Eagerly awaited continent’s Africa Cantat festival

Monday, November 9th, 2020 00:00 |
The Nairobi Chamber Chorus. Photo/PD/George Onyango

A week-long inaugural Africa Cantat festival was to be held in Kenya at the end of August 2020, but the Covid-19 threw a curveball to it. The eagerly awaited continent’s first was forced to go online, against the expectations of many participants, writes George Onyango.

When the organisers of the very first Africa Cantat Festival sat to put together and decided it should take place in Nairobi, little did they know a rampaging virus would have a huge effect on their objectives for an in-attendance event.

As a result, the fete was marked as one that comes with a wildlife safari, so the stakes were raised as choral groups registered in their droves for a truly Kenyan experience of a world-class musical festival.

Well, the festival (inspired by the Europa Cantat Festival, which has been organised in different European countries every three years since 1961) finally went live last month, but without the people in physical attendance only hooked to their computers, cameras and smart phones to a scintillating webinar performance.

Still, it proved to be a great experience, with the Sports, Heritage and Culture Cabinet secretary Amina Mohamed giving a truly elevating speech as she welcomed participants.

“I appreciate the efforts of the International Committee and the various supporters of the Africa Cantat Festival for keeping the spirit of the festival alive through this virtual event,” she said in her opening address.

Africa Cantat patron Kristina Pratt added her voice to this novel initiative saying she was impressed by the flexibility of musicians in trying to find solutions and still bring us fantastic music during the challenging Covid-19 time through online initiatives.

“Choral music reminds me of the African philosophy of Ubuntu. I am because we are and because we are, therefore, I am,” said Kristina, adding that “choirs are true to this philosophy and because of that, they are wonderful tools for peace building.

Real fun starts

Troupes from different and every corner of the globe had their chance to showcase the best of choral and vocal arrangements through recorded and live streaming performances.

The Grace Choir of Kinshasa. Photo/PD/GEORGE ONYANGO

Leading the pack was the evergreen Nairobi Chamber Chorus directed by maestro Ken Wakia. The group did not disappoint—well they haven’t for the longest time.

Their Zulu rendition of Ukhuthula was a journey beyond yonder; a call for peace to all mankind.

Soloist Maureen Obadha took it a notch higher with her beautiful alto that is simply unmatched.

In quick succession they performed Luo traditional gospel arrangement Sigalala, a celebration of new life as a result of the sacrifice by the Lord.

The icing on the cake was Ochieng’ MakOkeyo’s arrangement Musa—a true Kenyan idiom and a reflection of the lives of Kenyan urbanites in the 1970s yet still relevant given the numerous cases of gender-based violence, especially during the Covid-19 crisis.

And the African Youth Choir directed by Boffouo Pierre Kouame and Ken Wakia rocked the fest with a thrilling cross-combination of cultures from the West, East and South Africa.

The members made their costumes such a spectacle and their harmonies brought out the true African spirit of choral music.

Amis du Choeur du Madrigal, a group that works with the objective to democratise art in all schools and institutions of learning for the over 10 million children and youth, was eclectic in their presentation of different cultures across Cameroon.

“Music education plays a key role in the transmission of cultural and artistic heritage to young people by providing the necessary means to create their own artistic language and by contributing to their personal development,” said one of the leaders of the Cameroonian group during the presentation supported by Vivendi Create Joy Solidarity.

The Choeur la Grace de Kinshasa (Grace Choir of Kinshasa) directed by Ambroise Kua-Nzambi Tokowas was on fire spiritually with their heavenly rendition of songs mainly in Lingala language and draped in divine golden ankara costumes.

Their song Iyelele depicted a soul that is disturbed by the trails of the world. Listening to this group kept the audience on the edge and was a reminder of just how talented brothers and sisters from the Congo have unmatched talent in vocal calling.

Not surprising, the group has since 1985 appeared in 38 international festivals in 108 different cities.

Soulful renditions

The Girls Chorale of Kenya was in its element as they made their big appearance on day three of the fete with Niwara Nono (You saved me free of charge)—a popular Luo gospel.

The group was formed to empower young girls in their educational pursuit. Among other groups participating included Bel Canto Chorus Kenya, SYC Ensemble Singers (Singapore), Star Chorale from Kenyatta University and Bel Cano from Democratic Republic of Congo.

There were also insightful workshops led by international panelists such as Henrike Schauerte, Sonja Greiner, Montserrat Cadeva, Jean Banoit, Dennis Thuillier, Sylvester Otieno, Cyril Gerardon, Yveline Damas, Jennifer Tham, Jan Schumacher, Hassan Hnoor, and Thierry Thebaut.

Participants did not miss completely on Kenya’s wild as Ol Pejeta Conservancy provided an amazing virtual safari tour.

“We are truly grateful for the rich expressions from the participating teams and the support we have received from across the world for the very first Africa Cantat Festival,” said Wakia.

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