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Celebrating Bob Through Safaricom Jazz

by Shiko Msa
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Exactly one year yesterday July 1st, Bob Collymore lost his battle with acute myeloid leukemia – a type of cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. Yesterday being the first anniversary of his passing saw an outpouring of love especially online by use of the hashtag #CelebratingBob. Love from people from all walks of life, from Safaricom customers, people he worked with over at Safaricom and people who benefited from his clear and sustained inclination towards humanities and helping people. The Bob Collymore Foundation also treated us to a beautiful tribute of the man who was at the helm of Safaricom for just 9 years, but positively impacted so many lives that it feels like he was at it longer.

There are many things I remember Bob for, and the one that immediately comes to mind is Safaricom International Jazz Festival which is the one project I have personally worked on the longest as a publisher. It is through the legacy he left on the Jazz scene that I chose to celebrate Bob. Not that his other works are second fiddle. Far from it. There is so much to the man that as I texted a friend this morning, ‘a day is hardly enough to celebrate Bob’.

Over the years, Safaricom Jazz has brought to our stages stars who I can confidently speak for many and say without a doubt that we’d never have gotten to see live in concert. It is at Safaricom Jazz that we got to watch a legend like the late Hugh Masekela, the late Manu Dibango, and Salif Keita who I had personally 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, Fatumata Diawara and Richard Bona among many many others from across Africa and the world.

At the same time Safaricom Jazz has grown the Kenyan Jazz scene to such high visibility that it is not strange to see our local 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 have found in our favourite hangouts and enjoyed more of their music. Their local fanbase has grown in leaps and bounds over the years since they started performing at the Safaricom Jazz stage. When we have fully embraced the new normal after this pandemic, we will get right back to them.

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. There is no doubting his talent and prowess with the 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.

Very closely tied to the Jazz Festival and where Bob’s love for humanities shone very bright is Ghetto Classics – a community program that nurtures young people through the discipline that comes with practicing and playing music. Ghetto Classics not only offers the feel of family to the disadvantaged kids who come to play in Korogocho where it is based, but also cushions them from the vagaries of slum life and what it can mean to their future. Founded by Elizabeth Njoroge, Ghetto classics is very dear to my heart because I have interacted with the quite a lot. That means I have been to Korogocho on many occasions and been touched and humbled by my circumstances. I have also gotten to really appreciate the power of the program because it offers hope, and opportunity to kids, many of whom had little to none.

In my interaction with the kids, the common thread is that they all want to make it in life, go back to Koch, and give back. In a few years, we’re looking at a huge ripple effect that cements the legacy of Bob Collymore. All proceeds of Safaricom Jazz always went to Ghetto Classics, and visiting international stars usually went to make music with the kids, donate instruments, and mentor them. For youngsters whose lives start and end at the informal sectors, this gesture is powerful beyond words.

Rest well Bob.

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