those who failed to make it in the more ‘desired’ careers of being doctors, lawyers and pilots. But look how far we’ve come and how we’ve discovered so many acts that were nowhere in radar a few years ago. As Kenyans appreciate live music more and more, musicians are therefore making a good living for themselves, and many of these are directly related to Jazz. There are many people and things that have worked together to change perceptions, each doing their bit.
Look at Elizabeth Njoroge for example, the beautiful passionate soul who founded Ghetto Classics in Korogocho slums. At a place where kids are likely to give up in life due to the sheer struggle of living day to day, Elizabeth went in there, created the community project and has over the years trained kids in music and life skills. Not only is Elizabeth offering these children belief in themselves and hope in life, but also a strong base in music, with some of the kids going ahead to pick music as a career.
Elizabeth’s work will be felt years and years to come and the ripple effects of her work will live on forever as these kids grow up, earn a living and be able to take care of their families and future children. That is a break to the vicious cycle of the poverty that can be characteristic of Korogocho and slums in general and even though music will not lift all the kids from their unfortunate circumstances, the effects cannot be underestimated all the same. I’ve been able to speak to many kids who are direct beneficiaries of the program and the one overriding wish they have is to make it, come back and change Korogocho. With the Ghetto Classics program expanding to other areas and even other towns, you can see the amount of change we’re looking at over the years both in the Jazz music scene, and in the welfare of families and communities.
Without looking too far, look at the story of one Joseph Omondi for example, who previously made a meager living from the Dandora garbage site. Joseph through the careful guidance of Elizabeth and other volunteers who help out at Ghetto Classics is now earning a decent living teaching other kids music at the centre. That is just one story which you can read here, and you can imagine this scenario replicated around the slum, and other slums.
Not far from Elizabeth Njoroge as far as Jazz is concerned is Bob Collymore, the founder of Safaricom Jazz Festivals. There is no denying that the festivals which recently celebrated 5 years since inception in 2014 have brought the jazz genre closer home, smoked out quite a few closet fans like yours truly and recruited thousands more. Those of us who have attended concert after concert have witnessed the growth in the numbers in people taking up jazz, including the young. Yet not too long ago, jazz would have been classified as an old people music. Now even the young generation is coming out with their families and enjoying the often picnic style concerts and dancing their afternoons away.
It is important to note here that all proceeds of Safaricom Jazz go to Ghetto Classics where the funds have helped immensely in purchasing of instruments, training musicians, and generally just running the place that have afforded so many kids hope which propels them to dream, excel, and in turn come back and help out.
Over the years, Safaricom Jazz has brought to our stages stars who I can say without a doubt I’d personally never have gotten to see live. It is at Safaricom Jazz that I’ve come to watch a legend like the late Hugh Masekela who I’d previously only heard of before, and Salif Keita who I had never even heard of but who stole my heart soon as he started performing. The stage has also seen the likes of Isaiah Katumwa, Jonathan Butler and Richard Bona among others.
And all these are from just Africa but that’s not to say that Safaricom Jazz is an all African affair. We have also seen stars from other countries like Israel, Belgium, Britain and US among other Western countries. For daring to found and actualize the festivals, Bob Collymore will never be forgotten when the music history books are written.
Local Jazz Artistes
At the same time Safaricom Jazz has grown the local jazz scene to such high visibility that it is not strange to see the stars’ performances filled up even outside of Safaricom Jazz. When the stars from outside Kenya go home, we now have a host of local names who we can find in our favourite hangouts and enjoy more of their music. Personally, I’ve discovered and fallen in love with so many Kenyan jazz musicians like Swahili Jazz Band, Shamsi Music, James Gogo and Gogo Simo band and my absolute favourite, Edward Parseen and his Different Faces band among others.
This is not to say that there was no Jazz before Safaricom Jazz. There was quite a bit of it with the most well-known among them by a big margin being Joseph Hellon mostly thanks to his stint at Tusker Project Fame. Away from his other eyebrow raising shenanigans, there is no doubting the man’s talent and his prowess with a saxophone. There are other names like Chris Bittok, who you have to thank if you have been to K1 Jazz or Tamasha way before Safaricom Jazz hit town.
And who can forget one of Kenya’s pioneers in the Jazz scene, Aaron Rimbui, one of the finest and most revered premier pianists in East Africa. Aaron Rimbui has been in the music scene since 2001, doing jazz, fusion and world music. He also cannot be forgotten for his role in hosting Capital Jazz Club, as well as All That Jazz.
What would a concert be without fans? Who would artistes perform to? Kenyans have continued to embrace jazz and there is an evident increase in ticket sales each time. They’ve continued to brave traffic and show up at Kasarani, Carnivore Grounds and Ngong Race Course or wherever the concert of the day may be. Fanbase for the local stars in whichever clubs they play has also increased and this is all thanks to the fans. As far as Ghetto Classics is concerned, all tickets purchased go towards helping out the kids and so if you’ve purchased one, know that you’re part and parcel of changing the slums one child at a time.
We cannot end this without having a look at the Safaricom Youth Ochestra who you can read about here.
This time round as we celebrate International Jazz Day, the legendary Manu Dibango is coming to headline the show at Carnivore Grounds on 1st of May, along with a host of local artists. You cannot afford to miss this one! You can get your tickets either by dialing 1511 for M-Ticketing, or buying at Safaricom Shops at Junction, The Hub, TRM, Sarit Center and I&M Building. Adult tickets are going for Kshs2,000/- and student tickets Kshs500/-.